Hammurabi, Samuel, and Justice

A sermon for Proper 5

1 Samuel 8:411, (12-15),16-20, (11:1415), Genesis 3:8-15, Psalm 138 Psalm 130, 2 Corinthians 4:1-35, Mark 3:20-35

Today begins our long 5 months and 22 days season after Pentecost. The lectionary gives the preacher a choice of Old Testament readings, and we will be following what’s referred to as the semi-continuous track. We will read from the Books of Samuel and the Books of Kings, basically the story of the Kings of Israel. We don’t exactly start at the beginning, so let’s set the stage.

The Hebrews have crossed the Jordan into the land God has given them. Joshua has lead the separate tribes of Israel (Sakenfeld) in capturing it all, well mostly all the land. After his rule, the tribes’ become even more distinct (Petersen and Beverly) and we see a developing cycle of peace, Israel wandering off to other gods and getting themselves into all sorts trouble, then crying out God, who raises up a Judge, who leads them back to God, and resolves the  threat. Eli is the last of these Judges. When books of Samuel begin Eli is weak. His sons are taking advantage of their position as judges stealing food offered as a sacrifice, which is a violation Torah. (Brueggemann)

Hanna, as was Sarah, is barren. She goes to Shiloh, a precursor for the Temple, and prays for a son. God grants her prayer. After raising her son, she gives him to God, via Eli, as a Nazirite, one dedicated to God’s service. You know the story of God calling the young Samuel and his coached reply “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Years later Eli’s house dies in one day Eli’s sons die in battle with Philistines while losing Ark. Eli dies when he hears the news. Samuel then becomes the last of Judges and the first of the Prophets” (Orr) He has led Israel with great wisdom, defeating the Philistines, Israel’s constant nemesis, and regained the ark.

This morning we hear Samuel has grown old. His sons are nearly as bad as Eli’s, taking bribes and perverting justice. They’ve managed to be “for profit prophets.” (Hoezee)  In the process, they have struck a blow to the foundation of Israel’s social commitment. (Brueggemann) The elders of the people don’t trust them. They may remember Eli’s sons, they are aware of a threat from the Philistines so they ask for a king to rule over them, “like other nations.” Samuel doesn’t like the idea, and he takes it to God in prayer. God answers “Calm down, they haven’t rejected you. It’s far worse, they’ve rejected me, what’s new.” Then God asks Samuel to instill the fear of politics, conscription and taxes into the people, (Hoezee) by telling them about how kings behave. Samuel does saying “Kings take, take, take, take, take, take; your: sons and daughters, fields, vineyards, and orchards,  1/10 of the produce of your land, your male and females slaves, your cattle, donkeys,  1/10 of your flocks; in essence you will be slaves. And when you will cry out, God will not answer. But it’s to no avail. The elders reply “We don’t care we want a king to govern us and to fight our battles so we will be like other nations.” The people don’t believe that they will once again be slaves. They don’t see how their choice undercuts their very identity of Israel as God’s delivered people. (BIRCH) They are blind to how monarchy generates destructive inequality and stratification and is the undoing of the Exodus.  (Brueggemann) So God gives them what they want.  It’s a cruel irony the warning they cannot hear so closely resembles surrounding Canaanite royal practices. (BIRCH)

All this is deeply disturbing as we come to realize Israel was never supposed to be like the other nations. Israel is Nazirite, they are supposed to be distinct, set apart, holy. They are supposed to be different than other kingdoms because they were the beachhead for cosmic salvation. (Hoezee)(Brueggemann)

You also might think it’s not really that big a deal. Yea Israel didn’t do such a good job, but there are king all over the place, and a king is a king. Well yes, but not exactly. You remember Hammurabi, the king who wrote the first set of laws. The stele that enshrines his coronation depicts Marduk, the god of his people and place, sitting on the throne giving a humble Hammurabi his scepter. It depicts kingship coming from his god; indeed this is the model of kingship everywhere else. Not so for Israel, for Israel kingship rises from below (Nam) from the people, from their distrust, from their greed.

As is my practice I also read the alternative Old Testament appointed for this morning. It is the story of Adam’s and Eve’s encounter the snake, in which they gain knowledge of good and evil, presumably passed on through the generations. One commentator noted that knowing the difference between good and evil does not give you will to choose good. This morning’s reading from Samuel is a great example.  (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner)

Now we might relate with the elders. The old ways are not working now, they weren’t working then. So there is this inclination to sympathize. However, there is the strong possibility the request for a king comes from those who had accumulated surplus wealth, and they wanted a different government, a strong centralized government, to protect and enhance their surplus. (Brueggemann) We could do well to recognize not only the idolatry, (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner) the lack of trust in God (Petersen and Beverly) but how this story reveals that every decision about God brings along with it an implicit decision about sociopolitical-economic power. (Brueggemann)

In the last decade or so there has been lots of disruptions caused by emerging thoughts about sexuality. It has caused splits in the Episcopal Church and threatened internal relationships in the Anglican Communion. In the last few years, there has been lots in the news about sex, especially the legalization of marriage for same-gender loving people. It is a political hot topic. The bible not silent about sex and that may be another topic for another time. We should realize the bible shows far more concern about our relationship with God and justice, i.e. our relationship with each other. And we can’t talk about justice without talking about governance. The bible to this point reveals that governance is hard; ask Moses, ask Joshua. The same is true in Jesus day. The scribes from Jerusalem aren’t just any old scribes. They have the authority to judge and they use it to judge that the son of God is the Satan.  (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner) It’s a perverted use of power, it’s a corruption of justice. Governance is hard today. An article on free speech compared the US to France. In France, it is illegal to wear a head scarf. In the US illegal to ban wearing a head scarf. Both countries’ laws seek good intent; French try to keep a sense of equality, and the US protecting free speech, and both have religious entanglement. Governance is hard.

We are entering, no we are already in a Presidential election season. I wish it were a mere 5 months and 22 days; it’s going to be a  l – o – n – g  haul. My prayer is that in discerning who is called to lead the governance  of our country; and yes I believe it should be a calling; not prophetic, but deeply rooted in one’s sense of their own essence as a beloved child of God whose gift is governance, that we’d look and listen for the words, decision and acts that reveal they know they are loved by God; the words, decisions and acts that reveal they know we are beloved by God; the words, decisions and acts that reveal they know everyone on the earth is  beloved by God. This doesn’t mean a grand public display or proclaiming of religious whatevers, this is a time, as Matthew records Jesus saying …. [to] … not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  (Matthew 6:2-4)

Now I know that in Romans Paul says governments are instituted by God, and that we ought to obey. (Romans 13) And I know Jesus says … to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But we should remember both are complex settings and perhaps they too will be a subject for another day. All that is to introduce the idea that perhaps it’s time to look to an extra biblical model for kingship or governance. It’s time to look at Code of Hammurabi where leaders, elected or otherwise humbly receiving the scepter of authority from God, for the good of the people, all the people. Remember God establishes Sabbath for all people, animals, and lands. Remember last week, when Peter quotes Joel about the gift of the Spirit and prophecy, and how radically disruptive, radically inclusive it is by extending closely held powers to the margins of society, i.e. all people.

So yes, I think governance should get back to God, but that it has nothing to do with sex, and everything to do with justice of all.


Ashley, Danáe. Sermons that Work. 7 6 2015. <episcopaldigitalnetwork.com http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2012/05/21/2pentecostbjune102012/&gt;.

BIRCH, BRUCE C. New Interpreters’ Bible; THE FIRST AND SECOND BOOKS OF SAMUEL. Abingdon Press, 2001. CD.

Brueggemann, Walter. Interpretation; FIRST AND SECOND SAMUEL. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990. CD.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Proper 5B | Center for Excellence in Preaching. 7 6 2015. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php&gt;.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 7 6 2015.

Nam, Roger. Commentary on 1 Samuel 8:411. 7 6 2015. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Orr, James, ed. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. WORD search, 2004.

Petersen, David and Roberts Gaventa Beverly. New Interpreters’ Bible, One Volume Commentary. Nashville TN: Abingdon Press, 2010. EBook.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

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