Saint Samuel and the first book of the Kings

Today, aside from being the feast day of the great monk and abbot, S. Bernard of Clairvaux, is also the memorial day of the last Judge of the nation of Israel before the era of the Kings. Many of us remember the vocation of Samuel as he slept in the sanctuary at Shiloh, beside the Ark of the Covenant. Samuel became a priest and a judge of the people and ended his ministry by anointing the first two kings of Israel, King Saul and King David. Here is his entry in the Roman martyrology:

“Commemoration of Saint Samuel, the prophet, who as a boy was called by God, then exercised the ministry of judge in Israel, and by the command of God anointed Saul king over the people, however, he [Saul] being later rejected by God for infidelity, he [Samuel] even carried out the anointing as king of David, of whose family and line Christ was born.”

Roman martyrology: the 20th of August

This is a good moment to bring out a short survey of the first book of the Kings, also called the first book of Samuel, which is basically the Acts of Samuel and/or King Saul. Samuel was a Nazarite prophet who, like so many great biblical figures (Samson, the Blessed Virgin, John the Baptist), was born to a mother who was barren and without children, a mother who promptly consecrated the child to God. So, Samuel son of Elcana was dedicated to the service of God at the shrine at Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant possibly had been moved, although the book indicates that a shrine remained at Galgala (near Jericho, where the Israelites first camped on entry into the Holy Land), and the Ark may not have moved from Galgala at all. Anyhow, Samuel performs priestly tasks all his life long, wearing the linen mantle of the priests, and is probably of the priestly family of Aaron himself, serving the high-priest Heli at Shiloh. 

“Meanwhile, Samuel had begun to minister in the Lord’s presence, girded, though still a boy, with the linen mantle. Every year, his mother made him a little tunic, and brought it with her when she came up with her husband on feast-days for the yearly sacrifice. And Heli gave a blessing to Elcana and his wife, ‘May the Lord grant thee children by this woman, in return for what thou hast lent Him!'”

I Kings, 2: 18-20

At the same time as Samuel grows in reputation for holiness and as a prophet, God reads out the doom of Heli and his family, for his sons, both priests, were committing grave crimes against the ritual of the sanctuary. With their downfall, Samuel becomes the oracle of God at Shiloh. 

“Samuel grew up, still enjoying the Lord’s favour, and no word he spoke went unfulfilled, so that he became known all over Israel, from Dan to Bersabee, as the Lord’s true prophet. After this revelation made to Samuel in Silo, the Lord continued to reveal himself there, as he had promised; and when Samuel spoke, all Israel listened.”

I Kings, 3: 19-21

Meanwhile, the Ark of the Covenant foolishly had been carried into battle by the Israelites and, when Heli’s sons fell, the Ark was taken by the Philistines. The book tells of how the Philistines suffered physically for seven months for their possession of the Ark, whereupon they sent it away and it was recovered finally by the Iudaite city of Cariathiarim, where it remained for twenty years and certainly past the end of this book.

“So they came as they were bidden, the men of Cariathiarim, and brought back the ark with them, housing it with a certain Abinadab in Gabaa; and they set apart his son Eleazar to keep watch over the Lord’s ark. Long time the ark remained in Cariathiarim; twenty years so passed, and now the whole race of Israel sought rest from its troubles in following the Lord.”

I Kings, 7: 1-2

The great moment now arrives, when the people reject God as their King, asking Samuel to give them a king, as the other nations had kings. They seem to have thought that all their ills in the ongoing battle with the Chanaanite tribes were disunity of the tribes, and their idea of a king might have been that of a symbol of unity, and a centralisation of their national religion. After the loss of the Ark of the covenant, Samuel had attempted to unite the tribes under the national religion (chapter seven), and had retained his function as a judge of Israel, living at Ramatha and working between Bethel, Galgala and Masphath, as a sort of earthly vicar for God. But now, when he grew old and his own sons were not fit to follow him as judges,

“…all the elders of Israel met Samuel at Ramatha; ‘Thou hast grown old,’ they said to him, ‘and thy sons do not follow in thy footsteps. Give us a king, such as other nations have, to sit in judgement over us.’ It was little to Samuel’s mind, this demand for a king to be their judge; but when he betook himself to the Lord in prayer, the Lord said to him, ‘Grant the people all they ask of thee. It is My rule over them they are casting off, not thine. It has ever been the same, since the day when I rescued them from Egypt; Me they will ever be forsaking, to worship other gods; and now it is thy turn. Grant their request, but put thy protest on record; tell them what rights their king will claim, when they have a king to rule over them.”

I Kings, 8: 4-9

So, God and Samuel warned the people that the king they want would use them and abuse them. But they seemed to be happy with that, and Samuel proceeds to seek out the new king. And we begin with the story of Saul son of Cis, a brash and careless man, acting without thinking and not considering enough the ministry of the old man Samuel. Once anointed king, Saul leads the people mostly from his home in Gabaa in the territory of Benjamin. He begins his royal career by defending the people of Jabes-Galaad, across the Jordan, from the Ammonites who were attacking from the south. It appears that the anointing and the blessing of Samuel produces bursts of courage and zeal for the nation, which creates the same enthusiasm among the people that have been described in the books of Joshua and Judges:

“…just then Saul came in from the country, driving his team of oxen; ‘What ails the people,’ he asked, ‘that they should weep?’ And he was told of the message from Jabes. When he heard it, the spirit of the Lord fell upon him, and his heart burned with rage; there and then he took both the oxen, and cut them into small pieces, which he sent round by messenger to every part of Israel; ‘The man who does not rally,’ said he, ‘to the cause of Saul and Samuel, will have his oxen treated like these.’ And the Lord put the whole people in such dread of him, that they answered his summons to a man; when he called the roll at Bezech, Israel had sent three hundred thousand, and there were thirty thousand besides from Juda.”

I Kings, 11: 5-8

Two years later, Saul had a hand-picked army of three thousand men, under the captainship of himself and his son Jonathan. But in his very first meeting with the Philistines, he disobeyed an instruction of Samuel and presumes to perform the priestly office himself. Samuel immediately pronounces a curse: Saul’s family would not inherit his kingship, it would pass to another. 

“For seven days he waited to keep tryst with Samuel, but still Samuel did not come; and meanwhile, men were deserting from his ranks; so at last he bade them bring the victims for burnt-sacrifice and welcome-offering, and performed the sacrifice himself. And now, when the burnt-sacrifice was over, he saw Samuel coming, and went out to greet him. ‘What is this thou hast done?’ Samuel asked. And he answered, ‘I found that men were deserting from my ranks; thou hadst not kept the tryst, and already the Philistines had raised their standard at Machmas. Can I let the Philistines sweep down on me here in Galgala, thought I, without first winning the Lord’s favour? So I offered the burnt-sacrifice; there was no other way.’ But Samuel told him, ‘This was great folly in thee, so to transgress the commands which the Lord thy God had given thee. But for this, the Lord would have destined thee, here and now, to found a line of kings that should have ruled Israel for ever. Now thy dynasty shall fall with thee; the Lord has found a man to fulfil His purposes, and rule His people instead of thee; such is the reward of disobedience.'”

I Kings, 13: 8-14

It’s not difficult to sympathise with poor, impetuous Saul, but the die was cast. He soon managed not only to put the Philistine armies to flight, but to subdue the Moabites and the Ammonites in the east and the Edomites in the south. His downfall was assured after he was sent by Samuel to exterminate the Amalecites at their capital city, all living things and to destroy all their possessions. Saul chooses to take the Amalecite king captive and to bring the choicest possessions of that people to Galgala to offer them in burnt sacrifice (again on his own, a task forbidden to non-priests) to God. Samuel’s judgement is swift and final:

“‘May I tell thee,’ asked Samuel, ‘the message the Lord has given me in the night?’ and when Saul bade him speak out, he went on, ‘It was little conceit thou hadst of thyself, when the tribes of Israel were committed to thy leadership. And the Lord anointed thee king of Israel, and sent thee on an errand; Up, he said, destroy the sinful men of Amalec, smiting them down till none is left. How is it thou didst not obey the Lord’s command? Why didst thou fall to plundering, in defiance of the Lord’s will?’ ‘Nay,’ protested Saul, ‘obey the Lord I did; I went where the Lord’s errand took me, and brought back Agag, king of Amalec, in chains, and destroyed Amalec utterly. If my men carried off sheep and oxen, these were but first-fruits that were saved from the slaughter of all the rest, to be offered up to the Lord their God here in Galgala.’ ‘What,’ said Samuel, ‘thinkest thou the Lord’s favour can be won by offering Him sacrifice and victim, instead of obeying His divine Will? The Lord loves obedience better than any sacrifice, the attentive ear better than the fat of rams. Rebellion is sin as witchcraft is sin, all one with idolatry is the unsubmissive heart. Thou hast revoked thy loyalty to the Lord, and He thy kingship.’

I Kings, 15: 16-23

Samuel now contrives to anoint a new king and arrives at the house of Jesse in Bethlehem and discovers the young shepherd-boy David, who nonetheless is described here as a trained warrior! This warrior shepherd is independently selected for the court of King Saul, for his skills at music. A very talented young man was David.

“Meanwhile the Lord’s spirit passed away from Saul; instead, at the Lord’s bidding, an evil mood came upon him that gave him no rest. ‘God sends thee an ill mood,’ his servants told him, ‘to disquiet thee. We are thy servants, waiting on our Lord’s bidding; shall we go and find some skilful player on the harp, to relieve thee, when God visits thee with this evil mood, by his music?’ ‘Yes,’ answered Saul, ‘find one who can play the harp well, and bring him to me.’ And here one of his servants offered advice; ‘Stay, I myself have met such a man, a skilful player indeed, a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite. He is sturdy besides, and a tried warrior, well-spoken and personable, and the Lord is with him.’ Thereupon a message went out from Saul to Jesse, ‘There is a son of thine, David, that looks after thy sheep; send him to me.'”

I Kings, 16: 14-19

But before this appointment, David would have proved himself against the Philistine giant Goliath of Geth. There’s no need to repeat that story here; it is well known. However, what is interesting is the spirited speech of David when he hears of Goliath’s challenge to the Israelites – a reaction similar to Saul’s when the Ammonites threatened Jabes-Galaad, years ago. Naturally, this attracts Saul’s attention:

“…out came the champion of the Philistine cause, Goliath, the bastard of Geth; and David heard him repeat his customary challenge. All the men of Israel were shrinking away in terror from the sight of him; and the talk went round among them, ‘Saw you this warrior that went by? He has challenged Israel; and great good fortune awaits the man who overcomes him. The king has promised such a man great riches, and his daughter’s hand in marriage, and for his father’s house, freedom from every tax levied in Israel.’ And now here was David asking, ‘What reward is there for saving Israel’s honour, by overcoming the Philistines? What, shall an uncircumcised Philistine defy the armies of the living God?’

I Kings, 17: 23-26

David’s victory over Goliath was the beginning of his continual success against the Philistines and his reputation for military strength earned him the acclaim of the people, and the envy of King Saul, who now began to plot his death, for he remembered the curse of Samuel (now deceased):

“But when David returned from slaying the Philistine, the women who came out from every part of Israel to meet Saul, singing and dancing merrily with tambour and cymbal, matched their music with the refrain, ‘By Saul’s hand a thousand, by David’s ten thousand fell.’ And at this Saul was much displeased; it was no song to win his favour. ‘What,’ he said, ‘ten thousand for David, and but a thousand for me? What lies now between him and the kingship?’ So ever after, Saul eyed him askance.”

I Kings, 18: 6-9

The rest of the book is about David fleeing from Saul and Saul chasing him. At the beginning, David had the assistance of Saul’s son Jonathan, with whom he enjoyed a deep friendship. But soon, he became used to hiding in the hills of the Judaean wilderness, and with the assistance of the priest Abiathar, who fled to his side after Saul destroyed his famil, David had a hotline to God and was able to evade the king. On two occasions, at the oasis of Engaddi, just west of the Dead Sea, Saul was at David’s mercy (chapters twenty-four and twenty-six), but David refused to kill the one whom he recognised as the anointed of God. For this, Saul eventually gave up the pursuit and turned his attentions to the Philistines, who were renewing their military advances on Israel. Now Saul made his final error and in the runup to the battle that would end his life, he uses a witch-medium to return Samuel from the dead, to act as an oracle – the Law of Moses forbade the use of soothsayers and divination. The Samuel ghost does not mince his words:

“‘Why hast thou disturbed my rest,’ Samuel asked, ‘and brought me to earth again?’ ‘I am hard pressed,’ Saul told him; ‘the Philistines are levying war on me, and the Lord has forsaken me, giving me no answer by prophet or by dream; and I have summoned thee to tell me how I am to make shift.’ ‘Nay,’ answered Samuel, ‘what need to ask? The Lord has forsaken thee, and gone over to one that is thy rival. He means to make good the threat I uttered in His name, that He would snatch the kingdom from thy hand, and give it to another; it was of David he spoke. And thy plight this day is the punishment the Lord sends thee for disobeying His command, instead of executing his vengeance on Amalec; over thee and all Israel He will give the Philistines mastery. To-morrow, thou and thy sons will be with me, and the Lord will leave the camp of Israel at the mercy of the Philistines.'”

I Kings, 28: 15-19

Meanwhile David had moved with his followers to the Philistine city state of Geth and endeared himself to the king, Achis son of Maoch. There he remained for over a year, with his two wives, spending the time inconveniencing and destroying the hold of the Chanaanites in the area, while feigning to Achis that he was raiding Juda. Eventually, Achis gave him a town of his own, Siceleg, where he and his followers could settle into – this town was later retained by Juda, as David rose to the kingship. The book ends with a great military victory over the Amalecites that secured favour for David among the people of Juda: 

When David reached Siceleg, he sent presents to the elders of the neighbouring cities in Juda, bidding them accept his offering taken out of the spoil of the Lord’s enemies. These were Bethel, Ramoth in the South, Jether, Aroer, Sephamoth, Esthamo, Rachal, the cities of Jerameel, the cities of Ceni, Arama, the Hollow of Asan, Athach, and Hebron; and other places besides, where David and his men had once made their home.”

I Kings, 30: 26-31

But, while David was ruining the Amalecites, Saul and his sons met their end on the battlefield. The Philistines did terrible things to their bodies, which were eventually recovered and given burial by the people of Jabes-Galaad, who had long been Saul’s supporters. And that’s where we pass on to the second book of Kings and the ascendancy of David as king of a united Israel.