King David. Wikimedia Commons

The Prophet and the Kings

After the defeat of Israel at the hands of the Philistines, Samuel and Nathan appear in history. Two new interlocutors chosen by God to retie the thread of the Covenant, and to give a king to the Chosen People
Giuseppe Frangi

Picture a small patch of land measuring just a few square miles, inhabited by tribes out of touch with each other and impotent in the face of the united forces of the enemy, the Philistines, who had them under siege. This was Israel around the year 1050 B.C. Shilo, a small village between Samaria and Judah, was its small, poor, religious capital. Here the Ark of the Covenant was kept, in the custody of the last of the Judges, Eli, a figure fatally destined to defeat. He was not a political authority; his role was to be the religious referent. Thus when the Philistines struck their blow, the resistance of the tribes of Israel crumbled. The enemies who had disembarked on the Gaza Strip, pushed out of Egypt by the Pharaoh, arrived in Shilo. They destroyed the temple, captured the Ark, and effected an immense massacre among the troops of the poor Israelites in disarray. Indeed, without the unforeseen intervention of another factor, the history of the tribes of Moses might have been as good as over. Instead, that other factor intervened at the last minute, as it had before, as the uniting thread of this history. And the way this came about echoes the method used even earlier in history, as well: a barren woman, like Sarah and Rachel before her, went to the temple to ask Yahweh for grace, vowing to offer the fruit of her womb for the priesthood. The woman was Hannah, the wife of Elkanah, a Levite, which gave legitimacy to the priestly path on which she would put her son if one were born. Yahweh granted her request, and Hannah kept her word. And Samuel, the child, would become the one with whom God would pick up again the dialogue with His people: a new prophet.

A mere child
No matter how improbable it might seem in the eyes of men, that child–brought to God in the temple of a village besieged by silence and devastation (“In those days it was rare for Yahweh to speak; visions were uncommon,” says the Bible)–initiated an astonishing chapter in the history of Israel. The way Samuel found out he was the chosen recipient of Yahweh’s communications is one of the most moving passages in the Bible: a voice calls him in the night and he gets up from the blankets where he is lying and goes to the elderly, discouraged Eli. But Eli denies that he has called him. This happens three times, until the old man intuits whose voice this might be, and tells the boy to answer the next call when it comes: “Speak, Yahweh, for your servant is listening.”(I Sam 3:10)

God had started once again to make Himself present in order to put the history of His Chosen People back on track. And the means He chose was a prophet. As the Bible once again says (I Sam 3:19), “Yahweh was with him and did not let a single word fall to the ground of all that he had told him.” Samuel, although a religious authority, understood that what the tribes brought by Joshua into the promised land were lacking was a political leader. For a while, with the help of his two sons, he tried to fill this void himself. Wrapped in his linen ephod, he repeated to Israel the promises he had received from Yahweh: “Set your heart on Yahweh and serve him alone, and he will deliver you from the power of the Philistines.” He called the people to battle at Mizpah, then remained to pray on the mountain, as all the Israelites had begged him to do. And finally, for the first time, the Philistines retreated. “Samuel then took a stone and erected it between Mizpah and the Tooth, and gave it the name Ebenezer, saying, ‘Yahweh helped us as far as this.’”

Another king
Pressure from the people to have a king was becoming greater and greater. So Samuel starting thinking that the moment had come for Israel as well, like all the other peoples around them, to have a monarch. But how could they have another king when Yahweh was so manifestly their king? Samuel, by now an old man, tried to resist. It would be better to suffer further defeat than to betray the One God. And too, where could he find a king? What human criterion would ever be adequate for making a choice of this import, for giving a king to a people who already had God as its king!? The notion was unthinkable. The Bible tells how God Himself, with almost heart-rending tact, pulls Samuel out of his dilemma. You are right, He says, the people are wrong to demand a king. But you, for now, give them what they want. I authorize you to do it. Indeed, I shall indicate to you who should be anointed.

In a word, Yahweh steps aside and even has the delicacy to avoid wounding the faithfulness of his old servant, Samuel. He shows him the candidate: A tall, handsome boy, the son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, who would come to Samuel in Ramah looking for his father’s lost asses. His name was Saul, or Sha’ul, “asked of God.” He had an impetuous personality, generous but also very proud, courageous but a little too confident in his own strength. Samuel recognized him as the one God had indicated and anointed him “prince” of Israel in a private ceremony. Saul was not yet king; the prophet still wanted to test him.

His chance soon came, around the year 1040 B.C. The Philistines, who had set up their own governor in Geba, had to be expelled. Saul first sent his son Jonathan to kill the governor, then accepted open war and won. Samuel then renounced the judgeship and remained only the religious head of Israel. Saul was now king, but Samuel kept an eye on him. He saw Saul torn between his fidelity to his office and the flaring up of his pride. First he caught him red-handed, when because of his hurry to go to battle Saul himself made the sacrifice without waiting for Samuel. Then came Saul’s act of rebellion, when he refused to follow Yahweh’s orders to kill Agag, King of the Amalekites. Samuel took it upon himself to carry out God’s will, but this marked his definitive break with the king. He would never see him again “until his dying day,” says the Bible.

David, the successor
The aged Samuel knew that a successor was needed. Once again he found the right person by mysterious ways. This was the youngest of the seven sons of Jesse, whose family was one of the most important in Bethlehem of the tribe of Judah. He anointed him without Saul’s knowledge, introduced him with his lyre to the court, and unleashed in Saul’s heart the terrible demon of jealousy. David, the youth who was able to defeat Goliath, the Philistine giant; David, who won over the hearts and affections of Saul’s two sons; David, who brought the king the two hundred foreskins of Philistine soldiers that he had requested in exchange for his daughter’s hand. And yet David was too openly the Lord’s chosen one not to shatter Saul’s psychological equilibrium. So the King Saul declared open war on him, forcing him to go over to the enemy’s side and to take refuge in Ramah, under the protection of the old man, Samuel.

Saul’s pursuit of David was destined to failure, because by entrusting himself to Samuel, David was really putting himself in the hands of God. So Saul fell on his own sword in his final battle, and David could come out into the open. He would be the king who made a great kingdom out of that little patch of land around Shilo. Samuel could die in peace, without having to open his eyes to other small betrayals by his king. To watch over David and his transgressions, another–very severe–prophet would come along, Nathan. He would be the one to inflict tremendous punishment on David, guilty of adultery with the beautiful Bathsheba, but above all guilty of sending her husband Uriah to his death. But first and foremost, Nathan would put limits on David, keeping him from becoming the prisoner of his own glory. David would not be the one to complete the great temple in Jerusalem, just as Moses had been prevented from crossing over into the Promised Land with his people. Through His prophets, Yahweh is constantly watching; He alone is the friend and protector of His people. As Nathan announced to David, David would build a “house” for Yahweh, but Yahweh would build for David a House, that is, a dynasty, a kingdom.