Tuesday 12 August 2014

Stories of Two Kings

Reading this morning's lessons from the Anglican church in New Zealand (he's a right dilettante, he is), Hnaef pointed out to me a remarkable and also kind of topical opposition of readings.

In the reading from Samuel, it's the story of the rejection of Saul. You remember the story? Saul is told to defeat the Amalekites and consign their entire city, its occupants and all the livestock to utter destruction.

Saul, old softy that he is, kills the inhabitants but saves - temporarily - Agag, the Amalekite king, and the best of the flock. When Samuel the man of God catches up with him, he tells Saul off. Not for the genocide of which he is clearly guilty, but for saving the sheep - according to Saul, so he can sacrifice them later. In words that will be echoed - for very different reasons - by the prophets who will succeed him, Samuel demands to know whether God wants sacrifices or obedience.

Now, there's a nasty parallel here to some current events. And I don't want to think about God ordering massacres. I know the Hebrews were living in a very different world - one where there was no Geneva Convention, no prisoner-of-war camps. Where the level of technology wasn't so great that a few armed guards could keep dozens or hundreds of unarmed people under control. But it's still a ghastly idea, that God commanded it. Though you can see how some teenage fantasists, loose in Iraq like the fundamentalist equivalent of a package tour to Ibiza could draw a line through this, or similar stories from their own faith's history, and decide God says it's OK.

I guess the interpretation that puts God in the best light is the one where the Children of Israel, having decided it was God that told them to annihilate their enemies, later come to associate God with peace, supporting the foreigner in your land, caring for widows and orphans, and getting good jobs as doctors and lawyers, while developing a self-deprecating sense of humour. Thus realising that the massacres were an unfortunate part of their growing up as a race.

The interpretation that puts God in a somewhat scarier light is that the annihilation of the Amalekites - to cleanse a holy land and keep the Hebrews from the temptations of idolatry - was exactly what God wanted. God knew - in God's infinite wisdom - exactly what God was doing. And if you protest that you can't believe in a God like that, well your problem is that neither God's existence nor his nature are for us to decide based on our own preferences. God has, after all, got form. If God exists, God is the immutable force that, through evolution, created the Tsetse fly and the Ichneumon wasp - who created a universe that will expire in the slow agony of heat death. God, that is. Wasps are rubbish at creating universes, whether governed by the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics or not

But the second reading Hnaef shared was of the rejection of a different king. This king is sent to the cross. Unlike Agag, he's not the only one - temporarily - saved while his people perish. The opposite. He's the one picked out from his people for death. The people whose greatest moral leaps forward he's taken and honed into loving your enemies and even Samaritans and tax collectors.

And he thinks - momentarily - that he's also been rejected by God. But in fact, we know he's been accepted. And through him all the others can be saved. And God has the sacrifice that is acceptable - because it's one of perfect obedience.

So I struggle. I reckon I can see - in the story of the  people of Israel and their religion - that journey traced out, from a tribe fighting to carve out a living space to a faith that loves the stranger.
But I can see a mirror image of the rejection of Saul and the acceptance of Jesus. The death of a nation, and the salvation of so many. The way of destruction, and the way of sacrifice.

Maybe God will explain it all for us one day. But I'll look at those two stories of the two rejected kings, and follow the way of the second, and believe that his way is a better way for me to live in God's will than the first.


  1. Not only in NZ, but dilettantes in not-Westphalia and other parts of Blighty too. Same Lectionary, y'see.


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