Seeing as YHWH Sees? - Reflections on 1 Samuel 16:1-13
by Dr. John Holbert on Monday, March 13, 2023
Seeing as YHWH Sees?
1 Samuel 16:1-13
The Peripatetic Hebrew Bible Preacher
The collectors of the Common Lectionary often act rather like the early Christians, combing Hebrew Bible texts for stories and traditions that can illuminate and deepen their understanding of Christianity. There is nothing inherently mistaken in this, nothing especially worthy of rebuke. We all read the Bible with lenses firmly fixed, and the Christian lens is inevitable and in many cases necessary if we are to appropriate ancient Hebrew texts for our new Christian purpose. However, in certain instances when this appropriation occurs, the meaning of the original tale, its very essence, is covered over in ways so as to distort that meaning completely. We witnessed such a distortion several weeks ago when we examined the use of Is.7:14 by Matthew’s gospel to “prove” the virginal birth of Jesus. Is.7:14 has nothing whatever to do with virginal birth, and its contextual significance in 8th century BCE Israel was thoroughly occluded by that now famous Matthean text.
Something like that abuse may be found in today’s text from 1 Samuel. I absolutely adore the long story found in the pages of 1 and 2 Samuel, a tale rich with the horrors and ambiguities of power, treachery, and all manner of abuse of myriad kinds, including religious abuse. To me, these grand narratives are the finest in the ancient world, fully worthy of comparison to the greatest of the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus, and the sweeping poetry of Homer. It appears to me that the lectionary has chosen this passage for this Sunday of Lent, not because of its fabulous literary skill, its wonderful written power, but merely because it has that now-cliched line from vs.7. After Samuel, on the lookout for a new king of Israel to replace the current king Saul, whom Samuel has just publically humiliated and deposed, looks first at the eldest son of Jesse, Eliab, and imagines that here is the very king he is seeking. YHWH, however, has other plans: “Do not look on his appearance, or on his great height (after all the deposed Saul was the tallest man in Israel!), because I have rejected him; YHWH does not see as mortals see. They look on the outward appearance, while YHWH looks on the heart.” Perhaps a fine pious sentiment, but hardly the essence of the tale of which it is a part.
The gospel text for the day—that fascinating narrative concerning the man born blind in John 9—refers to a man whose blindness becomes the subject of a search for whose fault it was that caused his blindness, bringing about a hilarious series of vignettes that present supposedly possible explanations for the man’s lack of sight. The end of the story has Jesus welcoming the blind man into the community, despite his blindness, perhaps simply making the point that all are welcomed in the community led by Jesus. Jesus, we might conclude, like Samuel’s YHWH, does not look on the outward appearance, but instead on the heart, the inner life of every person.
Unfortunately for those who read on in the tale of David, expecting his choice by Samuel to be king to be vindicated by his superior “heart,” will be completely disappointed if not quite outraged! David, the last son of Jesse, was the keeper of his father’s flocks and was no doubt a superior boy in many ways, skilled in music, and a master of the slingshot. But if one expects those skills to be matched by a finely honed morality, after reading 2 Samuel 11, one will discover that this same David will shatter four of the Ten Commandments in short order, and though he seems to “repent” in chapter 12, thus allowing Nathan to spare his life, his child with Bathsheba will die, the result of his craven adultery and murder and overt lies about the entire affair. David’s “heart,” the seat of will and intelligence in Hebrew anthropology, is in no sense worthy of Samuel’s and YHWH’s choice of him as king.
Remember, too, that Samuel’s trip to Bethlehem to the farm of Jesse, is based on a ruse. YHWH tells the prophet to find a king but to hide his real intentions by claiming he has come only to sacrifice a cow he brings along with him. That lie is designed to get Jesse and his boys to the place of sacrifice, whence Samuel can find a new king. David is chosen, but the choice seems fraught with tension, as the seven other brothers must stand on the hill, mouths agape, as they witness the anointing of their runt of a brother as king of Israel. How can this be? Later in chapter 17, while the Philistines and Israel are supposedly fighting in the valley of Elah, though no actual fighting is in fact going on, three of David’s older brothers chide him when he comes to bring food to them at the battle site. “Why are you here,” they cry. “What have you done with all those sheep?” David makes it plain that he has seen his last sheep! He knows that the giant Goliath is his meal ticket to greatness, and he further knows that the gigantic warrior is bound to fall to David, because Goliath, with his massive stature and heavy armor, is no match for the mobile missile launcher that the clever David conceals behind his back. Goliath scorns only the shepherd’s staff in one of David’s hands, while he fails to see his doom hidden in the other. David may claim that God gave him victory over the giant, but David already knew he would be able to defeat the great giant.
The tale of 1 Samuel 16 is part of a superb and unforgettable narrative that does not conclude until David lies old and impotent in his royal bed, and bids his heir, Solomon, to get revenge on a helpless, aged enemy. It will plainly not do to reduce such a story to hoary cliches or simple platitudes. There is of course truth in the proverb, “YHWH does not see as we see.” In the Bible that goes without saying. However, because that is true, it suggests that David and Samuel, also, cannot see as YHWH sees, and because that is so are fully subject to the vagaries and shortcomings of all human behavior. We preachers must be careful not to fall into the traps of simplism when we seek to elucidate these subtle and rich texts. After all, YHWH sees us as well, we claim, and evaluates our employment of the sacred texts, weighing our hearts as we ply our homiletical trade. Read more carefully, I regularly hear God say. Do you hear that demand, too?