I am a missionary in Croatia, a beautiful country with a very complex past. Twenty-four years ago, when I first came here on a Cru summer missions trip, I found Croats were eager to spend hours in cafés sharing their stories. My new friends spent a lot of time talking about history—10th-century kings, fascists, communists, and their experiences in the War of Independence, which had ended two years before I arrived. The past constantly intruded into conversation.
Coming from the future-oriented culture of Silicon Valley, I was fascinated by their interest in history. But it felt quaint. At the time, I couldn’t imagine how the weight of the past would soon press down on America as well.
We are living in a time of high social conflict. Our arguments are fueled by competing stories. Are we the city on the hill or the most evil nation in history? Was the election stolen, or is that story a fantastic lie? Are the COVID-19 vaccines a huge success or part of a dark conspiracy? Churches are being torn apart as well by competing stories over critical race theory, sexual abuse scandals, and more.
This kind of conflict among believers is all over Scripture. The Bible unflinchingly wades into seemingly irreconcilable stories. Through terse, artful narratives, biblical authors often pushed their original audiences toward healing. For the Israelites, words like Jebusite or Samaritan were not unfamiliar and hard to pronounce. For them, these labels were as controversial as confederate, socialist, or Black Lives Matter are to us.
The Old Testament historical books are likely the first use of narrative (instead of epic verse) to tell national history. They employ a courageous, forthright style to retell painful stories in such a way that enemies could reconcile. The richest example of this is 1 and 2 Samuel.
In this narrative, Israel undergoes two massive transitions: from leadership by judges and prophets to a kingship under Saul, then the transfer of power to the Davidic line. These upheavals created power shifts with lasting generational effects. They were royal Israel’s 1939, 1968, and perhaps 2020—years of great upheaval and change.
In the 20 years I have served as a full-time missionary in Croatia, I have been part of hundreds of conversations about its tortured history—while talking with other dads before soccer games, with business leaders in Bible studies, and with elderly neighbors in my wife’s home village. With those experiences in mind, it’s easy for me to imagine constant arguments between Judahite supporters of David’s rule, Benjamites, and those who preferred the older prophet-judge system.
In 1 and 2 Samuel, these various perspectives are all respected and included. We know Samuel led the nation and heard God’s voice. But—in a detail that goes almost completely unexplored in sermons and commentaries—it is Samuel who triggers the leadership crisis by pushing forward his worthless sons as his heirs. The elders demand a king only in response to Samuel’s catastrophic attempt at nepotism (1 Sam. 8:1–5).
The prophet’s leadership ends in failure. Saul then becomes the first king, sins, and goes mad. But he also saves the people and punishes the enemies of Israel on every side. David replaces him as king and is a man after God’s own heart. But he’s also a murderous sexual assailant.
This is an astonishingly rich narrative. Robert Alter, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, is convinced that the author of Samuel believed in covenant, prophecy, and election but in such a complex way that “it borders on subversion.” Samuel was written by the victors: supporters of David’s rule. But they would have to be a contender for the Guinness World Record for Most Self-Critical Winner’s Account ever.
NYU law professors Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes argue in The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel that this complexity makes 1 and 2 Samuel the first politically reflective work in history.
Consider Saul’s desperate appeal to his fellow Benjamites as his kingdom collapses: “Listen, men of Benjamin! Will the son of Jesse give all of you fields and vineyards? Will he make all of you commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds?” (1 Samuel 22:7). It’s not just Saul or his family that is losing power. His entire tribe is losing its status. Samuel artfully surfaces social and economic dynamics.
Imagine a scroll of Samuel first arriving in a village still divided between nostalgia for Samuel and enthusiasm for a king. As the priest reads it out loud, everyone is on edge. But what happens? I submit that each group winces at times, nods emphatically at others, and is reminded of God’s sovereignty. They probably cast accusatory nods when notorious anecdotes come up. But in the end, all begrudgingly admit that the story was fairly told.
By skillfully incorporating major details from all sides and by affirming God’s sovereignty, these books reconciled God’s people to the Davidic kingship. Think of it as something like a Bronze Age Hamilton.
For the first time in a thousand years, Croatia has the chance to tell its own complex story to its youth. Unfortunately, now that it finally has that opportunity, it is telling a very one-sided version of its history—one that our two sons have been hearing in the public school system for 11 years. Each reversal allows only one side of the story to be told and excludes half the nation.
We all have partial understanding of our own history. For very localized reasons, Croatians were on one side or the other of fascism or communism. Samuel anchors me in the midst of this heartbreak. It reminds me to accept facts from all sides, expect history to be complex, and not scorn people just for their loyalties. It also lets me hopefully proclaim that God is still in control.
For over a decade, I have been connected to a program in Croatia called Renewing Our Minds. It gathers youth from high-conflict nations for a two-week conference focused on peacemaking through the example of Jesus. The genius of the program is that it focuses first on fun and team building so youth discover that their supposed “enemies” are not so different from them. Only then do program leaders introduce the conflicting narratives of history through speakers and media. So many young people have never faced the reality that the other side has a coherent story of its own.
The final part of the conference focuses on rebuilding a better view of “others” through the peacemaking practices of Jesus. By knowing people from a different side, telling their stories, and hearing others’ stories, transformation can begin.
I previously wrote a book chapter about Samuel as a reconciling narrative, based largely on my Croatian context. But that biblical story speaks to every nation, and I submit that it is one of the most important resources for the American church in this moment. Samuel’s subtle message to us is both comforting and painful:
- First, God understands how sensitive we are to the honor of our people. He is not asking us to despise our ancestors. Their honorable deeds will not be lost, even if they ended up on the wrong side of history. Entire people groups are not scapegoats.
- Nevertheless, there can be a right and wrong side of history. The South fought in the Civil War to defend slavery and lost, as it deserved to. The North did not initially fight to free slaves and has its own tragic racial history as well. But it was on the right side.
- God expects us to not avert our eyes from historical events, no matter how ugly. When we see the sins of Israel so clearly in the Old Testament, how can we ignore chattel slavery, violations of treaties with Native American tribes, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and other injustices? How can we expect churches to be healthy if they refuse to be as forthright about their own scandals as the Bible they preach from?
- Complex history can be truthfully captured by good storytelling. The author of Samuel does not tell us to first read a book on the racial dynamics of Palestine in order to understand the story. He also does not send us down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theorizing. Small details—like Paltiel weeping after Michal or the linen robes Hannah brought to the temple each year for her little boy—open our hearts to how real and fallible our leaders are.
- In the end, God knows what he is doing and accomplishes his will among the nations. He chooses to give us a country to be formed by and grow to love. And he offers us these amazing biblical tools with which to navigate the seemingly intractable conflicts of our day.
The United States is so many things. It is an amazing democratic experiment, a refuge for the refugee, and home to religious freedom. It also has its own dark, cruel history, particularly with regard to Blacks and Native Americans. God invites us to integrate all these different elements into one reconciling history. He desires for us to both love our nation deeply and fight to hold it accountable.
We need voices like the anonymous author of Samuel, who wrote from inside the king’s court and risked telling the truth in a compelling way so that the nation could begin to heal from its divisions. The author of Samuel shows us how pastors and Christian leaders not only have a prophetic role to play; they also have a role as reconciling storytellers in their churches and communities.
If you lead divided people, this is my proposal: Read through the book of Samuel again. Think of the Benjamites and Judahites as Republicans and Democrats, Blacks and whites, conservatives and progressives (or whatever the two-sided tension is in your own church).
Let the glory and shame of each tribe sink in. Can you be a reconciling storyteller to your own people as they talk about George Floyd, COVID-19, and the 2020 election? Don’t offer conspiracy theories or hot academic concepts they were supposed to have learned five minutes ago. Give them a calm, steady narrative that spares no one and pierces the heart.
Keep it short. Craft it in such a way that both sides are forced to admit you included their perspective. You don’t need to pronounce judgment; rather, speak with confidence that God is still in control of the big picture. Telling the story well is by itself influential and formative. And most importantly, share it in such a way that your community can experience it together. If we can listen to one story together and our children hear their parents admit “That’s fair,” there’s hope that we can move toward reconciliation.
So much is at stake with truthful storytelling. Our people are dying for a lack of a common narrative, discipled toward schism by partisan news sources. If we are too afraid to give them a story they can all accept, even begrudgingly, they will not continue as a community.
The Benjamites were historical “losers,” but they kept alive the memory of the good along with the bad. Eventually, they were reconciled to Judahite rule. That led them to become part of the remnant, not swept away with the northern tribes. (In the divided kingdom period of the Old Testament, the kings of Judah were actually kings over Judah, Benjamin, and much of the Levites.) This story helped save the people of Benjamin from apostasy and destruction.
The Benjamites also never forgot or despised Saul, despite all his flaws. Centuries later, a Benjamite couple in Tarsus proudly named their son after him. We know him better as Paul. He preached the good news that the Messiah, the Lion of Judah, the Son of David, was Jesus crucified and risen from the dead.
That’s the reconciling power of an unflinching, well-told narrative.
Nolan Sharp is a Cru missionary in Croatia working with marketplace leaders.