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The Politics of Scripture

“And the Winner is…”; Rethinking Physical Attractiveness as a Measure of Leadership Potential

Then Samuel left for Ramah, but Saul went up to his home in Gibeah of Saul. Until the day Samuel died, he did not go to see Saul again, though Samuel mourned for him. And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel. The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.” But Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.” The Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.”  Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, “Do you come in peace?” Samuel replied, “Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, “The Lord has not chosen this one either.” Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, “Nor has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The Lord has not chosen these.” So he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?” “There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.” Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.” So he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features. Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.” So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah.

1 Samuel 15:34–16:13 (NIV)

“If only our eyes saw souls instead of bodies how very different our ideals of beauty would be.” ~ Anonymous

Many of us have heard “and, the winner is” at the end of a competition. This proclamation of victory comes at the finale of a sporting event, beauty pageant, or singing contest. Whether it is the Oscars, Grammys, Golden Globes, political races, or rap battles, every contestant wants to hear their name called at the end of that announcement.

Standing on the stage, sitting in the back room, watching the numbers appear on the television screen or event monitor, contestants wait as the host, the anchor, or the judge opens the envelope, tallies the numbers, or reads the teleprompter announcing …and, the winner is. But, long before the end of a grueling competition, many of us as spectators have already selected our winner based on our unconscious biases – appearance, muscle, stature, ability, and often youth – habitually ignoring all the other contestants who did not meet our superficial representation of our winner. 

In our text, 1 Samuel 15:34–16:13, the reign of Saul, Israel’s first king, was coming to an end. When Saul was chosen both by Samuel and public acclamation, he looked like a great choice because he was “a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people more handsome than he. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people” (1 Sam 9:2).

Physical beauty and attractiveness greatly influence how people are perceived and judged – not only in beauty pageants and performance competitions, but across the gamut of social and political encounters. Physical attractiveness is an (in)visible and (un)earned benefit often granted to those with certain facial and physical characteristics – light skin (proximity to whiteness), long straight hair, smaller jaws, narrower noses and fuller lips (even those that are cosmetically constructed), larger eyes, with tall, thin, and muscular bodies, bodies that are often referred to as “slim-thick.”

Society’s perception of physical attractiveness assigns academic and occupational ability, trustworthiness, competency, and positive social skills. Contributing physical attractiveness to better life outcomes and impacts how some people gain access to better housing, schools, and networking opportunities, making it easier for them to get ahead in life, get better performance reviews, receive promotions, and make more money (See Wong, Jaclyn & Penner, Andrew. (2016). “Gender and the Returns to Attractiveness” in Research in Social Stratification and Mobility. 44).

Saul’s physical appearance was not his downfall, it was his disobedience. He changed from being a humble servant to a proud and self-important leader. The Lord rejected him as king and sent Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint a new king, from the sons of Jesse.

Upon Samuel’s arrival in Bethlehem, he told the people, “Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me” (1 Sam 16:5b). After consecrating Jesse and his sons, Samuel invited them to the sacrifice, in preparation for anointing the next king. As Jesse brought out his eldest son, Eliab, Samuel saw him and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord?” (1 Sam 16:6). Eliab as the first born would inherit the father’s blessing and be entitled to an extra portion of the father’s estate. The first born was in line to be the patriarch of the family when the father died; additionally, Eliab was tall and looked like a king.

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (16:7).

People spend billions each year on cosmetic surgery, gym memberships, Botox, booty and collagen injections, high-priced cosmetics, tanning, starving diets, hair coloring, skin bleaching, and an assortment of other things to acquire the “beauty” standard. According to artist and historian, Nell Irwin Painter, “the ethics of beauty are predicated on not being poor.” It takes money to participate in beauty culture. The global beauty industry, comprising skin care, color cosmetics, hair care, fragrances, and personal care generates $500 billion in sales each year.

While Eliab had the look, he did not have the heart, a heart after God. After seven sons passed before Samuel and none were chosen, Samuel and everyone at the sacrifice were perplexed because the Lord had sent Samuel to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as king. At this point, Samuel asked, “Are these all the sons you have?” (16:11a). With fear and trepidation, Jesse answered, “There is still the youngest. He is tending sheep” (16:11b).

Tending sheep was considered the lowest form of employment and frowned upon, usually given to the youngest boy in the family who had few options for work. Shepherds are analogous to persons in our current society who restock grocery shelves, serve as cashiers, pick strawberries, butcher chickens and cows, those who work in warehouses and retail stores, change linens in hotels, empty bedpans in hospitals, clean bathrooms and toilets in office buildings, and provide child-care. While many of these positions tend to require only a high school diploma, if that, with few certifications or other educational credentials, these positions definitely require skill. If keeping calm and being gracious while being insulted or assaulted by rude and belligerent customers who are constantly undermining your ability and capability, asking for the manager, is not a skill, then we need a more comprehensive definition of “skill” (for a taste of the stories of those in low-paying retail jobs, read this Twitter thread)! Moreover, some of these jobs provide great opportunities to learn and gain lots of transferable skills such as customer service, problem-solving, self-possession, promptness, responsibility, and money management (particularly for persons who are securing their first job).

Similar to David’s tending sheep, persons working in low-paying jobs are often disposable and devalued, considered outsiders. Many of these positions are usually occupied by women (particularly, women of color), people of color, and immigrants, all of whom have less societal influence and suffer from income, food, and housing insecurity. While society appreciates their service, society rarely values their humanity. 

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how much society depends upon persons in these positions. Many left their homes and often their children, putting themselves and their families at risk to provide a semblance of normalcy for persons who could afford and had the luxury of sheltering-in-place and working from home.  Prior to the pandemic and even sometimes during, persons working in custodial and janitorial services, transportation, and food services were time and again rendered invisible and regularly ignored, seen as burdensome, insignificant and undeserving of assistance, except when their services were critical to keeping the world going.  

During the pandemic, it was these workers who became “essential,” “indispensable,” and “the lifeblood of society,” even as they were asked to do the most while being paid the least. Often overlooked due to their occupation, people working in these jobs are resilient, hard-working, and unwavering in their faith – and many are educated, with every level of degree, often choosing or believing they are called to work in their respective industries.

In his sermon, “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’” 

David’s own father, Jesse, completely ignored his existence as he brought his sons before Samuel. David’s existence was dismissed because of his position in the family as the youngest son and because of his occupation of tending sheep – neither was considered significant. Realizing David had been overlooked and forgotten, Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives. So he sent for him and had him brought in” (16:11b–12a).

David’s role as the shepherd boy meant he spent weeks, even months, tending the sheep, moving them from place to place to graze, and sleeping among them.  He had to touch, carry, handle, tend, and feed them; therefore, he smelled like them. And, if anyone has ever spent any time around sheep or other farm animals, they know the smell is offensive. Let’s be honest, sheep stink. Yet, underneath David’s odor and grime, “He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features” (16:12b). 

While David’s appearance is mentioned, physical attractiveness is not a requirement to care for God’s people. It is not a blueprint for leadership. Many people are given or denied opportunities of service, promotion or access solely based on how they present in their clothes, speech, race, body image, education, employment history, or social status, God is not impressed with any of these things. Not birthright, appearance, ethnicity, academic qualifications or achievements, private-club membership, social-economics, gender, or employment status. God can use a person without a degree just as effectively as a person with a degree.  

There is an old proverb that says, “Outward appearances are not a reliable indication of true character.” In other words, judging persons by physical attractiveness and attributing character or virtue to them based on the way they look or the work they do is short-sighted and can be damaging. Outward appearances reveal nothing about the true character of a person.  

We cannot see what God sees. While we are looking at the outward appearance of a person, God is looking at the heart.

“And, the winner is…” the person who is often less regarded, but has a heart for God’s people.  While many make look the part, they may not have the heart or the ability to tend to and care for God’s people.   

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