Patrick Allitt’s review in the magazine of Philip Jenkins’s book, Laying Down the Sword, reminded me of a bit of interpretive ju-jitsu that a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) friend of mine once taught me.

In 1 Samuel 15, God, through the prophet Samuel, sends Saul on a mission to exterminate the Amalekites. The instructions are explicit: don’t just kill the men, but the women and children also, and even the cattle – spare nothing and no one. Saul, first, sensitively warns the Kenites, a more friendly tribe, to dissociate themselves from the Amalekites, lest they be destroyed along with them. And he then makes vigorous war on the Amalekites, emerging victorious, with considerable booty including the Amalekite king as a captive and the choicest cattle.

For his disobedience, Samuel informs Saul, God has removed him from the kingship. Saul explains that the cattle he took were intended for sacrifice, but Samuel is not appeased: God doesn’t want sacrifices, He wants obedience. And Samuel, to demonstrate what Saul should have done, hacks Agag to pieces before his eyes.

So: for what sin was Saul punished with the loss of the kingdom?

Apparently, he was punished for failing to kill Agag and for failing to destroy all the Amalekite property. But my friend said: no. He was punished for murdering all those innocent women and children.

In general, while war is recognized as potentially a moral act (if it’s a matter of self-defense, for example), wanton slaughter of innocents is murder, and prohibited. In this instance, God has explicitly commanded such a slaughter, so it is not only permitted but mandatory. But it is only because this particular act is mandated by God directly that one could commit it without being condemned for murder. Since he failed to follow God’s command perfectly, Saul cannot expiate his guilt for the murders he committed by saying that he was only following God’s command. And he has no other defense. Therefore he is guilty of murder – and for this, he lost the kingdom.

To someone with the appropriate humility about his or her own moral perfection, such an approach to this difficult text is quite appealing. If you know you are a sinner, and imperfect, you have no business going around murdering people in God’s name; you cannot be sure that you are following His way perfectly, and if you aren’t, you’ll be condemned for murder. Better to leave such work to God Himself.

Unfortunately, the sorts of people who are likely to go around committing murder – or, more likely, suborning others into committing murder – in God’s name are precisely the sorts of people who are likely to delude themselves into thinking that they are without or beyond sin, and are indeed perfectly obedient vessels for God’s righteous commands.