A Meal with the King (by Dr. Kyle Keimer)
This three-part blog will look at the connection between feasting and kingship from the days of Israel’s first king, Saul, to the days of Jesus.
Food. It is something we all need. It nourishes our bodies; we need to eat it regularly otherwise our bodies run out of fuel. But food does much more than that. It can be a medium for exclusion and inclusion that can instill power and prestige and/or establish/maintain one’s belonging to a “family” (whether people are related by blood or are likeminded individuals/groups who share a bond). Meals—regular occasions in a day when food is eaten—then, are powerful events. They are agents for the creation of identity and memory. In the next few blogs, we will focus on the power of meals in biblical times. In particular, we will look at feasts, which are shared communal meals, and what they mean socially and theologically.
Feasts played an important role socially and theologically in ancient Israel
We start with probably the most famous feast in the Bible: Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. During this meal Jesus presented the disciples with a ritual for remembering the new covenant that God was making with people through Jesus’ obedience, which required that he die on the cross and be raised to glory. For Christians, this meal marks the beginning of something whereby we are called to remember God’s graciousness and faithfulness. And it has endured for nearly 2000 years. But for all the projecting of the communion meal forward to future generations, Jesus’ last supper was also the culmination and fulfillment of expectations that had arisen during a meal over 1000 years beforehand. We read about this feast in 1 Samuel 9:22-24:
22Then Samuel took Saul and his young man and brought them into the hall and gave them a place at the head of those who had been invited, who were about thirty persons. 23And Samuel said to the cook, “Bring the portion I gave you, of which I said to you, ‘Put it aside.’” 24So the cook took up the leg and what was on it and set them before Saul. And Samuel said, “See, what was kept is set before you. Eat, because it was kept for you until the hour appointed, that you might eat with the guests.” So Saul ate with Samuel that day.
These verses may not seem all that interesting, but they tell us Saul was given both the seat and portion of meat of honor at a feast where attendance was by invitation only. The prophet Samuel paved the way for Saul before anointing him as the first “king” (I’ll come back to why I put this term in parentheses in a moment) of Israel on the following day. The feast was the catalyst whereby Saul’s future role was initiated in the presence of a select few (“about 30” as the text says). Furthermore, the feast served a socio-political purpose by highlighting Saul’s prominence—it was a tangible expression of where power and authority lie (i.e., with the person in the position of honor), while at the same time it helped to make such standing into a reality. Samuel, who was, for all intents and purposes, the spiritual leader of Israel at that time, was positioning Saul above his peers and elders by having him sit at the head of the table and giving him a special portion of the sacrifice. The significance of such an action would have been clear to any ancient Israelite—Saul had found favor with Samuel, and thus with God.
Saul’s select status is clarified on the following day (1 Sam 9:25-10:16) when he is anointed by Samuel, filled with the Spirit of God, and then prophesies. Interestingly, Samuel says to Saul, “Has not the LORD anointed you to be prince over his heritage/people?” When God’s words about earthly leaders are conveyed (both here and in statements about David later), those leaders are “princes/leaders/heads over the people”; the Hebrew word is nagid. The leader is not a “king” (Hebrew, melek), as there is only one “king”: God himself.
As Israel’s first “king,” Saul is tasked with two items: deliver Israel from Philistine aggression and bind Israel to uphold and obey the covenant from Mt. Sinai (Edelman 1991: 313). In both instances Saul fails. This failure does not arise from a lack of ability, but from a lack of discerning and trusting in God’s will over against his own will. See, God was in control over Israel before Saul became king, He was in control while Saul was king, and He remained in control after Saul’s reign ended. Really, Israel did not need a king; they already had God. But the people kept asking for a “king to judge us [Israel] like all the nations” (1 Sam 8:5). And the thing is, God gave them a human king, saying to Samuel that the people had rejected Him (God) as king (8:7). Human kings, however, would take and take and take from the people—in the span of eight verses (8:11-19) God warns that human kings will “take” from them four times—that is an intense warning from a God who had already shown Israel that he was a “giving” instead of a “taking” king. Nevertheless, this warning went unheeded; the Israelites told Samuel “No! There will be a king over us that we also will be like the nations, and our king will judge us and go out before us to fight our battles” (1 Sam 8:19-20). Here we see God’s grace and master plan in action because he actually provides Israel with what they asked for, twice. In the first instance, he gives them human kings to meet Israel’s flawed, limited, human expectations. In the second instance, 1000 years later, he gives Israel Jesus, a Godly king to meet God’s perfect expectation. Saul and Jesus: the bookends of kingship in the Bible. The contrast could not be starker.
View of the tribal territory of Benjamin, which was the heartland of Saul’s kingdom
In the next installment of this blog series, we will parcel out the contrast between Saul and Jesus (with a bit of discussion about king David as well), and in the third installment we will return to the topic of feasting in the Bible. Kingship and feasting are intimately related in the Bible even though the specific sociocultural contexts in which feasting takes place, evolve. We will see that Jesus’ last supper is the culmination of God’s plan for kingship.
Edelman, Diana Vikander. King Saul in the Historiography of Judah. JSOT Supp Series 121. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991.