Friday, June 8, 2012

Utterly Devoted - 1 Samuel 15

About a year and a half ago, a revolution started in Syria.  It began with peaceful protests against the oppressive regime of King Al-Assad.  These protests were met with increasing cruelty and repression by Assad and his supporters.  Eventually the protests transitioned to armed rebellion, and now a civil war has begun.
Assad grows more and more violent every week.  Recently he defended his actions as necessary for the health of the nation: “When a surgeon in an operating room ... cuts and cleans and amputates, and the wound bleeds, do we say to him your hands are stained with blood?  ... Or do we thank him for saving the patient?”
On May 25, soldiers and pro-government forces attacked the city of Houla just after nightfall.
  For about five hours they looted homes and killed whole families.  A total of 108 people were killed, including 49 children and 34 women.
  This was an open attempt to terrorize Syria’s people into giving up the revolution.  The photos of children stabbed, shot, and beaten to death have outraged the world into near unanimous condemnation and disgust.  
Hold this disgust and horror in mind as we turn to our Biblical text today.  Only these real events can set the proper frame for what we are about to read.
1 Samuel 15:1-23
One day Samuel said to Saul, “It was the Lord who told me to anoint you as king of his people, Israel. Now listen to this message from the Lord! 2 This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies has declared: I have decided to settle accounts with the nation of Amalek for opposing Israel when they came from Egypt. 3 Now go and completely destroy the entire Amalekite nation—men, women, children, babies, cattle, sheep, goats, camels, and donkeys.”

4 So Saul mobilized his army at Telaim. There were 200,000 soldiers from Israel and 10,000 men from Judah. 5 Then Saul and his army went to a town of the Amalekites and lay in wait in the valley. 6 Saul sent this warning to the Kenites: “Move away from where the Amalekites live, or you will die with them. For you showed kindness to all the people of Israel when they came up from Egypt.” So the Kenites packed up and left.
7 Then Saul slaughtered the Amalekites from Havilah all the way to Shur, east of Egypt. 8 He captured Agag, the Amalekite king, but completely destroyed everyone else. 9 Saul and his men spared Agag’s life and kept the best of the sheep and goats, the cattle, the fat calves, and the lambs—everything, in fact, that appealed to them. They destroyed only what was worthless or of poor quality.
10 Then the Lord said to Samuel, 11 “I am sorry that I ever made Saul king, for he has not been loyal to me and has refused to obey my command.” Samuel was so deeply moved when he heard this that he cried out to the Lord all night.
12 Early the next morning Samuel went to find Saul. Someone told him, “Saul went to the town of Carmel to set up a monument to himself; then he went on to Gilgal.”
13 When Samuel finally found him, Saul greeted him cheerfully. “May the Lord bless you,” he said. “I have carried out the Lord’s command!”
14 “Then what is all the bleating of sheep and goats and the lowing of cattle I hear?” Samuel demanded.
15 “It’s true that the army spared the best of the sheep, goats, and cattle,” Saul admitted. “But they are going to sacrifice them to the Lord your God. We have destroyed everything else.”
16 Then Samuel said to Saul, “Stop! Listen to what the Lord told me last night!”
“What did he tell you?” Saul asked.
17 And Samuel told him, “Although you may think little of yourself, are you not the leader of the tribes of Israel? The Lord has anointed you king of Israel. 18 And the Lord sent you on a mission and told you, ‘Go and completely destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, until they are all dead.’ 19 Why haven’t you obeyed the Lord? Why did you rush for the plunder and do what was evil in the Lord’s sight?”
20 “But I did obey the Lord,” Saul insisted. “I carried out the mission he gave me. I brought back King Agag, but I destroyed everyone else. 21 Then my troops brought in the best of the sheep, goats, cattle, and plunder to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal.”
22 But Samuel replied,
“What is more pleasing to the Lord:
    your burnt offerings and sacrifices
    or your obedience to his voice?
Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice,
    and submission is better than offering the fat of rams.
23 Rebellion is as sinful as witchcraft,
    and stubbornness as bad as worshiping idols.
So because you have rejected the command of the Lord,
    he has rejected you as king.”
One one level, the main point of this text is pretty simple.  It is held in the repeated use of the Hebrew word: HEREM, which means “completely destroy” or “utterly devote.”  It means to give something completely to God - either through the religious system or through physical destruction.  So the point is straightforward.  God asks us for utter devotion, total commitment - leaving nothing out.
However, before we can get to this point, we have to deal with a massive roadblock.  Could a God of love actually order the killing of women, children, and babies?  Is the God of the Bible on the same level as Syria’s Assad?  This is one of the biggest complaints of skeptics and one of the biggest questions for thoughtful Christians.
Today, I want to unpack the three basic interpretive possibilities for texts like 1 Samuel 15.  These texts could be historically accurate, historically inaccurate, or historically ambivalent.  Within each of these three categories, there are kind of sub-options for how to flesh these out.
Let’s start with the view that these texts are historically accurate.  This view is most common among conservative Christians nowadays, who have a commitment to the absolute “inerrancy” and historical accuracy of the Bible in every detail.  In this view, every detail in the Bible is 100% historically accurate.  If the Bible says, “God said, ‘Kill men, women, children, and babies,’” then that’s exactly what God said.  There are several ways that people with this view deal with the genocide texts.
  • Early Justice.  These people groups were essentially evil, had no hope for change, and would corrupt Israel if allowed to live.  Even the children would eventually grow into evil, violent adults, so it was better to eliminate the whole society.  Because of God’s divine foreknowledge this was simply early justice.
  • Divine Sovereignty.  God is the sovereign creator of the universe and author of life.  God can give life to anyone and take life from anyone.  Life is a gift not a right, and God can take it away at any time.
  • Progressive Revelation.  God basically compromised with the warring nature of humanity.  God didn’t actually want the violence, but because all people were violent, God had to start somewhere with someone.  If any of God’s people were going to survive, they were going to survive through violence.  However, God slowly, slowly revealed more and more of his way of peace until finally with Jesus, he revealed the way of total peace.
  • Divine Mystery.  Most people who believe the genocide texts are historically accurate will point to the mystery of God and the limitations of humanity.  Our little brains can only understand a tiny fraction of reality.  We have to believe that God knows what he is doing, that God is faithful and just, and that somehow all of this works out for the best - even if we can’t understand it.
So that’s the historically accurate view.
Other Christians believe that these texts are historically inaccurate.  There two brands of this view.
  • Progressive Understanding.  Maybe God didn’t actually say to kill everyone.  Maybe that’s just what they thought God said.  Maybe because they were so culturally embedded in systems of violence, they misunderstood or misinterpreted God’s directions.  “This is what we want, so this is what God wants.” This is basically what we say now about the Christian Crusaders.  They believed they were on a mission from God, but they were wrong.   However, over time, thank God, we began to understand God more clearly, and now we know that God would never want us to kill innocent children.
  • Theological-Political Overlay.  In this view, the text of 1 Samuel that we have now was actually compiled hundreds of years after the actual events.  What we have is a theological and political rewriting of history.  The Israelites actually (factually) lived together with their neighbors without killing wildly.  However, over time, their neighbors corrupted Israel theologically and morally.  Seeing this, the priestly editors of the stories added in the genocide commands as a way of calling Israel to return to purity, “We should have just wiped them out to begin with.  Then, we wouldn’t be having all these theological, cultural, political problems now.  Now, we need to live with this same kind of radical (though less violent) commitment to purity.”
The last major category is historically ambivalent.  This view actually has the most support from the early Christian fathers, and it hinges on something called the Christo-centric Hermeneutic, which means interpreting everything through what we see in Jesus.  Brian McClaren explains this idea with a simple illustration.  If you set up the Bible like a tent, with the spine up, Jesus is the spine, the highest point of the Bible.  Everything in the Old Testament points up toward Jesus.  Everything in the New Testament points back up toward Jesus.  Jesus is our clearest understanding of God, our clearest understanding of how to live, our clearest understanding of truth.  Whatever is true or good or Godly must be defined by Jesus.
  This opens up two historically ambivalent views.
  • Historical Allegory.  This was one of the most common ways the early Christian leaders understood the texts of violence in the Old Testament.  People like Origin and Ireneas said that if we don’t know how a certain text can fit with what we see in Jesus, then it must not be a literal text telling factual events.  It must be a story with a deeper symbolic spiritual meaning.  So the whole thing about completely destroying the sinful Amelekites is really about completely destroying our sins and sinful desires.
  • Narrative Focus.  Modern scholars are not comfortable with making huge parts of the Old Testament pure allegory, but more and more people are comfortable saying that we just can’t know what actually happened in physical historical.  What we have now is a story.  The best thing we can do is try to understand the main point of the story as a whole.  If some of the details are confusing or uncomfortable, then just let them sit there on the side as unresolved issues and focus on the main point.  We don’t have to understand everything to benefit from the text.
So is 1 Samuel 15 historically accurate, historically inaccurate, or historically ambivalent?  Which view is right?  Or are they all right, at least a little bit?  Or is the real truth something else that we can’t even see right now?  Many good and faithful Christians hold to each of these views.  Personally, I tend to believe that the truth is somehow mixed into and woven through all of these views together.
Here’s the good news about this.  You don’t have to resolve this issue, and we don’t have to agree with each other on which of these views is “right.”  Sometimes we get so caught up in our desire to understand EVERYTHING.  You don’t have to understand everything to be a Christian.  You don’t even have to be right to be a Christian.  You can be a Christian and be wrong about all kinds of stuff.  Remember, most of the Christians throughout history thought the sun revolved around the earth!  Being right is overrated.
Let’s go back to this text’s main point: HEREM - total devotion.  God wants us to be totally and completely devoted to him, holding nothing back.  God wants us to give him every single part of our lives.  
Saul and the Israelites were fine with killing all the people, but they didn’t see any reason to kill all those good animals.  That’s money and wealth right there.  Why burn money?  That didn’t make any sense at all to them, so they held something back.  What are you tempted to hold back from God?
  • Maybe I’m holding onto an old grudge.  That person hurt me long, long ago, and I can forgive everyone and everything except that person for that thing.
  • I’ll give you anything you want God, but don’t touch my kids.  They are off limits.  You can’t tell me what to do with my kids.
  • I’ll give enough money to be respectable, but 10% is just asking for too much.  And don’t even think about telling me that it all really belongs to God anyway.
  • Not my job God.  I’ll give you my money.  I’ll give you my praise and my family, but not my job, not my job.
  • I’ll give my time and my energy and prayers.  I’ll do all the religious stuff and sing all the songs.  I’ll even give my tithe and then some, but I’m still holding my heart back.  I haven’t totally surrendered my heart to God.  
  • Anywhere but there God.  I’ll go anywhere in the world, except that place.
  • I’ll give you everything God, except my sense of irresponsibility.  It’s not my fault.  I’m stuck in a system that forces me into this way of life.
  • I’ll surrender everything except my own personal sense of righteousness.  I sing “Amazing Grace,” but really, deep down inside, I think I’m earning my way by my own goodness.
  • God, you can’t have my clear lines of black and white.  There has to be a clear wrong and a clear right.  I won’t accept anything else.  I won’t let you upset my clean and clear understanding of the world.  That would be too scary.
  • God, I’ll follow you as long as I understand, but you’ll always have to meet my terms of logic.  If I don’t understand it, forget it.
The simple point of this passage is that God asks for total devotion - holding nothing back.  Are you willing to be totally devoted to God?  Are you willing to surrender every last inch of your life - your money, your kids, your relationships, your job, your heart, your logic?  Are you willing to love God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength?
Today, we have seen two basic views of God.  
The view on the left comes to us in 1 Samuel 15.  This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies has declared ... go and completely destroy the entire Amalekite nation—men, women, children, babies, cattle, sheep, goats, camels, and donkeys.
The view on the right comes to us from the New Testament.  Jesus - God the Son - takes the little children in his arms and blesses them (Mark 10:16).  Jesus - “the visible image of the invisible God” - reconciles everyone and everything to God through his own blood on the cross (Colossians 1:15-22).
Both of these views are “biblical” - found in the Bible.  But the Bible itself says that the view on the right is more true, more “biblical.”  Whatever did or didn’t happen with the view on the left, we know that the view on the right is true and trustworthy.  Jesus is true and trustworthy.  Trust Jesus.  Be utterly devoted to Jesus.
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