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.

“Truly, obedience is better than sacrifice,

submissiveness than the fat of rams.

Rebellion is a sin of sorcery,

presumption a crime of idolatry (teraphim).”

In so speaking, Samuel is not condemning sacrificial practise as such but that ritual which is not accompanied by appropriate behaviour in our relationships with God and others is of no value (cf. 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’, called here, “the crime of teraphim”. Teraphim were the household gods, which guarded houses and property. (For an interesting use of a household idol, see 1 Sam 19:11ff.)

Submissiveness to God’s will too is 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 fear the Lord and worship him, if you are obedient to him and do not rebel against the Lord’s command, if both you and the king who rules you follow the Lord your God – well and good. But if you do not obey the Lord and if you rebel against his command, the Lord will deal severely with you and your king, and destroy you” (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 vice-gerent of God.

And so the Lord “has rejected you as 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 chs. 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. The effects will not be seen 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 that 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: “In praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matt 6:7) and “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep 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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