Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (I Samuel 16:1-13) transports me to an around the world jaunt along what might be called the Unctuous Trail. Along this trail we can survey a few of the many cultures around the globe and throughout history who have found in the application of unguents, aka anointing oils, a means of transformation, a way to transfer power of one sort or another. Some of the first known uses of unguents were by the ancient Egyptians, who used aromatic oils to anoint the Pharaohs and imbue them with the power of the sun god. In the bush country of Australia, aboriginal tribes smeared the melted down intestinal fat of a deceased loved one on the bodies of the survivors, in order to transfer the virtues of the lost loved one. In East Africa, bands of hunters anointed themselves with the melted fat of a lion in order to generate courage. In India, Hindu practitioners experienced the anointment of ghee, aka clarified butter from the sacred cow, for rites of purification. Ancient Semitic shepherds used various scented oils and salves for healing purposes (and it didn’t hurt that the same salves turn out to work well as insect repellants).
Enter the prophet Samuel and the family of Jesse onto the unctuous trail, some 3,000 years ago. The children of Israel had become discontent with a theocracy, with God as King and a system of judges to administer the kingdom. They wanted to be like the other nations, and have a flesh and blood king like everybody else. Saul was first choice, but he was in over his head, so the prophet comes down to Jesse’s ranch to seek out the successor, someone he can pour some holy oil on and transfer none other than the presence and power of God into a human body. The likely choice would be the eldest son, a striking figure, but God is not impressed. On down the line they go, until only the runt of the litter is left, little David, the song-writing shepherd boy. Here is another in the long line of object lessons teaching us that God’s ways are not our ways. God is not interested in demonstrations of outward strength and ability. God looks on the heart. And God is taken with the heart of David. Never mind that this heart would one day be tainted with lust, rape, and murder. There is something else there that appeals to God. And so the prophet takes the horn of oil, and pours it over the head of the boy, changing him from skinny little brother to mighty King, giving him material for his most famous song, which we know from Psalm 23 - thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over.
Somewhere along the unctuous trail, our Judeo-Christian culture forgot this central truth found in the story of David’s anointing – God is not interested in outward appearances. While we still pour on the oil, we have abandoned ideas of the transfer of God’s power and presence. Instead, we have granted near-absolute power to the very thing God shows least interest in – the outward appearance, aka, the skin. We have deified smooth skin, tan skin (for us white folks), youthful skin. The holy oils are no longer found in the melted down fat of our deceased loved ones or lions, or the ghee from sacred cows. Samuel’s horn is filled today with Coppertone and Hawaiian Tropic and Panama Jack’s tanning oils and accelerators. Beauty reigns supreme. It’s where the real power lies in our culture. We’ve come full circle in our worship of sun and skin. The ancient Egyptians would be proud. (But this might be a good time for people interested in the power of God to be on the lookout for some skinny kid with terrible skin, and a prophet pouring a horn of olive oil on her head).
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, etc.