Why Did God Command Saul to Eliminate the Amalekites?

August 21, 2017

This past week, Pastor Andrew discussed the fall of Saul and had to deal with 1 Samuel 15:3. This verse records the words of God through the prophet Samuel to Saul, “Now go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything they have. Do not spare them. Kill men and women, infants and nursing babies,[1] oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys.” The immediate reaction of most people, non-Christians and Christians alike, is to ask, “How could God command this? I don’t know if I want to believe in a God that would do such a thing.” And many have walked away from the faith because of things like this. Indeed, death should not gladden our hearts. Even God’s judgment on evil should bring grief along with the joy of justice. God says, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked person should turn from his way and live” (Ezek. 33:11). Our heart posture should be the same.


But since many of you may still have questions, I wanted to summarize one of the best reflections on this issue. It comes from renowned Old Testament scholar, Christopher J. H. Wright, in his book The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith. It is a masterful work, carefully considered and not cold, academic prose. Rather, Wright is quite human in his admittance that these areas still trouble him. But he is sure that Christians can find solace in fitting these questions into the grand narrative of Scripture. I cannot fit everything I want into this blog from his chapters, so I highly recommend checking out the book.


Wright’s main focus is the Israelite conquest of the Canaanites, which ended somewhat with Joshua, but Saul’s battle with the Amalekites certainly fits the scheme as it is a later extension of the battle for peace in the Promised Land. Wright offers that there are three common “explain-aways” that people use to ignore the weight of these commands from God, but he proves that these objections will not do and gives three frameworks we can use to help us bear the full weight of what occurred. I will here consider the most common explain-away and then summarize all three of Wright’s frameworks.


Explain-Away #1: It’s an Old Testament Problem, which the New Testament Puts Right

You’ll hear many people say that they don’t like the God of the Old Testament; he’s all wrathful and angry. The God of the New, revealed in Christ, is all peaceful and loving. Wright shows this is false because not only does the OT often speak of God as loving, compassionate, and willing to be merciful (e.g. Gen. 18; Ex. 34:6-7; Ps. 103:8-14; 145:9, 13, 17; Jer. 31:3, 20; Hos. 3:1), but the New Testament—Jesus especially—does not shy away from speaking of God’s judgment (e.g Matt. 10:15, 13:40-42, 18:34, 22:13, 25:41). Take this illustrative passage from Hebrews 10:26-31:

For if we deliberately go on sinning after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire about to consume the adversaries. Anyone who disregarded the law of Moses died without mercy, based on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment do you think one will deserve who has trampled on the Son of God, who has regarded as profane the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know the one who has said, “Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

This argument of a change in God’s attitude from one testament to the next cannot hold water. Wright quotes bible scholar John Wenham who summarizes things well:

It is fallacious to regard this as essentially an Old Testament problem, and to set the “bloodthirsty” Old Testament over against the “gentle” New Testament. Possibly the phenomenon is more crude in the Old Testament than in the New, but of the two the New Testament is the more terrible, for the Old Testament seldom speaks of anything beyond temporal judgments . . . whereas the Son of man in the Gospels pronounces eternal punishment.

So, really, there is no way to get around this. 1 Samuel is a historical narrative that seeks to establish the truth of what really happened. Anyone who is serious about the Bible being God’s word is going to believe that God both commanded Saul to eliminate the Amalekites and empowered him to have the victory. The weight is heavy; so, how do we carry it?


The Framework of the Old Testament Story

Many of us in the modern day want to equate what happened in the OT with the Holy Wars of the crusades and the ethnic-cleansing genocide of South Africa, but the Canaanite Conquest was unique. This was a Yahweh War. These were not just enemies of Israel, but enemies of God. God was the “commander-in-chief,” and he decided how the people and the spoils of war were to be dealt with because it was his own war accomplished through human agents (in this case, Saul and his army). In fact, after these wars, they were seen as an act of God (Ps. 44). These wars were a unique act of God to fulfill his promises to Abraham and the Israelites. These wars were limited and are in no way meant to be a model for the people of God after they settled in the Promised Land or for God’s New Testament people.


The Framework of God’s Sovereign Justice

To understand much of these dealings, one has to understand God’s covenants with his people. He made a covenant with Abraham to give his people the Promised Land. But it wouldn’t be until the “fourth generation” because “the iniquity of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure” (Gen. 15:16). God knew that the people of the land of Canaan would continue in their sin, but he was not yet going to exercise judgment on them because their sin had not reached the level to which he was ready to administer judgment. There is a lot of mystery here, but I think we must understand that God never commanded the Israelites to attack any peoples whom he had not considered it morally right to judge because of the pure evil of their actions. We have to trust God in this.


This brings us to the particular situation of the Amalekites. Their story is that they, unprovoked, attacked Israel from behind as they had just finished crossing the Red Sea, and Israel went to war with them. Because of this and their many other sins, God vowed to blot them out from under heaven (Ex. 17:14). Moses also reminded the people that once they are settled in the Promised Land, they are to wipe out the Amalekites (Deut. 25:17-19). Once again, unless we trust that God is just and would only do such a thing once a people had reached a certain level of wickedness, then this will not satisfy us, but this is the God the Bible presents. Like Pastor Andrew said, this wasn’t genocide, this was divine judgment. There was no injustice in God with his commanding Saul to do this.

The Framework of God’s Plan of Salvation

Finally, we must remember the overarching narrative of scripture in order to view these things rightly. God’s plan in his covenant with Abraham was that his people would be given the Promised Land and all nations would be blessed through him (Gen. 15). These wars were waged by God in pursuit of this goal. But in an unsuspected turn, the promised seed of Abraham came, that is Jesus Christ, who had the war waged on him for all the fullness of the sin that the nations had accumulated. Every nation should be struck down by God’s angels because of their wickedness, but it was placed on Jesus Christ as the sacrifice for those who put their trust in his life, death, and resurrection. And those who believe are now engrafted into the promises made to Abraham and therefore, people from all tribes, tongues, and nations are blessed through Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. This is how the nations were blessed through Abraham.


Evil and the death due it should grieve us, but let it never stop us from praising God for his justice. His love is wrapped up in his justice; judgment came upon Christ, so that we might be the loved people of God.

-Alex Nolette (Community Groups/Equip Coordinator)

[1] Read this article by Dr. Albert Mohler and Dr. Daniel Akin on the question of infant salvation: http://www.albertmohler.com/2009/07/16/the-salvation-of-the-little-ones-do-infants-who-die-go-to-heaven/

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