Skeletons in God’s closet: Jesus and the crusader king

To the chagrin of many Christians, the Hebrew Bible occasionally depicts Israel’s God as a “man of war” who leads his people into battle, often for the cause of vengeance. Even more troublesome for modern readers are the wars of herem (חֵרֶם) in which God instructs Israel to exterminate the enemy—man, woman, child, and goat, all alike are put to the sword. Joshua’s campaign against the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 20:16-18) and Saul’s crusade against the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15) are two notable examples.

For Christian believers who find the god presented in such passages to be a moral monster, the divine Jesus can function as a soothing balm. His timeless message of enemy-love can subvert and overthrow inferior biblical visions of God and morality. By way of the Gospels, the deity who commanded King Saul to slaughter the Amalekites, for instance, can be designated a mediocre simulacrum of the God revealed in Christ, a historically-contingent product of the morally-deficient Israelites who came before Jesus. Thus the peaceable Christ can disarm the violent tribal deity of ancient Israel’s imagination.

As I’ve tried to show in the past, however, the problems with this approach to Christian biblical hermeneutics (i.e. a red-letter approach) are insurmountable. Being himself a man of a traditional culture and a devotee of an archaic religion, Jesus cannot be kept safe from the skeletons in God’s closet. To drive this home, let’s consider the case of Saul and the Amalekites from the perspective of the earliest Christians.

Mercy, not sacrifice

Those who wish to distance the immaculate Prince of Peace from the divine conquest narratives of the Hebrew Bible will be glad to know that the Jesus of the Gospels never mentions King Saul, the prophet Samuel,1 nor the annihilation of the Amalekites. Still, it may come as a surprise to know that one of Jesus’ central teachings finds its origin in the prophetic complaint against worthless sacrifices first issued in 1 Samuel 15.2

After Saul fails to carry out the ban (herem) against the Amalekites—rescuing King Agag and his choice livestock from Yahweh’s sword—God’s enraged prophet confronts Israel’s king. While Saul had desired to sacrifice the cattle to the Lord at the cult of Gilgal (15:20-21), God had commanded that everything be consumed in holy war (15:1-3; 18). In what follows the prophet Samuel outlines the Lord’s preference for obedience over temple-offerings:

Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obedience to the voice of the Lord? 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. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king (1 Samuel 15:22-23).

This prophetic critique of hypocritical sacrifice seems to have been an important part of Jesus’ teachings as it appears at various points throughout the Gospel traditions.

  • The reconciliation of brothers must come before the offering of gifts to God (Matthew 5:22-24, cf. Mark 11:25).
  • Wholehearted love for God and love for neighbor are worth more than “all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:29-34, cf. 1 Samuel 15:22). To recognize this is to approach God’s kingdom (12:34).
  • Justice, mercy, and faithfulness are “weightier” than the sacrificial tithe (Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42); yet all these must be observed in accordance with God’s Law.
  • “Vain worship” (e.g. sacrifice without obedience to the “commandment of God”) is empty and anathema (Mark 7:1-13).
  • God first desires that his people show mercy to their repentant brothers. Only afterwards does he desire sacrifices: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13, 12:7, cf. Hosea 6:6).2
  • Sacrifice is unable to atone for unrepentant sin (Luke 13:1-3).

All these teachings climax in Jesus’ public condemnation of the Temple. Being that the Temple has become a “hideout for robbers,” and its sacrificial system a righteous façade, God will destroy his house without compunction (Mark 11:15-17, cf. Jeremiah 7:8-15).3 As in the Amalekite episode then, the luxuriant aromas of meats, oils, and grains will not pacify God’s fury against lawlessness and disobedience. The new Samuel has spoken—God will reject his temple and its leadership just as he rejected Saul (cf. 1 Samuel 15:26).

Law of Amalek

Having identified Jesus as a prophet like Samuel, we can also approach the question of Jesus’ relation to the herem narrative contained in 1 Samuel 15 from a more basic angle: Jesus was a Law-observant Jew. Here’s what I mean.

The divine conquest narrative that comes to a close in 1 Samuel 15 begins with Joshua’s struggle with King Amalek in the wilderness (Exodus 17). After Joshua succeeds in temporarily repulsing the Amalekite threat, God commits to perpetual warfare: “The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (17:14-16).

The Deuteronomists later take a keen interest in the story, enshrining a policy of total war against the Amalekites in the covenant code, the Law of Moses:

Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies on every hand, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; do not forget (Deuteronomy 25:17-19).

For Jesus and other observant Jews of his time then, these laws and stories culminating in King Saul’s holy war against the Amalekites constituted God’s word to Israel. The Exodus and Conquest narratives, for their part, were seen not only as the historical events that generated Israel’s past and present identity, but as the historical events that would give shape to Israel’s imagined (historical) future. At the coming of God’s Messiah, a new Exodus and a new Conquest would exalt Israel over the nations and put an end to pagan political power once and for all.5 The road toward this glorious future was in part dependent upon Israel’s faithful keeping of God’s commands—those laws codified in the books of Moses and delivered again through the voice of the Yahwistic prophets (Samuel included).

Jesus then, as a Jew who honored the Law of Moses both as commandment and as historical record, undoubtedly affirmed the justice of God’s anti-Amalekite edicts.

Rise of David, fall of Saul

Being then a prophet in the order of Samuel, and a devout disciple of Moses’ Law, Jesus was also a Davidic loyalist—a Jew who believed that David and his sons were the rightful kings of Israel, that they were the anointed of God. This rather conventional Jewish patriotism also brings us to the critical juncture that is King Saul’s crusade against the Amalekites.

Immediately after Samuel condemns Saul upon his return from the city of Amalek, the Lord decides to establish a king in Saul’s place. This new king appointed by Israel’s heavenly despot will be Saul’s “better” inasmuch as he will heed the command(s) that Saul neglected (15:28, cf. 13:13-14). The chosen Israelite is David—a man “after [the Lord’s] own heart.” To him and his ancestors is given an eternal covenant and throne. In this way God builds a lasting dynasty in Israel upon the foundation of Saul’s rebellion in 1 Samuel 15. David’s obedience and rise stands upon Saul’s disobedience and fall. As Saul’s reign collapses, Samuel’s shade reminds the king of this terrible truth:

The Lord has done to you just as he spoke by me; for the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand, and given it to your neighbor, David. Because you did not obey the voice of the Lord, and did not carry out his fierce wrath against Amalek, therefore the Lord has done this thing to you today (1 Samuel 28:18-19)

The legitimacy of Saul’s removal and replacement was self-evident in the time of Jesus. In fact, Jews of various stripes awaited a Messiah who was “David’s son,” a king like David. Early Christians too indulged in the myth of David’s return (cf. Ezekiel 34)—identifying their master as the offspring of David’s seed and thus heir to David’s throne (cf. Luke 1:32-33, Romans 1:3). Such rhetoric assumes without qualm that David found God’s royal חָ֫סֶד (“covenant love”) only by way of King Saul’s fall from grace, sealed, as it were, by the Amalekite debacle (cf. 2 Samuel 7:15, 1 Chronicles 10:13-14). Jesus’ affirmation of and participation in Davidic legendary propaganda amounted to a tacit approval of Saul’s deposition by David.

The war of Christ

As a last point, early Christians were not above clothing their Messiah in the mantle of a merciless warrior-king. In Revelation 19, for example, Christ wages total war against the enemies of God. He comes to “strike down the nations” and so butchers “the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of the mighty, the flesh of horses and their riders—flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great” (19:11-18). None are left alive on the battlefield (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10).

In a sense then, some early Christians viewed Jesus as the eschatological conqueror of rebellious pagans, as a more perfect Joshua. Where Saul failed, the root of Jesse, the lion of Judah, would succeed.

1—Luke draws from Hannah’s song concerning the birth of her son Samuel in constructing the nativity songs of Mary and Zechariah.

2—The redacted prophetic poetry found in 1 Samuel 15:22-23 may or may not predate similar oracles found in the books of Amos, Hosea, and Micah. For our purposes, canonical dating takes precedence: Samuel is the first prophet in Israel’s history to condemn vain cultic offerings. For the devout reader, all other prophetic critiques of hypocritical sacrifice derive from this singular narrative representation.

3—In Hosea 6:6 חָ֫סֶד (“steadfast love”) most closely means “loyalty to God” in accordance with the terms of the covenant (cf. Hosea 4:1ff). The “steadfast love” God desires from Israel runs parallel with “knowledge of God” (i.e. keeping his commandments) and is contradicted by the nation’s continued treachery: “transgression of the covenant” (Hosea 6:6-7). The Greek word used in Hosea 6:6 by the LXX translator and thus by the Matthean Jesus (ἔλεος) can refer specifically to “mercy,” that is, “kindness and forgiveness shown to repentant brothers” as obligated by the Law of Moses (Matthew 18:15-35, cf. Leviticus 19:16-18, 25:35-43) but more broadly refers to covenant fidelity. LXX Psalm 136 provides a potent example of this as God’s abiding “mercy” (ἔλεος) is there demonstrated through merciless acts of violence against Israel’s enemies—God is faithful to his Patriarchal promises, he keeps his end of the bargain.

4—”Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’—only to go on doing all these abominations?” (Jeremiah 7:8-10).

5—The books of the prophets, the latter portions of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah in particular, bear this out.

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