Our Assumptions of “The Real World”
We all walk around with assumptions deep within our minds about how the world is supposed to work. No one sat us down and told us this list. We absorbed it through everyday experiences and desires. They have created for us a set of expectations and when those expectations are violated we are angry and demand change. Sometimes these assumptions are good and right, sometimes the are fallacious.
One such assumption we have today is that if you are abiding by the law you should have nothing to fear from law enforcement. This is clearly not true especially for black men in America. It has never been true. This is why we are rightly outraged when a black man who has done nothing wrong is shot by the police. This should not happen. Law enforcement agrees, but it happens. It happens because of racism deep within our hearts and because it is in all of our hearts and because police and teachers and preachers and politicians are people it is in our hearts as well.
There are other assumptions within our hearts too.
- We believe that there are always second chances to fix something if we mess up and do wrong.
- We believe that it’s God’s job, after we mess up to make things right and it’s God’s job to give us what we want out of life. This is called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
- If you don’t believe in God you probably believe that it is society’s or the government’s job to deliver these things. We train police, teachers, politicians, doctors, lawyers to create a world for us where this is true. This is why we pay taxes. This is why we vote. This is what we want from the government. We believe that if we work hard enough that eventually this will happen. This is called “progress”. I would assert that this is every bit as much an article of faith as any religious belief. There is no scientific basis for such a belief. People simply believe it. Every time you hear someone refer to what year it is in exasperation about some unfulfilled article of their progressive faith they reaffirm it. It is a religion and right now a sort of civil religion.
- We believe that if someone means well then the errors that they make should be forgivable. It is all about the intention. The truth is that we hold this belief but we immediately turn around and deny it in the case of a shooting or some sort of consequential accident. The long haul truck driver that fell asleep behind the wheel and caused an accident that took sometimes life didn’t intend to kill anyone, but they and probably their corporation (refer back to government progress religion) will be held responsible for the death. Just not intending to harm doesn’t mean we are innocent of the harm we unintentionally cause. We recognize that there should be a distinction in punishment, but we don’t just wave away every act of unintended harm and say “it was nothing” when it was in fact something.
- We believe that good intentions go along with the innocence of the human spirit. We tend to believe that evil comes from the outside not the inside, that we are innocent by nature and we learn evil or are forced to it by institutions, by “bad people”, by other things outside ourselves.
- When people suffer bad things they often deserve it. This is the implicit word of karma. If you want to stay safe, have a good life, meet your goals, you need to do the right things and then everything will be well. Take care of your health. Believe the right things. Think the right thoughts. Figure out what is bad and what is good and do the good and all will be well.
All of this adds up to an implicit picture that we carry around of good and bad, right and wrong, and what we can expect out of life. If you believe in a God, or a higher power, or the goodness of “the universe” this picture is very much in play there as well.
Does this Fit?
Take a look at this picture. Is it true?
- Genetics determines a lot of the health and medical success or failure we have.
- We might believe in this picture living at the time and place we do. Many others see the world very differently. We know this but resist it.
- When we look around the world our media filters tend to focus in on individual stories which we can identify with. This plays to our hearts. Last year Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds of Nigerian school girls. Social media lit up about this. The US government offered assistance. Have these girls been found? Have we simply forgotten? Watch how our short attention span distracts us to every passing crisis.
- The San Bernadino shootings made us look to ISIS radicalization. We cry out to law enforcement to keep us safe!
- The Pulse Shooting made us look at LGBTQ issues and ISIS. We cry out to law enforcement to keep us safe.
- Two back to back shootings of black men by police officers and then 5 police officers dead by sniper fire while monitoring a peaceful march.
- What will happen tomorrow? In the mean time we focus on presidential politics imagining it is the key. Wasn’t it supposed to be the key 4, 8 and 12 years go?
Saul as Tragic Figure
People often think about the Bible as some list of rules. If we keep these rules then God approves of us and he will have our back in this life and the next.
Others look at the rules of the Bible and say “this can’t be right. Why would a God care about these things.”
While the Bible does indeed have rules most of what you find in it are stories and poetry and letters. The part of the Bible we are in are mostly stories of God and his people Israel.
Again, sometimes people read these stories and work hard to pick out the good guys and the bad guys. “If you do what the good guys do and don’t do what the bad guys do THEN God will give you what you want in this life and the next…”
That would be a nice idea but if you actually read the stories you’ll begin to see that these stories, like life, are way more complicated, way more nuanced. The characters in the Bible, like characters in the real world, like you and me, and like characters in good literature, are complicated, have good and bad in them, and live in a complicated world where things are not always that clear. This itself is an important message from the Bible. God knows our world. God knows how we are. God meets us in this place of confusion and conflict and does his work here.
We’ve been in the book of 1 Samuel and we’ve met many interesting characters.
- Hannah, the woman whose faith plus infertility is used by God to rescue Israel from her enemies but mostly form herself.
- Eli and his two corrupt sons who fail to uphold the service of God with the tabernacle
- The Philistines and Ammonites who are Israel’s neighbors and enemies who enslave her and use her
- Samuel the priest/judge, Hannah’s son who saves Israel from the Philistines but whose sons can’t lead as he did because like Eli’s sons are corrupt.
- Saul, the tall, good looking king that the elder of Israel asked. Despite his obvious short-comings the Spirit of God took hold of him and God used him to rescue Israel from the Ammonites.
Samuel gives his swan song and we might expect for him to disappear from the scene. Now in chapter 13 things take an unexpected turn.
1 Samuel 13:1–15 (NET)
1 Saul was thirty years old when he began to reign; he ruled over Israel for forty years. 2 Saul selected for himself three thousand men from Israel. Two thousand of these were with Saul at Micmash and in the hill country of Bethel; the remaining thousand were with Jonathan at Gibeah in the territory of Benjamin. He sent all the rest of the people back home. 3 Jonathan attacked the Philistine outpost that was at Geba and the Philistines heard about it. Then Saul alerted all the land saying, “Let the Hebrews pay attention!” 4 All Israel heard this message, “Saul has attacked the Philistine outpost, and now Israel is repulsive to the Philistines!” So the people were summoned to join Saul at Gilgal. 5 For the battle with Israel the Philistines had amassed 3,000 chariots, 6,000 horsemen, and an army as numerous as the sand on the seashore. They went up and camped at Micmash, east of Beth Aven. 6 The men of Israel realized they had a problem because their army was hard pressed. So the army hid in caves, thickets, cliffs, strongholds, and cisterns. 7 Some of the Hebrews crossed over the Jordan River to the land of Gad and Gilead. But Saul stayed at Gilgal; the entire army that was with him was terrified. 8 He waited for seven days, the time period indicated by Samuel. But Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and the army began to abandon Saul. 9 So Saul said, “Bring me the burnt offering and the peace offerings.” Then he offered a burnt offering. 10 Just when he had finished offering the burnt offering, Samuel appeared on the scene. Saul went out to meet him and to greet him. 11 But Samuel said, “What have you done?” Saul replied, “When I saw that the army had started to abandon me and that you didn’t come at the appointed time and that the Philistines had assembled at Micmash, 12 I thought, ‘Now the Philistines will come down on me at Gilgal and I have not sought the Lord’s favor.’ So I felt obligated to offer the burnt offering.” 13 Then Samuel said to Saul, “You have made a foolish choice! You have not obeyed the commandment that the Lord your God gave you. Had you done that, the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever! 14 But now your kingdom will not continue! The Lord has sought out for himself a man who is loyal to him and the Lord has appointed him to be leader over his people, for you have not obeyed what the Lord commanded you.” 15 Then Samuel set out and went up from Gilgal to Gibeah in the territory of Benjamin. Saul mustered the army that remained with him; there were about six hundred men.
Who’s to Blame and for What?
After 1 Samuel 11 we couldn’t imagine such a sharp turn. Commentators are all over the map on this passage.
- Many conservative commentators see this as Saul breaking the command of 1 Samuel 10:8. “See, Saul broke the rules. consequences…” There are reasons to believe that a lot of time separates the command in 10:8 from this incident.
- Some note that it might have been established practice to wait at Gilgal for 7 days to seek the Lord’s favor. Maybe that was Saul’s sin.
- Some see this as Saul violating the prerogative of the priesthood.
- Others see this as manipulation from Samuel. Samuel never wanted the kingship anyway so he hid around the corner, waiting for Saul to cross the line and BAM. Guilty as charged.
- Brueggemann comments “we do not know if we dealing with a problem that is historical report, theological conviction or literary strategy.” The text sure wants us to get to David who will be the central figure in God’s rescue of Israel.
Saul comes out to meet Samuel as innocent and dim as the day we met him. This man who couldn’t find donkeys now certainly doesn’t imagine he did anything wrong, not wrong enough to wreck his future and doom his house. Samuel seems just too darn gleeful about the whole thing and although we haven’t met David yet this King James moniker man after God’s own heart surely there must be something here to disqualify Saul just a few chapter after God filled him with his Spirit and used him to rescue Jabesh-Gilead?
In our polarized culture war where the God of the Old Testament is a stock figure of cruelty the conservatives rush to defend God’s honor while others look to either blame Samuel to save this silent God or to use this as just another example of how God is arbitrary and unfair, enjoying sticking it to us hapless folks. In some ways the last attitude is refreshing compared to the spiritualized mythmaking of wealth, comfortable Americans who continually want to tell our children that they can be anything they want to be and as long as they follow the rules then life will be peachy. Don’t let them know the cruelties of this world where people die every day through no obvious fault identified by our lists. At least the Greeks who imagined the gods to be petty and capricious were paying attention to normal life on planet earth.
The Text Doesn’t Hide Reality nor Let us or God off the Hook
Were the writers and editors of the story so clumsy as to either not know how to right religiously clean texts or how not to blame the incompetence of the prophet? Or did they wish us to ponder the tragedy of Saul, the mystery of God even as revealed by Samuel and the liberty of God to work history to His own ends?
We know Saul will become a monster. Will he be a monster of Samuel’s design or has Samuel seen in Saul’s subtle but significant appropriation of religious manipulation to secure the allegiance of Israel’s quaking troops? Do we see now in its infancy the same impulse that will drive Saul to seek out the witch of Endor to raise poor Samuel to help him once more?
In this text at this moment we look at innocent Saul but through the godlike vision of seeing Saul’s whole story at once we know perhaps what Samuel already sees and what God clearly knows. Did God not know that before? Was the kingship itself the chance that Saul would fail? Was it God’s plan for Israel that Saul fail in this way so that David could rise? Can any of us know the mind of God or are we to simply doubt and pontificate as we play bronze age psychologist through the spyglass of a text thousands of years old?
What might God be saying to us through this text?
We might use this text to resist some of the assumptions that the religion-in-denial prophets of today subtly whisper into our ears.
Life in this world doesn’t always give second chances. We all know this don’t we? Life in this world is cheap and fragile. Now many of us live in a time and place where it is less cheap and less fragile than what it’s been throughout most of human history but we should not be too fooled by it.
We are too much like the barn builder in Jesus’ parable. We imagine that our plans will succeed and come to the ends we desire. If you look back over your life how has this happened? Blessed are you for whom they have, maybe.
Was is God’s job to make Saul’s dreams come true? Saul is a tragic figure because he seems so hopelessly lost in himself. He has some natural gifts. God’s spirit grabs hold of him and uses him, but Saul will not fulfill the hope and destiny of Israel.
We might look ahead to David rather than Saul, and Saul himself will see and envy David’s calling. But doesn’t David’s calling cost him plenty too? It is always that way in this world. CS Lewis makes this point in his essay “The Grand Miracle”
The universe is quite a shockingly selective, undemocratic place out of apparently infinite space, a relatively tiny proportion occupied by matter of any kind. Of the stars perhaps only one has planets: of the planets only one is at all likely to sustain organic life. Of the animals only one species is rational. Selection as seen in nature, and the appalling waste which it involves, appears a horrible and an unjust thing by human standards. But the selectiveness in the Christian story is not quite like that. The people who are selected are, in a sense, unfairly selected for a supreme honour; but it is also a supreme burden. The People of Israel come to realize that it is their woes which are saving the world. Even in human society, though, one sees how this inequality furnishes an opportunity for every kind of tyranny and servility. Yet, on the other hand, one also sees that it furnishes an opportunity for some of the very best things we can think of— humility, and kindness, and the immense pleasures of admiration.
Lewis, C. S.. God in the Dock (pp. 84-85). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Surely you can forgive poor Saul this minor error?
We look with pity on poor Saul as he innocently and happily greets angry Samuel as a puppy greets its master. Samuel blazes in with news of Saul’s utter demise and Saul is completely confused. Isn’t this just a minor indiscretion?
While Samuel in that moment seems to see the whole of Saul’s life neither he nor the Lord remove Saul from office. Saul will have years to come to get things straight, but Saul will in fact get things tragically wrong. What is a small error in this moment is the first fruits of tyranny, murder and tragedy. Those of us who foolishly long to see into our own futures glimpse with horror Saul’s future and it will all be by his own hand. Saul will have many, many more chances but the curve of Saul will be consistent even though at the moment it seems trivial.
We believe that Saul’s good intentions should cover over the minor issue but instead these intentions just mask it until it emerges in all of its horror. Our aphorism “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” could have been written specifically for Saul.
We want to imagine that all of this evil is from the outside, that this innocent, beautiful, tall lug of a man is perhaps just the victim of Samuel or the need of Israel to have a butcher to beat back the Philistines or poor treatment by his father at a young age, but in this moment we are allowed to look beneath the curtain to see that Saul, in all of his outward innocence and beauty is corrupt inside and when that corruption is given the opportunity it will spring out and devour a nations.
Oh we would like to consider Saul now the exception but the list of Biblical characters, Samuel and David included will argue it is not the case. We are Saul and Saul is us.
This is our misery. Saul is our tragedy.
Now we know that Samuel is looking beyond Saul, through the bloodshed and tyranny that will be his kingship towards David, but we better than Samuel can see where that will go too. Under David Israel will be finally freed from the Philistines like it was freed from Egypt under Moses but David will also bring civil war and through Solomon it’s own kind of burden that will destroy the united kingdom.
Even if Samuel can’t recognize him because he comes from afar the man after God’s own heart will be the man that shares God’s heart and his burden. The burden Saul must bear, which will crush him, the burden David must bear, which will crush him, will be crushed by this chosen one under the burdens of the cross.
Saul will try to kill David but the tribe of David will succeed in killing Jesus for their and the world’s sake. Jesus will forgive his killers. It is for all of our sake that he is crushed.
The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 reminds the Corinthian church that these stories from the Old Testament are here to warn us. We should take the tragedy of Saul and draw whatever benefits from it we can. We should consider carefully the assumptions we have unconsciously gleaned from our world in our rush to justify ourselves.
We must also see Saul in the light of Jesus. We are left to wonder if Saul upon seeing the true king of Israel saw himself clearly for the first time and became the Saul he was never able to become in this world. It is not ours to judge but it is ours to learn.
We will see throughout the life of Saul the ways he falls victim to what commonly assaults us all. He will try to use God to achieve his own purposes. He will stand at the center of his world and demand that it be about him. He will serve himself and not the true King of Israel.
How do we live our lives? After having the real king are we ready to throw off all that hinders us and freely try to serve and please him?