1 Sam 8, Mark 3:20-35
Both the Hebrew Bible and Gospel texts from this week carry strong admonitions about serving the Lord God instead of some other lord. Whether tempted by a human authority figure, or not knowing the difference between the work of God and the work of Beelzebub, humans roundly reject God’s kingship in the readings this week, to grave consequence.
In the episode of 1 Samuel 8, the prophet Samuel has followed in the footsteps of his old mentor, Eli, and raised two wicked sons, Joel and Abijah. Apparently the plan had been for Samuel’s sons to be seer-judges like him and conduct a traveling justice circuit around the country. But because they did not follow his ways ( 1 Sam 8:5), the people asked for a king to judge them instead of someone in the prophetic tradition to guide them back to their God.
Samuel and God then commiserated about feeling rejected. God quickly noted that it was not Samuel (or his family) who the people rejected, but Godself (1 Sam 8:7). But then God agreed that Samuel now had had a similar experience to God and he now knew what it was to be forsaken by the people (1 Sam 8:8).
Samuel and God then set out to warn the people that a king would make their sons serve in his army and their daughters would be the king’s servants. The king would take their possessions to give to his royal attendants, and keep their servants and animals for himself. The people insisted that they wanted a king to fight for them, even though they eventually would become his slaves, and God would not save them (1 Sam 8:17-18).
I have to say, I feel bad for the people here. Obviously, the best option is to rely on God for leadership. But it seems like they were choosing between Samuel’s sons on the one hand who “turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice” (1 Sam 8:3) and on the other hand a king. The people were warned that the king would enrich himself from their possessions, but none of the warnings say that he would be corrupt as Samuel’s sons already were. Again, I know those probably were not the only two options, but I cannot help but wonder if Samuel had spent more time teaching his sons, and less time on the judging circuit (1 Sam 7:16), if they would have been chosen to take over his leadership of the people. Then, would David have eventually been a shepherd-prophet instead of a king?
But the fact remains that the people chose a king and a monarchy. Although righteous kings are mentioned in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, it seems that monarchy over all was the negative influence that Samuel and God warned that it would be. Qohelet, someone who knew the inside of the palace quite well, warned:
If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields. (Ecc 5:8-9)
The people rejected God’s direct rule over them.
Hundreds of years and many dynasties later, Jesus drove out demons and exercised authority over unclean spirits. Some Jerusalem religious notables came down to argue that Jesus cast demons out by the prince of demons. Beelzebub seems to have been a Canaanite god who was appropriated by the Philistines and worshiped at Ekron. Beelzebul, the name used in Mark, is a circumlocution for the name of the pagan god and in Aramaic meant something like “lord of poop/filth” [Beelzebub itself is probably a play on the actual name of the god, it means something like “lord of flies” instead of the similar sounding “lord of the [holy] house”]. By the first century CE, Beelzebul seems to have been understood to occupy a position as the first or second most powerful demon in a complicated hierarchy.
Jesus was greatly incensed at the claim that he was working for a foreign, pagan god for two reasons. The first is its ridiculousness. Why would the prince of demons drive out demons? That’s working against your own team. Jesus uttered the great aphorism: a house divided against itself cannot stand. Whoever honestly drives out demons from people must be working for God and against evil.
The second reason that Jesus is angered at the claim that he worked on behalf of a demon is that this is a terrible slander against the spirit of God, which actually empowered his work (Mark 3:28-30). This was the unforgivable sin, according to Jesus: to say that what God, Ruler of the Universe, did was actually the work of an unclean spirit makes a mockery of God’s power, goodness and role in the world. Those who rejected God’s sovereign ability to free people from demon possession because they did not approve of Jesus called the ultimate good evil. In this, they insulted the Great King and aligned themselves with God’s enemies. Jesus was obviously all about forgiving sins, but this is one sin too far.
God is serious about God’s kingship. God does not abide challengers, whether for the actual kingship over God’s people, or for the acknowledgement of God’s role in freeing people from demonic possession. God demands we acknowledge God’s lordship. We are God’s people if we follow our king.