“Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”
(ESV – Read the chapter)
And here I’d thought we had dealt with all of this nonsense in the narrative of Joshua leading the people to inhabit the Promised Land. How can we trust as good a God who issues a command like this?
At first read and face value, yes, this seems totally out of place and character for God. And as when we dealt with this kind of thing in Joshua the ways of dealing with it range from seeing it as a bad example to avoid, to a misinterpretation on Samuel’s part of what God actually said, to an example that God really can’t be trusted as all good.
A couple of years ago ABC ran a Bible-based drama that they billed as in the model of Game of Thrones. The first episode dealt with this very story. It pitched Samuel as this crazy, old, warmongering prophet and Saul as an old man who had been king for many years struggling with wanting to honor the prophet who supposedly spoke for God and what he knew inside was the right thing to do, namely, not wiping out the poor, defenseless Amalekites. It badly mangled the story (which was, no doubt, a big part of the reason it’s ratings were so low it was cancelled after only one more episode), but it did present it how many people see it.
So, what do we do with this? Well, taking it at first read isn’t going to do. We have to look a bit deeper to understand the context and culture. And, as I have said many times before, we have to keep in mind the character of God (something the writers of the ABC show did not do) or we won’t stand a chance at making positive sense out of it.
First, let us not somehow think the Amalekites were even remotely innocent in all of this. They were a violent, sinful people who had opposed and oppressed the Israelites (and probably many others) on many occasions. They were a people whom God—who is unfailingly just—had slated for judgment and His intention was to use Israel to accomplish that judging.
Second, the language Samuel uses here when he says to “devote them to destruction,” is the language of a divine judgment holy war. This was the same kind of language God used with the people of Israel when giving the commands through Joshua to wipe out the Canaanites as they were first entering the Promised Land.
When it came to this kind of language, the people then did not understand it literally. This can be seen throughout the story of the conquest of Canaan where the people explicitly did not kill every living thing in the cities they conquered and were not counted unfaithful for it. For instance, Rahab and her family were spared in Jericho. That was a decision made by the people without explicit permission from God, and yet they were counted obedient in the destruction. Indeed, the first thing Saul did when he approached the field of battle with his huge army was to grant mercy to a people, the Kenites, who had been a friend to Israel during the time of the Exodus and spare them from destruction. He was not commanded to do this, but neither was he blamed for it. This is presented as an act of mercy of which God approved.
Third, the places where they would have attacked would not have been random, peaceful, countryside villages where the poor, innocent people were living in some kind of an idyllic bliss. They would have been military outposts where all the inhabitants and anyone they brought there to live with him were understood to be living on borrowed time. That was the culture of the day. The fact that God kept it restrained in Israel but for explicit acts of judgment is a mark in their moral favor. This was an example of God harnessing the kinds of things we understand after nearly 3,000 years of Scripturally-directed moral development as obviously wrong, but which they would have been doing anyway as products of their culture, and gently beginning to direct them away from it and in the moral direction He wanted them to go.
Once again, then, we find ourselves facing a tough passage that seems to present God’s character as something less than totally good and righteousness, but which, once we’ve done a bit of thinking and digging, doesn’t do so after all. The real lesson of this passage is not that we need to destroy our enemies when God directs us to that. It is instead that sometimes God calls us to do things that don’t make any sense at first. But, if we will trust Him and obey Him, He will lead us to life.