Lenten blog | March 16, 2023
Where's the nugget of inspiration?
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ reproduces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for March 16th: 1 Samuel 15:10-21; Psalm 23; and Ephesians 4:25-32. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
I once attended a synagogue Service with some friends from South Deerfield. I still remember the rabbi’s words from his sermon. He had a difficult text to work with from the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Scripture. He shared with the congregation that in seminary they were tasked with finding and expanding upon some edifying message in any given biblical text. The reason behind this exercise is that since the words of Holy Scripture are inspired, then there must be value in all those words, even those most difficult and unappealing passages.
Today’s passage from 1 Samuel is one of those most difficult and unappealing passages. It has been a while since I watched the truly amazing play on television called God on Trial. It is about an argument among Jewish prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp. They have put God on trial. One of the prisoners brings up the tradition that the ancient Jews had practiced genocide and that may be why they were facing the same from the Nazis. It is a powerfully honest and challenging movie. At the end of the film, after the prosecution and defense have finished putting God on trial, all these Jewish prisoners in the Nazi concentration camp prepared for their Sabbath worship of that same God. If you have the chance, I recommend highly this movie.
What the 1 Samuel passage is talking about is genocide. The Israelite army under Saul’s leadership is to completely eradicate the Amalekites. There is to be left no trace of them whatsoever. Everything about them is anathema. Even their livestock are to be slaughtered and left to rot. Saul is vicious, but not as vicious as the prophet Samuel, speaking God’s word, wanted him to be. Samuel reveals that God is upset with Saul that the king was not as thoroughly murderous as God had demanded, and because of this God withdraws His support of Saul’s kingship. If we were to read further in the text, we would be told that the Amalekite king was dragged before God’s prophet “[a]nd Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.” This righteous anger satiated Yahweh.
This is one of those passages that the local rabbi and God on Trial were both brave enough to confront. I see this passage as driven more by history than anything else. The Davidic monarchy replaced Saul’s. This, however, had to have more than a political justification. It required a theological explanation to it, and as unsavoury as this 1 Samuel passage is, this is it. But now to mine for that possible nugget of gold in all this unpleasantness.
I would like to offer that the edifying message could be complete faithfulness to God. If we could separate that message out from the religious fanaticism of Samuel’s cutting apart the enemy prisoner and the savagery of genocide, which I understand is a huge “if,” then left behind is that God must be followed whole heartedly.
It is unfair to equate the morality of some 1,000 years before Jesus with the writings of the New Testament. And it is unfair to separate the Old Testament books from the New Testament. Both the Old and the New are part of Christianity’s one Bible. Both Old and New are inspired by God. To judge Samuel by the standards of a thousand years later (not to mention 3,000 years later as we read these stories) would be akin to a comparison of the modern world and the last years of the Dark Ages. If we allow ourselves the liberty of concentrating only on the message of complete dedication to the will and work of God, then the writing in Ephesians flows naturally from this. It still holds onto the faithfulness to God message, but look at how it has changed from Samuel’s religious fanaticism: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” The primitive, historical savagery once associated with how faithfulness should be expressed has grown into a rejection of the same and its replacement by a tender-hearted kindness and forgiveness. May we be as fiercely devoted to this religious sentiment as Samuel was to his.
May Lent help us to grow in our dedication and faithfulness to God in Christ. May faithfulness be expressed no longer through excuses for religion-sanctioned prejudice, intolerance, hatred and even violence, all made possible by belief in an angry God. Instead, may our religious devotion help us turn away from destructive behaviour and toward kindness. The God who is revealed in Jesus, especially Jesus crucified, demands such a faith.
If you’d like, here is the link to the Southern New England Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.sneucc.org/lectionary.
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