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Speaking to the Soul: Spoils of War

Speaking to the Soul: Spoils of War

Proper 9, Year One

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]


Today’s Readings for the Daily Office:
Psalms 1, 2, 3 (morning) // 4, 7 (evening)

1 Samuel 15:1-3, 7-23

Acts 9:19b-31

Luke 23:22-56a

Our first reading this morning includes some of the most brutal words ever attributed to God, filtered through a prophet, and delivered to a king. These words call for the utter, purely vengeful destruction of a community called the Amalekites: “do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” Like some contemporary methods of warfare, this war against the Amalekites will not discriminate based on gender, age, or species. All are fair targets. But, believe it or not, there’s a form of war that this passage condemns as even worse.

King Saul disobeys the military strategy delivered to him by the prophet Samuel. Instead of destroying indiscriminately, Saul and his men think they have a better plan: wipe out the people and property they consider worthless, but set aside anything valuable for themselves. As the Scripture tells us, “Saul and the people spared . . . the best of the sheep and of the cattle and of the fatlings, and the lambs.” When Samuel hears the bleating of these sheep and the lowing of the cattle, he knows that the plan has gone wrong. According to the original plan, these animals should not have survived the attack.

What were they doing with the spoils of war? The Lord has this to say, through Samuel: “Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord? Why did you swoop down on the spoil, and do what was evil in the sight of the Lord?” Saul claims that the goods his army set aside was just being saved up as a sacrifice to the Lord, but the Lord seems to know better. This war went wrong because Saul and his army set aside spoils for themselves.

While most of this Scripture passage is very remote from the God I have come to know, love, and serve in the person of Christ, we can still, very faintly, hear God crying out through this text against taking the spoils of war. We’re accustomed now to finding profit-motives and profiteers instigating and accompanying so many of the world’s violent conflicts. But, when it comes to the battles of this world, there should be nothing in it for us but justice and peace.

Lora Walsh blogs about taking risks and seeking grace at A Daily Scandal. She serves as curate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and as director of the Ark Fellows, an Episcopal Service Corps  program sponsored by St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas.


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Paul Woodrum

Mark, I realize I didn’t address your question. Stories and poetry often tell us more about God than does history, though that is not to be discounted. After all, Jesus most memorable teachings are the parables, stories, folk tales, mythology, etc., that give us insight into the nature of God. The same is true of much of the Hebrew Scriptures from underdog stories like David and Goliath to the sublime poetry of the Psalms, the hymns of the Second Temple.

The concern is not to confuse history and story lest we miss the meaning of both. Discerning the agenda of the author helps us understand the applicability of the narrative to our own day.

Mark Mason

Textual criticism has its place. We only know of the teachings of Christ because some author had an agenda. As a matter of faith, many of us still believe that the Holy Spirit works among men. Surely the Holy Spirit does so outside of scripture. Should the Bible hold any special weight for Christians? If the answer is no then why teach it at all? If the answer is yes then textual criticism of the Holy Spirit’s agenda is another matter altogether. How does it serve to impart faith in a child by telling them that many of the psalms are attributed to King David while telling them that King David probably never really existed?

Mark Mason

“…the oral stories became a way of singing the Lord’s song in a strange land and passing the tradition on to new generations…”

That sounds much less scandalous than ‘folk tales.’

Paul Woodrum

Up until roughly the 7th century BC very little was written down. What we have is oral tradition, in story form, that significantly forms our understanding of God. After that, both the old legends and what we consider to be history begin to be written, especially during the Babylonian Captivity when recording the oral stories became a way of singing the Lord’s song in a strange land and passing the tradition on to new generations that had never known Judah, Jerusalem or the Temple. In the New Testament, some quotes come from the law of the early period. Most come from the prophets of the Babylonian and later periods.

As the Babylonian crisis prompted a written record of Hebrew tradition, so the Destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, the dispersal of Jews and Christians, and the dying out of the first generation prompted much of the writing of the New Testament. The contemporary record is largely limited to the great prophets and, in the New Testament, to Paul

Paul Woodrum

Curiously, there is no archeological evidence for the existence of Samuel, Saul, David and Solomon, not even of Moses, nor of the first temple, nor is there any other evidence of them in the writings of neighboring nations like Egypt, Assyria, or Babylon. We have only the Biblical writings and they date from the 7th century BC and on, not the tenth century when the folks we’re reading about this summer, from the Hebrew Scriptures, supposedly lived. I would suggest they are mainly folk tales that, passed from generation to generation, served to form the collective memory of a tribal society that gifted civilization with a belief in monotheism and justice expressed through law. The telling, writing and editing suggest the agenda of a much later time focused on before, during and after the Babylonian Captivity that, perhaps even more than the Exodus, is the defining moment for Judaism.

Mark Mason

How many times does the NT writers allude to or directly quote the Hebrew Scriptures? Did not Christ himself repeatedly do so? If the OT is mostly folk tales, what is the Christian Faith based on? Can Christ be the messiah when the messiah is a folk tale?

Ann Fontaine

Current archaeology seems to be saying there were a bunch of hill tribes who banded together and started moving out into other people’s territory. Most of them were never in Egypt and many of the great battles (re: Jericho) were just stories elaborated on from minor skirmishes. Yes, Paul, and told at a much later date to justify power.

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