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. . . .
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
he has also rejected you from being king.
(1 Samuel 15:22–23)
The prophet Samuel pronounces
this grim curse to Saul after Saul disobeys God. Through Samuel,
God has instructed King Saul to attack the neighboring Amalekites
and destroy them completely, sparing nothing. Saul, however, has
brought back the Amalekite flocks as booty, apparently to use as
a ritual animal sacrifice to God. This seemingly benign error not
only earns God’s wrath but justifies the removal of Saul as king
of Israel. As such, the oversight marks a turning a point in the
history of Israel, permitting David’s ascent to the throne. More important,
the nature of Saul’s error implies a new outlook on religious obedience.
Obedience is not adherence to God’s laws but obedience to God himself.
As Samuel suggests, God honors obedience to that which is unseen—“the
voice of the Lord”—more than obedience to that which is seen—physical
regulations and ceremonies. Valuing the unseen over the seen is
integral to the theme of radical faith in the Old Testament. Saul
does not possess this faith, yet his tragic demise over such a fine
distinction earns our sympathy.