The Word Made Fresh
1Samuel came to Saul and said, “The LORD sent me to anoint you king over Israel, the people of the LORD. Now this is what the LORD says. Listen: 2‘I will repay the Amalekites for opposing the Israelites when they came out of Egypt. 3Attack them and destroy everything they have. Kill all of them, men and women, children and newborn infants, oxen and sheep, and camels and donkeys.’”
4Saul summoned his army to Telaim. There were two hundred thousand soldiers from Israel and another ten thousand from Judah. 5He led them to the Amalekite city and camped in the valley. 6He sent this message to the Kenites: “Leave this place! I am going to destroy the Amalekites, and you, too, if you’re there. You were kind to Israel when they came up from Egypt, so I’m giving you this warning.” The Kenites heeded Saul’s words and left the area.
7Saul defeated the Amalekites from Havilah to Shur, east of Egypt. 8He captured their king, Agag, but put all the others to death. 9He and his army spared the life of Agag, and kept the best of the sheep, cattle, lambs and everything that had value, and destroyed only what was worthless.
10The LORD said to Samuel, 11“I regret having made Saul king. He has turned away from me and has not followed my instructions.”
Samuel was upset and prayed all that night. 12He rose early the next morning and went to meet Saul, but was told that Saul had gone to Carmel to set up a monument to honor himself, and from there he was going to Gilgal. 13When he finally caught up with Saul, Saul said, “God bless you! I have carried out the LORD’s orders!”
14Samuel said, “Then why do I hear sheep and cattle bleating and lowing?”
15“They brought them back from the Amalekites. The men spared the best of the animals to sacrifice to the LORD your God. We destroyed everything else.”
16“Stop!” Samuel cried. “Let me tell you what the LORD said to me last night!”
“Tell it,” Saul responded.
17Samuel said, “You might not think much of yourself, but didn’t the LORD put you over all the tribes of Israel? The LORD anointed you king, 18and told you to go and completely destroy the Amalekites. Kill them all! 19Why have you disobeyed the LORD’s command? Why did you gather up all the valuable plunder and do what was evil in the LORD’s eyes?”
20“I did what the LORD said to do!” Saul retorted. “I undertook the mission the LORD sent me on, and I have captured Agag the Amalekite king, and completely wiped out the Amalekites. The soldiers took the sheep and the cattle and the best things to give to the LORD, and we will sacrifice them to the LORD your God at Gilgal.”
22Samuel said, “What do you think the LORD values the most: to bring burnt offerings and sacrifices, or to obey the word of the LORD? Obedience is better than sacrifices. Listening is better than the fat from rams. 23Disobeying is just as bad as pretending to have supernatural powers. Arrogance is as much a sin as idolatry. You rejected the LORD’s orders, and because of that the LORD has rejected you.”
24Then Saul responded, “I have sinned. I see that now. I have not strictly obeyed the LORD’s will or followed your instructions because I was afraid of the men and gave in to their demands. 25I beg you to forgive my mistake and go back with me to worship the LORD.”
26Samuel said, “I’m not going with you. You have rejected the LORD’s word, and the LORD has rejected you from being king over Israel.” 27Then Samuel turned away and, when he started to leave, Saul grabbed the edge of his robe and it tore. 28Samuel said, “The LORD has torn Israel away from you today and has given it to your neighbor, a better man than you. 29And the Glory of Israel will not reconsider or change what has been decided.”
30“I know that I have made a mistake,” Saul said, “but please do me the honor, in front of the elders and in front of the people of Israel, and go back with me so that I might worship the LORD your God.”
31Samuel did return with Saul and Saul worshiped the LORD. 32Then Samuel said, “Bring Agag, king of the Amalekites, to me.”
Agag came to him, chained, and thought to himself, “Surely now I will suffer the bitterness of death.”
33Samuel said, “Your sword has taken children from their mothers. Now your mother will be childless, too.” And he cut Agag to pieces before the LORD at Gilgal.
34Then Samuel went to Ramah and Saul went back to his home in Gibeah. 35Samuel did not see Saul again the rest of his life, but he grieved over Saul, and the LORD regretted having made Saul Israel’s king.
1-3: Samuel approaches Saul and tells him that God demands that he attack and utterly destroy the Amalekites, killing men, women, children and animals (but is that God’s wish or Samuel’s?). The Amalekites are mostly a nomadic people living in the wilderness areas south of Israel. As Israel made their way through the wilderness after leaving Egypt they were attacked by the Amalekites and defeated them. God vowed to blot out the memory of Amalek (see Exodus 17). In this sense, then, perhaps Samuel really believes he is giving Saul God’s word. But once again we see that the command to slaughter innocent people hasn’t come directly from God, but through someone who claims to be speaking for God.
4-9: Saul has a vast army now, and arrays them against the Amalekites. He gives another nomadic tribe, the Kenites, permission to withdraw because, unlike the Amalekites, the Kenites had treated the Israelites well during their wilderness trek. He then attacks the Amalekites and kills them all except for their king, Agag, and selected sheep and cattle and lambs. And a few other things.
10-16: Samuel receives the word of God that Saul has disobeyed. Samuel can’t sleep, and the next day goes to confront Saul. Saul has gone to Gilgal, one of the holy sites, and there he greets Samuel warmly. Samuel is livid, however, and demands an explanation for the animals. Saul begins an excuse, that they brought them to offer as a thanksgiving sacrifice to God, but Samuel cuts him short.
17-21: Samuel’s words, “you might not think much of yourself,” reminds us of his first encounter with Saul, when Saul insisted he was from a simple family in a small tribe. Saul seems always to have had some self-esteem issues. “The LORD anointed you,” says Samuel. But, of course, it was Samuel who did the anointing, and we wonder if Samuel might have begun to have delusions of grandeur and think of himself as being on a par with the Almighty. He accuses Saul of disobeying God, and Saul again tries to defend himself by insisting that the animals are for sacrificing to God.
22-23: Samuel’s reply is a classic statement of the Old Testament’s evolving understanding of God’s will. The idea that obedience is more important than sacrifices will be a popular theme when we get to the prophets – Isaiah (1:10-13), Hosea (6:6), Amos (5:21-24) and Micah (6:6-8) all articulate the same understanding.
24-31: A pitiful scene follows. Saul gives in and confesses to having sinned against God and Samuel. He asks for pardon, and for Samuel to return with him so he will not lose face in front of his army. He specifically says that he wants to worship the LORD. Samuel tells him that God has rejected him; words that must have been particularly painful to a man who seems never to have been quite sure of his own worth. Samuel turns to go, and Saul pathetically grabs his robe, and it tears away in his hand. Samuel uses this as an object lesson of what will happen to him – the kingdom will be torn from his hands and given to a neighbor “who is better than you,” again painfully emphasizing Saul’s inadequacies. Saul again admits his wrongdoing. This time, though, he doesn’t ask for forgiveness, but tells the truth; he wants Samuel to honor him in front of his soldiers, and now he specifically says that he will worship the LORD your God (not “the LORD our God”). Samuel relents, perhaps because he realizes that a huge audience is waiting.
32-33: So, Samuel demands that Agag be brought forth, and he vents all his rage on the Amalekite king, hacking him to pieces “before the LORD.”
34: Samuel and Saul go their separate ways, Samuel to Ramah, Saul to Gibeah, never to see each other again (but not quite so, we shall see). We are told that God is sorry for making Saul a king over Israel.
But is God sorry because Saul disobeys Samuel? Or is it because of the slaughter of innocent men, women and children? Or is it because giving Israel a king has resulted in a rift between faith and power – between church and state, as we would say today?