re: claiming the Old Testament — part four

OK. I’ve stalled long enough. In wrestling with 1 Samuel 15 so far, I’ve made two suggestions:

  1. Passages like this speak of God’s judgement not ethic cleansing; and
  2. Here, God both employs his people as an instrument of divine justice and reveals that they too need to be judged.

The time has come to put these two suggestions together and make one final claim (before wrapping up this series): The God revealed in these passages is no inanimate totem that Israel — and their anointed king — can manipulate to lend legitimacy to their savage and imperialistic pretensions. Rather, he is living and active, justly setting about dealing with sin — going to the root of the problem, deep in the human heart — and yet dealing with it graciously.

What I mean is this: Although he’d be perfectly entitled to do so, the God who meets us in 1 Samuel 15 doesn’t simply sweep aside sin and evil — and, along with it, those of us who’ve become entangled with sin and evil (as at once perpetrators and victims). Instead, he graciously works with the grain of human lives and history.

We see, on the one side, God’s undiscriminating justice as he condemns Saul (and Israel) for disobedience:

Has the Lord as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as in obedience to the voice of the Lord? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king.

1 Samuel goes to great pains to stress that the holy God isn’t automatically and unconditionally on Israel’s side (e.g., in the Ark narrative running through chapters 4-7). There’s obvious bilateralism in God’s demand that Israel and her king must obey him. (In this we’re given clear evidence that Deuteronomic theology — with its blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience — has left its stamp on the history being recounted here.)

On the other side, though, we see God’s graciousness — rooted no doubt in the loving unilateralism of his covenant with Abraham, the unconditional frame within which the conditional stuff sits (even in Deuteronomy). Surprisingly, he continues to work out his purposes in and through his rebellious people. So even when God himself (through Samuel) has to ‘finish the job’ commissioned at the start of this chapter, it’s the completion of a human work rather than its repudiation.

It’s not easy to see how these two threads of God’s character are woven together in 1 Samuel (or in the Old Testament as a whole). Indeed, there are moments — Hosea 11.1-9, for example — when the holiness and the love of God appear irreconcilable, generating a momentum towards the future that leads us to Jesus…


  1. Chris,

    thanks for these posts, they have complemented some work I’ve been doing in preaching through Joshua.

    I wonder if it isn’t sometimes worth turning the problem around and ask “Why are we so uncomfortable with God’s harsh judgment of Amalekites/Canaanites etc?”

    Is it that we don’t take sin as seriously as God? That we don’t think peoples rejection of God is that big a deal? Because we can see something more of ourselves in the people who come under judgment than in God who opposes sin, evil, and corruption.

    And on the moral high ground of the new atheists and their accusations against God’s actions in the OT: Did the modern western abhorence of genocide develop from the study of evolutionary biology? The constraints on war, protection of non-combatants etc currently adopted in the international laws of armed conflict have primarily been appropriated from the Christian doctrines of Just War, and have only relatively recently been unhitched from their theological foundations. So the new atheists have sought to seize the moral high ground already occupied by Christians who somehow have been able to reconcile that position (with varying degrees of comfort) with the God depicted in the OT.

    1. Hi Tim,

      It certainly sounds like you’ve been doing some great work as you’ve preached through Joshua (or was that your fourth year project on Just War theory talking)! Do the sermons get posted on the St Stephen’s website?

      I think you’re probably right about our squeamishness when it comes to how apparently harsh God is in rooting out sin. That’s something that really hit me as I wrestled with the rationale God gives for wiping out the Amalekites — there’s no room left for thinking this is anything but a case of divine judgement (which is necessarily retrospective/reactive — although not therefore purely retributive).

      I’m still mulling over the most helpful — and emotionally satisfying — way to raise and tackle this. But I suspect challenging people to be a bit more hard headed and honest about the reality of sin and evil and the rightness of God’s judgement should figure in there somewhere.

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