We're supposed to be inspired by this?
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for Saturday, March 21st: 1 Samuel 15:32-34; Psalm 23; John 1:1-9. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
I hope you read today’s passages. I did, then I was so confused I actually went to the Revised Common Lectionary site to see if the UCC’s site had made a typo. They didn’t. We are actually supposed to find inspiration in those two verses from 1 Samuel. I didn’t – at least not literally. Let me try and explain briefly, briefly not being one of my strengths.
There is a powerful movie that was produced by the BBC in 2008 called God on Trial. The Jewish prisoners of a Nazi concentration camp put, well, God in trial. I won’t give away the ending, but so much could be said about it. One of the arguments in the trial, as these Jewish men were living the Holocaust, was the biblical story of Israel’s extermination of its enemies, one of which was the Amalekites. What Israel had done was now being done to Israel. Please don’t read this in any way, form or manner as Anti-Semitic. It is a timeless message for all who would call themselves the People of God (cf. Romans 15:4; 2 Timothy 3:16-17). Christians did and still do need to internalize the message that motivates this passage and this movie.
The background to today’s passage is that King Saul is rejected by God because God had ordered the holocaust of the Amalekites and Saul wasn’t as thorough as God wanted. He slaughtered everyone: soldiers, men, women, aged, children. He, however, withheld the captured spoil “to sacrifice to the Lord.” And Saul also spared King Agag.
God resented Saul’s gesture. When the history of the Jewish nation ends, we read that their Babylonian conquerors treated the last Jewish king, Jehoiachin, with remarkable dignity and kindness. (2 Kings 25:27-30) Compare this closing image which is equally inspired with God’s prophet Samuel ordering Agag to be brought to him. Agag is terrified. He walks toward the man of God “haltingly.” The prophet not only slays the king, he cuts his body into pieces “before the Lord.” And we are supposed to imagine that God is now pleased?
This is the reading that is supposed to inspire us this morning? I can’t help but stand with Saul. I am offended by Samuel’s righteous savagery. I do not accept this as pleasing to God. There is a distinction made by scholars between inspiration and revelation. The biblical text is inspired, but not every literal word or literal example must be revealed. This may well be an inspired message of following God wholeheartedly even when the reason is masked to us, but not a literal revelation that people of faith should act with such heartless zealotry. We do not need any more religious terrorists. And even in this manner, I find today’s passage far from inspiring.
Maybe this is why the eternal Word, Jesus Christ, had to reveal God in our human flesh and blood. Maybe Jesus’ incontrovertible life was necessary to reveal perfectly who God is. Maybe Jesus’ death is the undeniable, unavoidable, unwanted revelation that God would rather die than allow His followers to imagine that something like Samuel’s savagery makes God smile. No prophet foretold anything like God dying on the cross. Jesus’ followers to the bitter end could not accept it. It was only the reality of the cross that finally forced us to think that God is less judgmental and vindictive than we. But has even the cross convinced the people of God?
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