The Right to Interpret the Will of God: Reflections on 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

Lectionary Reflections
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
June 14, 2015
3rd Sunday After Pentecost

We began last week with a close look at the beginning of the magnificent series of tales about the earliest leaders of Israel — Samuel, Saul, and David. Due to the length of the saga, the ten weeks after Pentecost will hardly contain the full range of the story, but the lectionary attempts to provide at least some semblance of the tale's arc. Today, they focus on the anointing of the new king, David, in 1 Samuel 16, but one can hardly understand that scene unless one comes to grips with the amazing rejection of Saul described in rich detail in chapter 15. So I will turn there first.

The key to Saul's deposition as king by Samuel starts at the beginning of the chapter. The old prophet deputizes Saul to avenge an ancient slight perpetrated by the Amalekites when Israel escaped from Egypt. He harks back to some obscure verses in the book of Deuteronomy, 25:17-19, where Moses urges Israel never to forget how the Amalekites attacked a weak and weary Israel on their way to the land of promise. The lawgiver urges Israel to "blot out the memory of Amalek under heaven" after they have achieved rest in their new land. Samuel now demands that Saul fulfill that ancient command. He demands that Saul operate against Amalek under the law of cherem, that terrible demand that an enemy be annihilated completely, "men and women, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey" (1 Sam. 15:3). Putting aside any discussion of the awful and inhuman demand that this order represents, Saul proceeds to do so.

He defeats the Amalekites thoroughly but takes the very best of their livestock along with the king of Amalek, Agag, "in order to sacrifice to YHWH," as he says to Samuel when he reaches the holy hill of Gilgal. Samuel, however, is having none of Saul's explanations of his intent. He shouts at the king, supposedly repeating the command of YHWH from verse 3: "YHWH sent you on a mission and said, 'Go, cherem the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed'" (1 Sam. 15:18). Even a cursory glance at the earlier command of YHWH, quoted by Samuel in verse 3, tells the tale; there was nothing in Samuel's first iteration of the demand for cherem that included the requirement to "fight against them until they are consumed." This is plainly Samuel's interpretation of what the demand for cherem means. Saul interprets otherwise. He assumes that a great sacrificial holocaust to YHWH on the high place at Gilgal will be a fitting conclusion to cherem. After all, what is the difference? Kill them all on the field of battle or conclude the annihilation with a grand celebration on Gilgal? There is precisely nothing in the command for cherem that precludes either choice.

But Samuel rages on against Saul's attempts at explanation for his interpretation, because he assumes that only he, Samuel, has the right to interpret the will of YHWH. This scene is an obvious extension of the earlier story of chapter 13, where Saul is commanded by Samuel to "wait seven days until I come" in order to offer the sacrifice before battle against the Philistines. There, Saul "waits seven days, the time appointed by Samuel, but Samuel did not come to Gilgal." Saul then offers the sacrifice himself, because we will not go out to fight for YHWH without proper sacrifice. The minute he lays the torch to the altar, Samuel appears. It is hardly a stretch of the imagination to suppose that the prophet was lurking behind a convenient rock, just waiting for Saul to activate the sacrifice. Once he does, Samuel assaults him verbally, claiming that his kingship now has no future because he "disobeyed the word of YHWH." More to the point, Saul has disobeyed the word of Samuel in chapter 13, since the name of YHWH was not even mentioned when Samuel commanded Saul about waiting for him (see 1 Sam. 10:8).

It is easy to see that Samuel detests Saul, was ever eager to depose him as king, and had no interest at all of creating any king in the first place. As we saw last week, the crowning of a king threatened Samuel's desire for a dynasty through his sons, as well as his own future memory as one of the greatest men in the history of Israel. It is plain that as long as Samuel lives, Saul can never be fully a king. It used to be asked, "just what is Saul's tragic flaw," and my answer to that query is: Samuel.

So now that Samuel has dealt with the hated Saul, he takes a heifer with him, at the instigation of YHWH, and heads to Bethlehem, east and south of his home at Ramah, in order to find a new king. The fact that Saul is still king, as far as the people of Israel can see, does not deter the prophet in his journey. The heifer is part of a ruse, cooked up by Samuel (and YHWH?) to pretend that the prophet has come to sacrifice at Bethlehem, and is there on a sort of pilgrimage to a rural place to rest and restore himself after the rigors of his confrontations with Saul. Of course, he is not there to sacrifice, but to find a new king, one to replace the fool, Saul, who simply refuses finally to bend himself fully to the power of Samuel.

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  • John Holbert
    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.