Revelatory Crucicentricity: 1 Samuel 16 and 1 Kings 19 as Kenotic Patterns
One argument against patristic ways of reading Scripture is that doing so somehow diminishes the unique witness of the Old Testament to Yahweh’s salvific acts in Israel’s history (a topic I’ve written about here). In our desire to see Christ in all of Scripture, we—like the Fathers—might read in a way that minimizes the event or the literary presentation of the event by ignoring the original context, thereby superimposing a Christian hermeneutic onto a pre-Christian text. But this objection is based on a flawed understanding of both (1) how the spiritual sense of the text connects to the text’s literal sense and (2) the concept of revelation. The allegorical is born of the literal, and the former perfects the latter. So too, revelation cannot be contradictory to itself, but must be read as a consistent progression. This means that the content of one revelation (i.e. that contained in the Old Testament) cannot be read to be in competition or conflict with the content of a later revelation (i.e. that disclosed in the New Testament).
A major corollary of allegorical reading is that the Church Fathers were firm believers that all of the Bible testifies to Christ. Last month, I traced that theme in Origen’s Philocalia. To the patristic reader, the cross was not just the center of Christ’s story but all of Sacred Scripture. The Bible is a thoroughly crucicentric book, even the Old Testament. Two texts that are helpful in illustrating these principles are 1 Samuel 16:1:13 and 1 Kings 19:8-18.
1 Samuel 16:1-13
In 1 Samuel 16, the titular prophet is still reeling from God’s rejection of Saul as Israel’s king because of the disgraced monarch’s sin (15:22-23). The Lord’s plan for Samuel involves more than wallowing in despair; God sends Samuel to the house of Jesse in Bethlehem to find Saul’s replacement. Upon arriving and offering sacrifices with the elders of the town, Jesse, and Jesse’s sons, Samuel assesses the potential candidates. First, he notices Eliab and assumes, based on his exemplary physical stature and prowess that he must be the one to be anointed. But God warns Samuel, “Do not look on 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” (16:7). So Samuel turns to Abinadab, the next son, but Abinadab is similarly dismissed because “neither has the Lord chosen this one” (16:8). The same is also true for the next brother, Shammah. Seven of Jesse’s sons pass before the prophet following this same pattern; none are chosen by the Lord to be Israel’s next ruler. At this point, Samuel turns to Jesse and asks if all his sons are present. It is found that they are missing one: David, the youngest, who is in the field with the flock. They send for him and the Lord says, “Arise, anoint him, for this is he” (16:12).
1 Samuel 16 is rife with allusions to other parts of the Old Testament, particularly the book of Genesis. The theme of the younger brother being chosen over his older siblings is a major theme in the book of Genesis. This is especially prevalent in the Esau/Jacob debacle and the dreams of Joseph. There is a playful nod to the Esau/Jacob story in the use of the word “ruddy” (Heb. admoni) to describe David. The word can also mean “red” and is used to describe Esau (Gen 25:25). Further, the passing over of the brothers to get to David echoes the procession of animals brought to Adam so that he could find a helper, as recounted in Genesis 2. A helper is not found among the animals so God creates Eve because it is not good (Heb. tov) for man to be alone. So too, after the procession of sons in Samuel 16, there is not a king to be found and Samuel asks if all are present. David is immediately identified as “handsome,” which in Hebrew is the word tov, a dominant word in the book of Genesis. In choosing David to be the next king, God does something that is both consistent with his previous actions while simultaneously acting in an unexpected way, at least to the figures involved in the story. It is consistent with how God has acted because of the allusions to the Genesis narratives. However, it is unexpected because the characters in the story are displaying human tendency to judge purely on outward and external factors—a tendency God subverts.
1 Kings 19:8-18
In 1 Kings 19, Elijah is on the run from the evil rulers of Israel, Ahab and Jezebel. He goes into the wilderness to fast for forty days and nights, and subsequently ends up in a cave feeling isolated and dejected. The Lord confronts Elijah, asking him what he is doing in the cave, to which Elijah responds, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (19:10). So God instructs Elijah to step outside the cave and stand on the side of the mountain. A violent, rushing wind sweeps by, so forcefully that the rocks crumbled. But the Lord is not in the wind. A rumbling earthquake shakes the ground. But the Lord is not in the wind. A rumbling earthquake shakes the ground. But the Lord is not in the earthquake. Then a fire passes by Elijah. But the Lord is not in the fire. Where is God, then? He is not in the fantastical signs but in a still, small voice. The voice again asks Elijah, “What are you doing here?” Elijah gives the same answer, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (19:14). This time, God gives Elijah instructions as provisions for his future. Elijah is to anoint new kings of Syria and Israel who will be used to depose Ahab and Jezebel, and he is appoint Elisha as the successor to his prophetic office. God also provides a promise that a faithful remnant of Israel will be spared from the resulting geo-political upheaval.
Much like 1 Samuel 16, God acts counterintuitively in 1 Kings 19. His lack of appearance in the cataclysmic phenomena is curious, especially in light of the parade of wind, earthquake, and fire. While Elijah’s repeated response seems almost self-aggrandizing, it is important to remember his context. Though a great prophet, his life’s work probably seemed futile as Israel became increasingly corrupt, from the king to the average person. Things must have been virtually hopeless for Elijah as he languished in isolation in the wilderness. The power of the Theophany, then, is not located in the grandiose natural signs. It is precisely in the fact that the all-powerful God of the universe who could have revealed himself in grand signs chooses instead to be present in a still, small whisper. Elijah’s topsy-turvy world was in desperate need of overhaul, but God comes to him in the most unexpected way. Just as David’s brothers are passed over until the youngest and least likely arrives, so God’s mode of revelation is his manifestation in the unanticipated. In those moments, the human tendency is to look for a “big thing,” a mighty warrior instead of a young shepherd, or a powerful display of natural force instead of a small whisper.
Establishing a Type/Antitype
Both instances are types that participate in their antitype—Christ. These stories are apocalyptic in that they depict strength revealed in weakness. In so doing, they show us a fundamental facet of the Divine economy. The God who picks the youngest son and who speaks in the whisper is the same God who goes to the cross out of his redeeming love. The divine economy characterized by strength-through-weakness is not an accident, but reflective of God’s nature. Pauline scholar Michael J. Gorman translates Philippians 2:6 in a way that differs from most English Bibles. Typically, translations characterize the Incarnation as something like, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing be grasped.” Gorman’s translation, while not in conflict with a concessive translation, reads as Christ humbling himself because he was in the form of God (Participating in Christ: Explorations in Paul’s Theology and Spirituality 36-37). If Gorman is right—and I think he is—the Incarnation is the ultimate Theophany. At the cross, the strength-in-weakness exhibited by God becomes a prescriptive template for the Christian life.
This is all reminiscent of Thesis 20 in the Heidelberg Disputation. Luther argues that:
A theologian, rather, would look at the visible backside of God as seen through suffering and the cross. The backside and visible attributes of God are things such as humanity, weakness, foolishness—and these are the opposite of the invisible dimensions of divinity. The Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 1:25, calls these attributes the weakness and foolishness of God. Because humans misused the knowledge of God through works, God wished again to be made known in suffering—to judge the wisdom of invisible things with the wisdom of visible things. That way, those who did not worship the God made known in the Divine works should worship the God hidden in suffering. As the Apostle says in 1 Corinthians 1:21: “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.” Now it is not enough for anyone, and it does no good to recognize God in Divine glory and majesty, unless one recognizes God in the humiliation and disgrace of the cross. In this way, God destroys the wisdom of the wise, as Isaiah 45:15 puts it, “Truly, you are a God who hides.”
This is why Paul declares himself a theologian of the cross in 1 Corinthians 2:2, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” God is the God who chooses the youngest shepherd boy as the King, and who speaks to the prophet in a soft whisper. This is the God whose most decisive revelation is the crucifixion, the pinnacle of folly by the world’s standards. For all Christian theology, biblical or otherwise, crucicentricity is key because it binds all revelation together. This is not a purely theoretical reality—if God can save even me, it is clear that his strength is manifest in human weakness.