Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Pope Francis and the Sin of Saul

Sorry I have not posted for a while…we are a family of seven and over the past two weeks every single one of us has been sick multiple times. It’s been one of those “barely keeping my head above water” sorts of months. 

A lot has been going on, too; the pope’s visit to the Synagogue of Rome, the infamous video about interreligious dialogue that constituted the pope’s January prayer intentions, the revelations that Francis flew into such a rage during the 2015 Synod at the letter of the 13 cardinals that the Swiss Guard had to clear the dining hall of Casa Santa Marta. 

Of course, I am not a papal commentator nor a reporter and I feel no obligation to comment on any of this. But I do take myself to be an amateur Scripture scholar (I emphasize amateur); I have studied the Scriptures closely and taught Sacred Scripture at the high school level for eight years. When I read the pope’s rambling sermon against “obstinate rebels” who “resist change”, as reported by Vatican Radio on Monday, January 18th, I could not help but jump in, because there is a serious misuse of Scripture in the pope’s homily.

The pope was commenting on the Old Testament readings from 1 Samuel 15, in which Saul disobeys God in the matter of retaining sheep and oxen from the defeated armies of Amalek for sacrifice. God had commanded Saul to destroy the sheep and cattle of the Amalekites as things devoted to God for destruction. But Saul retains all the cattle for himself, claiming he intends to sacrifice them later. For this sin, God rejects Saul from being King of Israel. First, here is the pope’s commentary on the reading, as well as his insights as to its contemporary application:

“In the first reading, Saul was rejected by God as King of Israel because he disobeyed, preferring to listen to the people rather than the will of God. The people, after a victory in battle, wanted to offer a sacrifice of the best animals to God, because, he said, “It’s always been done that way.” But God, this time, did not want that. The prophet Samuel rebuked Saul: “Does the Lord so delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obedience to the command of the Lord?”
“[This is] the sin of so many Christians who cling to what has always been done and do not allow others to change. And they end up with half a life, [a life that is] patched, mended, meaningless.” The sin, he said, is a “closed heart”, that “does not hear the voice of the Lord, that is not open to the newness of the Lord, to the Spirit that always surprises us.” This rebellion, says Samuel, is “the sin of divination,” and obstinacy is the sin of idolatry.

The text is taken from Vatican Radio. Notice that not all of the above is direct quotes from the pope; as is normal for the pope’s homilies, some pertinent phrases are quoted verbatim while much is paraphrased.

Note the way Francis interprets this passage. Saul has disobeyed God and lost the kingship. What was his disobedience? According to Francis, it was that Saul refuses to obey God by appealing to tradition. “It’s always been done that way”, is how the pope paraphrases Saul. “But God, this time, did not want that.” Saul is portrayed as obstinately clinging to a tradition that is now contrary to the will of God. God is attempting to innovate with a new command. Saul is not open to the “newness of the Lord.” He has closed himself off to the “surprises” of God and taken refuge behind the “meaningless” veil of custom. 

So according to Francis' exegesis, God is the innovator and Saul is the one stubbornly resisting change.

The problem is, the Scriptures suggest the exact opposite is true. If we read 1 Samuel 15, we see that Saul never once appeals to some custom of tradition to justify his disobedience. He simply makes up excuses. He says, “The people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen, to sacrifice to the Lord your God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed” (1 Sam. 15:15); a little later on he repeats his excuse: “I have obeyed the voice of the Lord. I have gone on the mission which the Lord has sent me, I have brought Agag, king of Amalek, and I have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. But the people took the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal” (1 Sam. 15:20-21).

These are the only two justifications Saul offers for his behavior. He does not appeal to tradition, custom, or that “it’s always been done that way.” Thus, the dichotomy the pope attempts to create between Saul the traditionalist and God the innovator is not supported by the text.

But even if Saul does not appeal to any custom of sparing sheep and oxen for sacrifice, did such a custom in fact exist? If we look back to the immediate command Saul receives from God, we see that he is told by Samuel:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I will punish what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on way, when they came out of Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass’” (1 Sam. 15:2-3).

The question then becomes, is this command something new? Is this an innovation? A "surprise" of the Holy Spirit? Pope Francis says that God’s command regarding the devoted cattle was a novelty. Remember, he contrasts Saul’s obstinate clinging to tradition with the phrase “But God, this time, did not want that.” This implies that God’s command “this time” in 1 Sam. 15:2-3 to destroy the Amalekites to a man along with their cattle was something fundamentally new – a novel act of “the Spirit that always surprises us.”

Again, this implication simply cannot be borne out by the Scriptures. What God commanded here was not something new, some innovation or “newness.” In fact, God’s command to destroy the Amalekites in totu was part of a long-standing Israelite tradition known as herem warfare.

Herem warfare was the practice of utterly destroying an opposing people along with all their material goods as an offering to the Lord. The act of sacrifice is one of destruction; when a burnt offering is made, the animal is destroyed. In herem warfare, the entire people and all their possessions are “devoted” to the Lord – i.e., dedicated to destruction. It is a kind of holy warfare in the most literal sense, where the defeated people and their entire livelihoods are made into a collective offering to the Lord.

It is not the place here to debate the morality of herem warfare; moderns seem squeamishly troubled by it. I have an entire series of essays on it, beginning here. It is my point, however, to establish that it has a long biblical pedigree. It is instituted by God in Leviticus (Lev. 27:28-29), specifically commanded against the Canaanites in Deuteronomy (Deut. 7:1-6), and reaffirmed and practiced liberally throughout the Book of Joshua. After the fall of Jericho, Achan is put to death for failing to observe the herem by stealing a wedge of Babylonian gold (Josh. 7); herem is carried out in the Book of Judges (Judg. 1:8, 25); indeed, in Judges, the Angel of the Lord even rebukes the Israelites for not practicing herem warfare severely enough; see Judg. 1:28, 2:1-5. And, as we have seen, herem is again commanded in 1 Samuel 15:2-3.

This means the command of the Lord to utterly destroy the Amalekites and devote their cattle to destruction was certainly not something "new"; it was not "surprise" of God. This was a long tradition, going back to the time of the wandering and the giving of the Law. Saul would have certainly been aware of this. God was commanding nothing new in 1 Samuel 15; He was simply instructing Saul to be faithful to the tradition of herem warfare as handed down since the time of Moses.

Not only was herem warfare a tradition in general, but the mandated destruction of the Amalekites in particular. Deuteronomy 25:17-19 reads:

“Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way, when you were faint and weary, and cut off at your rear all who lagged behind you; and he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget."

Far from being a "surprise", the command to eradicate the Amalekites was established many decades centuries beforehand. 

The implication of this is that Saul's sin is not an obstinate clinging to tradition, but rather an innovation! God had traditionally demanded the destruction of devoted cattle; He did so again in 1 Samuel 15:2-3. Saul was not the traditionalist but the innovator. He disobeyed the tradition of herem warfare by sparing those cattle committed to destruction. Samuel and God rebuke Saul not for stubbornly maintaining a tradition, but for deviating from it. This means Pope Francis actually got it entirely backward.

Given this, the pope's characterization of Saul as blindly clinging to custom makes absolutely no sense. A charitable interpretation of this embarrassing exegetical error would be that the pope innocently confused different stories; after all, the Church Fathers and many saints often quoted the Scripture from memory and frequently got stories confused or reported them incorrectly. That would be the charitable interpretation. The more pessimistic interpretation would be that Pope Francis simply doesn't know the Bible very well. I don't know the pope's mind and I am not going to assert that.

But I asserting that what he said on January 18th was simply incorrect from a textual standpoint and I defy anyone to prove otherwise.


Murray said...

Interestingly, I read this passage this morning, Dt 25:17-19:

17 “Remember what Am′alek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, 18 how he attacked you on the way, when you were faint and weary, and cut off at your rear all who lagged behind you; and he did not fear God. 19 Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the remembrance of Am′alek from under heaven; you shall not forget.

So, far from being a surprise, the command to eradicate the Amalekites was established many decades (centuries?) beforehand.

Boniface said...

Oh wow. Thanks. May I incorporate that into the articles, Murray?

Murray said...

Absolutely. I don't believe I hold the copyright :)!

Laurel said...

Thank you for this clarification. Putting the whole scene into context now makes sense out of why Saul was rejected as king by God. I remembered this reading from daily Mass and was confused when I read the Pope's 'interpretation' of the passage. Thank you, again for the bible study lesson.

JE ACCUSE said...

"Sorry I have not posted for a while…we are a family of seven and over the past two weeks every single one of us has been sick multiple times. It’s been one of those “barely keeping my head above water” sorts of months."

You really think "sorry" is enough to excuse me not having a temporary fix of new posts during my hours of having nothing to do every day, every week? IT IS NOT.

Shape up, Bonifake.

Marko Ivančičević said...

I LOLd when i saw the post labels :D

Barbara Jensen said...

Another interpretation of why Francis is distorting Scripture is that he knows exactly what he is doing and is counting on the masses to take his distorted exegesis as authentic simply because 'the pope says so'. Do not assume that he is innocent of such deception. He is as clever as the devil.

c matt said...

This means Pope Francis actually got it entirely backward

I am shocked, shocked that PF would get something wrong to further his own agenda!

Unknown said...

But (here's the catch) Unam Sanctum is only able to derive his own meaning from the text through use of a traditional method of exegesis wherein words mean things. What is needed is an innovative interpretation.

Deacon Augustine said...

Thank you - good article on herem warfare a.k.a. putting a city/people "under a ban."

This Pope has form on corrupt exegesis. Remember the Pharisees who opposed divorce and remarriage, Our Lord lying to his disciples on the road to Emmaus; Our Lady doing goodness knows what at the foot of the Cross, the sinful little Lord running off to the Temple at the age of 12?

Its obvious he has never read Pastor Aeternus, but it does fill one with wonder how a man so ignorant of Scripture could ascend to the See of Peter. This must surely be a supernatural pontificate.

T. McFadden, Sr. said...

People should not be surprised by anything Pope Francis says and does. Through the grace of the Holy Spirit he won't teach authoritatively anything to be held as a belief by the universal Church but other than that he will be a true, blue Jesuit. When he was elected my first thought was "God help us, they've elected a Jesuit." Francis was educated and formed as a Jesuit 40-50 years ago. From at least the 40s onward the Jesuits were imbibing in the evolution-based theology fiction of Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. Then there was John Courtney Murray, S.J. The rot in the Jesuits was chronicled in the 1980s in books such as The Jesuits by Malachi Martin and The Pope and the Jesuits by James Hitchcock. In the 70s we watched in horror as Congressman Robert Drinan, S.J. voted for abortion and became the media's "go to guy" on life issues without rebuke from his Jesuit superior. We saw constant dissent on everything and anything that had anything to do with sex being constantly published in the Jesuit magazine, America, which has preached the condemned doctrine of liberation theology for decades.Consider what the Jesuit Universities have become. Don't expect that leopard Francis to change his spots. He's everything the Jesuits are.

Clear Waters said...

'“obstinate rebels” who “resist change”'

Strangely, this appears to be exactly what the Lord commands when He instructs us to choose Him or the World.

All too often people mistake the argument from tradition for the argument from Tradition.

The argument from tradition, as termed by Ayn Rand I believe, is to say that something is good because it is old. This is obviously fallacious.

However, the argument from Tradition is not appealing to the age of a given thing, but its perennial truth. For instance, arguing for Patriarchy is not based on the fact that is is a 5000 year old system of sex relations in civilized society between men and women, but instead is based on the fact that is appears universally in civilizations across that time period without exception until the Modern era, belying a grounding in human design.

Who has changed the world? Who has shaped the world we live in today that we ought to honor by adapting to their demands of the Christian faithful? The atheistic butchers of the French Revolution, of Soviet Russia?! If we resisted their violence when it was breaking down the door, then what argument remains to say that we should acquiesce to the hurt and damage they left as a scar upon the land with their evil?

Anonymous said...

Council of Trent
Session 7 Canon 13
Look it up :)

Boniface said...

True, true...but amending the rite to include women hardly constitutes changing the whole rite into something new.

Anonymous said...

Below could be the reason for the pope's slip of mind or possibly the sleight of tongue. Time will tell.

Is God planning for new scenery and new leadership? The increasing flooding around the world is one of the signs, among many others, we are to look for:
Book of Truth mini-webcast, part one:
Book of Truth mini-webcast, part two:

Anonymous said...

Tempted to accept Maria Divine Mercy but I really don't understand the logic behind rejecting Jorge but accepting every man after the death of Pius XII. You don't think that it's an act of apostasy to worship with false religions or treat them indifferently? Apostasy is as much of an act of rejecting the faith as formal heresy!

Boniface said...

Apostasy is not doing something contrary or damaging to faith; it is the formal and explicit rejection of the Christian Faith. Francis has certainly not repudiated Christianity, regardless of how poorly he presents it.

As for MDM, how could you even be tempted? It is SOOO stupid. She has been outed as this Irish broad Mary Carberry who was just bilking people out of money with shell companies selling trinkets. The whole operation has folded.

Anonymous said...

Well, have you read what popes in the past have called indifference and false ecumenism tantamount to? The first commandment doesn't change just because "Saint" JPII felt like being kind. It's simply not possible to reject Jorge and not his predecessors. If Jorge is a heretic they're just as bad. I'm pretty sure that most traditional Catholics already believe he is a heretic but call him pope, as if someone without the Catholic faith can be the pope.

Jorge clearly serves the one worlders. Calling it a conspiracy theory doesn't make it any less true. Maria Divine Mercy did call out Jorge before he became "Pope". But like I said if Francis is a heretic so is Benedict"

Boniface said...

I agree with that. It does not make sense to impugn Bergoglio alone without all his predecessors, who did much of the same stuff. Which is why Francis is the true Pope.

Sharon said...

As a NON-Scripture scholar but simply as one from a background in which the Bible was (by many of us) read straight through and a great deal of study was done on passages, subjects and so forth, I can say that the simplest mind who has read the Old Testament would agree with you totally as to WHY Saul was rejected as king -- and agree with you on all the rest of it, though not knowing the terminology of that type of warfare. My protestant husband knew instantly what was wrong with what the Pope said in that instance. (I am a convert.)