The portion of the Hebrew Bible that chronicles the beginning of the period of the great (and not-great) kings is not called Chronicles or Kings in English Bibles.¹ No, it’s called 1Samuel, and there’s a lot of really interesting stuff in it—stuff that can make us trip and fall all over ourselves. There are some gruesome stories, some sad stories, and some even more problematic tales that can lead to dramatic misapplication in our time.
A few days ago, I heard a very capable, typically careful, on-target teacher say something irresponsible. Here’s the background (and don’t miss that this instruction flies in the face of the “just war” philosophy). . . .
In 1Sam 15, King Saul is instructed to destroy the Amalekites, including women and children, utterly. In no one’s thinking today could that attack be characterized as “just.” The rationale is probably not ours to figure out. That aside, this otherwise capable teacher found himself saying that “as Christians, we could never do something like that, but that there are times that we have to do things like that for our country” (and by the way, “we ought to be grateful that people do things like that for our country”).
I was deeply disturbed by the almost subtle suggestion of hypocrisy inherent in this admonition. I actually take it as representative of the “practical theology” of many, but I have come to expect better of this articulate, intelligent speaker. Now, for those who feel no compunction in pledging allegiance to a flag, his position might make surface-level sense, but I deny it with all I am. One cannot be one person for his country and another for his supposed Master. Whatever the reason turns out to be for “genocide” commanded by God on the occasion of this particular battle between theocratic Israel and Amalek, there is nothing I should now do as a citizen of my country that I could not do as a Christian while looking into the eyes of the very One who is supposedly Lord of all my actions.
Spurred by the writing of Lee Camp in Who Is My Enemy? I’ve recently considered anew the duplicitous tradition of the so-called “just war” philosophy. I may provide more detail on this in a future post. Suffice it to say, here and now, that the U.S. of A. has not by any stretch consistently applied a valid just war tradition in the last century. Nor have Muslim extremists, of course. But a historical case can be made that earlier, non-“extremist,” and/or genuinely Qur’an-aware Muslims have shown a greater appreciation for some standards in meting out justice through “just conflict” than some Western armies have shown.
Back to King Saul. He had certainly never heard of the modern concept of the “just war” and would not have been concerned with it. On the surface, his concern would have been to obey God, but this entire narrative highlights Saul’s shadowy inconsistency. We might also note 1Sam 14:52: the conscription of men to fight for the cause—an outgrowth of the rise of a political nation—had been predicted by the prophet Samuel (8:10f). I read this historical development as inherently unjust in its treatment of men and their families.
Leaving the aforementioned teacher’s theological misstep behind, I will speak to a couple things I do find in the text of 1Samuel. I myself am not very experienced in OT narrative, but I’m growing more experienced with ancient texts and with literary interpretation in general, so I hazard a couple of guesses on my other blog here.
¹In the Greek Old Testament, 1st and 2nd Samuel are parts of the Kings sequence.