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Getting out the Pagan Within Part 5: The Significance of the Central Saying—A Biblical Theology of I Samuel 15:27-31

1 Samuel 15 5 smallSamuel’s speech to Saul in 1 Samuel 15:28-29 contains an important theological message for both Saul and the reader.

It’s meaning, however, has been concealed within rather strange cultural practices regarding hems and herem slaughter, which have often been overshadowed themselves by other statements that seem more powerful—”To obey is better than Sacrifice” gets most of the attention.

This central powerful theological message in vv. 28-29 is also concealed by an apparent contradiction.

Samuel says, “And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret,” when YHWH just said in 1 Samuel 15:11  “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” Yes, they are the same Hebrew term. In fact, YHWH is often depicted as “regreting/relenting” (Hebrew term נחם nacham).[1]

So let’s recap to consider the essence of Samuel’s diatribe.

Follow the recap CAREFULLY!

  1. Saul violates herem… really really bad… desecrate YHWH’s temple bad.
  2. YHWH has had enough… tells Samuel that he “regrets” making Saul king.
  3. Samuel confronts Saul, who bluffs, then denies, then blame shifts, then blame-confesses (i.e. I did it but it wasn’t my fault).
  4. Samuel condemns Saul’s dynasty… YHWH is done with him; he is caput.
  5. Saul asks TWO things of Samuel. 1. As prophet, Saul seeks forgiveness from YHWH through him. 2. As an influential figure, Saul seeks a show of validation from Samuel before the people. (1 Samuel 15:25)
  6. Samuel gives two thumbs down… He won’t be seen with Saul and YHWH won’t forgive it (1 Samuel 15:26)
  7. Saul grabs Samuel’s hem.
  8. Samuel goes off on Saul… Done Deal, kingdom done been taken, kingdom done been given to a better dude. YHWH won’t נחם nacham change his mind, because he is not a man to נחם nacham change his mind… (even though he just נחם nacham changed his mind about making you king… but never mind that.)
  9. Saul makes an abrupt (abrupt in the Hebrew) “Yeah, well, I sinned” and counters not with TWO requests in the face of Samuel’s rebuke, but only ONE request—”return with me.”
  10. Samuel does change HIS mind, and goes back with Saul like Saul asks.

Is Samuel a compromiser? Too weak to stick to his guns?

NO. We have already disclosed that Samuel is responding to a powerful socio-religious symbol from Saul, who makes an almost irresistible covenantal appeal by grabbing Samuel’s hem.

But is that all we take away from the hem grab in this situation?

NO! Not if we’re paying attention to the nature of Saul as a pagan-challenged sometimes worshiper of YHWH. Not if we were paying attention to common pagan notions about grabbing the hems of pagan idols… and perhaps, for want of an idol, a pagan notion of grabbing a prophet’s hem.

Think about the reply from Samuel to Saul’s hem grab before Saul speaks even one word. Samuel knows what Saul is doing. This is a known ritual appeal. Saul has just asked TWO things, forgiveness and prophet support.

Samuel knows that he, himself, has just been out maneuvered by a desperate manipulator. BUT… YHWH don’t play that. Saul won’t get what he wants from YHWH.

So, the prophet speaks in what some have labeled the “prophetic perfect,” (i.e. a future event predicted with past tense verbs) to emphasize finality (It’s a done deal)… YHWH has taken Saul’s kingdom and  YHWH has given it to Saul’s neighbor who is better than Saul.

These words were powerful to Saul. He’ll spend his days hunting down this “better than him” neighbor. Saul will be taunted with these words again, the day before his death… knowing that David was the neighbor and that Saul couldn’t stop YHWH’s plan.

Think about the implications of the declarations that Samuel makes about YHWH’s nature. He doesn’t phrase this in terms of he won’t relent NOW, but in terms of YHWH’s essence, YHWH’s attributes. We know that YHWH does נחם nacham “relent.” We know from both Joel 2:13 and Jonah 4:2, that YHWH’s נחם nacham “relenting” is placed in an actual list of His attributes. So, what is Samuel getting at here?

Lest, Saul, the consummate pagan thinking sometimes worshiper of YHWH gets it in his head that such a manipulative ploy like grabbing Samuel’s hem, should have any influence on YHWH (regardless of its effect on the prophet as a man), Samuel scolds him. YHWH is not a man. YHWH cannot be manipulated with such things. YHWH don’t play that, Saul. Whatever I may do now because you’ve grabbed my hem, don’t even think about manipulating YHWH that way.

YHWH is not a man. God cannot be manipulated. God cannot be tricked. God cannot be moved with ritual actions or ritual words. God’s נחם nacham relenting is always in response, good or bad, to the shifting of the human heart. Men repent, God relents of judgment. Men apostatize, God relents of mercy.



[1] On five other occasions YHWH is said not to נחם nacham.  Three times YHWH refuses to change His mind about judging Israel with exile (Jeremiah 4:28; Ezekiel 24:14; Zechariah 8:14).  In Psalm 110:4, YHWH gives His perpetual unchanging promise to “my lord”  that He will make him a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek, refusing to ever נחם nacham about it.  In the present text, I Samuel 15:29a we have a link with Numbers 23:19. In both Joel 2:13 and Jonah 4:2, however, YHWH’s נחם nacham is placed in a list of divine attributes. On nineteen occasions, the Scriptures record YHWH’s נחם nacham.  In Genesis 6:6,7; Exodus 32:12,14, Judges 2:18; I Samuel 15:11; 1 Samuel 15:35; 2 Samuel 24:16 and its counterpart 1 Chronicles 21:15; Psalm 106:45; Jeremiah records three occasions (Jeremiah 18:8,10, 26:3,13, Jeremiah 31:19) where YHWH has or promises to “relent”.  He illustrates this in Jeremiah 26:19 with YHWH’s change of action with Hezekiah when he repented.  Finally, we have Amos 7:3-6 & Jonah 3:10.

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