In my post earlier today, I quoted Pope Francis on the topic of what Saul did in the Old Testament. This was the basis for his comments about Christians with “closed hearts,” the “sin of divination” when adhering to tradition, and the sin of “idolatry” when Christians are “obstinate.” The papal statement in question:
“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.
Over at the fine blog, Unam Sanctam, there is a brief exegesis on this passage which shows that things are not as the Holy Father presented them:
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.
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.
There’s a good bit more, and taking the time to go through it to arrive at an authentic understanding of this scriptural example is very helpful, especially if you’re not well-versed in the Old Testament.
Why are you still here? Go read it.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.