This is the first in a 5 week series exploring the relationship between miracles and science. See this Science Corner post for a prelude.
Are miracles intrinsically anti-science? I’m nearly certain someone is making that claim somewhere on the Internet right now. Science is the study of nature. Miracles are supernatural. Thus miracles are either nonexistent, because science defines what is real, or outside the purview of science. If a seemingly miraculous event, such as the parting of the Red Sea, can be explained by a natural mechanism, it may no longer be deemed a miracle. What could be more straightforward?
Well, straightforward isn’t always my style — as my wife would no doubt confirm. My train of thought on the topic of miracles takes the scenic route. It begins, of all places, in 1 Samuel 8. This is a pregnant moment in the history of Israel and the history of the Christian faith. It marks the transition from a theocratic Israel to a monarchic one. The affairs of Israel’s kings will be central to the narrative of all subsequent Old Testament histories. Two of those kings will author much of its wisdom literature. Many of the prophets will be called to confront those kings. And Jesus himself will descend from the house of King David. It is all but impossible to imagine what the Bible would look like if the people of Israel had not asked for a king as recorded in this passage.
For all of that historical significance, what strikes me most about this passage is God’s reaction. While he gives no indication that he might deny the people’s request to have a king appointed over them, he doesn’t exactly offer a ringing endorsement of the plan either. Almost half of the chapter is devoted to warnings about the potential negative consequences of their proposal. Verse 19 describes the people’s response to these observations as a refusal to heed the warnings, which indicates that Samuel was trying to persuade the people to change their minds. This creates the overall impression that God does not think Israel having a king is the best idea.
Now, we don’t get a clear picture of what God does think is the best idea. Would the people continue to be led by judges indefinitely? Would David have served as a judge? Would the temple have been built? What would Jesus’ heritage have been? And so on. We have no way of meaningfully answering these questions, so we won’t dwell on them except to reiterate how critical this decision was in the history of Israel.
We are on firmer ground if we examine the warnings that God provides. I see these warnings as falling into two categories. First are concerns that the human king will take the place of God. As God points out in verse 7, Israel already has a king. His warnings include several observations about a king collecting a tenth or the best of the people’s various resources. These are the same portions traditionally due God under the law.
If they already have a king, why consider a replacement? Perhaps it is the same motivation that led the Israelites to request the golden calf in Exodus. In both cases, a transcendent God is replaced with a more tangible and familiar substitute, one that is easier to understand (and easier to get rid of if it comes to that). The obvious danger of these substitutions is ultimately believing God irrelevant, but there’s another, more insidious possibility as well. Instead of setting aside God altogether, the people might ascribe to God all the attributes they see in their tangible replacements and potentially develop a false impression of what God is like.
That brings us to the second category of warning, which I read as behaviors that God does not want associated with him. These include the conscripting of armies and generally forcing the people to realize the will of the king. The armies are specifically described as consisting of the people’s sons. There is an implication that a king will ensure the legacy of his own sons at the expense of everyone else’s. It is not hard to imagine why God might want to prevent people ascribing these same motives and intentions to him.
In fact, note that God subverts this picture of what it means to be king by his behavior in this passage. He has made it clear that he is the king of Israel. He could thus require, even insist, that the people conform to his will and not allow them to appoint a king. Instead, his response is “As you wish.”
Peaking ahead, the appointing of the second king of Israel will also provide an opportunity for God’s notion of kingship to be revealed. The crown passes, not to the son of the first king, but to the youngest son of another man. That lad, David, spent his youth as a shepherd, serving his father and caring for the flock. Spending time as a servant helped to temper him for the opportunities to abuse power the throne will offer. Notably, David’s biggest missteps will come when his power goes to his head, as when he takes another man’s wife for his own and sends that man to war in front of him, or when he takes a census of his own volition, implying that the people belong to him and providing assurances of his military might. Despite these mistakes, it is this shepherd king who will have the honor of being the forefather to Jesus, God’s ultimate example of how he wants to be understood as a king.
Now, if God was so concerned about how we would perceive his kingship, it stands to reason that we need to be very careful what conclusions we draw when we think about God as a king. This is true even if we don’t presently live under a monarchy; chances are we still have over us a government of some kind that can demand a tenth (or more) of what we have in taxes and that enlists our sons and daughters to serve in a military. It’s possible that our flawed thinking about kings will trickle into other topics. This is the possibility we will explore next week when we take up the laws of nature.
About the author:
Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two teenagers, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.