As Saul contends for his good intentions in today’s reading, Samuel’s reply leads with the question, “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord?” (1 Samuel 15:22) As Samuel answers his own question, we learn something essential about relating to God. Obedience to God is valuable in and of itself, but sacrifice isn’t. The only reason animal sacrifices were valuable to God is because He commanded them for Israel to show them the consequences of sin and the value of atonement, among other reasons. Obedience in faith is far more valuable in the sacrificial system than the killing of animals. In our story God commanded Saul to destroy the Amalekites and their animals, and nowhere commanded sparing the animals in order to make sacrifices. Instead Saul relates to God as if appeasing God is more valuable than right relationship with God.
Often in scriptures, God emphasizes this same preference for us to know Him and His ways over having us give things up. On this same theme, years after Samuel speaks, Jesus doesn’t simply say “Deny yourselves daily”, but chases with “and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). If we stop at sacrifice or self-denial we miss God’s best: getting to know God better through the benefits of faithful obedience. God created us not to take away good stuff from us, but to give the best to us.
If we sacrifice anything without attending to God’s commands, we go against the grain of our created purposes. If we sacrifice because God commands, we do so trusting that God is giving us, now or later, something better than what we lose.