God said WHAT?
The command was quite explicit in an earlier verse (v. 3) of this chapter:
Go, now, attack Amalek,
and deal with him and all that he has under the ban.
Do not spare him,
but kill men and women, children and infants,
oxen and sheep, camels and asses.
Many scholars attribute the severity of this command to purely human influences (a conscious and/or unconscious “spin” on God’s revelation by Samuel and the people of Israel).
Massacres of this sort were not uncommon in the ancient world nor are they unknown today: extreme acts of horrific deterrence (“Mess with us and we’ll not only kill you but your women and children as well”).
For their part, the people of Israel – carrying the unique message of God’s presence in the world – had been living a precarious existence, threatened and subjugated by alien armies and cultures on every side. Extreme measures of self-preservation were sometimes the only option. (We should consider ourselves greatly blessed that the need for such terrible actions is as far away from us as it is.)
But while such horrific massacres may not have been unusual in that time and place, there was something unusual about this particular campaign of obliteration: Saul was commanded to destroy even the livestock of the enemy – usually taken as spoils of war to feed the victors’ own people.
There was to be no profit from this horrific act of self-preservation. No one would be able to say that this had really been a war about oil (from the fat of calves and rams).
The destruction of the livestock is also about holiness. The people of Israel were to be holy - specially dedicated to the Lord and distinct from other people and cultures – not even sharing their livestock (which had an important role in the sacrificial rituals of Jews and pagans alike).
Indeed, Saul’s offense is primarily holding onto that economically valuable livestock (v. 9b).
They refused to carry out the doom
on anything that was worthwhile,
dooming only what was worthless and of no account.
Saul gives the excuse that he was going to sacrifice these animals to the Lord, but Samuel shoots that answer down contemptuously.
Does the LORD so delight
in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as in obedience to the command of the LORD?
Obedience is better than sacrifice,
and submission than the fat of rams.
For a sin like divination is rebellion,
and presumption is the crime of idolatry.
These verses are key: both to this horrific passage and to our own lives.
First, obedience to the will of God has absolute primacy over any other aspect of religion: no amount of pious feeling or actual sacrifice comes close.
Second, we need to be very careful about conflating our personal perspective with the will of God that is to be obeyed (presumption is the crime of idolatry).
It is easy for people to take Scripture out of context or to construct elegant syllogisms that overextend the substance of the premises they have selected.
It is also very, very easy to rationalize and to baptize our selfish interests as the mind of God.
Discernment of the will of God is no merely intellectual exercise nor is it always easy, but it is absolutely necessary.
We must pray and listen. We must discern. We must obey in love. And we must act.
Lead me, O God, and make me follow.
(adapted from an earlier post)