Herem (devote to destruction) vs. sacrifice (1 Samuel 15)

Hi all!
I have a question that comes from a rather controversial event in the Bible (1 Samuel 15), where Samuel tells Saul that the LORD has instructed Saul to take the army of Israel and to devote the Amalekites to destruction. That is, to judge the Amalekites. Now, I know, that there is controversy surrounding the decree of God (was it just?), but that is not really what I want to focus on. What I am interested in is Saul’s act of sparing the Amalekite king (Agag) and “the best” of the livestock and other “good” things for sacrifice to the LORD. And as vs. 9 notes,

All that was despised and worthless they devoted to destruction. [ESV]

Samuel rebukes Saul for this action – for his disobedience. What seems to be at play is two separate things: sacrifice and herem. Saul doesn’t fully “devote” the Amalekites to destruction (herem), but he saves the best for a separate act – sacrifice.

Does anyone know of any resources that would address the difference between these two religious acts? More specifically, do burnt offerings/sacrifice involve something for the people? In my research into herem, it seems that it is total destruction of all things. (Deut. 20) But could the people eat the burnt offerings? That is, is there anything “in it for them” if the people sacrifice as opposed to devote to destruction??

My google searches were coming up empty!


Hi @kathleen,

Great question. Thank you for getting us into the Scriptures. I think the most challenging passages can lead to breakthroughs.

For one, I think it’s important to recognize that “totally destroy” is hyperbolic. As Ronald Youngblood points out in his discussion of the passage, "The description of the total destruction of “all” the people (v. 8) is hyperbolic, since the Amalekites as a whole survived to fight again (cf. 30:1). "

Mary Evans, in her commentary The Message of Samuel, notes:

However, at this point both Saul and the army lost sight of the concept of a God-ordained punishment mission. They destroyed only people and things that were not seen as useful and kept everything that could be of use to them, including the Amalekite king Agag and the best of all the animals. This was not simply an act of disobedience, although of course it was that; it was a direct affront to God, a refusal to take seriously the concept of his holiness and the complete dedication of the Amalekite people and goods to him (87).

The IVP OT Background Commentary points out,

Since the warfare was commanded by Yahweh and represented his judgment on Israel’s enemies, the Israelites were on a divine mission with Yahweh as their commander. Since it was his war, not theirs, and he was the victor, the spoil belonged to him.

Finally, to return to Youngblood,

Saul’s terminology in v. 21 and Samuel’s in v. 22 link the disobedience of Saul and his men to the earlier wickedness of Eli and his reprobate sons. As the latter had sinfully fattened themselves on the “choice parts” of Israel’s offerings (2:29), so Saul’s troops had stubbornly kept the “best” of the plundered animals in order to sacrifice them (v. 21; the Heb. word in the two passages is identical and is not the same as the word for “best” in vv. 9, 15). As the doom of Hophni and Phinehas was sealed because it was the Lord’s “will” to put them to death (2:25), so the rejection of Saul is irreversible because the Lord does not “delight” in willful disobedience (v. 22; the same Heb. root in both verses).

I think this final quote most directly answers your question. In both cases, the sacrificial system’s original intent was twisted for personal benefit in defiance of God’s holiness and purposes.

Here are some points that come to my mind:

First, an apologetic note.

One of the charges against the holy war against people groups in the Canaanites is that this was a self-serving justification. Of course, you said God wanted you to do this - look at how it benefits you!

But intriguingly, we see here that God rejects Saul as king precisely because he turned this divine command into a means of benefitting himself!

Second, it leads me to search my heart.

How do we take God’s commands and use them to benefit ourselves?

Isn’t this one of the root causes behind scandal after scandal in the church?

One point that strikes me about the Hillsong documentary (after the first episode):

The featured church members sincerely practiced the way of Jesus.

The leaders manipulated their sincerity to avoid the way of Jesus.

So for a while, the leaders benefitted from luxury lifestyles on the backs of their depleted followers. But now they are exposed as frauds and cheats. And what does God think of their stewardship of his church?

Third, instead of taking responsibility for our sins, we are prone to blame others.

In this story, a commentary helped me see how in 1 Samuel 15:15, Saul doesn’t take responsibility. Instead, he blames the troops. But if you look at verse 9, it says, “Saul and the troops spared…”

Saul was the king! It is nonsensical for him to state that the troops aren’t under his control and acted separately from his authority. What kind of king doesn’t command his troops?

His lie is obvious. He doesn’t believe what he is saying. Yet he hopes to trick Samuel.

We may think our lies fool God. But he sees through them - and often, so do others.

Finally, we think disobedience is for our benefit, but it contribute to our downfall.

It seems to me that in blaming the troops, Saul seals his punishment. He is admitting to the Lord’s prophet, I’m not really in charge here. And the punishment is: the Lord has rejected you as king (1 Samuel 15:23).

When we fail to obey God, we may think it is to our personal advantage. But this story reveals that is because we are self-deceived. The disobedience sets us on a pathway to lose what God entrusted us.


Hey @kathleen,

I came across this insight from Eugene Peterson on the same passage:

But Saul was quite ready to side with the people in letting them worship God on their terms rather than on God’s terms. Even though it appeared that the worship of God motivated these actions, they weren’t primarily concerned with God but were motivated by Saul’s concern with the people—in the first instance [the Philistine disobedience, 1 Sam 13:13), to keep them united and focused; in the second instance, to keep them happy. The people loomed large in Saul’s considerations, far larger than God. Saul was, it seems, trying to do good work, and he saw bringing God in as a way to do good work, be a good king. But “bringing God in” reversed reality. Saul was treating God as a means, as a resource. And God will not be used.

I wonder if this is not the default norm? Worship is a means of creating happy churchgoers and generating church growth. It is now very difficult to conceive of worship as being about God, and not us?


You make a lot of great points, @Carson, thank you! I like particularly how you noted the similarity between Saul’s disobedience and the disobedience of Samuel’s sons, and God’s rejection of both.

And Peterson’s insight into Saul’s relationship with the people. Funny, when I was reading the first chapters of 1 Samuel, I noticed that Saul was hiding when “the lot fell to him”. (Samuel had already told him that God had chosen him.) I can’t really blame him for being terrified! There was no precedent. The people were looking to him, even as he was to look to Samuel (who looked to God). Perhaps similar to Aaron, he was guilty of looking too much to the people for approval (i.e. measures of “how well I’m doing/it’s going”) rather than to God/God’s prophet-priest?

So, admittedly, I’m noticing that I’m coming to this story with a similar sympathy for Saul that I have for Aaron. And, similar to Aaron, I think we evangelicals can too tidily box up these guys’ “sin of disobedience” into something we can either too easily write off or understand too generally to apply with efficacy to our modern lives.

So, perhaps Saul is using God as a resource? It would be no different than the people, and, indeed, Saul himself in history. Flashback to when Saul is out searching for his father’s donkeys and he hears that there is a “seer” (Samuel) in a nearby village. After searching in vain all day and before giving up completely, Saul seeks out Samuel (at the encouragement of his servant) on the chance that Samuel could “tell us what way to take”. (1 Sam. 9) Samuel, with his access to God, was a means to an end.

What I’m trying to get underneath is how it benefitted Saul and the Israelites (if at all) to “save the best” from herem, when sacrifice/burnt offering is a very similar action. (Or, at least, it seems to be in my understanding, in that in both actions the things are “destroyed”.) I’m trying to understand where in their hearts their disobedience comes from. And is it much different than my own heart?

To me, the one unspoken (perhaps unconscious) contention with God’s command in 1 Sam. 15 is the thought, “Surely, the LORD, does not mean for us to waste all this goodness?!” As I typed that, I realized that is exactly what some of the disciples said re. Mary’s pouring out of the the pure nard on Jesus’ feet! I find it difficult to get past what a “waste” herem seems to be.

But as far as the two acts are concerned, what’s also standing out to me is that one act is an act of judgment (herem) while another is an act of worship (sacrifice/burnt offerings). I find myself disagreeing to a degree with some of the commentators you cited:

Was it dedication to the LORD or to destruction/judgement? Their utter destruction is judgment, instituted by a holy God. Is that fire supposed to be a fire for the LORD?? It seems to me that it’s different. Herem is not a sacrifice to God; it seems to be an act that for the people.

I disagree with the warfare terminology here. Again, what was “devoted to destruction” was not “spoil”. God was not declaring war; God was enacting judgement. An entirety of a culture is being condemned and incinerated/disintegrated.

It seems that Saul (and the people’s) disobedience came in disagreeing with the totality of Yahweh’s condemnation of everything that was connected with the Amalekites.

I need to sit with this more, but I wanted to go on and send my reply so that you or others could poke holes in my reflections thus far. :smile:


Hey @kathleen,

Great points! I’m so grateful for thoughtful, sustained engagement with God’s word.

A challenging point; agreed. Robert Alter writes:

…the more closely you look at a particular ancient narrative, the more you are compelled to recognize the complexity and subtlety with which it is formally organized and with which it renders its subjects, and the more you see how it is conscious of its necessary status as artful discourse (The Art of Biblical Narrative, 23).

More important than “the application” of the text is the immersion in the story as a work of art. If we rush to apply, have our hearts been re-ordered? First our imaginations and desires need to be transformed by the encounter with what God is doing in and through the text.

My (tentative) understanding of these difficult passages is that something devoted to “herem” was totally destroyed. But if that same animal was sacrificed, then parts of its meat could be enjoyed by the priests and those who brought the sacrifice. In addition, the animal’s hides could be used for various productive purposes.


Hey @kathleen,

I came across another insight on this passage, again from Alter. You asked

It’s a phenomenal question and one that I think we all can ask as a regular question as we engage with God and his word.

Anyways, here’s Alter:

The confrontation between Samuel and Saul over the king’s failure to destroy all of the Amalekites and all of their possessions (1 Samuel 15) is woven out of a series of variations on the key terms “listen,” “voice,” “word.” Samuel begins by enjoining Saul to listen to the voice of God; when the king returns victorious from battle, the prophet is dismayed by the voice (or sound, qol) of sheep and the voice of cattle that he hears. Thundering denunciation in verse, he tells Saul that what the LORD wants is “listening to the voice of the LORD, / For listening is better than sacrifice, / hearkening, than the fat of rams” (1 Sam. 15:22); and a contrite Saul apologizes that he has transgressed the word of the LORD and instead listened to the voice of the people (vox populi being here the thematic opposite of vox dei) (The Art of Biblical Narrative, 117-118).

Interesting, right? This extremely careful attention to the words of the text led Alter to realize that one of the primary tensions in this passage is whose voice we prioritize - God or man’s? And that is a question for every generation, culture, and person!


That is interesting, thanks for sharing! The voice theme also stuck out to me, and I am glad to get a bit of Alter’s thoughts on it as well.

I had noticed that he was rebuked not just for disobedience, but the disobedience that comes from failing to listen…or as the NIV says, “heed”. (That is, listen + do.) But there doesn’t seem to be room for this to be an “honest” mistake…a mis-hearing, if you will. It was a willful decision to tweak God’s directive. He listened more to the voice of the people, which, no doubt, mirrored his own thinking. Sort of a “God apparently said this, but did he really mean it?? Surely he wouldn’t want us/didn’t mean for us to ‘waste’ all this goodness?!” (Perhaps it’s the good western European Protestant in me that sees the waste angle most prominently!)

If YHWH wanted sacrifice, Saul (and the people) were going to give him sacrifice. Except, God didn’t want sacrifice. Herem is not sacrifice; it is an act of judgment.

So it seems to me to be a presumption upon God’s will, stemming from hearing-but-not-heeding God’s voice…which, let’s remember, came through Samuel. So, perhaps, there was an element of doubting of Samuel as well??