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1 Samuel 15:33 Samuel hacked Agag to pieces before the LORD at Gilgal.

Was it an overkill? Was it in character of Samuel? Did it please the LORD?

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    It is not necessarily correct to read this verse as saying that Samuel hacked Agag to pieces, see post below. Commented Feb 10, 2023 at 11:16
  • Interesting insight. Thanks :)
    – user35953
    Commented Feb 10, 2023 at 14:24

5 Answers 5

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  1. Why did Samuel hack Agag in pieces ?

Samuel gives one reason moments before he did it :

As thy sword hath made women childless [1 Samuel 15:33, KJV]

  1. Was it an overkill ?

No. It was commanded 'slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass' 1 Samuel 15:3. No provision was made to spare a king.

  1. Was it in character of Samuel ?

It was in character, for Samuel presided over many fatal conflicts over the enemies of the Lord. But it was not his practice to do so, as it was usually the case that others did the actual duty of soldiery, not he, himself.

  1. Did it please the Lord ?

Yes. It was the Lord who commanded it :

Thus saith the Lord of hosts ... go and smite Amalek ... spare them not ... slay both man and woman ... [1 Samuel 15:2, 3 - KJV]

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    "No. It was commanded 'slay both man and woman..." I think the point the OP is trying to make ks that you don't have to hack someone to pieces in order to kill them. One sword through the heart is more than enough to slay someone; you don't have to hack them to pieces. God did command the Israelites to hack anyone to pieces. So this doesn't really answer the question. One does not need to hack someone to pieces in order to slay them, and God did not command anyone to hack anyone to pieces; so was what Samuel did overkill? It would seem, at first glance, that that is the case.
    – Rajesh
    Commented May 18, 2022 at 15:04
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To understand why Samuel hacked Agag to pieces, it related to his emotion at that time. We see his emotion earlier of the time. 1 Samuel 15:10-11 read;

10 Now the word of the Lord came to Samuel, saying,

11 “I greatly regret that I have set up Saul as king, for he has turned back from following Me, and has not performed My commandments.” And it grieved Samuel, and he cried out to the Lord all night. (NKJV)

1 Samuel 15:12-26 is a long dialogue between Samuel and Saul. Samuel was giving Saul the judgement of the Lord. Then a critical moment happened, when we read 1 Samuel 15:27-31

27 And as Samuel turned around to go away, Saul seized the edge of his robe, and it tore.

28 So Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you.

29 And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor relent. For He is not a man, that He should relent.”

30 Then he said, “I have sinned; yet honor me now, please, before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, that I may worship the Lord your God.”

31 So Samuel turned back after Saul, and Saul worshiped the Lord. (NKJV)

Did Samuel go back with Saul for the honor of him? Of course not. Saul did not kill Agag, and Samuel in his anger, he almost forgot he needed to complete the command of the Lord. What happened next in verse 33?

33 But Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.” And Samuel hacked Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal. (NJKV)

Was it an overkill?

Yes it was, but it was not Samuel intention. Samuel was not a soldier trained to kill. He was old and he was in anger. His first hack was likely unsuccessful to kill Agag, perhaps Agag defended with his arms and got cutoff, and in his defence that took him into pieces. So if Samuel was calm, he might asked a young man to kill Agag, instead of doing himself.

Was it in character of Samuel?

No, he wasn't. We don't see Samuel was in any other occasion like this.

Did it please the LORD?

“Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, As in obeying the voice of the Lord? (1 Samuel 15:22a)

If "it" meant how Agag killed, the answer is NO.

If "it" meant Samuel completed the Lord's command, the answer is YES.

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The commonly accepted English translations of I Samuel 15:33 are inconsistent with the MT, and IMHO misleading. There is no need to conclude that Samuel committed anything like what is suggested by the English translations.

All of the commonly accepted English translations use the word "pieces", which is not in the MT for this verse. The MT uses the verb שסף, shasaf, whose root occurs only once in the MT, in our verse, as a verb indicating in what manner Agag was killed:

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר שְׁמוּאֵ֔ל כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר שִׁכְּלָ֤ה נָשִׁים֙ חַרְבֶּ֔ךָ כֵּן־תִּשְׁכַּ֥ל מִנָּשִׁ֖ים אִמֶּ֑ךָ וַיְשַׁסֵּ֨ף שְׁמוּאֵ֧ל אֶת־אֲגָ֛ג לִפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה בַּגִּלְגָּֽל

The text could have used other more common verbs for this act, such as ויהרגהו לפי חרב, killed him by the sword, as is commonly used in the OT (about 20 occurrences). Therefore, the question that needs to be asked about this verse is why the author chose such an unusual verb, שסף to describe Samuel's action.

The answer is in the sonorous alliteration of the verse:

wayomar shmu'el ka'asher shakla nashim harbecha, ken tishakel meynashim imcha, waishasef shmuel et'agag lifney ...

Note that the consonantal ש, sh occurs eight times in a verse of 16 words. Removing the stop-words כן and את, we have eight shins (ש) in a verse of fourteen words! Clearly, the unusual choice of שסף instead of לפי חרב was made to enhance the alliteration, and not necessarily to provide an exact term for Samuel's action. So שסף is in fact a stand-in for לפי חרב, by the sword, in this verse.

It is possible that most of this verse was a victory song that existed as a separate tradition before its incorporation into this verse.

Compare with 1 Samuel 18:7 (NIV):

As they danced, they sang: "Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.

Obviously this is a victory song, and not necessarily factually accurate.

As for the meaning of שסף, we need to look to cognate languages and the ancient translation traditions for clues. The Aramaic Targum attributed to Jonathan Ben Uziel translates שסף as פשח which is similar to the Hebrew word פסח as in Lamentations 3:10-11:

דֹּב אֹרֵב הוּא לִי אֲרִי בְּמִסְתָּרִים דְּרָכַי סוֹרֵר וַיְפַשְּׁחֵנִי שָׂמַנִי שֹׁמֵם דָּרַךְ קַשְׁתּוֹ וַיַּצִּיבֵנִי כַּמַּטָּרָא לַחֵץ

Which the NIV renders as:

Like a bear lying in wait, like a lion in hiding, he dragged me from the path and mangled me and left me without help

Apart from the Targum, we have little clue about what שסף meant at the time that I Samuel 15:33 was written. In later Hebrew, שסף came to mean "slit", as in "slit his throat".

In conclusion, the style of the verse and the unusual word choice make it unlikely that it is intended to be an exact factual description of the method of execution. The intent appears to be emphatic and mnemonic, and to record and preserve the song. In the actual fact, Samuel pronounced the lex talionis sentence of death on Agag and duly executed him by sword, severing his head and no more than that. It is not necessary to conclude from this verse that Samuel hacked anyone to death, even Agag, and dismembered his body, which is offensive to the ancient Hebrew regard for the body as being created in the "image" of God.

This verse is another example of how alliteration, rhyme, meter, nuance and word choice need to be considered carefully when translating. In the case of this verse, the common English translations offer only a pale shadow of the verse in the MT.

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It's very representative of how we are to approach our sin as believers. Yes we are a new creation in Christ! We are to leave no sin alive. Even one is too many. Just as Jesus said, if you eye or hand offends you (causes you to sin) pluck it out or cut it off. He was clearly being over the top with the statement but He was pointing out the seriousness of sin. 1 Cor 5:6-7 "your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little Leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump as you are unleavened. For even Christ is our Passover is sacrificed for us. Again...Leave no sin alive because, just like Amalekites, they would have babies and keep populating!

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    Commented May 18, 2022 at 4:19
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    Welcome to Hermeneutics! You seem to have some insight. However, Answers need a little more professional-level format. We can't accept simple opinion-contributions as crediblt, researchable answers to Bible questions. However, you seem to have some insight. Could you edit your Answer so it explains the process of understanding the Bible passage the Question is about? Quote the Bible passage with block quotes, and make it read a little less like a devotional. That could make the difference between being popular or being deleted.
    – Jesse
    Commented May 19, 2022 at 18:57
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I came across this article that lays it out quite nicely as a contrast of Saul’s partial obedience and selfish justification vs Samuel showing the need for extreme or complete obedience.

https://sermons.faithlife.com/sermons/55374-1-samuel-15-chopping-agag-to-pieces:-two-different-types-of-obedience

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    Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics! Hello, [name]. This is considered a "link-only" answer. It would be helpful for future visitors to this question if you would edit in a summary of that page. Links can become broken or outdated so a summary would still provide the necessary information.
    – agarza
    Commented Feb 6, 2023 at 20:10

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