Q&R with Brad Jersak – A Nonviolent God with Violent Prophets?
In a talk I saw you give at an Open Table discussion, you cited 1 Sam. 15, the genocide of the Amalekites, and your conversation with a mentor. You seemed to be okay interpreting the story metaphorically. That explanation is a big stretch for me.
How can verse 3 (the command to slaughter) be a metaphor? Samuel was a bona fide OT prophet… and yet in verse 33, he kills Agag, hacking him to bits!
God is good, is not destructive, but are we to believe his prophets are? Sure, they can have their faults, but a metaphor? I need help… lost in translation…”
Now you are seeing the reality of the Bible as a “text in travail.” Intense stuff. And this is why, as Christians, we are not even permitted access to the O.T. without Jesus as our rabbi. No Jew would think to interpret their Bible on their own without a guide to help them navigate interpretation, and this guidance is especially informed by the rabbi’s view of God.
For Christians, that rabbi is the Son who reveals God as Abba, and the Holy Spirit is the guide who illumines the spiritual meaning of any given text (cf. 1 Cor. 2:6-16).
So before we even open the scrolls to 1 Samuel, we must already submit ourselves to Christ’s revelation of God as our all-merciful, ever-compassionate, infinitely loving Abba in whom there is no death or darkness at all. Until that is settled, the Hebrew Scriptures are not a Christian book. Once it is, they reveal the Good News.
Your question indicates that the love and goodness of God are settled for you, which is exactly why the text was so jarring. The question then becomes how we read the story with Jesus.
First, if you understand that God is not a death-dealer, then we must resist indications by the narrator that God commands, commends or incites death-dealing. He doesn’t. How do we know this? From Jesus’ revelation of who God is.
Every Scripture or prophet that presents God as the death-dealer has not had the full revelation of God-in-Christ. God lets the narrators tell their authentic faith stories through their limited worldviews, cultural assumptions and even their own brokenness, which fans the desire to see their enemies destroyed. And if God does not do vengeance on their behalf, then they will do it directly in his name. And even God’s ‘authentic prophets’ do this. Their story is in our Bibles by design as an inspired critique of those who continue the tradition of religious violence.
It’s not that God is absent from the story. We hear God’s voice through Samuel in these words:
- “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams.”
But we can also hear Samuel’s bigotry and rage in his rejection of mercy. That obedience is about unrestrained slaughter without mercy. That to obey is to be merciless. And so the prophet Hosea and, later on, Christ himself will retort,
- “God learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
That’s one prophet trumping the words of another and Christ (God in the flesh) reiterating the correction.
And then we have the death of Agag (vs. 33):
- But Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.” And Samuel hacked Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.
I should note that “before the Lord” is a nod to sacrificial language. He’s sacrificing an obedience offering to the Lord, and Agag is the sacrifice that fails to appease God’s wrath.
Is that what God wants? NO. How do we know? Because our final authority, JESUS, says so. You had heard it said, but now I say to you…
Hadn’t the Psalmist alluded to this over 1000 years before Christ? “The death of sinners is evil” (Psalm 34:21), more often translated, “Evil will slay the wicked.” Who will slay the wicked? God? Jesus? Christ-followers? No. Evil slays the wicked. And from God’s point of view, their death is evil. These words of God through the same man who had been anointed by the prophet Samuel to take Saul’s place but refused to kill him when given the chance.
So when we read 1 Samuel 15, if we are going to appropriate them, we cannot read them literally as revelations of God’s being, nature or desires. Now the events may have actually happened (and if so, how tragic), but our use of the stories as Christian Scripture must be metaphorical. The narrator surely interprets the events one way, that Samuel’s rage is an expression of God’s wrath. But Christ, the Prince of Peace, is our final, authoritative narrator. And he knows Abba is in the business of undoing death, not inflicting it. So, yes, Samuel may have actually killed Agag, but where is God in that?
To preach from this story, we would have to read it like a parable, where Agag represents something that must be hacked to bits, similar to Christ saying, “If your hand causes you to stumble, hack it off.” We take that text figuratively for dealing swiftly and radically with soul-endangering stuff.
What might Agag represent spiritually? One approach is to follow the etymology of Agag’s name, which might be a pun on “high” … as in exalted. So for a Christian to use this, we might preach it in conjunction with Jesus’ amputation commands and Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 10:3-6:
- For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses.
Here, Paul specifies, we don’t use worldly weapons because our real warfare is not against enemies of flesh and blood (cf. Eph. 6). He continues,
- We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete.
Ah, so Agag could be read metaphorically or spiritually as “high” and lofty thoughts — i.e. prideful ideas that I am lord and king instead of Jesus. And our warfare is to bring such self-destructive delusions and disobedience underfoot with the same zeal Samuel showed Agog … since obedience is better than sacrifice.
P.S. An interesting side-note for further study: the book of Esther names the treacherous villain, Haman, who ultimately builds his own gallows, as a descendant of Agag five times. I wonder why. Maybe we’d interpret that spiritually as the offspring of pride in our hearts constructing self-destructive schemes that we had designed for others. And maybe we could interpret that story through the Cross to see how the cruciform gallows Satan had constructed for Jesus became the very means by which death is ultimately slain. The gallows built for Mordechai thus prefigure the cross built for Jesus. And in both cases, God sovereignly turns the instrument of death into the weapon of the innocent ones’ victory.