Our church Bible study group has been reading 1 Samuel. I’ve also been dipping my toes in the water at the start of 1 Kings on my own time.
I have to say, I find the stories of Israel’s history more than a tad unsettling. The section we read last night included the divinely sanctioned slaughter of the Amalekites — gruesomely capped off by an elderly Samuel hacking their king to pieces!
Even though I’ve read passages like this hundreds of times, I’ve never more acutely felt the difficulty of claiming the Old Testament as Christian Scripture.
Of course, I get all the biblical theology stuff about God’s progressive revelation of his character and purposes. I get that it’s a closed chapter in the larger story of God and his world. And, given that the so-called Deuteronomistic history — comprising the books of Joshua to 2 Kings — was probably compiled during the Babylonian exile (or shortly afterwards) to explain the trainwreck of Israel’s history, I also get the refusal of the narrative to tidy up the messiness of people’s behaviour or attempt to definitively untangle their motives.
And yet I still struggle with the portrait of God painted by passages like this. This is the God I claim to love and worship, right? But here he is, issuing summary instructions to engage in genocide.
There’s next to no wiggle room here. Any other possible inducement for Israel to wage war against the Amalekites is systematically ruled out. They’re to wipe out the entire nation. Not taking any of the usual spoils of war. It’s a clear-cut case of divine vengeance. All because of something done by a past generation.
I don’t claim to have this all sorted. But I do hope to say something useful over the next two or three posts. Ultimately, though, my gut tells me that Oliver O’Donovan is probably on the right track when he suggests that the only thing capable of turning ‘these fragmentary utterances of God’s voice, in warrior triumphs and legislative order, into a history which culminates in the divine manifestation and vindication of created order’ is grasping how the story of Jesus sums up the story of God and his world (Resurrection and Moral Order, p 159)…