❝And Samuel said,‘Has 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.❞ 1 Samuel 15:22
Reflection by Joseph Brown
Americans have a complicated relationship with obedience. In the 1988 science fiction film, THEY LIVE, the film’s protagonist (played by 80s wrestling icon, Roddy Piper) comes across a pair of special glasses that, when worn, allows him to see past the illusion of his everyday experience and to the frightening truth: that the world is run by aliens who have subconsciously compelled humanity’s obedience. When Piper dons the glasses, a new world comes into focus in which previously hidden signs command him to “obey,” “consume,” “conform,” and even “reproduce.” In classic American fashion, Piper sets out to tear it all down.
It wasn’t long after my son began preschool that I realized I had a troubled relationship with the word “obey.” In our house we tend to use the word “listen” instead. “Listen to your teachers” or “you’re not listening to daddy” are common phrases you might hear us say. I think we do this because we are fundamentally uncomfortable with telling our children to obey. “Obey” for us, and I can cop to this being a middle-class problem, seems to suggest unthinking or mindless following. Maybe that was once important for a child to learn, but that’s not a skill I care for my kid to have. After thinking about it off and on, I suppose we like “listen” because it seems to suggest that the child would hear the direction and choose to follow it. In other words, we like “listen” because it still has a place for the intellect.
What strikes me about this passage is that obedience is compared to sacrifice. I’m not a biblical scholar, so I don’t know how sacrifices were made in the time of Samuel. Was an offering just a prescribed motion, like paying your electricity bill, that a person unthinkingly fulfilled? Or was it more reflective, a time of selecting your finest animals, or carefully calculating your gift based on the season’s profits or harvest? It’s important because the comparison changes. In other words, is obedience better than sacrifice because it requires more reflection and thought? Or is it better precisely because it is given without reflection, without the complication of human intellect, and because it implies surrender?
What I do know is that Samuel was a great judge, and so I want to read this as a reinforcement that God values the soul who has weighed his options and has chosen the righteous path over another. But that’s a guess. As a person who values both belief and the intellect, I want to resolve this tension because it has real implications for who God is. Since I can’t do that easily, I’ll have to accept the indeterminacy of this passage and find comfort in the fact that as long as the question remains there is a space for questioning.