Heirs of the Hem of the Robe

Greater than Guilt/8 - We are citizens of a partial and unfulfilled land

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 11/03/2018

Piu grandi della colpa 08 ridIt is very difficult to find only one person in the whole Bible, whether righteous or not, who has not been let down by God, except perhaps Abraham and Jesus. But it is precisely from these denials that the man of faith learns to doubt every institution that he does not let itself be contradicted.

Paolo De Benedetti I profeti del re (The Prophets of the King)

After the consecration by Samuel, Saul begins to fulfil his mission as warrior king, a beginning that marks his tragic fate, narrated by perhaps the most compelling and beautiful pages of the entire Bible: “The Philistines mustered to fight with Israel, thirty thousand chariots, and six thousand horsemen... (...) Saul was still at Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling. He waited seven days, the time appointed by Samuel; but Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and the people began to slip away from Saul. So Saul said, »Bring the burnt offering here to me, and the offerings of well-being.«” And he offered the burnt offering (1 Samuel 13:5-9).

On the day of his anointing to be king, Samuel told him: “And you shall go down to Gilgal ahead of me; then I will come down to you to present burnt offerings and offer sacrifices of well-being. Seven days you shall wait” (10:8). Seven days pass, Samuel does not arrive; the people are afraid and get dispersed. Saul thus decides to offer the perfect sacrifice of communion (the holocaust) to YHWH himself. Right after he did this, “Samuel arrived; and Saul went out to meet him and salute him. Samuel said, »What have you done?« (13:10-11). Saul replies, “I said, »Now the Philistines will come down upon me at Gilgal, and I have not entreated the favour of the Lord«; so I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering” (13:12). Saul had waited for the time indicated by Samuel, and had therefore not acted outside the indications received. Yet Samuel reproaches him with an unexpected and surprising harshness: “You have done foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which he commanded you.” And he concludes: “now your kingdom will not continue” (13:13-14).

That’s where the very sad fate of the first King of Israel begins to unveil. In his story there are many intertwined traditions and theologies. Among these, quite importantly, is the radical criticism that the author of the Books of Samuel makes at the birth of the monarchy, which immediately becomes a critical view of his ancestor - every radical criticism is always an archaeological criticism that questions the root, (radix – the tr.) its original principle (arché). In this story, however, there are other profound reasons loaded with ethical meanings of great importance, which are better revealed if we read this first narration of the crisis between Saul and Samuel together with the second, even stronger and more dramatic story about the Amalekites.

First of all, it is good to talk about "crisis" and not conflict between these two great characters. Saul, in fact, does not "fight" Samuel, nor does he call into question his authority for all the duration of this tremendous crisis. Instead he shows great meekness towards him, invoking mercy for his mistakes, offering explanations for his behaviour, acts and feelings that cannot fail to capture the sympathy of us, readers. It is, in fact, very interesting in terms of rhetoric that by reading these stories with the usual necessary ignorance that should accompany every fruitful reading of the Bible (and other great texts) - that is, reading every part as if it were the first time - we find that the narration spontaneously directs us to be on Saul's side and in an emotional contrast with Samuel. And it is in this narrative contrast that is created between Saul condemned by YHWH and saved by the reader that much of the beauty of these chapters lie, which reveal, among other things, the author's infinite literary talent.

After the war achievements by Jonathan, Saul's son (ch. 14), we find a new command that Samuel addresses to Saul: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, »I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey«” (15:2-3).

Those are tremendous words, obliging us to look for some deeper reading keys in order not to associate the Bible with our kind of violence - God is the first one who needs the exegesis of the Bible and the sacred texts of religions, if we do not want to continue to "kill children" in His name: with these biblical pages, YHWH needs our careful examination to be able to say "not in my name". First of all, Amalek and his people (the Amalekites) are already known to the biblical reader: they fought Israel in the desert to prevent them from reaching Canaan. They were the greatest enemy, the ones who opposed the fulfilment of the promise. So they are an image of absolute evil, a biblical icon of every idolatry. Like the pharaoh, like Egypt. And this is already a first, different kind of hermeneutics of Samuel's shocking request. The sons of the Amalekites are images of the "sons" of the idols, as were the sons of Egyptians who could not be "flesh and blood" children helped to this world by the midwives that their own God had blessed for having saved the children of the Jews, giving them big families (Exodus 1,19-20). At the end of the story then, Samuel makes an explicit mention of idolatry: “For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, / and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry” (15:23).

But Saul doesn't execute Samuel-YHWH's order word by word: he saves Agag, the king of the Amalekites and "the best of the sheep and of the cattle and of the fatlings" (15:9). In the economy of the story, this disobedience of Saul is appropriated an enormous value: “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me, and has not carried out my commands” (15:11). Samuel gets angry - it is not clear from the text whether with God or with Saul (or with both?) - and he immediately goes to Saul, who welcomes him and tells him: “May you be blessed by the Lord; I have carried out the command of the Lord” (15:13). Saul's welcome words reveal his good faith (15:20-21). But Samuel reiterates the verdict: “Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, / he has also rejected you from being king” (15:23). The tragic tensity has reached its climax. Saul, the chosen one, is rejected by the one who had chosen him (15:26). He adds more: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, / as in obedience to the voice of the Lord?” (15:22) In Saul's rejection and in his "saving a part", there may be something more and different than the anti-idolatry and anti-sacrificial polemic of the prophets, which are also present.

When we receive a task from a voice - of God or our conscience - that speaks to us clearly, we don’t have to decide which part to perform. In every ethical task there are elements that we like and others that we don’t, or even hate. If we leave out the part that we don’t like, we are turning into the masters of the voice, and getting lost. Because in the part we have decided to discard there hides something essential, which, if not executed, affects everything else. Destiny is either fulfilled or it isn’t, it is not possible for it to be accomplished in part. This is why most vocations do not succeed in blossoming in their fullness, because when it’s time for us to choose to carry out the part we don’t like or even hate, we almost always make the choice of Saul. His vocation had been real, not an error made by God or Samuel (even the three different stories of his anointing prove it to us). But a person's vocation is only the dawn of a destiny, and what will happen during the whole day will depend on their capability of fidelity in some moral tasks that we do not like - and for good reasons. Many of these partial choices are made out of pietas and in good faith, as seems to be Saul’s. But good faith is not enough to save a vocation - as Jeremiah reminds us, even among the false prophets there are many in good faith.

We could stop here, satisfied with this different reading of these tremendous pages. But it is also possible to try to penetrate to some even more daring and slippery peaks, because these are often the ones that open the broadest horizons.

The text shows us Saul as a man who listens to the prophet, and as an integral and righteous man. Even if he makes a mistake it is in good faith and for reasons attributable to pietas and perhaps to weakness. But God rejects him. That’s where an anthropological discourse starts which is important for all vocations. A mystery surfaces in their hearts, which has a dark side to it, too. Together with the vocations of Abraham, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Samuel and Noah, with Saul the Bible offers us another "paradigm" of vocation, which has its incompleteness and partiality in common with the others (and that’s where they find their full and complete beauty). The incompleteness and partiality of those who received an authentic vocation, tried to live it in good faith, but have not succeeded in fulfilling it. A true vocation can "go wrong" without us wanting or deserving it. The possibility of its tragedy is inscribed in every vocation, because it is a pact of reciprocity.

And in pacts or treaties we depend radically on others, on their heart, repentance and on their reading of our hearts. The fulfilment of our marriage doesn’t depend only on our good faith; the success of our company doesn’t depend only on our commitment. The flourishing of our pact with God also depends on how tomorrow “it becomes” that voice we heard today and which we have believed with all our heart - I cannot say if God changes, but certainly by growing his voice changes. Saul, a good man, probably in good faith, but rejected and renounced by the God and the prophet who had called him while he was searching for the "lost donkeys", the man who became king by vocation without wanting or seeking it is then an image of all those who honestly follow a voice and who do not reach the promised land despite having been and remained good.

True vocations, even the good ones, can also get lost - like those donkeys that Saul could not find again. Another Saul, a thousand years later, was able to write with courage that "the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable" (Rom 11:29) perhaps because he had the self-subversion of that thesis inscribed in his own name.

Saul tried with all his strength to reconcile himself with his vocation and destiny. He grabbed and held onto Samuel to convert him, to make him change direction and heart, but he did not succeed: “As Samuel turned to go away, Saul caught hold of the hem of his robe, and it tore” (15:27). True vocations, those in flesh and bone, are variations of Saul’s unfulfilled one. We fight throughout our life in order not to lose our destiny, and in the end we are left with a torn hem of a prophet’s robe, who leaves us as adults after he had called us as young people.

Like Moses, who had spoken mouth-to mouth with a God who at the end of his life did not let him enter the promised land. But if Saul and Moses and the other prophets are inhabitants of a land different from the promised one, then our partial and unfinished land is a good place for us to put up our nomadic tent.

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