The prophet Samuel famously rebukes King Saul’s desire to offer sacrifice to the Lord with the following words:
“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as obedience to the Lord’s command? Surely, obedience is better than sacrifice.” (1 Sam 15:22)
This text is frequently quoted in LDS contexts, including General Conference, to emphasize how important exact obedience is. But what exactly had Saul failed to obey? What is the context of the rebuke?
In 1 Sam 15, Saul is instructed to practice herem against the Amalikites. This same commandment is given throughout Joshua as well in the Israelite conquest of Canaan. When he commands Saul, the Lord declares: “Now go, attack Amalek, and herem all that belongs to him. Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses.” (1 Sam 15:3)
Obedience is great and all, and I get it as an central spiritual practice in Mormonism. But do we really have to use an example of genocide as the model for obedience that we are following?
The connection between violence and the Lord’s command is something that we need to think about more critically in Mormonism. We have several examples of divinely sanctioned acts of violence and murder, such as the story of Nephi and Laban, we use militaristic imagery in our hymns, and our scriptures and history are full of battles fought for the Lord. I have heard people say that they would kill someone if the prophet asked them. And, depending on who you ask, they have asked for just such a thing in the past.
Are there ethical limits that should simply not be crossed when it comes to obedience? How do we determine them? I’ve reflected on this question before with respect to the story of Abraham and Isaac, and the implications of putting ethical constraints on God. But as frequently as Saul’s failure to commit genocide is invoked as a bad thing among LDS teachers surely demands some critical appraisal of this episode. This is a perfect example of why we need ethical evaluation as a component of our interpretation, which will hopefully lead to more careful appraisals of this specific scriptural story.