The Anointing of the Outskirts

Greater than Guilt/6 - Prophetic enthusiasm is ignited amidst ordinary life

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire le 25/02/2018

Piu grandi della colpa 06 c rid“ your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
and your young men will see visions. »

Book of Joel 2:28

The consecration of Saul, the first king of Israel, takes place once again amidst the ordinary affairs of life. Saul moved away from home in search of lost donkeys - valuable animals for the economy of his time. It is during this normal work mission that something extraordinary breaks into his life. Saul had left the house to go to work - and returned home as the ‘Lord’s anointed’. He had left to look for donkeys he did not find; instead, he found a vocation, a task, a destiny that he did not seek. This is one of the greatest episodes of serendipity. Not only it explains that unless we actually go to the bookshop in flesh and bone we will never discover the most important books that we were not looking for but were waiting for us next to the less important ones we were looking for, but it also makes us perceive something of the profound logic of spiritual life. The greatest goods in life are those that we do not buy because they are not for sale, those that we do not look for because we do not yet know that they exist, those that we receive simply because we are loved.

“There was a wealthy man from the tribe of Benjamin named Kish. He was the son of Abiel son of Zeror son of Becorath son of Aphiah, a Benjaminite. He had a son named Saul, who was a handsome young man. No one in Israel was more handsome than Saul, and he stood head and shoulders above everyone else. When the donkeys belonging to Saul’s father Kish were lost, Kish said to his son Saul, »Take one of the servant boys with you and go look for the donkeys.« So he travelled through the highlands... but they didn’t find anything. (...) ...Saul said to the boy who was with him, »Let’s go back...«. But the boy said to him, »Listen, there’s a man of God in this town. ... So let’s go there. Maybe he’ll be able to tell us which way we should go«” (1 Samuel 9:1-6). Saul is the chosen one also in terms of his physical appearance: he is strong, he is the most handsome, the tallest. But he belongs to Benjamin’s tribe, the smallest one, that which was stained with one of the most heinous crimes of the whole Bible at Gibeah (Judges 19) - an ambivalence that would mark the fate of Saul to the end.  

Saul listens to the advice of his assistant. But he asks him: “But if we go, what should we bring to the man? The food in our bags is all gone. We don’t have any gift to offer the man of God. Do we have anything?” “Here,” the boy answered Saul, “I’ve got a quarter-shekel of silver. I’ll give that to the man of God so he tells us which way to go” (9:7-8). Here, the great theme of gift returns, marking these first chapters of Samuel. From the context it is clear that the gift that worries Saul has very little gratuitousness and very much resembles a price to be paid in exchange for a service. The domains of gift and exchange have always intersected, sometimes overlapped each other. Gratuitous and totally selfless gift is a recent invention, which almost always exists in the books of scholars or in some corner of our soul, where the precious and eternal memories of early childhood are kept. In reality, gift is the first language of reciprocity, a sign of interest for someone or something. Disinterest (the absence of interest) does not belong to the semantics of the gift.

The continuation of the story reveals the specific nature of that gift to us: “Earlier in Israel, someone going to consult with God would say, »Let’s go to the seer,« because the people who are called prophets today were previously called seers” (9:9). The birth of prophecy in Israel was a long, complex and therefore ambivalent process. Seers, shamans and soothsayers were common throughout the ancient world, and they performed different and important functions (curing diseases, interpreting dreams, reading signs, liberating people from evil spirits, predicting events, advising kings...). Their work was a profession (almost) like the others, and therefore, in order to avail of their services, a price had to be paid; but since they were inhabitants of the territory of the sacred, to interact with the seers the register of the offer or gift was used. It was a more suitable language than the commercial one, because when the ancient man came into relation with the sacred he thought that the special do ut des was not an exchange of equivalent values, because what one received (or was given) in return was worth much more than what one had ‘paid’ (just as no one ever believed that the ‘value’ of a mass for a deceased one was the ten Euros ‘paid’ to the priest). The surplus of the gift is still very much present in our time. We all know (if we think about it) that the value of what we give our company in a month is worth much more than the salary we receive. Prophecy in Israel started from the ancient figures of seers and soothsayers and gradually emerged as a unique and extraordinary phenomenon. Samuel still retains traits of the ancient figure of the seer, but in him there is also the seed of that new prophecy that will generate Isaiah and Jeremiah, centuries later. It is in fact significant that when Saul arrives to Samuel, no more reference is made in the story to the price to be paid to the ‘seer’, as if to tell us that there is something different and new in the relationship with this seer-prophet compared to the gift-exchange done with the soothsayers.

The time for the meeting has finally come: “So Saul and the boy went up to the town, and as they entered it, suddenly Samuel came toward them on his way up to the shrine. Now the day before Saul came, the Lord had revealed the following to Samuel: »About this time tomorrow I will send you a man from the Benjaminite territory. You will anoint him as leader of my people Israel«” (9:14-16). There is a detail here pointing out an essential difference between Samuel and the seers: YHWH had made a revelation ‘to Samuel’s ear’. The new era of prophecy is marked by a change of senses: we move on from sight to hearing. The seer ‘sees’, the prophet ‘listens’ to a different God who is not seen. With prophecy, the God of the Patriarchs and Moses becomes a voice. The ancient theophanies (the cloud, the fire...) that were still very similar to those of other peoples progressively make space for a voice. Overwhelmed by too many voices and too many visions, today we can no longer understand how wonderful it is, but it continues to fascinate us and move us, and sometimes it turns into prayer: when will we learn again to listen to that different voice? And who will teach us to recognise it?  

Samuel has a second ‘prophetic hearing’ ("When Samuel saw Saul, the Lord told him, »That’s the man I told you about«” 9:17), and then invites Saul to his table, where he gives him a special treatment by giving him a meal of the fattest and biggest part of the animal he had sacrificed (9:24). That’s where we enter the heart of the story: “Near dawn ... Saul got up, and the two of them, he and Samuel, went outside. As they were nearing the edge of town Samuel said, »Tell the boy to go on ahead of us« (the servant did so) »but you stop for a bit so I can tell you God’s word«” (9:26-27). And on the outskirts of the city, “Samuel took a small jar of oil and poured it over Saul’s head and kissed him. »The Lord hereby anoints you leader of his people Israel«” (10:1). Extraordinary events take place in the districts of the periphery. This ordinariness surrounding the election of Saul is beautiful - as if the Bible had wanted to respond to the request for a consecrated king by desacralizing and normalizing the environment in which the scene takes place: donkeys, a servant, lunch, a road near the edge of town. Like Moses, Gideon, Amos, the fishermen of Galilee, like Mary of Nazareth, who is reached by the angel Gabriel in her home, while perhaps she was doing the household chores. For theophanies, there are no more suitable places than a boat, a kitchen, a bush or a journey to take the donkeys home. Or a nightly ford of a river, a desert, the road to Damascus, or a little ruined church near Assisi.

Saul resumes his way home, but at Gibeah "there was a group of prophets coming to meet him. God’s spirit came over Saul, and he was caught up in a prophetic frenzy right along with them. When all the people who had known Saul saw him prophesying with the prophets, they said to each other, »What’s happened to Kish’s son? Is Saul also one of the prophets?«” (10:10-11). Saul goes through an experience of prophetic exaltation, similar to that of which the Acts speak to us on the day of Pentecost (2:13); and what happens in Gibeah is the same that will happen a thousand years later in Jerusalem ("They’re full of new wine!"): the people who watched the scene thought that Saul wasn’t quite himself.

The text had just told us something important: “And just as Saul turned to leave Samuel’s side, God gave him a different heart” (10:9). His encounter with Samuel and his anointing had changed something in Saul's deepest self, his heart was changed. Something had happened that transformed his person, not just his emotions and feelings. And when the Bible wants to express the effects of the change of heart to us, it makes its characters ‘prophesy’, it puts them in a state of prophetic enthusiasm. It associates them, temporarily, with the prophetic vocation, which, in that humanism, is the human condition closest to God - which says a lot about the esteem that the Bible has for prophets.
We are not all prophets, we do not all have the vocation to receive divine messages in the ear of our soul. But many, perhaps all of us can at least have one experience of prophetic enthusiasm if we are open to the voice of prophets and life. Perhaps on the day of the wedding, or when, finally, we understand who we really are, or when she was gone, we realized that it was all and only love, and we started to sing the most beautiful song in an enthusiasm of the spirit. These are rare but infinite moments.

Saul's experience also lasted a short time: “When the prophetic frenzy was over, Saul went home” (10:13). But the Bible has conserved that brief extraordinary moment, also to remind us that the prophecy that Saul, too, experienced can be for everyone. We, too, can hope to walk some of the way ahead of us in the company of the marvellous ‘group of prophets’. We, too, can leave the house to simply go to work, and find a vocation, a task, a destiny on the outskirts of the city.

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