Two weeks ago, reflecting on the events of Samuel’s anointing of Saul as Israel’s first king, Linda+ noted:
There is plenty to ponder here, with more questions than answers. What should people expect from their leaders? What should they fear? What should influence leaders’ decisions regarding power and vulnerability, war and peace, poverty and wealth, justice and equality?
For the rest of this month, throughout July and into early August – the O.T. readings are taken from the books of first and second Samuel, first and second Kings. These chronicle the goings on in Israel as it grapples with new challenges to its national identity and security.
What we refer to as the Deuteronomic History covers Israel’s transition from a loose tribal confederacy to a centralized monarchy. One of its major themes is the uneasy fit of monarchy within the framework of Israel’s ancient covenant with God.
History has an uncanny rhyming quality. The dramas chronicled in the Deuteronomic History continue to echo into our own time. Like ancient Israel we too are struggling anew with our own national identity. For us it’s as a nation of laws within a guiding framework of the Constitution. New information emerging from the last days of the Trump administration reveal anew the crucial importance of fidelity to the Constitution as our only true defense against the tyranny of mafia style government.
The Covenant between God and Moses – forged on Mount Sinai dictated the kind of society Israel was to be. The terms of the Covenant stipulated that Israel was to have no God but YHWH and consequently in terms of government, there was to be only one king in Israel and YHWH was his name. In the time of Samuel, Israel was forced by external threat into a difficult transition from a tribal confederacy into a monarchy. But fidelity to the covenant confined the powers of the king to the functions of YHWH’s regent.
The Deuteronomists had a simple rule of thumb in assessing the success or failure of a king’s reign. Did he rule as God’s regent, or did he rule as God’s replacement? Was he a faithful servant or a usurper?
The story so far.
- Samuel’s leadership occurs on the cusp of momentous political change in the face of the long Philistine emergency.
- The Philistines were a sea marauding people originating from northern Greece. In an apt comparison – they were the Vikings of their day. Over several decades they established colonies along the Mediterranean coast bordering the Israelite Confederation.
For as long as the Israelite tribes had inhabited the hill country, they had warred with their Canaanite neighbors on the coastal plain. But the Philistine threat was different in magnitude. More than the usual tension between neighbors – the Philistine emergency represented the clash of technology on the cusp of the transition from the bronze to iron ages. The Philistines possessed superior iron-based technology – giving them the military upper hand against the bronze-based weaponry of the Israelites.
Back to the story.
- The tribal elders came to Samuel and said: look you are going to die soon, and we won’t accept your corrupt sons as judges over us. Therefore, give us king like the nations around us – one who will unite us in battle to defeat our enemies.
- Against his wishes, after warning the people of the curtailment of the freedoms they could expect under a king, Samuel anointed Saul to be the first king over Israel. Israel may have needed a king, but as it turned out, Saul was not the king it needed.
- Both Samuel and eventually God grieve over Saul. God sends Samuel out again, this time to Jesse of Bethlehem – in search of a new candidate to anoint as king. After reviewing the beauty parade of Jesse’s strong and handsome sons – men all rather in the Saul mold – you know tall, broad shouldered, bearded and virile – God instructs Samuel to anoint the youngest son, David; a mere boy in the bloom of youth with sparkling eyes and ruddy cheeks.
- After this secret anointing the next we hear of David is when he appears with Saul’s army preparing for battle with the Philistines.
We all know the story of David and Goliath, the young shepherd pitted against the most ferocious Philistine giant of a warrior. Every Sunday school child knows the outcome of the story of David slaying the mighty Goliath with his slingshot.
We pick up the story following David’s victory when returning with the army to Saul’s house we learn that for Saul’s son Jonathan, it’s love at first sight – remember those sparkling eyes and ruddy smooth cheeks. But Saul is consumed with murderous envy of David. Having appointed him head over the army, Saul is increasingly trapped between and rock and a hard place. With every victory the young David brings home, Saul’s paranoia can only grow as All Israel and Judah loved David; for it was he who marched out and came in leading them.
The winds of historical change are driven in the end not by political or social change but by a society’s capacity to harness the drivers of technological change. History shows that flourishing societies keep abreast of technological change and harness it for constructive ends that mitigate social and political disruption. History shows that societies who fail to embrace and harness technological change become overrun by it and fall behind in the race to the top.
The impact of technological development and its far-reaching effects is crucially important for social harmony within America and for securing our place in the world. All over our country, community and group identity no longer stems from the quiet confidence flowing from economic prosperity. Failure to effectively harness technological change to benefit all has resulted in a crisis of community and social identity – not only in America, but throughout the industrialized first world. Culture war and race have replaced prosperity as the core component of social identity. In culture war a seeming endless gushing of social grievances –amplified by the technological revolution in social media- represents our failure to harness technological change for the wider benefit of sections of society that feel left behind.
We feel powerless in the face of a looming ecological catastrophe. We feel equally helpless as the rapid pace of technological change and its unforeseeable effects reshape our lives for ill as well as good. Left with nothing else, we retreat from our sense of helplessness into the satisfactions of culture war.
One need look no further for the most recent example. Faced with a crisis of identity caused by a shrinking base –itself the result of increasing disillusionment at the Church’s failure to address the challenges of modern life – the Catholic Bishops Conference responded this past week not with addressing the effects of the pandemic, or the growing inequality of rich and poor, or the increasing polarisation of society. In international refugee week no mention was made to the plight of the worldwide refugee crisis – all crises with technological causes. Retreating in the face of ongoing sexual scandals they took refuge in an attempt to weaponize the Eucharist in the service of culture war. Where the Southern Baptists have led the way, American Catholic Church leaders seem intent on following.
Last week I spoke about living on the cusp of change and our paradoxical attitude to change. The changes we long for are also the changes we resist most as hope for the future conflicts with fears of loss of the past. This paradox, I believe, goes to the heart of the current struggles symbolized by the conflicting visions our two main political parties hold for America’s future.
All our current social advances and losses can be traced to the pressures introduced by technologically driven change and in many cases our failure to harness it for the common good. From the shipping of core industry and national infrastructure offshore to the increasing dominance of monopolistic corporations such as Amazon and the seemingly untouchable beneficiaries of the tech revolution -global capitalism riding the winds of technologically driven change demonstrates its allegiance only to itself and not to the communities it exploits.
The rapidly growing threat to cyber security reveals our fundamental infrastructure vulnerabilities as largely resulting from putting corporate profit before technological innovation and security. We live with everyday reminders of this.
Samuel led a people living on a cusp of technologically driven change – much as we are today. Though the fallout was political and societal reorganization from tribal confederacy to centralized monarch the challenges were technologically driven as Israel began under David to embrace the new technology of the iron age – ending the Philistine Emergency.
As we know to our own cost, technological change always triggers political and societal upheaval. Can we learn the lessons of the past to with confidence and courage embrace the opportunities for a different future? Our attitudes towards technology; our ability to harness the fruits of technologically driven change in the service of the common good – will define our answer to this question.