Sunday, July 03, 2005

1 Samuel 15

Samuel and Saul, by He Qi (by way of one of the best religious sites on the web, byRabbi Moshe Reiss).

At last things come to a head, and the Lord again (see Chapter 13) rejects Saul. The occasion is that the Lord orders Saul to exterminate the Amalekites and all of their property, specifying women, children, and animals. Saul is careful to spare the Kenites, with whom Israel has had an intimate alliance since Moses's marriage to Jethro's daughter. But Saul also fails to kill the best sheep and cattle, as well as the Amalekite king, Agag. Samuel goes to confront Saul with his disobedience and before he can speak, Saul greets him with the claim that he has obeyed the Lord's instructions. Samuel dryly replies with one of the world all-time great comebacks:

"What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?"

After a little more browbeating, Saul admits that he allowed the soldiers to take sheep and cattle from the plunder to be sacrificed before the Lord. He doesn't have a good answer for allowing Agag to live, and Samuel kills Agag "before the Lord at Gilgal." Gilgal is where Joshua circumcised the Israelites after they had entered Canaan. Saul at last accepts his rejection, but asks Samuel to honor him publicly.

There are a number of important points in this chapter.

First, the descendants of Agag next reappear in Esther 3, in the person of Haman, who attempts to destroy the Jews. So Saul did not, as he claimed destroy all of the Amalekites save Agag. He left at least one of his progeny alive. Just as the Israelite failure to complete the genocide of the Canaanites resulted in subjugation to and endless war with the Philistines, Saul's failure to complete the genocide of the Amalekites places Israel in great danger. (Note: this is not an endorsement of genocide. I am unable to reconcile these elements of the Old Testament with my understanding of God.)

Second, even though God forgave David of terrible sin, Saul was denied forgiveness, even though he worshiped the Lord and asked for forgiveness. The point seems to be that Saul was insincere in seeking forgiveness. In this chapter, he tried to deflect blame for failing to carry out instructions onto the soldiers (See also Rackman). But consider that he also hid among the baggage rather than be anointed (chapter 10) and that he performed the ritual sacrifices against Samuel's orders (chapter 13).

Third, a point is made that Saul destroyed what was despised, weak, and helpless, but spared what was "good." (towb). The implication is that Saul acted for his own benefit, showing no mercy only to that which was of no use to him. Furthermore, there may have been ritual reasons why the Amalekite sheep and cattle would not have served as proper sacrifices. Although the explicit requirements for ritual animals ("without blemish") seem to have been reasonably general, but its possible there was an informal prohibition against using foreign livestock.

Fourth, as Matthew Henry points out, Samuel has a hard time finding Saul because Saul has gone to set up a monument for himself, to commemorate his victory. A Joshua would never have done such a thing, but merely said, "Victory belongs to the Lord."

One point that remains unclear is why Samuel cries out to the Lord all night when God tells him that He is grieved. Perhaps Samuel is fearful of what will happen to Israel, perhaps he is simply grieving with the Lord. We do not know. However, what is clear is that Samuel is not rejoicing that Saul is at last getting his just desserts.

Moshe Reiss has a much more critical view of Samuel, criticizing him as a "blind seer", and noting the discrepancies between what God instructs Samuel to do and what Samuel actually does (for example, rather than anointing Saul "king" in chapter 10, he anoints him "ruler.") Reiss points to the parallel between Samuel's corrupt sons and Eli's, and notes that according to midrashic tradition, Samuel died much younger than Eli, suggesting the Lord liked him even less than He liked Eli. And after this chapter, Samuel vanishes until chapter 25.

I think this is a little harsh. After all, God picked Saul over Samuel's protestations, and He was grieved because the one He had chosen failed. Rabbi Reiss may be correct that Saul failed in the Amalekite mission thanks to a little help from confusing instruction by Samuel, but naqah, charam, muwth (smite, ritually sacrifice, kill) seem sufficiently explicit. Saul heard what he wanted to hear. The Lord also does what Samuel asks of Him in terms of miracles (e.g. 1 Samuel 7), something that He reserves for a very few.

But there is an important lesson to be seen here. What are relatively small and forgivable flaws in ordinary humans are magnified by the centralization of power into the hands of a few. Perhaps Samuel did fail in providing spiritual guidance to Saul. He saw what was flawed in Saul, and what eventually emerged as arrogance and rebellion. But God evidently saw something better, something that if properly cultivated might have grown differently.


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