Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1526/1530–1569) via Wikimedia Commons
In comments on the previous post Jeremy raises the question of 1 Sam 15. Which seems a worse problem. There (1 Sam 15:2-3 ) Samuel, in God’s name, instructs the newly anointed king, Saul, to slaughter all the Amalekites. He explicitly orders that non-combatants like women, small children and babies be included in the massacre. Saul then wages war on the Amalekites, successfully, but takes spares Agag the Amalekite king and the best of the flocks and herds (1 Sam 15:9) keeping the best and slaughtering what was not “good”.
Samuel then chases after Saul and is greeted by the bleating of sheep and the lowing of cattle, which Saul claims that “the people” have “spared” (1 Sam 15:14-15). It becomes clear that Saul’s sin is twofold, first he has become so great in his own estimation that he not God is the arbiter of his actions (1 Sam 15:17), secondly he has “swooped on the spoil” (1 Sam 15:19).
A Karen family after their home and paddy rice burned by Burma Army troops (photo Free Burma Rangers)
Saul’s wrong, which seems to be the point of the story, the reason it is told, is that he places himself over God, and that he is greedy for spoil.
Saul’s sin then is unexceptionable, pride in one’s own authority or greed for spoil and self-advantage are wrong. What is left totally unacceptable in the story is Samuel’s claim that God orders the killing of a whole people.
There are a number of possible approaches here:
Firstly one might claim that this again is hyperbole. Despite the specifications this might be an extreme case of Ancient Near Eastern war language. This is probably true, but the specification not to spare babies makes it an unsatisfactory answer as this draws attention to the claim that God commands war, and war does inevitably involve innocent suffering.
Secondly, one might consider the possibility of God’s commanding warfare. Here I can only say that while in comfortable, middle class Western contexts a God who takes sides and even commands war may seem “uncivilised”, if thought of from the perspective of the brutally oppressed in many other contexts such a God would be considered a saviour. Such people pray that God will intervene to protect them from the physical and economic violence of the oppressor.
Thirdly, and more radically one might notice that here we have a narrative. In this narrative it is Samuel who repeats to us (and to Saul) God’s commands. Clearly we must not always take the words of characters in biblical narratives as truth. Characters often lie. They can even lie about what God has said (see 1 Kings 22) where on one of the two occasions (1 Kgs 22:15b cf. 1 Kgs 22:14; or 1 Kgs 22:17) Micaiah does not tell accurately what God has said.
Perhaps most radically one might ask whether the biblical writers have correctly understood and interpreted what they tell us. This option is not open to an American fundamentalist, who needs to assert that Scripture is inerrant. It is a possibility to be considered on other views of Scripture. Or equally ask whether we have perhaps not understood and interpreted correctly! The details of Scripture are often difficult and complex, what matters is perspicuous. It is perspicuous throughout the Bible that God is loving and merciful. Can such a loving and merciful God command desperate warfare? Given the broken, spoiled and desperate world that we see around us, probably. Was this such a case? I do not know!
In the light of all this, what also seems perspicuous to me is that the message of this story is NOT murder babies and commit genocide, but do not claim absolute authority and do not be greedy for advantage. Messages like that were the reason this story was told, to take other messages from it is to abuse the story.