Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Saul, Samuel, Agag, and the courage of learning from hard texts in Scripture...

And Samuel said, 
‘Has the Lord as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices,
   as in obedience to the voice of the Lord?
Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice,
   and to heed than the fat of rams. 
For rebellion is no less a sin than divination,

   and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry. (1 Samuel 15:22-23a, NRSV)

The lessons from 1 Samuel this week in the Daily Office deal with something repugnant to most modern readers: a religiously-sanctioned act of genocide. God orders King Saul to exact a total retribution against the Amalekites for their previous aggression and unprovoked attacks. All of the Amalekites--men, women, children--and their possessions are to be destroyed. Nothing and no-one is to be spared.

Western liberal Christians generally approach this text with both revulsion and skepticism. The notion that God could demand such horrific violence and that such a thing was actually carried out seems criminal and impossible. In the face of ISIL and other such groups, the echoes of religious-based terrorism are deafening in these texts. 

So, mostly we just stop there and say something like: "the Old Testament is so bloody and gruesome, with a bloodthirsty God so unlike the one we worship in the New Testament." Unable to justify the Scriptures to our minds, we enter into the business of consigning them to oblivion (where they will come back to haunt us in our subconscious, popping up in unwanted ways) or the imperceptible fringes of antisemitism or its offspring, Christian supersessionism. Like people who pass over the truth of history or current events for what is going on in People Magazine, we avoid what we cannot understand or find painful.

Yet, the Holy Scriptures do not need to be "justified" in the way a current government's policies are before the press and public. The texts of the Bible are there to be entered into or rejected, but not made merely palatable. Attempts to do so miss the point, much like contemporary attempts to smooth out the news, "spin-doctoring" facts that are painful, confusing, bewildering, or illogical.

The story of King Saul, his rise and fall, his complex relationship with Samuel, with the Hebrew nation, and with God, is remarkably contemporary for something so very old. There is a great deal to be learned from it, if we have the courage. Entering into the story rather than holding it at arms-length and judging it allows for much more insight and even--gasp--application.

One of the most fascinating parts of this story occurs when Saul goes ahead without Samuel and mixes his royal role as commander with the priestly one of offering sacrifice. The priest-king ideal (so often found in ancient near-eastern monarchies and exemplified in Holy Scripture by Melchizedeck and Jesus Christ), when activated by Saul, seems to be the "third rail" for Samuel, bringing on a final condemnation and annulment of God's support after Saul's previous disobedience to God by not destroying all the booty from the Amalekites. Saul's reasoning in response--Samuel taking his sweet time getting to the sacrificial rite and the clamor of the people for action--only reinforces Samuel's anger (and, seemingly, God's rejection). Here, if we have the patience of learners (rather than the impetuousness of dilettantes), we can pause and ponder. 

Saul, a creation of Israel's desire for a unified political-military leader, becomes aware of the utility of joining spiritual power (ritual sacrifice) with what he already possesses. In so doing, he is taking on something not specifically granted to him by God (or the cantankerous Samuel). He is also fusing two kinds of power that require the ingredient of obedience to God in order to be effective. By bending to the will of the people who are demanding this fusion of power, Saul is showing what kind of a king he has become: weak, dangerous, and unstable. This will be drawn out later in the story of his tortured and destructive relationship with David. There, Saul is willing even to destroy his own line's future to preserve his own power. Such kingship cannot be good for the people, does not honor God, and cannot stand.

Samuel voices this in his rebuke to Saul in the above-quoted passage. He calls out the central problem: Saul puts outward, cultic practice above inner spiritual obedience. David, for all his faults later on, resists this. Saul's actions betray a fundamental misuse of his position that drags God's authority into dynastic politics, one that we have seen again and again in political leaders/rulers when they try to fuse their earthly power with the divine. Such a fusion is, as Samuel points out, really just another form of idolatry and divination...a way around the primary commitment to the One God who has revealed the divine will and justice.

That justice is very hard to square with human justice. Various attempts have been made to do so, and they all come up unconvincing. The Summary of the Law ("Love God with all your heart, mind, and strength; love your neighbor as yourself") is about as clear as we can get; but, in the end, the Christian religion points to the Cross of our crucified Lord (the one who is without sin and takes on all our sin, shame, alienation, and misuse and offers it to God as the perfect priest-kingly offering) and says, in effect: "Let that be an end to all offerings of justification."

And so should it be an end to all attempts to fuse sacred and political power. Saul's stubborn desire to rule in God's Name, yet on his own terms, sounds suspiciously familiar to Anglican ears. Henry VIII would try to do much the same, setting up a national conflagration not able to be put out for nearly one hundred and fifty years...and which in some ways, burns still in our tradition.

This passage from 1 Samuel also calls into question the repeated attempts to "pretty-up" spiritual wrong by wrapping it in priestly garments. We have seen a great deal of this in Chrsitian history, perhaps most devastatingly in recent years over the child sex scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, but certainly each tradition in Christianity has been guilty of this in one way or another. Samuel's question to Saul ("Has the Lord as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as in obedience to the voice of the Lord?") remains pointed at us today. How do each of us individually, and Christian communities in aggregate, find ways to cover over our lack of faithfulness to God by applying "religious makeup" to hide or legitimize the disgrace?

The slaughter of the Amalekites, which frames this passage, remains a true horror. Just after this section, their king Agag is brought before Samuel. The Amalekites' many crimes are recalled, and Agag is killed, being "hewn in pieces" by his executioner in what can only be described as an act of religious butchery. Any attempt to minimize or "justify" this is, I think, pitiful and immoral. Like the horrors we know of in our own national, family, or personal history, there are chapters which--no matter how much we believe them to have been necessary or appropriate--we cannot fully understand or approve. Anyone, religious or not, has a lot of reckoning to do when dealing with the full account of his or her own story.

But the work of faith will not let us shrink from this accounting; it requires that we enter into it and grapple with it, learning at each approach what we may, and offering what we do not understand back to God (something secular people cannot do). Some things, perhaps, ultimately have little to teach us. Others, once thought irrelevant, suddenly are shown to hold great meaning for us, when we are ready. This is one of the ways Anglicans approach Sacred Scripture, a way requiring maturity, perseverance, and humility.

We cannot know when a particular verse, story, phrase, or image will open up into a vista of revelation that changes or enriches us. Our limited perspective requires the activity and guidance of the Holy Spirit for the right timing (do we adequately appreciate how important or freeing this is?)  We just keep entering in through the gates of prayer and openness--precisely what King Saul lacked. That, too, is part of the loving obedience for us as believers, an obedience helping us gain the fruit of Christ's sacrifice of Love, a love that re-focusses our search for more Amalekites to slaughter from people we do not like to the sins that lie in our own hearts.


  1. But it was heartbreaking to have God's right hand man, Samuel, act out the slaughter. Surely God did not want this. Surely God wants us to love our neighbor. Yep, I can take away the obedience part, but it feels like there's a pretty big conflict with the summary of the law. The only thing the works for me is to say that Samuel was a sinner too, who used God to promote his own beliefs. Cantankerous doesn't even cover it. It gives me a bit of insight into others who would mix their faith with cultural ideologies and call it God's will (OK myself included).

  2. Yes, this is true. It is extremely difficult for us, in our way of reckoning things, to see this in conjunction with the Gospel. Whether God wanted this or not, I cannot say entirely. The context of the original suggests that this was part of obedience to God's requirement, but the text also seems to bring up the possibility that this slaughter has an added element of viciousness as part of Samuel's public rebuke of Saul's decision not to kill Agag with the rest of the Amalekites. Samuel was, undoubtedly a sinner (I've always found Robert Alter's treatment of Samuel very helpful in his book "The David Story"). The key (to me) is what you said at the end: "myself included." That is the missing ingredient from so much of what people do with these texts. By distancing ourselves from them ("Oh, those unevolved people...not like us with our drones and nuclear arms and manufactured famines and genocides..."), we cannot learn anything that is to be had from these divinely inspired (God-breathed) texts. I think this is where the courage really is shown. Thanks, Ann Onymous, for your comment!