Samuel’s Farewell Address
Haftarah for Korach, 1 Samuel 11:14–12:22
Dr. Patrice Fischer, Ohr Chadash, Clearwater, FL
This week’s haftarah passage is very dramatic: A leader challenges the people of Israel, explains why their choice of leaders in the future will be wrong and will change everything, and finally says farewell to national political office. It could be Moses; it could be Joshua; it could be Ezra; it could even be Gideon; but it is actually Samuel.
Samuel is a pivotal person in biblical history, but he is often overlooked after his remarkable childhood in Eli’s tabernacle (1 Sam 1–3). An inspiring and reliable leader wedged between the time of the rule of the judges and the era of the kings of Israel, Samuel forms a junction between several great areas of leadership in Israel. He serves, simultaneously, as a priest, a prophet, a judge, and a kingmaker.
Many commentators portray Samuel as a divided person, at war within himself about his own people wanting to be ruled by a king. He knows that this national desire is not what God wants for them, and yet he goes out and finds a king for them. He lays out clearly for the people the ramifications for Israel in the future (none of them good), and yet honors their choice. These two sides of Samuel’s life are so distinct that many modern analysts are sure that his story incorporates the writings of two different authors.
In fact, Samuel seems divided because he is emotionally divided—a not-uncommon occurrence within a single person. As two heroes in a movie recently said as they ran past each other during a chase scene:
“Did you win or did you lose?”
“Ummm, I won, but then I lost.”
“Then I’m happy and sad for you” [with a puzzled look] . . .
Samuel is satisfied and dissatisfied with Israel at this time. The people of Israel seem to have forgotten their endless roller-coaster ride under the leadership of the judges and now demand a king to be in charge of the warfare on their behalf. Samuel is discouraged by their lack of faith in their God, but he also knows that God is powerful and faithful to them.
Samuel feels conflicted because he thinks having a king is, at its heart, unnecessary for Israel. They are failing in their prime objective—to conquer their tribal allotments and remove the Canaanites from their midst—because of a lack of trust in God. If they will only allow him, God can be the only king they need. Their nation can be a true theocracy. Instead, the people want a king because they think that by having a king fight their battles they are guaranteed to win. They have not figured out that God’s leadership enables them to win the battles, not the human leaders.
So Samuel, guided by God, acquiesces to their demand (chapters 8–10). He will give over the day-to-day maintenance of the nation to Saul and his advisors. Before he leaves the scene, Samuel asks the people a series of questions concerning how he has behaved among them—blamelessly, without taking advantage of them, or becoming rich off them (1 Sam 12:3–5). These questions seem to be the haftarah’s link to Moses in our parasha, Numbers 16:1–18:32, where the very angry Moses says to God, “I did not take a single donkey (LXX: desirable thing) from them! I did not do any of them any harm” (Num 16:15).
The people have trouble defeating the enemies within their land because they don’t trust the One with the power to accomplish it. The core reason for the people’s problems is the same as it was during the leadership of the judges: they continue to worship the Canaanite idols Baal and Astarte instead of removing them from their midst. Instead they trust the Canaanite god of war. The people still do not trust their God to bring them rain, but instead turn to the Canaanite god of lightning, thunder, and rain.
Remembering that Baal and his pantheon are specifically tasked with providing rain at the correct times is at the heart of Samuel’s proof that he is a true man of God: Although it is already the dry season in Israel, when Samuel prays, thunder and rain result (it is almost a physical impossibility for it to rain in Israel during the summer wheat harvest). This is a very powerful miracle, although it may not feel like it to us. Samuel’s God is capable of providing rain at any time. Baal’s help is not necessary. The people finally realize that Samuel has been right all along, and that they were wicked to ask for a king (12:19).
One notable sidelight of this miracle is that rain occurring when wheat is ripe can very easily ruin the whole harvest. If it is a powerful rain, it knocks the delicate heads off the plant shafts, where they fall to the ground and in a very short period of time, start to sprout. The grain is unusable and grows mold easily. The stalks, which are used to help feed their cattle and sheep as straw, cannot be stored if wet. If straw is not completely dry, strong sunlight can create steam in the middle of piles of straw, igniting the whole pile (and in more modern times, set the whole barn on fire).
At its heart, Israel’s problem is one of substitution: They want to have a human king to substitute for their heavenly king in their battles. They want another group of gods who specialize in fighting battles and bringing rain to substitute for their God. But the God of Abraham wants them to trust him and him alone.
This is still important for us today. We must exhibit trust in God even when it seems to us like he is not powerful enough to overcome our problems. This trust is not just a matter of wishful thinking, but needs to be based in action. These actions begin by following the one true God, worshiping him alone, and gratefully accomplishing his decrees.