Reading herem | 26 October 2014

Text: 1 Samuel 15

Speaker: Jim Fredal

When I first decided on this text, and this theme, as a topic for a sermon on violence in the Bible, I asked some friends about it.  We read the passage and talked about it one evening for several hours and I have to say the conversation was heated, intense, and quite diverse. Some thought passages like this should be eliminated from the Bible, others found new ways to think about it, like the effect of trauma (the Amalekites harassing the Israelites immediately after their exodus) on victims and their inclination toward violence against perpetrators.  Others cited passages like this as good reason not to pay much attention to Christianity or Judaism.  I found all of their arguments compelling if not ultimately convincing, and have gone through a range of responses myself.
So how does one respond to a text like this?  We cannot in good conscience accept it and yet we hold it to be scripture, and as scripture it makes claims on us.  What do we do with a text that we don’t really understand and can’t agree with?  I have experienced and chosen a variety of responses in my life, some similar to those that came up in our conversation.
Option #1: I can simply affirm that, however difficult it might be me us to understand, God’s judgment is just.  God’s ways are not our ways, and the folly of God is wiser than human wisdom.  When God appoints the hour for the destruction of the wicked, who are we to question this judgment? If evil must be destroyed, mine is not to question or even comprehend the decision of God.  If God said, I believe it, and that settles it!
Option #2: I decide that I can’t accept what it actually says— God commanding Samuel to cut up Agag or Phineas to slay Zimri and Cozbi—so I interpret the message to mean what I think it should mean. I make exceptions, I focus only upon the comforting aspect of it. I revise it, or I invert it. I name its good as bad and its bad as good, and keep it, but only through negation. 
Option #3:  I avoid this passage and look to other books, other passages.  I read only scripture that’s of value to me and ignore the rest, in effect making my Bible into a better Bible, a slimmer, a more compassionate Bible, made up of only the messages that I find most valuable: the gospels, a Psalm or two, a bit of Isaiah, Paul on grace and love, not so much on women’s submission, without any of the hell and damnation stuff.  Or maybe I go elsewhere entirely: I read Thich Naht Hahn or Carole Christ or Ekhart Tolle or Wayne Dyer instead, and I build out of my preferred sources an alternative message, a better message, consistent with my value system, one that more closely resembles my own moral understanding. 
But none of these options to me are satisfactory, because none of them really work to understand the text as it wants to be understood.  None of them take the text seriously, wrestle with it, and force it to pronounce upon us its particular blessing. All assume a particular interpretive frame and a given message (slaughter the Amalekites!); none explore the different possible ways to read it or ask what purpose it might serve.  So what would it mean to take the text seriously, or how do we assess its possible meanings and purpose?  First and foremost for me is to ask what kind of text this is and what kind it is not.
This is apparently a text about annihilation, about genocide.  That’s what Samuel proclaims to Saul about the Amalekites: the word in Hebrew is “herem.”  The term means “something devoted to God,” and as with sacrifice, the thing devoted to God must be stripped of all earthly value and use: it must be given up, destroyed.  A people who are herem are to be annihilated.  This is the law—the 187th mitvah in Judaism—and it applied principally to the seven nations of Canaan—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. “You must not let anything that breathes remain alive.” Says the Lord your God, “You shall annihilate them.”  The Amalekites mentioned in our reading for today are the eighth—and final—group set by God for destruction.
It is clear that the Herem or Ban was a feature of much ancient near eastern imperial propaganda, and it may even have been a religious ideal in some ancient near eastern empires, but it was probably never actually carried out in practice. As a PR tactic, as a slogan, it could be very useful, but as a practice it would have been practically impossible to implement.  If you want to deter revolt and prevent resistance to imperial expansion, if you want to avoid costly wars, you advertised the awesome power of the emperor and his army. You announce that the last group to resist assimilation was utterly annihilated.  That’s why the Borg say resistance is futile, not because it is actually futile.  In no case can we really be sure that any description of a people being wiped out as “herem” was a historical account and not merely a PR boast and a threat, an ancient version of President Bush on the aircraft carrier with “mission accomplished” emblazoned on a banner in the background.  
An example: in one ancient “mission accomplished” monument called the Mesha Stele, the King of Moab boasts that he utterly annihilated the nation of Israel in the 9th century B.C.  But we know that this is 9th century B.C. imperial propaganda, not a historical fact, because the nation of Israel continued to exist for another hundred years, and its people for longer than that.  And even according to the Bible, the Amalekites were not wiped out by either Saul or Samuel. 12 chapters and several decades after our story, king David is once again wiping out the Amalekites. And some 300 years later under king Hezekiah, members of the tribe of Simeon are again in the process of wiping out the Amalekites.  And then, another two hundred years after that, we read in Esther that the Amalekites are alive and well and threatening to wipe out the Israelites.  It seems likely then that in fact no such annihilation of the Amalekites ever happened.
In fact, this story is not and was never meant to be history. What it is, what it must be, is story. Amalekite is the name given to that perennial and dangerous yet ever present Other that threatens, that stalks, that hinders and attacks, and that always needs to be overcome, declared “herem,” and given over entirely to God.  They are a sort of easily recognizable narrative shorthand for “the bad guys,” like the tomahawk wielding Indians are for the Western, or the Russians for James Bond, or middle Eastern terrorists for recent American spy thrillers, or zombies, or aliens, or the killer virus: Not a historical fact, but a plot device. 
In the movie Crimson Tide, the seasoned commanding officer of the nuclear submarine USS Alabama played by Gene Hackman is confronted with mutiny by the young but morally passionate executive officer played by Denzel Washington.  The movie is set in the context of a nuclear showdown between America, Russia, and a rogue, ultra-national Russian military group that has captured a nuclear launch site.  But we understand that this political backstory is not historical reporting, it’s a plot device to elevate the confrontation between these two men. The Amalekites, like the Russian splinter group, represents that which opposes us, attacks us, and threatens us.   
And what’s more, even if the ban were historically verifiable, this isn’t a story about the ban. The emotional center of the story shifts under our feet. We think it’s going to be a story about launching a missile strike against Russian separatists, or about annihilating the sinful Amalekites, but it turns mid-stream into a story about something else, about a confrontation between two characters. And the two men similarly are not two historical individuals. There is really no way—historically—that the deeds and thoughts recorded here of Samuel and Saul in the 12th century B.C. could have been capture, recorded, and maintained for three millennia.   They are, rather, characters, they are roles, that is, they are metaphors, two opposed viewpoints, two voices that claim our attention.
One is the voice of God through Samuel, and the other is the voice of people.  You thought I was going to say Saul, but it isn’t Saul.  It becomes clear by the end of the story that Saul is caught between two paths and he has a decision: to follow the word of God as given by Samuel or to follow the wisdom of people: his own inclination and the wishes of his soldiers. In other words, Saul is you. When Samuel says to Saul, “You may be small in your own eyes, but the path that you take matters” the character may be speaking to Saul, but the narrator is addressing you, each of us.
And the story goes out of its way to encourage us to identify with Saul over Samuel, to feel with him and understand his point of view. He acts on Samuel’s instructions without question, but first he saves the Kenites.  He doesn’t want to kill the baby while throwing out the bathwater.  He is compassionate, merciful, appreciative.  So saving the king seems like more mercy, and as for keeping back some of the flocks, well, his intent was good: he was going to sacrifice it to Yahweh later, and he goes to Gilgal (the location of a shrine) to do so. He was only keeping some of it alive—the best—for a little while to sacrifice it to Yahweh.
And didn’t the army earn some of the spoil?  Surely Saul should be able to use his own judgment to choose how he will interpret Samuel’s message so that it works out best for everyone.  Good for him, his troops, and Yahweh.   
And we, I think, having identified with Saul, are supposed to be a bit surprised, I think, by Samuel’s harsh criticism. Why is Samuel being so hard on him?  So what if he left a few sheep alive or gave the troops a few of the goods?  He followed the commandment “in spirit” didn’t he?
In fact it’s clear that Saul was also confused by Samuel’s reaction.  He seems truly surprised that all of his apparent good deeds are not being congratulated.  “But I have obeyed the word of the Lord!” he says.  And it becomes clear as the story proceeds that he is surprised because has not really understood the word of the Lord that Samuel gave him in the first place.  The word is Herem: devote it, all of it, to God. Not to human use or enjoyment.  And so, not understanding the message, he necessarily misapplies it, makes exceptions, defers to the opinons of others to support what he really wants to do in the first place: keep the valuables and only destroy what was of no use to him. 
But I sense that at some level, we are to understand that Saul does know the difference between what Samuel said and what he did, because after the battle he avoids Samuel and travels to Carmel, to set up a statue to himself.  He goes out of his way to avoid the messages that he doesn’t like.
This story, this character, Saul before Samuel, sounds a bit like us, doesn’t he, when confronted with a difficult passage that we don’t understand and don’t like?  Initial enthusiasm, then revise it, make exceptions, make excuses for it, and finally avoid it altogether.  I find it very human of Saul, all too human.   As king, Saul is, like us, a hearer of difficult passages.  We hear word of the Lord and are called on to act upon it.  It makes claims on us but some of those claims are difficult, inconvenient, uncomfortable, loathsome even.  As for killing the Amalekites, this isn’t a story about the slaughter of an ethnic group. This story isn’t asking its readers to kill anyone or even harm anyone, much less annihilate anyone.  The story isn’t about that.  It is simply asking for obedience.  That is the theme of the message, and it may be a difficult message in its own right, but it isn’t a message about genocide. 
The question is, obedience to what? Or against what? What are we being ordered to annihilate, to devote to God, to put outside of all human use?  What within or around you goes by the name of Amalekite?  What force within you harasses you, stalks you, incites doubt and fear, and stands across your path in the wilderness.  As king of your own conscious realm, what message are you receiving about the Amalekites, and what kind of reader are you?