Killing Heathen for the Lord

“Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.”

True, clearly. How could you think anything else, taking this verse on its own? Oh the evangelical sermons you could preach on this.

But the thing about Bible verses is, they don’t stand on their own. This one comes at the end of a little passage where Saul and the Israelites have just slaughtered vast numbers of Amalekites, but saved the sheep and the king – the former to sacrifice (they claim), the latter to have some kind of fun with, presumably. They had a habit of cutting people’s big toes and thumbs off, for a laugh.

And the complaint from Samuel is not that the people of Israel killed a load of people and animals – oh no, the complaint is that they were inefficient, and not thorough enough. God wasn’t waiting around for a lovely liturgical slaughter – God wanted them all dead, quick and dirty. Not forgetting the women and children.

There’s a load of complex theology and sociology, history and psychology to go into here – the reflection that Israel would never survive without this attitude. The theory that this is a national foundation folk tale – that these were the stories an emerging people told to itself, to explain why it was there. The puzzle over how this story stands up against a later tale; of one man, the son of God and, so his followers implied, embodiment of Israel dying his own,  apparently pointless, massively painful and vindictive death.

But I’ve not got the time for that.  All I want to say is, think about where your quotations come from.

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