In a previous post I looked at 1 Sam. 2:25b and noted the difficulty it raises in regards to divine sovereignty and human free will. In this post I want to look at the second difficulty that that verse raises, the troubling assertion that God is good, though he apparently desires the death of Hophni and Pinchas. The idea that God would desire someone’s death seems very problematic to our usual theological categories for God.
1 Sam. 2:25b
ולא ישׁמעו לקול אביהם כי־חפץ יהוה להמיתם
Trans.: But they did not heed the voice of their father for YHWH desired to kill them (my translation).
It is possible to read this phrase with the NRSV as “it was the will of the Lord to kill them.” But as far as I can tell, the word חפץ most regularly carries the connotation of “to desire” or “to take delight in” or “to take pleasure in” (cf. BDB, I do not have HALOT with me so I am curious what it says). It is probably possible to translate חפץ as “to want” or “to will.” Two examples of this understanding could be Judg. 13:23, where Manoah’s wife says, “If the LORD had meant (חפץ) to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt offering,” and Isa. 55:11, where the prophet says, “it shall accomplish that which I purpose (חפץ).” Another example could be the great servant song of Isaiah, where the prophet says in 53:10 “Yet it was the will (חפץ) of the LORD to crush him with pain.”
Perhaps I am reading too much into the use of חפץ in this context based on the English gloss, “delight in” or “desire.” But perhaps I am trying not to simplify this delight language when it comes to God’s punishment in this text. As I read this text, three instances where חפץ is also used of God comes to mind.
First, in 1 Sam. 15:22, Samuel asks the question both rhetorically and sarcastically expecting the negative answer:
Has the LORD as great delight (החפץ) in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
as in obeying the voice of the LORD?
The context here is one where Saul has used the excuse of offering sacrifices to YHWH as the reason that he did not follow YHWH’s commands to slaughter all the Amalekites including “man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1 Sam. 15:3). So, we can say that it appears that God does not take delight in Saul using sacrifice, a good thing on its own, as an excuse to do what he really wants to do, i.e., keep the good animals for himself (or for his people), a bad thing.
A second example, is found in Jer. 9:24
Jer. 9:24 but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the LORD; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the LORD.
Here YHWH declares that what he delights in is steadfast love (חסד), justice (משׁפט), and righteousness (צדקה). These are three loaded theological terms and we will come back to them. It may be helpful to treat this verse as the categories of things that God delights in.
A final example are two verses from Ezekiel. In the context of a discussion about Israel’s apostasy, YHWH’s desire to forgive, but willingness to punish two verses stand out:
Ezek. 18:23 Have I any pleasure (החפץ אחפץ) in the death of the wicked, says the Lord GOD, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live?
Ezek. 18:32 For I have no pleasure (לא אחפץ) in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD. Turn, then, and live.
This passage clearly expresses YHWH’s desire for his people to turn from their wicked ways that he might forgive them. He does not desire in the death of anyone, as the two verses above suggest. In the context the people of Israel declare “The way of the Lord is unfair” (18:25, 29) to which YHWH replies “s my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?” (18:25, 29). So the onerous is put on humankind. God desires to forgive His people but the ball is in their court as it were:
Ezek. 18:26 When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die.
Ezek. 18:27 Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life.
So, from a biblical theological perspective how do we understand the phrase “YHWH desired to kill them”? First, if we can take Ezekiel 18 as representative of God’s character we can say that God does not delight in anyone’s death. I take this to mean that YHWH’s character is defined by his mercy, i.e., all things being equal YHWH would prefer to show mercy than exercise punishment. Thus it cannot be the deaths of Hophni and Pinchas, per se, that bring about YHWH’s delight. Second, if we can take Jer. 9:24 as programatic for the categories of things that YHWH does delight in, we can suggest a way to understand 1 Sam. 2:25b.
Jer. 9:24 suggests that YHWH delights in three things: 1) steadfast love, 2) justice, and 3) righteousness. If we take this as programatic of what YHWH delights in than we can categorize YHWH’s delight in 1 Sam. 2:25b. YHWH cannot be delighting in steadfast love (חסד) in this text, though we can postulate that this is what He would prefer to be showing as evidenced by Eli’s appeal to his sons in v. 25a. Likewise it cannot be righteousness (צדקה) that He is delighting in, lest it is His own righteousness that cannot abide the wickedness of the two sons of Eli. Rather, it must be YHWH’s justice (משׁפט) in which He delights in 1 Sam. 2:25b. The phrase “YHWH desired to kill them” or “YHWH delighted in the killing of them” must primarily mean that YHWH desired to restore His justice or He delighted in the restoration of justice that killing them would bring about. This is not to soften the fact that it was the killing of the sons of Eli that brought about that justice and hence that delight but it is to put it in its proper biblical theological context. I wonder if this could be compared to the delight that we feel at the end of a movie or book when a “bad guy” who represented injustice is killed restoring justice to the world of the book or movie? This seems, to me at least, to be the best way to think about this text. God delights in restoring justice, or as the English would say, “putting things to right.” YHWH is a God who delights in restoring His justice, sometimes that requires the death of someone and though he does not delight in someone’s death per se (Ezek. 18:23, 32) he does delight in writing wrongs and restoring justice (one need only think of the death of Hitler)! Hopefully this is a helpful way to think about a verse (or half of a verse!) that poses a difficult biblical theological question.