In the special text we read this week from Samuel, the prophet, directed by God, gives the newly anointed king, Saul, a very important assignment. How Saul responds will teach us a lot.
Saul is challenged to wipe out Amalek. Let’s recall that Amalek had been more than a frightening and treacherous nemesis to the Israelites on their way; they had been a major, unrelenting threat to the people’s security.
Saul achieved initial success but decided to preserve Agag, the king of Amalek. Whatever his motive, Saul not only failed the mission of taking out this great existential threat; he seemed actually to conclude that his actions were tantamount to a major accomplishment for the people. In that spirit, Saul decided to sacrifice the surviving Amalekite cattle to God, presumably as a marker of victory and gratitude.
A stunned Samuel responded: “Does God delight in burnt offerings as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than the fat of rams.”
What’s the relevance of all this to us? And what answers might we find in this week’s portion from Exodus?
Recall that we are at that place in the narrative where God had been instructing Moses on the construction and manner of operating the Tabernacle. This and later forms of sacred space are where we draw near to God to learn to live as God expects.
So, what do we find in this text? The people are taught to bring olive oil to kindle the lamps. The priests are to wear holy garments, which are, among other things, to bear stones corresponding to the tribes. There are offerings that are to be made and rituals to be performed to sanctify the service of the priests.
How does Samuel’s teaching guide our understanding of these prescriptions? Here’s my thought: it’s a preview of the profound lesson the later prophets will teach us again and again. Rituals and offerings are important, but God does not delight in our adhering to them over living true to Divine expectations of right living.
Do we do ritual by rote? Do we do it to cover over wrong we’ve done? Do we do it because “it’s what’s done?” Or, instead, as Samuel says, do we do what we do to with the fundamental purpose of fulfilling God’s direction?
Metaphorically speaking, when we “bring oil” to our sacred space, do we do so in a manner that mostly fulfills a ritual? Or do we actually contribute our time, spirit, and resources to spreading God’s light in the world?
When we “display the stones” representing our community, are we doing so politically and for self-interest, or are we rather demonstrating that we will do what’s difficult and necessary to advance the whole community’s deeper interests?
When we make an offering, are we, like Saul, hiding our selfish decisions in a show of feigned obeisance to God and community? Or, we are giving of ourselves in a way that is consistent with God’s direction, and supportive of our community’s true requirements?
May we always be responsive and true when God calls.