Saul and the Zero Tolerance Trap #BCCSudaySchool2018

Note: This is a follow up Lesson 22: “The Lord Looketh on the Heart,” which discuss 1 Samuel 9–11; 13; 15–17. Today’s post is about Chapter 14, which got lost in the cracks. It may also have something to do with a contemporary social issue, but, of course, that is purely incidental.

1 Samuel 14 explains the second of the three events that caused God to reject Saul as Israel’s king. The other two get a lot more lesson time because their morals can be easily adapted to the standard call-and-response format of the Sunday School Liturgy.

In Chapter 13, Saul is condemned for initiating a sacrifice on his own athority–thus proving that only priesthood holders can perform valid ordinances. And in Chapter 15, Saul is rejected for insufficiently destroying everything in the city of Amelek because he wanted to hold back some of the best animals for the Lord–demonstrating (just in case we needed another reminder) that “to obey is better than to sacrifice.”

Chapter 14 is part of this sequence, but like all middle parts, it presents the main message of the trilogy more subtly. This chapter begins with Saul making a law and ends with him almost killing his own son. It all starts with a kingly decree that everybody should fast to ensure victory over the Philistines: 

And the men of Israel were distressed that day, for Saul had placed the people under oath, saying, “Cursed is the man who eats any food until evening, before I have taken vengeance on my enemies.” So none of the people tasted food. (1 Sam 14:24)

As a military strategy, this is kind of stupid. It ignores the basic rule that starving people make bad soldiers. But he’s the king, so whatever. But when his son Jonathan, who did not hear the order or make the oath–because he was off with his armor-bearer kicking Philistine butt–has a drop of honey, Saul feels compelled by his proclamation to kill his own son, which he attempts to do until the people of Israel rise up in his defense.

The story of Saul and Jonathan is actually a version of a fairly common story that bounced around the ancient world: a father, trying to appease the gods, makes a rash oath that ends up causing him to sacrifice his child. We see this in the Judges 11, when Jephthah promises God that, if God gives him victory in a battle, he will sacrifice the first thing he sees when he comes home–which, of course, turns out to be his daughter. And we see it in the Greek myth of Idomeneus, who makes almost the same promise to Poseidon in exchange for good winds–and has the exact same result with his son.

These stories are all related to each other–and they are all examples of proposition testing. They establish an extreme situation in which a ruler makes a declaration and then has to face the fact that this declaration will cause him to kill someone he loves. In each case, the proposition being tested is, “can there ever be room for compassion in the application of a law?” 

The earlier stories all come down hard on the side of zero tolerance. Jephthah and Idomeneus made their declarations, and they are bound by them. If that means they have to cross the human sacrifice line and kill their own daughter, well, too bad. Oaths are oaths, after all, and one can’t go changing them just because your only child has to be burned in a pyre.

The story of Saul, on the other hand, aggressively rejects this idea. Using the same basic framework of the other stories, the narrative puts Saul in a zero-tolerance trap. He makes a law–not a particularly good one, but one that falls within the scope of his authority. And then he is presented with a really good reason to make an exception–his own son, who had no knowledge of the law, inadvertently broke it by doing something as inoffensive as licking a stick with honey on it. When Saul pushes for Jonathan’s execution, he crosses the Child Sacrifice line that, by this time, has been firmly established as an important thing among the Israelites.

And we need to be clear that this is not an Abrahamic test. God didn’t tell Saul to make everybody fast. It was a completely human law. And Saul is presented with a set of circumstances that, to any rational person, would call for an exception. His son asks him to make an exception. His people ask him to make an exception. He would benefit politically from making an exception. It is only his own zero-tolerance mindset that makes him think he has to kill his son.

But the people won’t stand for it. In the first real challenge to Saul’s power, the people of Israel rise up in rebellion and save Jonathan’s life. And this is the really important thing that happens.Saul’s unwise zero-tolerance approach to his own decrees causes him to lose the support of his people–and ignites the civil war that will ultimately remove him from power.

First Samuel is a warning to rulers that a zero-tolerance approach to the law is no way to run a country. It’s a trap! It removes the element of judgment from the concept of justice. This is the narrator’s second example of why Saul is not fit to be Israel’s king: he believes so strongly in his own decrees that he is willing to destroy his own House rather than exercise either judgment or compassion in applying them. The people rightly conclude that a ruler like that has no business being their king.


  1. Elizabeth says:

    Uh, I was going to chastise you for being so late with this as I am teaching this lesson in a couple of hours, however, after reading it I understand, but my trumpian class would not. Good thoughts I may use later, though. I’m still trying to get them to really understand what “love your neighbor” means.

  2. Anne Chovies says:

    Darius’ response when faced with condemning Daniel was a much better, more compassionate solution. Thank you very much for this timely discussion of chapter 14!

  3. I believe Idomeneus killed his son, while Menelaus killed his daughter Iphegenia. People need to learn to stop making stupid vows.

  4. Joseph Stanford says:

    This is a better reason for Saul not being fit to remain king than the other two events given in 1 Samuel.

  5. Becca D. says:

    Just some interesting thoughts from

    “Here is something to consider. In verse 32 of Hebrews 11, listed among faithful men such as Gideon, Samson, King David and Samuel is Jephthah! It is hard to imagine that he would be held up as an example of great faith to New Testament Christians had he killed then burned his child to ‘honor’ the Lord! Also, note that even IF he desired to offer his offspring to God, finding a priest at the tabernacle in Shiloh who would kill, skin, cut into pieces then burn his child before the Lord (required for burnt offerings – Leviticus 1) would have been almost impossible.

    Notice what the daughter of Jephthah requested after told by her father about the vow he made. She asked, “Let this thing be done for me. Let me alone two months, so that I may go up and down upon the mountains and weep for my virginity, I and my companions” (Judges 11:38).

    The request of the daughter is not only odd but makes no sense IF we assume she understood the vow as costing her life. Why would she ask to mourn her VIRGINITY with her friends instead of desiring to spend the remaining time she had with her mourning father? Verse 39 of Judges 11 tells us that when she came home “. . . her father (Jephthah), who did to her his vow which he had vowed. And she knew no man.” The short phrase “And she knew no man” is meaningless if the child (likely a teenager) would soon be offered as a sacrifice to God.

    The most reasonable conclusion given all the facts and what the BIBLE says is that Jephthah did not sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering. Instead, he consecrated her as a perpetual virgin in the service of the Lord. This is why she mourned not the ending of her life, but the loss of being able to marry. What ultimately happened fulfilled the vow that whoever came out of the house of Jephthah would ‘belong to’ or be dedicated to serving God.”

    This is like Samuel’s mother, Hannah, who ‘sacrificed’ her son to God by giving him to the priest at the temple.

  6. Jack of Hearts says:

    Man, I just taught this lesson today and this would have fit perfectly. I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with chapter 14, so we just kind of breezed over it. Regardless, thank you for sharing these thoughts. When this lesson comes around again in 4 years, I’ll be ready! :)

  7. I’m hoping that this isn’t too much of a “thread-jack.” I generally strongly dislike “zero tolerance” policies, because I believe that they can inflict unintended damage. They remove human judgment and thus trap people or organizations to do the wrong thing. Quick true story: One of our good friends has a son who, in 4th grade, had a cub scout activity that included whittling. So the kids brought whittling knives and were taught how to sharpen and use them safely. The next day, at school, our friend’s son realized that he still had his whittling knife in his pocket. He had forgotten to empty his pockets the night before. He knew that knives were strictly forbidden at school. It was a zero tolerance policy. He went up to his teacher and confessed that he had inadvertently brought his whittling knife to school, and gave it to her. He was brought promptly to the principal’s office, and was summarily expelled from the school for five days. They proudly wore their “zero tolerance” policy. And the penalty for bringing a weapon to school was a mandatory 5 days expulsion. There was no room for judgment, for circumstances. His parents were so hurt by this, as was the boy of course. The result of this, however, was not likely to be a safer school. Any other child who in the future brings something that could be a weapon from school, he/she will not likely surrender it the teacher. The students learned to continue to hide any inadvertent errors.

    Zero tolerance policies allow an organization to make a strong statement, and allow people or organizations to feel self-congratulatory about their clear right-ness. But they can be destructive. We see this on our southern border, where no room is being allowed to understand circumstance; there is no role for judgment (indeed, the President doesn’t even want judges involved!) Much harm will be done, including lives that will be lost.

  8. [Scrambling to find what lesson I’m teaching next Sunday . . . ]
    The stripped-down stories sometimes paint in simple blacks and whites. The real life situations they abstract more often include casting blame everywhere but where it belongs, on the unwise zero tolerance policy/practice/rule itself.

  9. This is excellent, Mike.

    And it was Agamemnon, not Menelaus, who sacrificed Iphigenia. This leads into the cycle of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, which is one of the great meditations on justice in human literature.

  10. Jason, yes, I thought a lot about Agamemnon and Iphigenia when I was writing this, but ultimately it didn’t quite fit because Agamemnon was specifically commanded by Artemis to sacrifice his daughter if he wanted to have good winds to carry the fleet to Troy (I am basing this on Euripides’ version, of course). This makes it a good meditation on why you should love your children more than going to war.

  11. I really like this way of thinking about the story. Could a wise and godly ruler really ever enforce a truly absolute policy? Even though the Gospel Doctrine agenda doesn’t cover chapter 14 directly, I’m hoping an opportunity to “poke the bears” by bringing this up will come up in Gospel Doctrine this week!

    However, it’s not as easy as Michael makes it sound to drive this point home. Even though the Saul-David lesson makes the point that “the Lord looketh on the heart,” we’re stuck with the conclusion from Chapters 13 and 15 that the other two big reasons Saul gets booted out of kinghood are his violations of *God’s* “zero-tolerance” policies on the authority to perform sacrifice and on the complete slaughter of the Amalekites. While the latter is in many ways a problematic story, I don’t know any way to read the text other than “God ordered complete slaughter and Saul didn’t comply 100%.” Though it does make an interesting counterpoint with Chapter 14 that Saul felt it necessary to carry out his own edict but found wiggle room in God’s.

  12. jaxjensen says:

    “Could a wise and godly ruler really ever enforce a truly absolute policy?” I think God does it… a lot.

  13. “I think God does it… a lot.”


    I think we THINK of God as enforcing absolutes. But what is the Atonement and consequent opportunity for repentance if not God making every effort to be merciful to His beloved but flawed children? Mercy may not be able to rob justice, but mercy certainly gets every advantage in God’s efforts to “save a wretch like me.” Or consider the absolute that we must be physically baptized to be saved: God cares so much that every single faithful child be saved that He has pressed millions of us into service to provide baptism for the unbaptized.

  14. jaxjensen says:

    Abbey… “God cares so much that every single faithful child be saved that He has pressed millions of us into service to provide baptism for the unbaptized” and He does it because it is ABSOLUTELY required to be baptized to “be saved”… He spoke a rule, that is absolute, and now he has us working toward that end.

  15. I don’t consider proxy baptism to be evidence of a zero-tolerance rule… It’s more of a declaration – “everyone will mow their lawn, and at some point, everyone will have their lawn mowed – either they mow it themselves or we’ll mow it for them.” There won’t *be* any option for people to not get baptized, either here or in the eternities.

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