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Disheveled Theologian: Conflicting aromas

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I spoke on the topic of the senses in scripture. I also mentioned last week that ancient Israel wanted a king so they could be “like the other nations.” Today, let’s combine those two topics!

King Saul had gotten out of control. He had been chosen by God to lead his people after they demanded a human king. He was tall, handsome, and admired. But he failed the Lord one too many times. And God had had enough.

One day, Samuel, priest and prophet, passed on a message from God to Saul. Saul was to go and “totally destroy” the Amalekites “and all that belongs to them.”

After the battle, Samuel found Saul. “The Lord bless you!” Saul said to him. “I have carried out the Lord’s instructions.”

But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?”

Saul answered, “The soldiers brought them from the Amalekites; they spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the Lord your God, but we totally destroyed the rest.”

“Enough!” Samuel said to Saul. “Let me tell you what the Lord said to me last night.”

“Tell me,” Saul replied.

Samuel said, “Although you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. And he sent you on a mission, saying, ‘Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; wage war against them until you have wiped them out.’ Why did you not obey the Lord? Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the Lord?”

“But I did obey the Lord,” Saul said. “I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal.”

But Samuel replied: “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.

Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king.” (1 Samuel 15)

Uff da.

Obedience from the start is better than fancy sacrifices afterwards.

And this is in a setting where animal sacrifices were made all the time. In fact, God was normally pleased by the sacrifices, over and over using the phrase “a pleasing aroma” to describe them.

But the “pleasing aroma” of a sacrifice can only go so far.

Obedience is a more pleasing aroma yet.

Saul didn’t take God’s commands seriously enough. He only kinda obeyed. And partial obedience still contains disobedience.

We need to take God’s commands seriously. We need to fully obey. The era of the “pleasing aroma” of a sacrifice to make up for our sins is long since over.

Far more pleasing to God today is when we are “the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved” of 2 Corinthians 2.

So we need to choose. Are we still trying to offer up metaphorical Old Testament sacrifices to atone for our sins? Or are we offering obedience to the Lord to begin with?

It’s true that thinking of yourself as a “pleasing aroma” may seem a little odd. But I like how this same idea is found in both the Old Testament and the New. How good to know that we don’t have to bring a sacrifice every time we sin. We just need to come to the Lord in prayer. It’s a lot easier being a “pleasing aroma” these days than it was back then.

It smells a lot better, too.

Gretchen O’Donnell is a freelance writer who lives in Worthington with her husband and three children. She has a master’s degree from Bethel Seminary and enjoys writing about the things she sees and applying theological truths to everyday situations. Her column, The Disheveled Theologian, is published weekly. Her email is