Monday of Week 2 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 15:16-23

Today we see Saul rejected by Yahweh as king. In fact, Yahweh regrets ever having made Saul king. This is a very anthropomorphic image of God, where he admits to making mistakes. The Old Testament also presents God as angry, jealous and vengeful, but these are really projections of the Israelites’ own feelings, making God to be very much like themselves.

Although Saul had carried out his mandate to defeat the Amalekites, enemies of Israel, he displeased God because he and his men used the victory to plunder and gather all the spoils to themselves. Saul tried to justify his behaviour by claiming that the best of the sheep and oxen seized by his men would be sacrificed to God.

But Samuel enunciates the very important principle that obedience to God’s will transcends any religious rituals – and that is the central point of today’s reading.

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.

In so speaking, Samuel is not condemning sacrificial practise as such, but rather saying that ritual which is not accompanied by appropriate behaviour in our relationships with God and others is of no value (see Is 1:11-17; Hos 6:6; Amos 5:21-27; Mic 6:6-8). To act against God’s known will while doing homage to something which is not of God (e.g. personal greed in this case) is to be guilty of a kind of idolatry (worship of Mammon). Saul’s crime is likened to ‘sorcery’ (“divination”), and the last line in some translations reads, “presumption a crime of teraphim”. Teraphim were the household gods, which guarded houses and property (regarding the use of a household idol, see the passages beginning with 1 Sam 19:11).

Submissiveness to God’s will is certainly better than “the fat of rams”. The fat of sacrificed animals always belonged to the Lord. Samuel speaks of “rebellion”. He is charging Saul with violating the central requirement of the covenant condition when he became king. Speaking earlier to the people he had said:

If you will fear the Lord and serve him and heed his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the Lord, and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the Lord your God, it will be well; but if you will not heed the voice of the Lord but rebel against the commandment of the Lord, then the hand of the Lord will be against you and your king. (1 Sam 12:14-15)

Now Samuel tells Saul:

…you have rejected the word of the Lord…

A king who set his own will above the command of the Lord ceases to be an instrument of the Lord’s rule over his people, violating the very nature of his office, where he is a vicegerent of God.

And so the Lord has rejected Saul as being king. Already Saul had been told, because of a previous incident (chap 13), that his dynasty would not last because he had disobeyed the will of the Lord. Here the judgement goes beyond the earlier one. Now Saul himself is to be set aside as king. Although this did not happen immediately, as chapters 16-31 show, the process was under way which would lead to his death. It included in its relentless course the removal of God’s Spirit and favour from him (16:14), the defection of his son Jonathan and daughter Michal to David, and the insubordination of his own officials.

In summary, the reading is saying that to appease or manipulate God by using sacrifices in this way was tantamount to superstition and idolatry. For his disobedience, God now rejects Saul as king. As mentioned, this will not occur immediately, but will unfold as the story proceeds.

We too should remember that it is God’s will in our lives that is paramount. Our greatest good is in making God’s will our own. To think that God will be happy with us simply by our piling up religious exercises is misguided piety.

Remember what Jesus said:

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. (Matt 6:7)


Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it! (Luke 11:28)

In other words, we can always be sure that God hears us. But do we always hear him?

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