Comets, Kings, and Certainty, Pt. 1

Samuel left immediately for Ramah, and Saul went home to (Giv’a) Gibeah. Samuel had nothing to do with Saul from then on, though he grieved long and deeply over him.

But God regretted making Saul king over Israel.

God addressed Samuel: “So, how long are you going to mope over Saul? You know I’ve rejected him as king over Israel. Fill your flask with anointing oil and get going. I’m sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I’ve spotted the very king I want among his sons.”

“I can’t do that,” said Samuel. “Saul will hear about it and kill me.”

God said, “Take a heifer with you and tell them, you’ve come to lead them in worship with the heifer as a sacrifice. Make sure Jesse gets invited, and I’ll let you know what to do next. I’ll point out the one you are to anoint.”

Samuel did what God told him. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the town fathers greeted him apprehensively. “Is there something wrong?” they asked. “Nothing’s wrong,” said Samuel. “I’ve come to sacrifice this heifer and lead you in the worship of God. Prepare yourselves, be consecrated, and join me in worship.” He made sure Jesse and his sons were also consecrated and called to worship. When they arrived, Samuel took one look at Eliab and thought,“Surely this is the one the God will anoint.” But God told Samuel, “Looks aren’t everything. Don’t be impressed with his looks and stature. I’ve already eliminated him. God does not see as humans see. You look on the outward appearance, but the I look into the heart.” Jesse then called up Abinadab and presented him to Samuel. Samuel said, “This man isn’t God’s choice either.” Next Jesse presented Shammah. Samuel said, “No, this man isn’t either.” Jesse presented his seven sons to Samuel. Samuel was blunt with Jesse, “God hasn’t chosen any of these.”Samuel then asked Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” Jesse said, “All but the youngest. He’s off keeping the sheep.” “Send for him and bring him here. We will not sit down until he arrives,” said Samuel. Jesse sent for the youngest son, David, and he walked in front of Samuel. He was the very picture of health—bright-eyed and handsome. God said, “Rise and anoint him! This is the one!” Samuel took his flask of oil and anointed him, with his brothers standing around watching. The Spirit of God entered David like a rush of wind—vitally empowering him for the rest of his life. Samuel left and went home to Ramah.

1 Samuel 15:34 — 16:13

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13



The 2014 scientific mini-series Cosmos featured an episode entitled, “When Knowledge Conquered Fear.” Utilizing the research and writing of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s book Comet, this episode detailed the early relationship our ancestors had with the ancient and icy “long-haired stars,” or comets, that occasionally wandered into earth’s skies. Our forebears looked to the sky. Even without technology or any actual scientific understanding, our ancestors learned that the movement of the stars revealed patterns—and those patterns could help them predict and understand the seasons in order to coordinate movements and migrations. While their research may seem primitive by today’s standards, these early people were, in some way, collecting and analyzing data in their context—using their experiences and reason to learn and grow. When a strange “long-haired star” or a “star with a tail” moved across their skies, however, context, experience, and reason ceased to be part of the equation. Our ancestors were afraid of comets. They didn’t understand them, and, in their fear, they took comets personally and poorly. Their fear of not-knowing caused them to abandon their experiences. After all, none of them were ever actually harmed by a comet in any way. Still, virtually every ancient culture for which we have a record, interpreted comets as bad signs—omens, messages of anger and destruction from the gods. Context and reason went out the window as the appearances of comets were blamed for the suffering and disastrous events our ancestors experienced in their lives. In fact, our word disaster comes to us from the ancient Greek description of these bad stars—these “disa-stars”—comets carrying doom and destruction. In the minds of our forebears, a comet showed up, and bad things happened—end of story. That is the pattern they recognized and understood. They wanted to connect the two events. In fact, they were certain that these mysterious bad stars had something to do with what they were experiencing.

Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan offer some examples:

“To the Maasai of East Africa, a comet meant famine. To the Zulu in the south, it meant war. To the Eghap people of the west, it meant disease. To the Djaga of Zaire, specifically smallpox. To their neighbors, the Luba, a comet foretold the death of a leader.” According to astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, The ancient Chinese were remarkably systematic” in their efforts to interpret comets. “Starting in roughly 1400 BC, they began recording and cataloguing the apparitions of comets. A three-tailed comet meant calamity for the state, while a four-tailed comet signaled an epidemic was coming.” Now, before we all get on our high-horse and assume this is just evidence of how simple and silly our ancestors were, we should be honest about the fact that humans misunderstanding comets is not only part of our ancient past. In the early 1900’s after spectroscopic analysis revealed that the tail of Halley’s comet contained toxic gas, a supposedly enlightened public spent good money on anti-comet pills, gasmasks, and comet-proof umbrellas. I’ve never actually seen one, but I would assume a comet-proof umbrella is pretty heavy.

In 1997, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate religious movement committed mass suicide in response to the reappearance of the Hale-Bopp comet—stating on their website, “Our 22 years of classroom here on Earth is finally coming to conclusion… (Hale-Bopp) brings our graduation from the Human Evolutionary Level.” Perched on our post-modern, technological thrones, we may believe that we’ve mastered the universe—that we would never do something as silly as mistake a comet for a messenger of doom, but is that really true? Is this kind of behavior simply part of our developmental past, or do we still wrestle with misguided certainty—convincing ourselves that we can read the signs in the stars—that unlike our ancestors, we can see what’s truly going on? Here’s how the Cosmos episode “When Knowledge Conquered Fear” summed us up: “The human talent for pattern recognition is a two-edged sword. We’re especially good at finding patterns, even when they aren’t really there…We hunger for significance—for signs that our personal existence is of special meaning to the universe. To that end, we are all too eager to deceive ourselves and others.” Ouch! That conclusion stings a bit. That doesn’t seem to just be about comets—or our ancient past. It seems much bigger and much more like a present and persistent condition. The truth is I can see myself in that quote. I can see myself amongst our comet-fearing ancestors. I do hunger for significance and special meaning. It would feel good—important even—to know what was written in the stars and to be able to tell others. I’ve seen patterns that weren’t really there. I’ve been known to abandon context and reason when I’m afraid. If given a choice, I’ll take knowing over not knowing every time. I know humility is supposed to be a virtue—or the beginning of wisdom or something like that—but certainty just feels so dang good. I’d rather be certain than humble. And I suspect I'm not alone in that. I suspect that we all share this condition—a preference for certainty. Some might even call it universal.


And I’d like to invite you to consider the possibility that this universal condition lies at the heart of the books of 1 and 2 Samuel.


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