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Getting out the Pagan Within Part 1: A Biblical Theology of I Samuel 15:27-31

1 samuel 15 croppedEven a brief scan of 1 Samuel 15 should be enough to perplex the average reader.  Here YHWH commands Samuel to command Saul to utterly destroy a people called the Amalekites. (Sounds like a somewhat bloodier version of most homes… “Sally, tell Tommy to tell Alice to clean the kitchen.”)

The butchering of a whole people group cannot escape the modern revulsion against the horrific images of similar affairs in Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and of course the Nazi campaign against the Jewish people in almost every corner of Europe. I would hope that the murder of well over 200 million souls in the last century would leave us a little scarred and squeamish.[1]

Beyond that, however, we find in 1 Samuel 15:27-31 what seems a rather extreme edict against Saul for failing to finish off the Amalekites. All Saul did was spare one guy and some sheep. The reaction from both YHWH and Samuel over such a minor failure smacks, for the modern reader, of the all too typical puritanical practices of a religion so exacting and unforgiving that it swallows the human spirit and grinds the faces of good men and women in their imperfection, provoking a life lived in perpetual tremulations of Hell.

And what is one to make of Samuel’s turn about? The bizarre altering of Samuel’s behavior in regard to Saul’s request for public honor might hardly be conceived as anything but political posturing or hypocritical pity, either of which hints at Samuel’s unwillingness to face the short-term consequences of his own religious convictions. His speech to Saul, emphasizes his hypocrisy, for while he declares that YHWH will never “repent” the Hebrew Term nacham, the narrative itself records YHWH as having “repented,” again, nacham, of making Saul king only verses before.

Here, however, as in many biblical passages, modern sense and sensibility are not sufficient to comprehend the theological intent of the biblical storyteller. An ill-informed modern imagination is not equipped to penetrate the cultural cloud which obscures the narrator’s portrait of the significance of these events.

A careful discernment of the narrator’s theological intent, and that is exactly what he has, theological intent, requires an historical, grammatical, and literary investigation of these events, terms, and narrative structure.

In this, the depth of Saul’s error, the nature of Saul’s fleeting attempt to preserve his position, the insincerity of Saul’s religious expression, and the true meaning of Samuel’s recorded declarations come clear.

Whether one chooses to believe the narrator’s theology, and/or the historicity of these events, or rejects both is inconsequential to the storyteller’s message. The narrative theology of 1 Samuel 15 remains the same, and I aim to disclose it over the next week. So stay tuned.

First, however, I’d like to tell you a little bit about the Hebrew text of 1 Samuel 15:27-31 where the theology emerges in its most concentrated form, if read in the larger context of the chapter. I provide my own translation… you may want to read the footnotes… or not.

After Saul’s failure in his obliterative campaign against the Amalekite people, Samuel’s prophetic decree against Saul’s dynasty, and Samuel’s refusal of forgiveness and public honor for Saul, the text says:

27 And Samuel spun about to go, and he[2]seized upon the hem[3] of his robe and it tore.[4]  28 And Samuel said to him, “YHWH has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to your neighbor who is better than you. 29 And also, the faithful one[5] of Israel will not turn[6] and will not change his mind[7]because he is not a man to change his mind.”  30 And he said, “I sinned, now honor me, please, before the elders of my people and before Israel, by[8] returning with me that I may worship YHWH your God.”  31 Then Samuel returned behind Saul and Saul worshipped YHWH.

[1] Counting abortions, which I do, we have murdered upwards of a billion people worldwide in the last century and continue today at a few millions pace. We are only squeamish it seems if we are made to look at it… which this text forces us to do.

[2] The LXX and a Qumran text have added Saul as the subject of “and he seized.”  It would appear that the Scribes intended to clarify a potential ambiguity.  Some have challenged the interpretation as well as the addition. They think Samuel seized Saul’s hem and tore it for a prophetic object lesson. “He” per the Hebrew text, is undoubtedly Saul seizing Samuel’s hem.  Other options are grammatically possible, but circumstantially unlikely, as we shall see going forward.

[3] “Hem” (Following the NIV.) כנף kanaph when speaking of clothing, is a technical term for the embroidered and occasionally artificially attached edging about one’s outer garment.  “Hem” as opposed to “Skirt”, KJV, ASV, RSV, or “edge” NASB, may better enable an English reader to capture this idea. It is the same word used for wing.

[4] “It tore,” a middle voice translation of the Niphal of urq following RSV, NASB and NIV, and the archaic “it rent” of KJV, and ASV, expresses the accidental nature of the rip.

[5] “The faithful one” of the possible translations for the Hebrew term here best balances with the attributes ascribed to YHWH in the poem of v. 29 (so also, Psalm 121:4).  Compare this with “strength of” in KJV, and ASV, and “Glory of” in RSV, NASB and NIV. The Hebrew term is flexible.

[6] “Turn” is used in keeping with the LXX and the Qumran scroll. Those who focus most on Samuel’s statement as an adaptation of Numbers 23:19 feel that “lie” from Hebrew manuscripts is a more likely parallel. One might also see “turn” as a verbal play off Saul’s “turn back” in 15:11 and his request that Samuel might “return” (same Hebrew word in each) with him in 1 Samuel 15:25, and as a contrast between Samuel who won’t “return” with Saul in 1 Samuel 15:26… changing his mind and “returning” with him in 1 Samuel 15:31 and God who will not.  If the structural pattern of Psalm 121:4 is being followed here, as some insist, then we should expect two near synonyms to be used which correspond to the divine title.  Hence, I have followed the LXX and Quran Scroll, here. See Ezekiel 14:6.

[7] “Change his mind” agrees with the NIV.  “Repent” which is used in the KJV, ASV, RSV, and NASB has too much Evangelical baggage to be a helpful translation of God’s נחם nacham for a modern reader.  God’s “repentance” and man’s repentance are certainly of a different essence.  Relent would also be a good translation.

[8] “By” best expresses the explanatory relationship between the two clauses connected with the simple Hebrew conjunction usually translated and.  Samuel’s honoring of Saul and his return with him are not two separate actions, rather the second is the expected means of accomplishing the first. The NIV makes this assertion through the use of a semi-colon instead of translating the conjunction.  Most other translations simply use “and.”

3 thoughts on “Getting out the Pagan Within Part 1: A Biblical Theology of I Samuel 15:27-31

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