Halfway Measures

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, January 12, 2003


Readings

1 Samuel 15:1-23 Saul spares Agag

Samuel said to Saul, "I am the one the Lord sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty says: 'I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.'"

So Saul summoned the men and mustered them at Telaim--two hundred thousand foot soldiers and ten thousand men from Judah. Saul went to the city of Amalek and set an ambush in the ravine. Then he said to the Kenites, "Go away, leave the Amalekites so that I do not destroy you along with them; for you showed kindness to all the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt." So the Kenites moved away from the Amalekites.

Then Saul attacked the Amalekites all the way from Havilah to Shur, to the east of Egypt. He took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and all his people he totally destroyed with the sword. But Saul and the army spared Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs--everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that was despised and weak they totally destroyed.

Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel: "I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions." Samuel was troubled, and he cried out to the Lord all that night.

Early in the morning Samuel got up and went to meet Saul, but he was told, "Saul has gone to Carmel. There he has set up a monument in his own honor and has turned and gone on down to Gilgal."

When Samuel reached him, Saul said, "The Lord bless you! I have carried out the Lord's instructions."

But Samuel said, "What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?"

Saul answered, "The soldiers brought them from the Amalekites; they spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the Lord your God, but we totally destroyed the rest."

"Stop!" Samuel said to Saul. "Let me tell you what the Lord said to me last night."

"Tell me," Saul replied.

Samuel said, "Although you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. And he sent you on a mission, saying, 'Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; make war on them until you have wiped them out.' Why did you not obey the Lord? Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the Lord?"

"But I did obey the Lord," Saul said. "I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal."

But Samuel replied: "Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king."

Luke 9:57, 61, 62 Looking back

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, . . . "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home."

Jesus said to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

Arcana Coelestia #1659.3 Spiritual wars

In ancient times many things were represented by wars, which people called "The Wars of Jehovah." These wars meant nothing but the conflicts fought by the church and by those who belonged to the church. In other words, it meant their temptations, which are nothing but battles and wars against the evils present within themselves. So they are against the devil's crew, who stir up evils and attempt to destroy the church and the member of the church. Wars in the Bible have no other meaning.


Sermon

This is what the Lord Almighty says: "I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys." (1 Samuel 15:2, 3)

No halfway measures here! With the Lord, it's all or nothing. "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." "No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money." (Matthew 6:24). "Anyone who comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters--yes, even life itself--cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). And even more graphically:

If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. (Matthew 18:8, 9)

If we take such passages literally, then this business of religion is not merely impolite, but downright shocking.

Perhaps that's the idea: to shock us out of our complacency. To goad us into the realization that our spiritual life is serious business. It is not something we can attend on Sunday and then figure that we've done our job. Religion, and especially Christianity, demands the total commitment of our entire life to God--no ifs, ands, or buts.

Saul, the first king of Israel, clearly did not understand or accept this. When he was first chosen as king, he was young, innocent, and humble. But once he got a taste of military victory, he was never again willing to follow the instructions and do it the Lord's way. Thinking his victories were his own, rather than God's, he began to cut corners, do things his own way . . . and then make excuses for his failure to follow God's commands.

In today's story, the prophet Samuel had given Saul a commandment from God to completely destroy the Amalekites. The Amalekites were a particularly devious foe. They had been the first to attack the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt. Their general modus operandi was to avoid open conflict with the main body of their enemies, but to sneak around from behind, picking off the weak and the stragglers, and thus sapping both the numbers and the spirit of their foes. With the Lord's help, Israel had defeated the Amalekites in that first battle. But the Amalekites had continued to harass them. Now Saul was commanded to eliminate this ever-present and secretly menacing threat by attacking the city that was the Amalekites stronghold, and killing every living being in it.

To this day, many Christians take this story literally, believing that God actually would and did command the wholesale slaughter of a city--men, women, and children, and even the domesticated animals. And many skeptics point to gruesome passages such as this to prove that the God of the Bible is not worthy of our respect, let alone our faith.

There have been some attempts to explain the warlike nature of the Israelites and their God by resorting to the stage of psychological development of the Israelites. The Israelites, so the theory goes, were at an earlier stage of development, in which people are not yet able to distinguish the evil from the person. So if they saw an individual or a nation practicing evil things, they considered those people to be evil. And if they believed that evil was . . . well . . . evil, then their natural response was to punish and destroy those who had committed the evil.

There certainly is something to this theory. God wants us to devote ourselves to fighting what is evil and doing what is good. And if we are not able to make the finer distinctions between the person and the evil actions committed by the person, then it is still better for us to act according to our conscience, even if our actions themselves are not good in an ultimate sense. In other words, if the Israelites believed that fighting against evil meant eliminating the surrounding nations--who tended to be immoral and idol-worshipers--then God allowed them to "do what was right" in the way they conceived of it.

However, to be clear, our belief is that God would never command people to engage in slaughter and destruction. Yes, these things are stated quite clearly in the literal sense of the Bible. But such statements are "appearances of truth," meaning they are the truth as seen through human eyes and minds, rather than as it comes pure from God. The commandment that came from God may have been something like this: "You shall eliminate all evil from within and around you." But to the mind set of the Israelites, that came through as, "You shall kill everyone who engages in evil practices." We humans are limited and faulty in many ways, and we tend to hear God's commandments through the filter of our own ideas, attitudes, and stages of development. And God allows us to hear the divine commands through those filters because hearing them in a tainted form is better than not hearing them at all. If our intention is to do God's will, then we can gradually learn what God's will actually is, and correct our mistaken ways of hearing God's commandments.

Yet even this does not get at the heart of why so many wars and so much violence appears in the literal sense of the Bible--especially in the Old Testament. Part of the limited and tainted way that we tend to read the Bible comes from assuming that it is talking about physical, material, and worldly things. We tend to read it like a history book, thinking that its point is to tell us about God's interaction with a particular "chosen people" thousands of years ago.

But if we believe that the Bible is God's Word, then we must adopt a much higher view of its subject matter. If God has gone to all the trouble of having a book written for us, then it must be about things that are more important--and closer to God's heart--than the history of a particular nation. In fact, its subject matter must go beyond everything of this world, and speak to us, not of physical or even social realities, but of spiritual realities.

This is precisely what Emanuel Swedenborg says the Bible is all about--and not just here and there, where it is obviously "spiritual," but everywhere, throughout the entire Bible. If the Bible is the Word of God, he says, then it must be about God and spirit, and not about physical and earthly things.

Looked at in this light, the wars and conflicts of the Bible are not talking about physical battles at all--even though physical battles may have provided the imagery used in expressing the Bible's real subject matter. Like a child's story that uses animal characters to talk about various human traits, the Bible uses human events to talk about spiritual issues. So wars in the Bible are not about physical wars, but about spiritual ones. "These wars," Swedenborg wrote, "meant nothing but the conflicts fought by the church and by those who belonged to the church. In other words, it meant their temptations, which are nothing but battles and wars against the evils present within themselves."

Once we realize that the wars in the Bible are not about physical wars, but about spiritual wars--wars against the evil within ourselves, and against the evil in our communities and our society--then instead of seeing them as the barbaric commands of an archaic God, we can read them as wonderful symbol stories giving us critical instructions for our own spiritual lives.

With this in mind, let's look again at the story of Saul attacking the Amalekites, but sparing Agag their king and the best of the sheep and the cattle, contrary to the commandment of God to utterly destroy that nation. If this story is really about spiritual wars, then the enemy that God commanded the Israelites to completely wipe out must represent some particularly deep and troublesome evil within ourselves. In fact, given their modus operandi of attacking their enemies, not openly, but secretly from behind, they must represent some hidden, deep-seated evil within us that attacks us when we are not fully aware of what is going on, and in this way sapping our will and our dedication to God's way.

Kings, we know from Jesus' words to Pilate (John 18:37), mean truth ruling in our lives--or in the opposite sense, when we are corrupt, they mean falsity ruling in our lives. So Agag, the king of the Amalekites, would represent a falsity that rules our lives, and that comes from some deep-seated, hidden evil within us.

The nature of that evil is suggested by Saul's attitudes and behaviors. It is a general principle in the spiritual sense of the Bible that every enemy that the Israelites face represents an evil or a falsity that corresponds to the particular evil or sin that the Israelites are involved in at that time. In Saul's case, his shortcoming was thinking he could decide for himself what was best to do, rather than listening to God's commandments. In other words, Saul represented an early, headstrong way of thinking and running our lives, in which we judge by outward appearances and by present expediency rather than by the deeper and longer-term principles that come from God.

Even when we have received a clear commandment from God to wipe out some particular evil in our lives, some particular fault in our character or behavior, we tend to think we can handle it in our own way rather than doing it God's way. And when we attack our evils with this attitude, we inevitably take halfway measures, rather than doing the whole job that God commanded us to do. Like Saul, we "spare Agag and the best of the cattle," thinking we can just get rid of the parts of ourselves that look bad, but keep the faulty attitude within ourselves that leads us to act in that way (represented by Agag), and also any outward behavior that looks good to us and to the society around us (the best of the cattle).

An example may help to see how this works out in practice. Imagine that your primary goal in life is to make money. You get the training you need and set off in the business world to make a killing. And you have some success at it. Perhaps you have had to cut some corners along the way, and perhaps the company you are working for is not exactly an ethical company providing a truly useful service to humanity. But you're not worried about that. The money is pouring in, and you're moving up the social and economic ladder.

And yet, you think of yourself as a religious person. And you know in your heart of hearts that God is commanding you to destroy the greed--the inner desire for wealth--that is driving your life. You know that you must live from different motives: from concern for your fellow human beings rather than from desire for wealth and luxury.

Like Saul, you may go at this with gusto, attacking your obvious greed and selfishness, and changing some of its worst manifestations. You no longer act in such a cut-throat way, but begin to treat others in your company as colleagues rather than as competition. You clean up some of the questionable practices you've engaged in. You figuratively "destroy everything that was despised and weak" by getting rid of everything that looks bad.

But underneath it all, you are still driven by money. You spare the "king" of your love for money, and you keep "the best of the sheep and cattle": you still engage in business primarily to make money--but you do it in a more ethical way. You may even make the excuse that the more you make, the more you can give to the church and to charity. "Honestly," you say, "I'm doing it all for the Lord. See how much I am giving away?!"

But the Lord is not satisfied with halfway measures. When the Lord commands us to totally destroy our love for money, or our self-centeredness, or our contempt for people who aren't like us, or any other deep-seated drive that conflicts with putting the Lord first and our neighbor next, then he means just that: we must totally destroy that inner enemy, and devote our lives entirely to the Lord--no ifs, ands, or buts. Amen.



Music: The Winds of Time
Bruce De Boer - Used with Permission