Samuel was a failure. It may amount to something comparable to heresy to proclaim one of the Jewish people's greatest judges and prophets a failure. But, in light of the present circumstances in Israel and Palestine, I believe he was.
In Chapter 8 of the First Book of Samuel, we learn that Samuel's sons have failed to equal the stature or follow the ways of their "retired" father. To remedy the failure, the elders of Israel approach the vaunted Judge and beseech him to appoint "a king to judge us, like all the nations." Although Samuel recognizes the hollowness and vanity of this petition, and prays to God for guidance, he silently accepts God's decision to grant the people's wish. Samuel recounts to the people the sure despotic nature and horrific acts attendant to the coronation of such a ruler, warning that God would not heed their call of mercy when the terrors struck. In response, the people defiantly exclaim "our king will judge us, and go forth before us, and fight our wars," and Samuel accedes and acquiesces to this decision of both the People's and God's choice to proceed in failure.
What could Samuel really have done? Deny God and the clarion wishes of the People? Offer an alternative when the people, fractured and rebellious during the tenure of the judges, finally spoke together with one voice?
Yes. Both Abraham and Moses made that choice before Samuel and led, in spite of the stated wishes of the People or God, forcing the People to see new visions, to raise themselves up. In His own way, God asks leaders to lead unconditionally. And here, at the moment in time when the Jewish people chose to cast off the cloak of their Redeemer, Samuel instead accepts their conditions and simply goes about finding King Saul, a second soon-to-be failed leader.
What did this choice representwhat does it mean to be like other nations, to reach for the earthly, rather than the heavenly? There is an old saying that a debate between two Jews will feature three opinions. Unfortunately that saying is only partially true, and the locus of its failure is the precise nature of our being like other nations.
For when it comes to the politics and security of the State of Israel, the Jewish peopleparticularly in the United Statesrefuse to question the policies and decisions they otherwise would or should. Our leadership dictates that the Jewish people stand firmly behind Israel: attending rallies, creating slogans as barbaric as "Don't Throw Stones and You Won't Get Killed" (NYC rally, 10/13/00), expressing shocked outrage at the death of two soldiers and relative indifference to the deaths of over 100 Palestinians. All of this representing the "pro-Israel" ideal and norm.
But how is any of this actually pro-Israel? From watching other nations, we seem to have internalized the notion that we must demonstrate blind obedience to the Israeli government's notions of right and wrong in order to survive. When we should be tearing ourselves apart, exposing and exploring our hearts, our ethics and values, to pursue justice and walk in the path of God, we only ask our current monarchy to fight our wars. Proclaiming an end to policies of violence and visions of an unsustainable peace and searching for a way to create a future founded in an image of recognition of the Stranger as Self undermines only the most monolithic and base vision of Israel and the Jewish people, the identical vision identified by Israel's supposed enemies.
What has always struck me about the chapter in Samuel is the immediacy and scope of the transformation. The people do not mull over the decision, do not struggle with themselves or with God in any of the preceding chapters; instead, they act suddenly and completely transform the nature of their relationship with God. Although David and Solomon temporarily validate the decision, the monarchical systemrooted in blind obedience to salvation through human politicseventually crumbles. When Joshua led the people in triumphant conquest of the land, God stood at the helm. In the second chapter of Joshua, we read of the Canaanites' recognition of God as Jewish redeemer. Today, we see only the Palestinians' recognition of Israeli and Jewish godlessness.
We stand in danger of repeating Samuel's legacy, of again losing the Land (or at least the Spirit) of Israel through self-imposed blindness to the political expediency we see in other nations. Let us begin the process of wrestling with our Angels, of allowing the opinions of others to be heard, of demanding from ourselves the honesty, humility and integrity we expect in return. Only then will the peace futilely promised by our modern earthly leaders receive God's blessing.