What Can 1 Samuel Teach Christians About Politics?

MosheWhile I was writing Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (pre-order here), I did a lot of reading in the Old Testament books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles.  While my thinking about these chapters did not make the final cut, I found these Old Testament books to be helpful in my thinking about Christianity and politics.  1 Samuel was particularly helpful.

Very early in 1 Samuel the Israelites find themselves in a battle with the Philistines at Mizpah. It is not going well, they are afraid, and they turn to the prophet Samuel for help.  Samuel responds to their fear, makes an offering to God, and cries out to the Lord on behalf of Israel.  The Lord responds and Israel wins the battle. (1 Samuel 7:7-14).

Shortly after their victory, Israel asks Samuel for a King to “go out and fight our battles.”  Samuel brings their request to God who responds by saying “they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” (1 Samuel 8:5-20).  Indeed, by requesting a King, the people of Israel have chosen to place their trust in a military leader rather than God.  In essence, the people of Israel are committing idolatry.  As biblical scholar Stephen B. Chapman interprets the request: “henceforth, until the Exile, the Israelites will be unable to confess resolutely that God alone is king over Israel—apart from any human victory or partners.  This sad loss of ultimate spiritual loyalty at the expense of a more pragmatic national politics is the profound point of 1 Samuel 8.”

In a fascinating interpretation of the politics of 1 Samuel titled The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel, authors Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes describe the book as “one of the most penetrating accounts ever written of the internal workings of human politics.”  When God decides to give the Israelites a king in the person of Saul, He is making a compromise with His people.  He offers them a solution to their military problems, albeit an imperfect one.

But there is a price to pay for such a compromise, as God warns that there will be a day when “you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” (1 Sam. 8:18).  For believers like the Israelites, Halbertal and Holmes write, “politics is…an overpowering human necessity that can never fully escape a potentially self-defeating betrayal at its very core.”  The Israelites believe that Saul will be more effective than God (or his prophet Samuel) in protecting them from their enemies.  They now have a ruler, who Halbertal and Holmes describe as a man who will “wield…authority in the service of power as an end in itself” and “convert such ends as love, loyalty, the sacred, and moral obligations into mere means for eliminating dangerous rivals and staving off the loss of power.”

Consider 1 Samuel 13, the passage in which Saul does not wait for Samuel to arrive at Gilgal to make a sacrifice and instead makes the sacrifice himself.  Once again Halbertal and Holmes use the text to offer insight into what happens when religion mixes with power: “What the author of Samuel conveys by this striking episode is how religion, even when sincerely believed, can be instrumentalized in power struggles and how political rivals can shed moral qualms about treating the sacred as just another weapon to be opportunistically deployed in a competitive struggle for prestige and power.”

Sometimes it is better to obey than to sacrifice.

I will try to work up more posts like this in the next couple of weeks.