In the scroll of Samuel, Israel demands a king in place of the judges that have been ruling over them. It sounds like a simple enough request, but Yahweh calls it idolatrous. Why? In this episode, Tim and Jon discuss the motives behind Israel’s request and the role of Israel’s first kings, Saul and David, in the unfolding theme of the firstborn.
How do you know what makes someone the right person to be in charge? What qualifies someone for power? Is it that they’re tall or that they come from a good family? Humans are really poor judges of knowing what is truly valuable and good and should be set above in positions of importance or authority… The one that God has chosen to rule the nations is like his people Israel––a defeated, disfigured, trashed people group that nobody thinks is important anymore.
In part one (00:00-20:32), Tim and Jon review the theme of the firstborn, one of many ways we find in the Bible that God challenges human structures of power and authority and subverts them to accomplish his purposes in the world.
In this episode, we pick up our conversation in the scroll of Samuel. At this point in Israel’s history, power has, for a long time, shifted from one tribal leader to another (AKA the judges). The prophet Samuel is Israel’s final judge. Samuel is righteous and faithful, but his sons are not. Even still, in his old age, he plans to pass on his leadership to his sons (1 Samuel 8:1).
1 Samuel 8:4-5
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah; and they said to him, “Behold, you have grown old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint us a king to judge us like all the nations.”
Part of what the people ask for is good––it’s a good idea to find a leader other than Samuel’s corrupt sons. However, they don’t ask for Yahweh to pick a righteous judge––they ask for an institution so that they will look like all the other nations. Up until this point, Yahweh has been Israel’s king, which is why Yahweh tells Samuel Israel’s request is idolatry.
1 Samuel 8:7-9
The Lord said to Samuel, “... They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Like all the deeds which they have done since the day that I brought them up from Egypt even to this day—in that they have forsaken me and served other gods—so they are doing to you also. Now then, listen to their voice; however, you shall solemnly warn them and tell them of the procedure of the king who will reign over them.”
Israel is looking to someone other than Yahweh to protect and lead them, and with that in mind, it’s no wonder why this story is hyperlinked to the golden calf narrative in Exodus 32.
In part two (20:32-38:25), Tim and Jon discuss the anointing of Israel’s first king, Saul.
Samuel warns the people that making the governmental switch to a monarchy will lead to numerous consequences Israel will one day complain about––taxation, oppression, enslavement, to name a few––but when they complain, Yahweh won’t listen because he will have given them what they asked for.
God selects Saul to be Israel’s first king, and the first thing we read about Saul (1 Sam. 9) is that he is handsome and very tall, an allusion both to the appeal of his outward appearance, as well a hyperlink to the Nephilim––evil giants descended from spiritual beings who procreated with humans (Gen. 6).
The narrator depicts Saul as a new Adam and Eve figure, an image of God ruler with an opportunity to do the right thing. Even though he’s not a firstborn necessarily, he’s the first king and valued as such by the people. However, Saul’s kingship culminates early on with his failure to trust Yahweh and his decision to do the wrong thing (on a seventh day). When this happens, Yahweh regrets making Saul king and sends Samuel to tell him that he will lose the kingdom and his authority (1 Sam. 15). The themes of the firstborn getting overturned are already at work before we even meet David.
1 Samuel 16:1
Now the Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and go; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have selected a king for myself among his sons.”
The word that appears as “selected” in many of our English translations is the Hebrew word for “see” (ra’ah), as in “God will see to it.” Yahweh sends Samuel to the household of Jesse, and all his oldest sons pass before Samuel––but none of them is God’s chosen king.
1 Samuel 16:7
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
The word “appearance" hyperlinks this passage to Genesis 3, when Eve looks at the appearance of the Tree of Knowing Good and Bad and chooses what looks good to her instead of what Yahweh says is good. This scene in 1 Samuel 16 is where the firstborn theme comes into really sharp focus. Here, Yahweh names what we’ve been seeing take place throughout the story of the Bible up to this point––namely, humans have an uncanny knack for thinking we know what is good and being totally wrong in our estimation.
In part three (38:25-48:35), the guys discuss the choosing of David as Israel’s next king.
David, too, is handsome, but he is the youngest and smallest of Jesse’s sons (1 Samuel 16:11-12). Samuel anoints David, and from that point forward God’s Spirit is with David in a powerful way (1 Sam. 16:13). David becomes a contrast to Saul––Saul, in his desperate attempt to retain control of the kingdom slowly declines, while David slowly rises to power, even in his determination to wait for Yahweh to give him the kingdom. He refuses to seize power for himself.
The theme of the firstborn––God selecting the weaker to rule over the stronger––doesn’t solve human power dynamics or even sibling rivalries. Instead, it exposes the inability of humanity to bear God’s image without some serious help. As the theme unfolds throughout the story of the Bible, it continues to amp up our anticipation of the arrival of the Messiah, God’s ultimate chosen one who will finally image God in the way no other human has faithfully done.
In part four (48:35-01:02:35), Tim and Jon explore some of Isaiah’s prophecies about this coming chosen one. In Isaiah 11, this person is described as a “shoot from the stalk of Jesse.” Isaiah is saying that the coming Messiah won’t just be a descendant of David, but a brand new David.
When this Messiah comes, he will bring with him the blessings of Eden. However, later in Isaiah the prophet also calls this coming king a servant––in other words, the one with the right to rule will be humbled and brought low before he is exalted (another twist on the firstborn theme).
Show produced by Cooper Peltz with Associate Producer Lindsey Ponder. Edited by Dan Gummel, Tyler Bailey, and Frank Garza. Podcast annotations for the BibleProject app by Hannah Woo.
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