And Samuel said, Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.
Part of me just wants to take this scripture out of context; that is after all what so many in the church, myself included, have done over the years. But I'll resist this urge for a few minutes. Here's a brief contextual summary.
God, after His initial displeasure with Saul for not waiting on Him (1 Samuel 13), gives the king a second chance to show his devotion. Saul is commanded to destroy the Amalekites for their wickedness. The order specifically was to spare no living thing. Saul starts out well, but in the end, he lets the king of the Amalekites live and then Saul's army keeps the best of the Amalekite livestock. And Saul goes along with them. When Samuel questions him on why they did not destroy every living thing as commanded, Saul explains that "the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the chief of the things which should have been utterly destroyed, to sacrifice unto the Lord thy God in Gilgal."
Then Samuel delivers this oft quoted scripture, "to obey is better than to sacrifice."
My general comments on the scripture in context are:
1.) Saul's sin here was very similar to his offense two chapters earlier. He worried more about the opinions of the people he was supposed to be leading than what his God thought. Am I guilty of this? Or perhaps more correctly, how am I guilty of this? Do I sometimes align my thinking to my perception of what my friends believe? My leaders? My boss? My Facebook feed? Do I worry about how others will view my dress or behavior? (Don't we all do this to some extent? Is this always bad?) I definitely need to do a better job worrying first about what God thinks before considering how my actions look to others.
2.) Saul seems to have rationalized his folly, such that he convinced himself he had completed God's ask of him. I know I am guilty of this, but I'm not going to list all the ways on a public blog. ;)
As I started this post I mentioned that I wanted to take this verse out of context because that's just what you do with this scripture. According to the LDS Scripture Citation Index, this scripture has been cited 28 times in General Conference (since 1942), Journal of Discourses, and Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. I can't tell for certain, but this appears to be significantly above average; it seems most Old Testament cited scriptures have been used 2 to 4 times. (This verse is certainly no "stone cut without hands" (Daniel 2:44), quoted some 291 times though surprisingly not since 2008 and more interestingly its use is clearly waning).
The fact that this verse from Samuel gets so much airtime definitely adds to its perceived importance. Even biblical prophets quoted this scripture. When they did, however they often changed it. The most famous version is probably Hosea 6:6 in which the Lord says, "For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings." In case you're curious, Hosea's verse per the LDS Scripture Citation Index has been cited only 4 times even though this was the verse likely quoted by Jesus when answering the Pharisees in Matthew 9:13 (cited 6 times).
Juxtaposing these two versions of scripture raises some interesting questions. How are obedience and mercy related? How are they different? And how does "knowledge of God" fit in?
The root of obey is to hear but hearing is not enough; obedience requires action. It requires us to hear the Lord when He speaks to us and then to act on His requests.
Regarding mercy, Little Kittel writes, "In the LXX [the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible] éleos [or mercy] is mostly used for hesed... This denotes an attitude arising out of mutual relationship, e.g., between relatives, host and guests, masters and servants, those in a covenant relation. It is an act rather than a disposition with trust as the basis and loyalty as the appropriate attitude." We often think of mercy as merely an emotion, compassion for those around us, but mercy is much more than just a feeling. True mercy requires us to see and feel our relationship with both the Lord and with those around us and then to act on this relationship.
Obedience to God should turn our heart towards God. As we hear His word and act on it, we begin to see more clearly our relationship to Him; we begin to know God better which in turn makes us the type of person who acts with compassion for those around us. Obedience then is a means to making us more like our Heavenly Father.
Our latter-day preference for the Samuel's "obedience over sacrifice" instead of Hosea's "desired mercy" causes me to fear we have made obedience an end in and of itself, not a means to an end. I wonder if we more concerned with keeping the law (or pharisaical regulation) that we forget to let the law change us. Obsessing over the length of our shorts, the color of our shirt, or the number of earrings we wear, do we forget the reason the law was given in the first place?
Perhaps the best illustration of this tension between being strictly obedient and showing mercy is the parable of the good Samaritan. (I started to summarize it, but it's short and beautiful in its simplicity.)
And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.
But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,
And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.
I won't bother analyzing this parable. Others have done a better job than I could anyway. But reflecting on this, I have to ask myself, "Am more like a Levite than I care to admit?" As a people, are we Mormons becoming more Samaritan like or more priest like?
I'll end with my favorite version of the scripture that began this post, found in Micah 6:
Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil... ?
He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?