The Right to Interpret the Will of God: Reflections on 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

Jesse, the farmer of the place, parades seven of his strapping sons in order of age before the wizened seer. Samuel gazes at the first boy, Eliab, and muses, "Surely YHWH's anointed is standing before me" (1 Sam. 16:6). But whispering in his hairy ears, YHWH warns that Samuel should no longer look at the height of his stature or the beauty of his appearance. This is as much to say, in the mind of Samuel, "No more tall, handsome guys; one of those was more than enough!" Besides, "mortals look on the outward appearance, but YHWH looks on the heart." So he looks at the other six boys and rejects them all. Have you other sons, he asks? Well, answers Jesse, there is another one, a younger one, but he is out keeping the sheep, implying that such a one should have no role in the momentous decision that the prophet has come to take.

Now we must read with care, because we are about to be introduced to the greatest king in the history of Israel. After being warned that we should look more as YHWH looks, at the heart as opposed to physical prowess, listen to how the storyteller introduces the boy David to us. "Now he was ruddy (that is, red complected, most unusual in a child of the desert), had beautiful eyes, and was handsome" (1 Sam. 16:12). In other words the reader is forced to look precisely at the sheer beauty of the man! The heart of David, that is his will and intelligence, to follow Hebrew anthropology, plays no role for us as we take the boy into our gaze. Of course, this beauty will play a huge role in the man's attractions, both to men and women; the question of his heart will only come up as the story proceeds.

If Samuel imagines that he has now chosen a king more to his liking, a king he can control and manipulate, he has chosen wrong, for, as we will learn, this David is not only handsome but is also clever and wily and decisive, a consummate liar and conniver, a wretched parent, a killer and adulterer. David is all that and more. Samuel has unleashed on the land of Israel a blazing figure of a man, and the land can never be the same. Just who the man is will have to await our experience of him as he rises from shepherd to become the king of the whole land.

Who has the right to interpret the will and way of YHWH? Samuel claims such power only for himself, and because he does so, he disposes of the wretched Saul. His choice of David unleashes forces that even the great prophet has no way to understand or control. That old saw, "Man (sic) proposes, God disposes" is not quite what this story is finally about. Men and women offer opposing interpretations of what God actually wants, but knowing fully what those divine expectations are may not be available to any of us, no matter how prophetic or powerful we may claim to be.