How could Jo(e) in the pew deal with the Canaanites? (Part Two) 1 Sam 15

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-advantage1 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.

  1. Especially when, as the commander, one seeks to transfer the blame to others? []

13 comments on “How could Jo(e) in the pew deal with the Canaanites? (Part Two) 1 Sam 15

  1. tim

    PS I see that Gavin has posted a good strong response (Re-creating a nicer Yahweh) to my previous post (and my not entering into discussion of Joshua 9 there. I will need therefore to address Joshua 9. Though not just yet, this is a really busy time at the start of the teaching year…

  2. Deane

    One of ‘the messages’ of the story is also that a prophet of Yahweh must be obeyed absolutely. In this, the story does not oppose absolute authority, but, to the contrary, perpetuates it. Saul does not claim this direct link to the Israelite god, but of course Samuel does, claiming to hear his voice. It is this ability of Samuel to pronounce absolutely the will of Yahweh, and Saul’s reliance on Samuel as source of the divine will, that first leads to Saul’s downfall (1 Sam. 13.14-15). Therefore, one of the messages of the story is also that, when a person claims absolute authority, even your most insignificant actions can be arbitrarily used to condemn you. The whole Samuel-Saul saga is a terrifying defence of the arbitrary abuse of absolute power. That’s one of ‘the messages’ I take from it, anyway – theologically speaking.

  3. Scott F

    The other (most likely in my opinion) option is that this story is entirely the product of the author’s creativity and was meant to illustrate rather than inform. If we are going to go all non-American-fundamentalist let’s do it properly! Then you have a story about disobedience and avarice and only indirectly about slaughter and questionable divine morality. Do we ignore the power of Hamlet just because Shakespeare placed an entirely fictitious story in an otherwise plausible historic setting?

    1. tim

      Also, yes :) I forget that so many people assume the Bible is intended (as a whole and in all its parts) as a work of history. How dull, and how often inaccurate :( Lest there be any such assumption among the assiduous who read down into the (often more interesting than the posts) undergrowth of the blogsphere, I do not assume that any Bible text intends to inform me about the “facts” of history (or biology, or the geopolitics of the early 21st century…) the Bible seems to me, from beginning to end, intended (both by most of its many writers and by its tradents and canonisers) to teach about God. Please do not try to read the Bible to learn about anything else – except tangentially as you may for example learn about ancient story-telling skills, or the spread of semitic cognates, or such exciting and popular topics ;)

  4. tim

    Oh, yes. In the wider frame of both the larger Saul narrative and beyond into David issues of power and authority are prominent, and persistently subverted. Look at David’s comic rise and tragic fall.

    And of course, I’ve been breaking my own first rule in discussing this issue rather than the whole text… ah, the exigencies of real life ;)

  5. Jeremy

    I think you and I approach these kinds of texts in a pretty similar manner. I think hyperbole at best softens things a bit. But, then you’re still left with other problems, not the least of which is the problem of legitimation. It is one thing for me not to read them entirely literally; however, in times past, there were people who did. And, in the present and future, there are probably people still read and will read these texts in such a way as to legitimate violence. So, I generally try to affirm the truth underlying the story, as you have done, but still be able to provide some critique, so that the text not be put to violent ends in my own day, if that makes sense.

  6. tim

    Oops the comment above was written in response to Scott, but then Jeremy got in between :) Though actually the response does fit his comment too quite neatly ;)

  7. Bob MacDonald

    Co-incidentally, we are studying this section of Samuel today. I will print this post and share it at the study. We also struggle to articulate what legitimate attitude can be brought to these ancient texts that we might learn as you say ‘about God’. With so many possible interpretations of motive and character in Samuel, it is difficult to bring a consistent reading to the characters. It is about as hard as drawing conclusions about people based on the theories in the soft sciences of psychology and sociology today. I hesitate to put Saul’s problems down to his immaturity (only 1 year old when he became king). And I am quick to excuse him because of the difficult mental illness he eventually had to cope with. I understand the healing power of music in the hands of a poet.

  8. tim

    It is also all too easy to see Saul (or Samuel or David) in ourselves too often :( But all this is what reading a story is about, not (usually, for most stories) arguing about what exactly actually happened (not in the story, but in some “real life” beyond the words…

  9. Tim

    Thank you John for a typically thought provoking, firm and charitable response. As you and other careful readers have no doubt worked out in these posts I am “thinking aloud” in some sense and not trying to present firm or worse still simple answers. I suspect despite our clear strong difference over the term “inerrant” which you find helpful but I don’t, our approaches are not very different. Like you I want to stress the importance of reading each and every part of Scripture as part of and in the light of the whole. As you also (I think, if I have not misread) suggest I also want to read all of Scripture as fulfilled in Christ. We also agree that we do not have all the information, and therefore are compelled in the end to admit we do not know or understand.

    Where we seem (on this and similar passages) to differ is that I cannot reconcile the God of the cross or of the book of Jonah etc. with even occasional (in the sense of on some particular occasions or in certain circumstances) retribution. It is the lengths to which God goes, particularly on the cross, to avoid mere retributive justice that mean I fail to be convinced.

  10. John Hobbins

    We agree that mere retributive justice is not enough. Still, in my experience, this means that, this side of the new heavens and new earth, there is a place for retributive justice;

    I think the Bible, from Genesis to Daniel or Genesis to Isaiah 66 in one configuration; from Genesis to Acts 5 or Genesis to Revelation in another; reflects that. It is a sad truth though. Few people realize it, but Qoh 3:1-8 is also tinged with sadness. According to Romans 8:16-30, the undoing of this sadness is something we possess in hope alone.

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