King David as Sacrifice

And now for a change of pace. It’s been a while since I’ve blogged biblically. So here goes.

At the church where I am currently interning, St. John’s Lutheran in Somonauk, Illinois, the pastor and I have split up Lenten preaching buy focusing on the Gospel during the midweek services and the other scripture readings on the weekend.

I’m preaching this Saturday and Sunday, and so it gives me a chance to do something I truly love — preach from the Deuteronomistic History. In this instance, the reading is 1 Samuel 16:1-13, where the Lord commands the prophet and judge Samuel to anoint David as king to replace Saul, who has lost his legitimacy in the eyes of the Lord.

It’s a fascinating story [as always, all quotes come from the English Standard Version]:

[16:1] 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 provided for myself a king among his sons.” [2] And Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me.” And the LORD said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.’ [3] And invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do. And you shall anoint for me him whom I declare to you.” [4] Samuel did what the LORD commanded and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling and said, “Do you come peaceably?” [5] And he said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the LORD. Consecrate yourselves, and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

[6] When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the LORD’s anointed is before him.” [7] But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” [8] Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass before Samuel. And he said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.” [9] Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.” [10] And Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. And Samuel said to Jesse, “The LORD has not chosen these.” [11] Then Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and get him, for we will not sit down till he comes here.” [12] And he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome. And the LORD said, “Arise, anoint him, for this is he.” [13] Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon David from that day forward. And Samuel rose up and went to Ramah.

Samuel is grieving Saul’s lack of faithfulness, but the Lord tells him there’s no time for grieving. He must find another king. Under cover is going to sacrifice with a cow (more on that later). It’s strange that Samuel’s appearance with the cow causes more than a little fear in Bethlehem, but he invites the town elders to sacrifice.

What happens next is strange. He looks over the sons of Jesse almost as if this was a casting call (I can almost here him say, “Lemme see yer teeth” to Abinadab and Shammah and the others), as if it were one of the sons of Jesse, and not the cow, he had come to sacrifice. First, Samuel gazes on the oldest son, Eliab, and is convinced he’s found the new king of Israel. But God tells him:

Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.

It’s an odd thing for God to say in this passage, because no sooner is the youngest son David brought forth than the narrator describes him as “ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome.” So, the Lord does see as men see, apparently.

But consider how David is described — ruddy, handsome, with beautiful eyes. My Grandfather Marsh was a very handsome young man, and according to what I’ve been told, people often said he was too pretty to be a boy. But ruddy and beautiful eyes are words we don’t often use to describe men. Particularly beautiful eyes. in Semitic poetry, this description of the eyes is most frequently reserved for girls, cattle and gazelles (and often interchangeably).

So, back to the cow. The Hebrew word used here is בקר (bqr) a good semitic word meaning cow. Heifer is more specific, a cow that has not yet calved (and thus does not produce milk). We don’t know why Samuel is bringing this cow — under what sacrificial pretenses — but we do have two examples (and only two) from the Hebrew Bible of times that heifers are specifically to be sacrificed.

First, in Deuteronomy 21, we find the following method of antoning for unsolved murders:

[21:1] “If in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess someone is found slain, lying in the open country, and it is not known who killed him, [2] then your elders and your judges shall come out, and they shall measure the distance to the surrounding cities. [3] And the elders of the city that is nearest to the slain man shall take a heifer that has never been worked and that has not pulled in a yoke. [4] And the elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to a valley with running water, which is neither plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the valley. [5] Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward, for the LORD your God has chosen them to minister to him and to bless in the name of the LORD, and by their word every dispute and every assault shall be settled. [6] And all the elders of that city nearest to the slain man shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley, [7] and they shall testify, ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it shed. [8] Accept atonement, O LORD, for your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, and do not set the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of your people Israel, so that their blood guilt be atoned for.’ [9] So you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, when you do what is right in the sight of the LORD.

The word here for heifer is the same בקר as used in the Samuel passage. The heifer in question atones for shed blood when no one can specifically be made accountable for that shed bled. It is an act of communal repentance while at the same time denying responsibility. It’s also an act in which people can be reconciled. Interestingly, it involves a symbolic washing of hands.

The second time God instructs Israel to sacrifice a heifer is in Numbers 19, as part of a communal purification ritual:

[19:1] Now the LORD spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, [2] “This is the statute of the law that the LORD has commanded: Tell the people of Israel to bring you a red heifer without defect, in which there is no blemish, and on which a yoke has never come. [3] And you shall give it to Eleazar the priest, and it shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered before him. [4] And Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger, and sprinkle some of its blood toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times. [5] And the heifer shall be burned in his sight. Its skin, its flesh, and its blood, with its dung, shall be burned. [6] And the priest shall take cedarwood and hyssop and scarlet yarn, and throw them into the fire burning the heifer. [7] Then the priest shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. But the priest shall be unclean until evening. [8] The one who burns the heifer shall wash his clothes in water and bathe his body in water and shall be unclean until evening. [9] And a man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place. And they shall be kept for the water for impurity for the congregation of the people of Israel; it is a sin offering. [10] And the one who gathers the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening. And this shall be a perpetual statute for the people of Israel, and for the stranger who sojourns among them. 

A red heifer — פרה אדמה (parah adomah). The word פרה for heifer here is a synonym for בקר. But the interesting word here is אדמה. David is described as “ruddy,” אדמוני (JPS Tanakh notes the meaning of this is uncertain), but the Hebrew word אדמוני clearly is related to אדמה in much the same way red is to ruddy in English. In any event, the sacrifice of the red cow that has never worked the soil — outside the camp by the high priest, and devoting the entire animal to destruction so that’s its ashes may be used to ritually purify those who have come into contact with the dead — is what is important here.

When the narrator describes David as ruddy with beautiful eyes, I don’t think he’s describing a young man so much as he is describing a sacrificial animal. David, in becoming king, is being sacrificed, to purify his people and to atone for shed blood. Granted, Saul was anointed to (and even kissed by Samuel), but there’s something about David’s anointing that strikes me as so similar to the woman who pours the jar of ointment over Jesus. Saul’s anointing doesn’t do that for me. Don’t know why.

But it isn’t that David himself, David as David, is the sacrifice — it’s that David’s kingship, David’s monarchy, David’s calling to be king, is the sacrifice itself. A living sacrifice. To atone for the sins of his people and to keep his people in ritual purity. His rule is a sacrifice to God and for God on behalf of God’s people.

There are two directions I want to go with this. First, there’s the idea that calling or vocation is a living sacrifice to God. Christians have all been anointed in baptism to be what God has called us to be. I hope to develop that idea a little bit more.

But more importantly, David’s is a sacrifice that prefigures Christ. David’s sacrifice is completed by Christ, who makes perfect this atonement for shed blood (and Pilate, in that most Jewish of gospels, Matthew, even washes his hands of the whole thing) and to make his people ritually pure. Being sacrificed outside the city. Jesus is the sacrifice. I tend not to like sacrificial theology, especially Anselmian (is that a word?) reasoning which states Jesus had to die in order for salvation to happen (because then atonement becomes a game God plays with God’s-self, rather than anything involving human beings). But I think the symbolism here is too constant and too clear to conclude otherwise. I don’t know what it means, and I don’t intend to draw logical conclusions from all of this. But I will, as always, preach a message of Grace — in Christ’s death and resurrection, we are atoned for, the blood we have shed made good, and we are made right (ritually pure) with God.

I haven’t finished this, obviously, and these are just musings on the scripture reading. But this is more or less what I’m going to preach.

One thought on “King David as Sacrifice

  1. Charles,This is excellent commentary. (I’m sure that David often asked himself, “What am I doing in this job?”)Today, I read through the book of Ruth, and once again was struck by the grace and mercy of God, and also by his Covenant Promises. And we see the Kinsman-Redeemer role of Boaz, just as Jesus is our Kinsman-Redeemer.

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