Thursday, February 23, 2012

As Old As Methuselah (Genesis 5:27)

How old was Methuselah when he died? 969 years old (Genesis 5:27)

The account of the Great Flood (Genesis 6:1-8:22) is preceded by the genealogies of two of Adam’s sons, Cain (Genesis 4:17-24) and Seth (Genesis 5:1-32). The latter genealogy spans 1556 years from birth to birth and serves to bridge the gap between Adam (Genesis 5:1-5) and Noah (Genesis 5:28-32). Though the text never explicitly compares the two families, the biblical story will abandon Cain and follow Seth’s line. W. Sibley Towner (b. 1933) concludes, “By making all subsequent descendants not of Cain but of Seth, the Priestly writers free us from the onus of Cain’s fratricide and his mark (Towner, Genesis (Westminster Bible Companion), 73).”

Despite there being virtually no narrative included in the genealogy of Seth (with the possible exception of Enoch in Genesis 5:21-24), it has long intrigued readers due to the long life cycles involved. The average life span of the genealogy’s ten antediluvians (people who lived prior to the Flood) is 857.5 years; 912.2 if you eliminate the outlier (Genesis 5:21-24) and limit the data to those who died of natural causes. Adam was still alive to meet Noah’s father, Lamech, eight generations later. Methuselah represents the apex of longevity, living a whopping 969 years (Genesis 5:27)!

So all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred and sixty-nine years, and he died. (Genesis 5:27 NASB)
Though today Methuselah is synonymous with agedness, he does not stand out amidst his family. No note is made of his age being exceptional and he eclipsed his grandfather, Jared, the second oldest man ever, by a mere seven years (Genesis 5:20). Almost everyone from his gene pool lived the better part of a millennia.

With the exception of fathering and naming his son (Lamech) no word or deed of Methuselah is recorded (Genesis 5:21-27). His name appears seven times in the Bible, always in genealogies (Genesis 5:21, 22, 25, 26, 27; I Chronicles 1:3; Luke 3:37). Perhaps because he did nothing else, Methuselah became the icon of the period’s longevity.

There is some debate as to the etymology of the name “Methuselah”. The name’s meaning is most commonly rendered “man of the dart (or spear)”. David Lyle Jeffrey (b. 1941) writes:

The meaning of the Hebrew name has been interpreted variously as “a man of the javelin,” “a man of Selah or Sin (the god of Ur Casdim),” or as a corruption of the Bab. Mutu-sa-ili into Mutu-sa-ilati, meaning “husband of the goddess.” (Jeffrey, A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, 503)

Kenneth A. Mathews (b. 1950) dissects:

The name “Methuselah” is a combination of mětû, “man of,” and šelah, “Shelah.” The former is related to West Semitic mutu (“person, man, husband”), but “Shelah” is uncertain. Shelah also occurs in Genesis 10:24 and Genesis 11:12-15. “Shelah” is taken either as a weapon (“man of the weapon,” cf. Nehemiah 4:17), a place name, or deity. (Mathews, The New American Commentary: Genesis 1- 11:26, 315-16)
An ominous alternate reading is less likely, but far more interesting. Some conjecture that the first word of the compound “Methuselah” is not math (“male, man”) but rather is derived from muwth (“to die, kill, have one executed”) and depending upon the uncertain vowel pointing, could read “his death”. The second component, shelach (“weapon, missile, sprout”), is the noun form of the verb shalach, meaning “to send, send away, let go, stretch out”. As such, some speculate that “Methuselah” is actually the incomplete sentence “His death shall bring” or “When he dies, it shall come”. The genealogy does attest that Methuselah’s death corresponded to the year of the Flood (Genesis 7:1-24). If this reading is correct, Methuselah’s name and life were a testament to God’s grace as the deity allowed humanity the longest possible time to repent before sending the deluge.

Though none of his oracles are recorded in the Old Testament, Methuselah’s father, Enoch, is said to be a prophet (Genesis 5:21-24, Jude 1:14-15). Many have seen his son’s name as Enoch’s one documented Old Testament prophecy - Methuselah’s death would mark the end of an era.

John Phillips (b. 1927) is representative of this opinion when he writes:

His father, Enoch, embedded one of his prophecies in Methuselah’s name: “When he dies, it shall come.” throughout all of Methuselah’s long life, conditions on earth went from bad to worse; but still God held His hand for He is of great patience, “not willing that any should perish” (II Peter 3:9). The antediluvians took God’s inaction as proof either of His non-existence or indifference. (Phillips, Exploring Genesis: An Expository Commentary, 78)
What cannot be denied is that when Methuselah died, the Flood came. There is a week long delay before the Flood that has been interpreted as a mourning period for Methuselah (Genesis 7:10). R. Kent Hughes (b. 1942) informs, “The seven-day pause recorded in Genesis 7:10 was, according to the Jewish midrash, a period of mourning for the death of Methuselah who died in the year of the flood (Hughes, Genesis: Beginning and Blessing (Preaching the Word), 138).”

Are the genealogies of Cain and Seth intended to be compared and contrasted? Do you think Methuselah’s goal was to live to be 1000? How would Willard Scott (b. 1934) have acknowledged Methuselah? What would it be like to endure the better part a millennia? What would the ramifications be if people still lived as long as the antediluvians? Do you read the ages literally?

Many explanations have been given to account for the long life spans of the antedivluvians, most reducing them to correspond to more modern spans. Many read almost like theories on dog years, which for the record Methuselah lived 3889.

John H. Walton (b. 1952) summarizes:

Have the numbers been misrepresented or misunderstood? Are they symbolic? Did the antediluvians simply live longer? There have been many attempts to account for the numbers through mathematical gymnastics, but none of the proposals has been able to provide a solution that encompasses all of the data. It is impossible to understand the numbers in terms of something other than base ten, both because base ten is the norm for Semitic civilizations (except Sumerian-based Akkadian) as far back as records are available, and because any other system results in men fathering children at the age of six or seven years old. The latter consequence also makes it impossible that a “year” represents a cycle of the moon rather than a cycle of the sun...Those who are more inclined to take them as symbolic must provide an explanation of how the numbers are operating on the symbolic level and how genealogies were understood by the biblical authors that allow us to consider a symbolic view as representing the face value of the text. (Walton, Genesis (The NIV Application Commentary), 282-83)
One thing is certain: something happened which considerably reduced life expectancy. Martin Kessler (b. 1927) and Karel Deurloo (b. 1936) interpret God’s words before the Flood as capping human life spans at 120 years (Genesis 6:2):
The giver of life (cf. Genesis 3:22) will not leave his spirit forever in humanity. His days will be no more than 120 years (the age of Moses, Deuteronomy 34:7). Methuselah would keep his record of longevity (969 years). The long lifespans of the early ancestors—a minimized version of ancient Oriental examples—are chosen so that “Methuselah” also, who appears to send death away, died before the flood. (Kessler & Deurloo, A Commentary on Genesis: The Book of Beginnings, 77)
This interpretation is problematic in that some have lived past 120. In the Bible, Ishmael (137 years, Genesis 25:17), Isaac (180, Genesis 35:28) and Aaron (123, Numbers 33:39) exceeded 120 years long after the Flood. Believe it or not the number has even been surpassed in modern times. The longest unambiguously documented human lifespan is that of Jeanne Calment of France (1875–1997), who died at age 122 years, 164 days. It is worth noting that almost all of the people who have had extremely long lifespans in the post-Biblical era are women.

Thomas L. Brodie (b. 1940) identifies another turning point:

The generations that follow Shem dwindle. There are essentially only nine (nine begettings), not the standard ten (as in Genesis 5:1-32) and the numbers fall: 500, 403, 403, 430, 209 (Peleg), 207, 200, 119. In the Adam-Noah genealogy (Genesis 5:1-32) there was no such steady decline. Methuselah, with 969 years, was near the end. The overall impression of a generating process which, whatever its original energy, is now falling. (Brodie, Genesis As Dialogue: A Literary, Historical, and Theological Commentary, 204)
Miguel A. De La Torre (b. 1958) concludes:
Human life, which had in the pre-deluge years reached 969 years (in the case of Methuselah, Genesis 5:27) was curtailed to only 120 years (further reduced post-deluge to “seventy years, or perhaps eighty,” Psalm 90:10), thus connecting longevity with the eventual falling away from godliness. (De La Torre, Genesis: Belief: a Theological Commentary on the Bible,107)
The only Psalm of Moses (Psalm 90), to which De La Torre alludes, discusses life expectation:
As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years,
Or if due to strength, eighty years,
Yet their pride is but labor and sorrow;
For soon it is gone and we fly away. (Psalm 90:10 NASB)
Why do you think life expectancy was said to have reduced so dramatically? Who is the oldest person you know or have known? When is a person old? When, if ever, do you think Methuselah considered himself old? How long do you want to live? With technological advances, how long can we live?

“A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.” - John Barrymore (1882-1942)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Christian Tax Collector? (Matthew 9:9)

Which Gospel writer was a tax collector? Matthew

The principal story for which Matthew is known is his call to discipleship (Matthew 9:9-13; Mark 2:14-17; Luke 5:27-31). In fact, this is the only narrative which features Matthew in the entire Bible. The Synoptic gospels report that Matthew was called to be Jesus’ disciple while on the job, sitting at a tax collector’s booth near Capernaum (Matthew 9:9-13; Mark 2:14-17; Luke 5:27-31). Matthew’s gospel is as detached as the other gospels when recounting the occasion.

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. (Matthew 9:9 NASB)
Daniel J. Harrington (b. 1940) concludes, “We are probably to imagine the ‘tax office’ (telōnion) as a tollbooth at which fees were collected on goods (most likely fish) as they were transported out of the region of the Sea of Galilee (Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew (Sacra Pagina), 126).”

While the gospel that bears his name refers to the tax collector as Matthew (Matthew 9:9), for unstated reasons he is called Levi in the parallel accounts (Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27). Though the name changes, all of the elements of the story remain intact. When called, the tax collector leaves his post to follow Jesus (Matthew 9:9; Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27-28). (Hopefully it was near the end of his shift.) He then hosts a dinner party for his new found master (Matthew 9:10-13; Mark 2:15-17; Luke 5:29-31). The immediacy of Matthew’s response echoes Jesus’ previous call to the fisherman (Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20).

Being a tax collector in the first century was inauspicious. When Matthew’s gospel lists the twelve disciples(Matthew 10:1-4), only Matthew’s vocation is mentioned (Matthew 10:3). He is described as a telones (Matthew 9:9, 10:3). This term is most commonly rendered “tax collector” (CEV, ESV, HCSB, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) but in deference to the publicum, the Latin state treasury, older translations use “publican” (ASV, KJV). The Message states simply that Matthew was a “tax man”.

There were two varieties of tax man in the first century. Robert Kysar (b. 1934) explains:

Tax collectors were businessmen who contracted to collect revenues in a prescribed area, which they leased. In turn they hired a group of individuals who exercised the actual collections. This distinction between the major figure and his arm of collectors is suggested in the Gospels by the two titles, “chief tax collector” (architelōnēs, Luke 19:2) and the simple “tax collector” (telōnēs, Matthew 10:3). The first designated enterprising persons of some wealth (if not moral integrity). The second was used of individuals, many of whom were poor and of low social rank. They may have been driven to this unseemly work by sheer desperation. Their dirty work brought them only contempt and social discrimination, but it made a living. (Kysar, Called to Care: Biblical Images for Social Ministry, 47)
Given both Matthew’s physical and vocational position, many deduce that he was a customs official employed by the tetrarch Herod Antipas in Capernaum to collect from the nearby major thoroughfare that connected Mesopotamia to Egypt.

Though the modern equivalent is far from popular, tax men in Matthew’s day were far more despised than modern IRS agents. In Israel they were ranked with the lowest of the low, grouped with prostitutes (Matthew 21:31, 32), Gentiles (Matthew 18:17) and most commonly sinners (Matthew 9:10, 11, 11:19; Mark 2:15, 16; Luke 5:30, 7:34, 15:1).

David L. Turner (b. 1949) explains:

Tax collectors would likely be unacceptable to the Pharisees not only because of their oft-deserved reputation for extortion (cf. Luke 3:12-13) but also because of their frequent association with Gentiles. The term “sinners” (Matthew 9:11, 13; 11:19, 26:45; cf. Mark 2:14-22; Luke 5:27-39) may designate those whose behavior was egregiously ungodly, but from the Pharisaic viewpoint, it would also include those who did not observe the traditional interpretations of the Hebrew Bible (Matthew 15:2) on such matters as ritual purity, food laws, and Sabbath observance. (Turner, Matthew (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) , 252)
Tax collectors were deemed reprobates because they were corrupt on multiple levels, viewed as both extortionists and traitors. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (b. 1946) describes:
It is difficult not to see the glint of ambition in Matthew’s eye as he counts the incoming money, which we are sure contains a good percentage of the unofficially extorted. Matthew’s social standing is hence, very low. Not only does the tax collector prefer worldly gain to spiritual gain; he also works for the pagan occupying power, Rome, and is thus despised both politically and religiously by right thinking Jews...Matthew the telônês (“tax collector”), then, enjoys no social, political, or religious status in his community. He is a shady character who lives at the fringes of Jewish society. To make money by collecting others’ money cannot, even in the best of cases, elicit any philosopher’s admiration: it would be difficult to find any creative or altruistic aspect in this endeavor. (Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew: Volume 1, 421)
As such, tax collectors were often perceived as spiritually hopeless. Craig S. Keener (b. 1960) writes:
Although later Jewish tradition remarks that it would be difficult for a publican to repent (because it would be hard to make restitution; see, e.g., t. B. Mes. 8:26), it allowed that God can forgive this sin like any other...and emphasized God’s love toward the repentant...Jewish tradition already warned not to reproach one who had turned from sin (Sirach 8:5). But Pharisees, like modern churchgoers, were presumably not always what their official ethics called them to be. In the total context of Matthew’s Gospel, the informed reader ultimately recognizes that the religious establishment themselves are “sinners” (Matthew 26:45; though the term could refer to Gentiles, its immediate contextual referent is probably the priestly aristocracy). (Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 297)
The assumption was that one could not be a good Jew and a tax collector. A more modern parallel is seen in the June 3, 1957 edition of Time Magazine. The publication featured a blurb about an encounter between Mickey Cohen (1914-1976) and Billy Graham (b. 1918) during Graham’s 1949 Los Angeles crusade. (Graham himself writes of the encounter in Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham, 151-52). At the time, Cohen, a notorious gangster, was far mor famous than the novice evangelist. Cohen was quoted as saying, “I am very high on the Christian way of life. Billy came up, and before we had food he said—What do you call it. that thing they say before food? Grace? Yeah, grace. Then we talked a lot about Christianity and stuff.” There is a myth that after Cohen was confronted about his unchanged lifestyle, the mobster purportedly replied,“Christian football players, Christian cowboys, Christian politicians; why not a Christian gangster?”

Whether or not the story is true, it conveys truth. Christian gangster is perceived as an oxymoron just as Jewish tax collector was 2000 years ago. Michael J. Wilkins (b. 1949) speculates:

For Matthew, discipleship has an immediate cost, for collecting taxes not only filled the coffers of the governor but also meant a lucrative income for the tax collector (cf. Zacchaeus, Luke 19:1-10). A fisherman could always go back to fishing, but it is less likely that a tax collector could return to the booth. But our author doesn’t expand on what the sacrifice entails, perhaps a subtle indication of the identity of the humble Matthew as the author of this first Gospel. (Wilkins, Matthew (The NIV Application Commentary), 365)
Could Matthew have returned to tax collecting and still professed his Christianity? What modern jobs are incompatible with Christianity? Do you reflect your religious beliefs at your job? Do you live in such a way that an outsider might not think a Christian gangster to be an oxymoron?

After Matthew accepts his calling, Jesus dines with the former tax collector and his equally reviled friends which Jesus’ opponents naturally found disgraceful (Matthew 9:10-13; Mark 2:15-17; Luke 5:29-31). Douglas R.A. Hare (b. 1929) explains, “To good religious people it was scandalous that Jesus kept such bad company. His enemies ridiculed him as ‘a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’ (Matthew 11:19) (Hare, Matthew (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching) 101).”

For Jesus, there was a bigger issue than his public image. David E. Garland (b. 1947) writes:

Jesus embodies God’s mercy and purpose to take away the diseases, infirmities, and sins of all the people; and the meal was a concrete expression of the acceptance of sinners. The Pharisees would have had no objection to sinners repenting. What would have been reprehensible to them was the tacit approval and forgiveness of a coven of sinners who had done nothing that would pass for traditional repentance (confession and restitution) except to follow Jesus (Matthew 9:9). (Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary & Theological Commentary on the First Gospel, 103)
John Nolland (b. 1947) explains Jesus’ rationale:
As far as the Matthean Jesus is concerned, for these people the decisive turning point has already occurred. They do not remain guilty until they prove themselves; rather, those who will come are welcomed. No ‘threshold score’ is required for entry. (Nolland, The Gospel Of Matthew: A Commentary On The Greek Text (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 386)
The call of Matthew speaks to inclusiveness as a fearless Jesus eats freely with those on the margins of society. In 1573 , Paolo Veronese (1528-1588) produced a famous oil on canvas which he later titled Christ in the House of Levi. Today the painting hangs in room 10 of The Galleria dell' Accademia (Venice Academy) in Italy. The interesting aspect of this likeness is that Veronese did not set out to depict this scene.

Art historians H.W. Janson (1913-1982) and Anthony F. Janson (b. 1943) chronicle:

He gave the painting its present title only after he had been summoned by the religious tribunal of the Inquisition on the charge of fillings his picture with “buffoons, drunkards, Germans, dwarfs, and similar vulgarities” unsuited to its sacred character. The account of this trial shows that the tribunal thought the painting represented the Last Supper, but Veronese’s testimony never made clear whether it was the Last Supper or the Supper in the House of Simon. To him the distinction made little difference. In the end, he settled on a convenient third title, Christ in the House of Levi which permitted him to leave the offending incidents in place. (Janson, and Janson, History of Art: The Western Tradition (6th Edition), 381)
For Veronese, it would seem there was little distinction between the meal at the tax collector’s house comprised of known sinners and the Last Supper whose guest list was filled with Jesus’ closest disciples. The title was the only real difference.

Why does Jesus dine with outcasts? Do you associate with those on the fringes of society? How can Christians be more inclusive, especially to those who come from different socio-economic backgrounds?

“God creates out of nothing. Wonderful you say. Yes, to be sure, but he does what is still more wonderful: he makes saints out of sinners.” - Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard, July 7, 1838

Monday, February 20, 2012

Agag: From King to Pawn (I Samuel 15)

Whose life did King Saul spare even after he was told to destroy him and all his people? King Agag

During the Exodus, as the Israelites journeyed from Egypt into the Promised Land, they faced stern resistance from the Amalekites (Exodus 17:8-16; Deuteronomy 25:17-19), descendants of Esau (Genesis 36:12; I Chronicles 1:36). Years later, the prophet Samuel informs king Saul that God has decided to repay the Amalekites for their opposition during Israel’s march to independence (I Samuel 15:1-2). The punishment was harsh - the Amalekites were to be eradicated (I Samuel 15:3).

“Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’” (I Samuel 15:3 NASB)
Saul summons his troops, ambushes the target and wins the battle (I Samuel 15:4-8). In the process, Saul also captures the opposing king, Agag (I Samuel 15:8). In war, as in chess, the capture of the king symbolizes victory. Saul makes Agag an exception to the rule. Instead of slaying the king as he had done to his army, Saul takes Agag alive (I Samuel 15:8).
But Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs, and all that was good, and were not willing to destroy them utterly; but everything despised and worthless, that they utterly destroyed. (I Samuel 15:9 NASB)
This aberration is striking. Robert D. Bergen (b. 1954) explains, “So significant was Saul’s action to the writer that he recounted it twice, using two different verbs to describe the same event; Saul both “took Agag king of the Amalakites alive” (I Samuel 15:8) and “spared Agag” (I Samuel 15:9) (Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel (New American Commentary: Vol. 7),169).”

There are two biblical kings named Agag (Numbers 24:7; I Samuel 15:8-33) , both Amalekites, and as such it has been posited that Agag was a dynastic name. Robert P. Gordon (b. 1945) writes, “Agag is a name, or title (cf. Pharaoh, Candace), occurring also in Numbers 24:7 and perhaps perpetuated in the adjectival ‘Agagite’ used to describe – perhaps vilify – Haman in the book of Esther (Esther 3:1, etc.). (Gordon, I & II Samuel: A Commentary (Library of Biblical Interpretation), 144).”

Hans Wilhelm Hertzberg (1895-1965) speculates:

The naming of the personification of anti-Semitism, Haman, in Esther 3:1 as Agagite shows clearly that Agag became almost the type of the enemy of Yahweh and his people. Saul’s subsequent action must therefore have been regarded all the more seriously at a later time. (Hertzberg, I and II Samuel: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 125)
By this rationale, calling Haman an “Agagite” is tantamount to calling a tyrant a Hitler-ite in today’s world with Agag corresponding to Adolf Hitler (1889-1945).

An intentional verb-subject disagreement demonstrates that Saul alone was responsible for the decision to spare Agag. Robert Alter (b. 1935) deciphers:

The Hebrew says simply “Saul and the troops spared Agag,” but because a singular verb is used with the plural subject, it signals to the audience that Saul is the principal actor and the troops only accessories. (This highlighting of the first-mentioned agent through a singular verb for a plural subject is a general feature of biblical usage.) When confronted by Samuel, Saul will turn the responsibility for the action on its head. (Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel, 78)
In short, Saul makes the call. His reasons are unknown. Some have theorized that Saul plans to make sport of the losing king as part of a victory celebration, as was often customary.

Others have seen Agag’s reprieve as an extension of the Israelites’ policy of destroying the weak and despised while keeping the best (I Samuel 15:9, 21). David Toshio Tsumura (b. 1944) writes:

Modern translations differ among each other in their understanding of the syntax of the phrase, literally, “the best of the sheep and the cattle and the fatlings and the lambs and all that was valuable.” The question is how far the scope of “best” extends. (Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 395)
Whatever his rationale, the king’s disobedience leads to God regretting Saul’s appointment as king (I Samuel 15:10-11) and the prophet Samuel confronting Saul at Gilgal (I Samuel 15:12-23). The celebrating king clearly did not understand his failure (I Samuel 15:13, 20-21). Some have speculated that Saul’s transgression represents a misunderstanding of the scope of his orders.

Francesca Aran Murphy (b. 1960) explains:

“Utterly destroy” translates the Hebrew hrm. But did Saul know to interpret hrm as meaning destroy in the straight sense of annihilate then and there?...hrm could mean “something like ‘devote to a god by destruction.’”...Only the best meat could be used in sacrifice. King and people would not utterly destroy the best of the animals, because of this analysis their highest priority was to take the finest specimens to sacrifice to Yahweh. Gilgal was the place of sacrifice. Why go there, unless it was to sacrifice? (Murphy, 1 Samuel (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 139)
When confronted, Saul repents but Samuel will not relent (I Samuel 15:24-31). Saul had been given the opportunity to demonstrate his covenant leadership by being obedient and he had failed.

Samuel then finishes Saul’s job, carving the defeated king into pieces (I Samuel 15:32-33). Noting that Agag had employed similar tactics, Samuel butchers the Amalekite.

Afterwards, the prophet and the king part ways. Saul returns to his house at Gibeah of Saul while Samuel goes to Ramah (I Samuel 15:34). The doomed king and the prophet would never again see one another on this earth.

Saul spared only the best livestock. Did he regard the opposing king as the human equivalent? Why did Saul spare only Agag? Why did God want to expunge the Amalekites?

Ultimately, in the biblical narrative, king Agag is only a pawn in the account of Saul’s rejection. In this story, the background is far more problematic than the foreground – Saul is commanded by God to commit genocide and is reprimanded for showing (albeit a small) mercy.

The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (1875-1963) writes of an encounter he had while on a journey with an acquaintance whom he knew to be a devout Jew. As people are prone to do with clergy types, the conversation made its way to problematic biblical texts and eventually the story of Agag’s demise (I Samuel 15:1-33).

Buber describes:

I told him how already at that time it horrified me to read or to remember how the heathen king went to the prophet with the words on his lips, “Surely the bitterness of death is past,” and was hewn to pieces by him. I said to my partner: “I have never been able to believe that this is a message of God. I do not believe it.” With wrinkled forehead and contracted brows, the man sat opposite me and his glance flamed into my eyes. He remained silent, began to speak, and became silent again. “So?” he broke forth at last, “so? You do not believe it?” “No,” I answered, “I do not believe it.” “So? so?” he repeated almost threateningly. “You do not believe it?” And once again: “No.”

“What. What”—he thrust the words before him one after the other—“What do you believe then?” “I believe,” without reflecting, “that Samuel has misunderstood God.” And he, again slowly, but more softly than before: “So? You believe that?” and I: “Yes.” Then we were both silent. But now something happened the like of which I have rarely seen before or since in this my long life. The angry countenance opposite me became transformed as if a hand had passed over it soothing it. It lightened, cleared, was now turned toward me bright and clear. “Well,” said the man with a positively gentle tender clarity, “I think so too.” And again we became silent, for a good while. (Buber, Meetings: Autobiographical Fragments, 52-53)

Some have taken solace in the fact that, as Buber alludes, Saul’s orders are indirect. The story’s first verse reveals a chain of command in which God speaks to Samuel and Samuel to Saul (I Samuel 15:1). The genocidal orders are not spoken directly by God but instead God is only quoted by the prophet (I Samuel 15:1-3). It is certainly easier to believe Samuel, who cut his enemy to pieces at the text’s conclusion (I Samuel 15:32-33), a monster than God. While this theory works for the story’s first panel, in its second God is seen as complicit with the prophet (I Samuel 15:10-11) which moves the criticism from the prophet’s behavior to the text’s credibility.

Does Samuel act with true divine authority or, as Buber suggests, does he confuse his own desires with God’s will? How do you handle/interpret the genocidal command of I Samuel 15:3? How do you differentiate between God’s voice and your own?

“The first point of wisdom is to discern that which is false; the second, to know that which is true.” - Lactantius (240-320), advisor to the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine I (272-337)