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Getting out the Pagan Within Part 2: The Seriousness of Saul’s Sin —A Biblical Theology of I Samuel 15:27-31

1 Samuel 15 2 smallOkay, Saul goofed. He failed to perfectly enacts a rather brutal command to exterminate another people group. It’s hard to get our modern hearts around this too much. We aren’t so keen on genocide these days, and we have more than a little resentment for the kind of religion that leaves people quaking in their books over the smallest infraction of an impossible moral code. And isn’t this most people’s perception of Biblical law generally, and of this command in particular.

So what? Saul brought some of the sheep back alive. What did they ever do to anybody? So what? Saul let the king live. What harm can one little ol’ king do?

Saul, like Achan from Joshua 7:1ff, however, violated חרם/herem, which is a powerful element of holiness codes. Unfortunately, while violations of holiness are more than a little serious, the fear involving holiness in general, and holy war and herem (utterly destroy) more particularly, as well as covenant violation, and corporate solidarity are mostly lost on us.

Even when explained it is difficult for us to appreciate the full weight that these matters had to those whose worldview was constructed upon them. With learning of covenant and holiness we may gain head knowledge, but, as I am wont to say, “Our knees don’t know it.” They don’t knock together at the very idea of violating it.

From an Ancient Near Eastern perspective Saul’s infraction is anything but a “So what?” On the moral scale of the day, it is akin to breaking into the temple of YHWH, urinating on the Ark of the Covenant, and stealing the golden lampstand on your way out the door.

Did that metaphor offend you?

Good.

Take that feeling and attach it to Saul’s actions.

As the Israelites entered Canaan, they marched into battles which they might never hope to win, save for the notion that it was YHWH who was going before them as the chief warrior (Num. 13:7-8). YHWH was leading them in to fight His Holy Wars (Josh. 5:13). He would initiate it, direct it, win it, and take full credit for it.

As such, statements like “YHWH of hosts”, (I Sam. 1:3), “YHWH has given you the land” (Josh. 2:9) and “the captain of the hosts of YHWH” (Josh. 5:13), are not anthropomorphic figures, but theological concepts of YHWH’s work among and through His people, commanding a spiritual host as well.

Thus, the spoils of war were at His disposal, being often “placed under the ban” literally, herem (Josh. 6:17).

The rules of herem were simple (Deuteronomy 7:1-5; Deuteronomy 13:15-16).  If it has breath it dies. If it can be consumed with fire it is burned to nothing.  If it can pass through fire it is smelted and dedicated to YHWH’s sanctuary (Joshua 6:19). Those who take herem become herem (Deuteronomy 7:26). He might, by His grace, bequeath spoils to His assistants but only when prophetically specified (Joshua 8:2).

After the taking of Jericho, the principle of herem is violated by some in Israel (Joshua 7:1ff). When Israel battles Ai, YHWH does not fight for Israel. Joshua, having failed to seek YHWH’s direction, sends his men into a slaughter. YHWH details the situation later when Joshua asks. There is a corporate solidarity in herem. Those who take herem become herem. By taking herem, Israel corporately identified themselves with the enemy. The guilty party must be found out, and destroyed, before YHWH will again lead the fight.

As much as YHWH goes out to war before His people in the acquisition of the promised land and its preservation against external enemies, He also rules over them as king in preservation against internal enemies (Numbers 23:21; 1 Samuel 12:12). The tribes of Israel have some blood ties, but primarily they have religious ties. During the early period of Israel’s tenure in Canaan, the tribes had few political-social-economic links. They were unified around a common heritage preserved in religious covenant with YHWH. Any ruler raised up by YHWH, whether a charismatic, spontaneously established judge, or a divinely appointed king, was merely His representative, his steward, who answered to Him and to His law. Hence, they must heed his prophets and recognize the priests within their domain.

YHWH’s function as warrior, YHWH of hosts, is part and parcel with his function as divine king. A human YHWH king, when functioning properly, is no less damaging to YHWH’s rule than were the judges operating as his regents. A governmental system, however, which divorces itself of its dependence on, and religious observance of, YHWH, usurps His place as king, oppresses the people, and perpetuates its own agenda through its own means. It is incompatible with the covenant upon which Israel stands.

Within these two interconnected ideas, Saul’s behavior, in taking credit in Carmel, for YHWH’s victory over the Amalekites, (1 Samuel 15:12) and the seriousness of his mistreatment of the herem becomes clear. When Achan defied the herem, (Joshua 7:19ff) he, along with all Israel, became herem, enemies of YHWH, and when he was discovered, his entire household became as the households of Jericho, being completely destroyed with the rest of the herem.

Saul, as YHWH’s representative to Israel, should never, above all other things, act the part of Achan and bring “trouble” upon Israel. Yet, Saul does not even demonstrate the humility of Achan when discovered, but refuses confession and repentance. (Cf. Joshua 7:20; 1 Samuel 15:20) It was only YHWH’s mercy upon His people that Saul and all his household, along with those among YHWH’s earthly hosts, were not immediately consumed. Delayed judgment is not, of course, neglected judgment. YHWH’s condemnation is sure, Saul will perish in YHWH’s good timing and nothing may be done to avert it.

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