David I Have Loved, Saul I Have Hated

"Yahweh is not a God who consistently forgives," writes Old Testament commentator Walter Brueggemann. "Saul is treated unfai...

"Yahweh is not a God who consistently forgives," writes Old Testament commentator Walter Brueggemann. "Saul is treated unfairly by Yahweh, and he is assigned a role in the memory of Israel that shows him to be in a position where he can only lose."

1 Samuel 30 is one of the passages that has shaken Brueggemann. In it, David enriches himself off of spoils taken from the Amalekites, Israel's ancient enemies against whom God Himself had declared herem warfare (Ex. 17:14-16). So great is this newfound wealth that David can share it with all of his warriors, including those who out of exhaustion lagged behind and did not participate in the battle (1 Sam. 30:24). On top of that, David still has more left over to send as gifts to various political leaders and elders of Judah, all men whose favor and support will aid him in his rise to the throne (1 Sam. 30:26).

Why is this baffling to Brueggemann? In 1 Samuel 15, King Saul is rejected by God for failing to carry out complete herem warfare against the Amalekites. Saul only destroyed the most worthless of the spoils of war, the rest he gave to his army (1 Sam. 15:9). The prophet Samuel responds to Saul's disobedience (1 Sam. 15:19) by declaring that Saul will be cut off from the throne (1 Sam. 15:26). Hence the apparent contradiction: David seems to be ascending to the throne by the same acts that caused Saul to lose his throne. For Brueggemann, this disparity makes Yahweh seem morally capricious.

All the more concerning for Brueggemann is the fact that Saul begs for forgiveness for his sin (1 Sam. 15:24-25), a plea that seems to be utterly rejected. We know that later on David will commit some grave sins of his own yet will be pardoned by the Lord. The text of 1 Samuel itself seems to be uninterested in directly resolving this apparent theological problem. Can it be resolved at all?

Esau I Have Hated

Perhaps one of the most famous biblical texts on the mysterious favor of the Lord is Malachi 1:2-4, which features the declaration "Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated." The passage is cited by Paul in the New Testament as part of a discussion of divine election (Rom. 9:13-16).

The Amalekites are descendants of Esau, and have accordingly been cut off from the inheritance that belongs to Jacob's children. They have especially incurred God's wrath by attacking the vulnerable children of Israel soon after their exodus from Egypt (Ex. 17:8).

The cursed state of Esau and his descendants may seem unfair. Yet Scripture does not only resource the mystery of divine favor and election to address this issue. Esau is notably at fault for his own loss of inheritance, and his descendants suffer for their continued rebellion. The Bible does not hold God's will and human responsibility to be in conflict.

In particular, Hebrews 12:14-17 is a helpful text for understanding God's rejection of Esau:
Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.
Esau has been identified by the author of Hebrews as an apostate. Hebrews 6:4-8 describes apostates as those who taste the glory of God and yet reject his blessings in favor of physical and fleshly desires. Such people have "tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit." They have "tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come." This makes their apostasy seem all the more absurd.

Esau showed that he despised his birthright by preferring the "taste" of stew to his own inheritance. The connection between Esau's desire for the stew and the desires of the flesh is highlighted by the fact that both the stew and his flesh are "red" and identified as the sources of his name (Gen.25:25,30). The author of Hebrews draws on this imagery to highlight the sheer moral and logical absurdity of apostasy. Just as it seems immensely foolish to give up one's inheritance for a bowl of stew, so also it should seem to us foolish to choose sexual immorality over the blessed inheritance of the beatific vision (Heb. 12:14).

Saul's decisions to curry the favor of the people by sharing the spoils of the Amalekites and to win political favor by sparing the Amalekite king are both instances of the prioritization of immediate and fleshly concerns to the will of God. In other words, Saul is an Esau. He jeopardizes his lasting kingly inheritance out of a desire to secure the moment for himself.

Not only is Saul an Esau, he acts like an Amalekite. Numbers 24:20 identifies Amalek as the "first among the nations," an appellation that John Calvin suggests is mocking. "The pride of Amalek [is] indirectly rebuked, because they claimed superiority for themselves over other nations."

Saul's failure to "blot out the memory" of Amalek's name (Ex. 17:14) shows his lack of faith or interest in the kingly promise of Numbers 24:7. Yet his disobedience is also indicative of his desire to establish his own name through political force, as Samuel observes (1 Sam. 15:17). Obedience to God is not sufficient for Saul. Holiness is not sufficient. He wants to be first among the people (1 Sam. 18:7-8). Saul is an Amalekite.

Hebrews states that Esau found no chance for repentance, and that it is impossible for apostates to be restored to repentance. Similarly for Saul, his pleas for pardon are rejected by Samuel. It is too late. Saul's kingdom will be given to another.

David I Have Loved

Brueggemann's perspective on 1 Samuel 30 is not new. The fourth century Manichean heretic Faustus raised a similar charge against God's moral integrity, necessitating a thorough response from Augustine of Hippo. On God's different treatment of Saul and David, Augustine writes:
The divine eye saw a difference in the heart. The lesson for us to learn from these things is that the kingdom of heaven is within us, and that we must worship God from our inmost feelings, so that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth may speak, instead of honoring Him with our lips, like the people of old, while our hearts are far from Him.
Augustine clearly has in mind 1 Samuel 16:7, in which God chooses David to be king because of his qualities of heart. David is devoted to God above all else (Ps. 17:15). He does not see God's favor as a means to the end of political power, as Saul does. Rather, the presence of God and his glory is the end itself for David. It is what he desires most to see (Ps. 11:7). He is faithful because he wants the beatific vision, and to inherit the covenant promise of a kingdom that shall never be shaken (Heb. 12:28).

The difference between Saul and David in their repentance is that the former only desires pardon so that he might retrieve the kingdom he has lost. The latter, on the other hand, acknowledges that God desires more than outward obedience or repentance (Ps. 51:6,17). Turning away from sin must be comprehensive, involving the whole man.

Saul's repentance is inconsistent. He regrets seeking to kill David, only to attempt it again and again. This is reminiscent of Esau's desire to kill Jacob (Genesis 27:41), a sin for which he did later repent, but also a sin that many of his descendants persisted in by attempting to wipe out Israel. The heart that sees personal or institutional power as an ultimate end in itself will always react violently or oppressively to forces which seem to threaten that power. By contrast, the heart that seeks after the Lord above all else will find strength even in the most vulnerable and perilous times (1 Sam. 30:5-6).

Saul sees divine favor as a means of obtaining his own political power. Hence his desperation at losing God's favor: when Saul's kingdom is threatened and God will not tell him what to do, Saul seeks out a witch (1 Sam. 28:5-7). Saul is so desperate that he tries to indirectly get a divine word by calling forth the spirit of Samuel (1 Sam. 28:15-18). The only word he receives is a confirmation of the judgment his disobedience has earned. In this very attempt at manipulating divine power for his own interests, Saul has proven that his so-called repentance is a sham. The sin of rebellion and the sin of divination are linked (1 Sam. 15:23).

David uses divination (via ephod) to obtain a word from the Lord, but this is different from the sin of divination. He is not attempting to force a word from the Lord by mystical methods which bypass the need for inner spiritual holiness. Rather, as he has already strengthened himself inwardly in the Lord, he humbly seeks out divine wisdom and direction in his time of need (1 Sam. 30:7-8). David ascribes his victory over the Amalekites to God's providence, not claiming victory in his own name (1 Samuel 30:23).

Beyond this theological backdrop, there are clear contextual reasons why David's taking of the Amalekite spoils differs from Saul. For one thing, David's act was one of retrieval and recovery, taking back all that had been stolen from the surrounding lands. By contrast, Saul was not assaulting an Amalekite raiding force in 1 Samuel 15, but an Amalekite city. Whereas David was taking back, Saul was invading with the task of total destruction.

Furthermore, David is not yet king, and has been exiled from the people of God. The war between Israel and Amalek was declared by God himself in his office as King over Israel (Ex. 17:16), and it is Saul's kingly duty to carry it out (1 Sam. 15:1). Saul's duty to wage herem warfare thus carries a different weight of obligation, and his failure to obey shows that he does not respect God's overarching rule. In other words, David and Saul's missions and obligations both clearly differ in these passages.

Saul, like Esau before him, serves as a warning against apostasy. Let us then take heed:
Turn away from evil and do good;
so shall you dwell forever.
For the LORD loves justice;
he will not forsake his saints.
They are preserved forever,
but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.
(Psalm 37:27-28)

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