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Tricky Passages: 1 Samuel 15 – The Amalekite genocide

August 12, 2013

(This article is an adapted version of: J Allister, ‘The Amalekite Genocide’, The Briefing, 12 August 2013, http://matthiasmedia.com/briefing/2013/08/the-amalekite-genocide/)

And Samuel said to Saul, “The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord.  Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. 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.’” (Genesis 15:1-3 ESV)

This picture actually shows Exodus 17 rather than 1 Chronicles 15 - it seems artists are unwilling to tackle 1 Chronicles 15!

This is, for many Christians, one of the most uncomfortable verses in the Bible. For this reason, many knowledgeable atheists will use this passage as a means of attacking the Christian faith, and many Christians are unable to defend against such a criticism. After all, it seems, at first glance, that God is commanding Israel to commit genocide against a people simply on account of what their ancestors did 400 years ago.

However, on closer reading, almost everything in that sentence (after “Gods is commanding Israel”) is incorrect.

Not genocide, and not without a chance for mercy

Amalekites survive after 1 Samuel 15. For example:

And some of them, five hundred men of the Simeonites, went to Mount Seir, having as their leaders Pelatiah, Neariah, Rephaiah, and Uzziel, the sons of Ishi. And they defeated the remnant of the Amalekites who had escaped, and they have lived there to this day. (1 Chronicles 4:42-43 ESV)

Also, noting that “Agag” is the title given to Amalekite kings (1 Chronicles 15:8 ESV):

After these things King Ahasuerus promoted Haman the Agagite, the son of Hammedatha, and advanced him and set his throne above all the officials who were with him. (Esther 3:1 ESV)

How is it that Amalekites could have survived Saul’s assault?

Firstly, note how the Kenites were living among the Amalekites, and Saul told them to flee:

Then Saul said to the Kenites, “Go, depart; go down from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you with them. For you showed kindness to all the people of Israel when they came up out of Egypt.” So the Kenites departed from among the Amalekites. (1 Samuel 15:6 ESV)

What was stopping an Amalekite from denying his heritage, becoming a Kenite and fleeing with the rest of them? It’s not like they had passports back then, and only Israel had a physical indicator as to ethnicity (namely, circumcision).

Secondly, Deuteronomy sets out clear rules as to how to besiege a city. We have no reason to think that Saul didn’t follow these rules:

When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. And if it responds to you peaceably and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labour for you and shall serve you. But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. And when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword… (Deuteronomy 20:10-13 ESV)

So, the Amalekites had a chance to flee and (probably) a chance to surrender – both of which would have required them giving up their Amalekite citizenship in exchange for their lives. It therefore appears that God is most interested in destroying the national identity of Amalek, rather than killing the Amalekites themselves – for reasons outlined below.

Those that remained in the city would have done so at their own volition. So, why did they remain? And why did God command this attack? Was it just a long-held grudge?

Not vengeance served cold

cycle

The Amalekites were part of the Edomites. When Israel left Egypt during the exodus, they had to pass through the land of the Edomites to get to the promised land (or take a detour). Israel had no reason to fight with the Edomites. Yet:

Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom: “Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the hardship that we have met: how our fathers went down to Egypt, and we lived in Egypt for a long time. And the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our fathers. And when we cried to the Lord, he heard our voice and sent an angel and brought us out of Egypt. And here we are in Kadesh, a city on the edge of your territory. Please let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or vineyard, or drink water from a well. We will go along the King’s Highway. We will not turn aside to the right hand or to the left until we have passed through your territory.” But Edom said to him, “You shall not pass through, lest I come out with the sword against you.” And the people of Israel said to him, “We will go up by the highway, and if we drink of your water, I and my livestock, then I will pay for it. Let me only pass through on foot, nothing more.” But he said, “You shall not pass through.” And Edom came out against them with a large army and with a strong force. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his territory, so Israel turned away from him. (Numbers 20:14-21 ESV)

Furthermore, the Amalekites even came down to attack Israel when they were at their most vulnerable:

Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. So Moses said to Joshua, “Choose for us men, and go out and fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. Whenever Mosesheld up his hand, Israel prevailed, and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew weary, so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side. So his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. And Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the sword.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” And Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The Lord Is My Banner, saying, “A hand upon the throne of the Lord! The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.” (Exodus 17:8-16 ESV)

In spite of the proclamation, “The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation,” the Bible records not one attack by Israel against Amalek before 1 Samuel 15. However, it records many attacks by Amalek against Israel:

The Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and defeated [Israel] and pursued them, even to Hormah. (Numbers 14:45 ESV)

[Eglon king of Moab] gathered to himself the Ammonites and the Amalekites, and went and defeated Israel. And they took possession of the city of palms. And the people of Israel served Eglon the king of Moab for eighteen years. (Judges 3:13-14 ESV)

Whenever the Israelites planted crops, the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the East would come up against them. They would encamp against them and devour the produce of the land, as far as Gaza, and leave no sustenance in Israel and no sheep or ox or donkey. For they would come up with their livestock and their tents; they would come like locusts in number—both they and their camels could not be counted—so that they laid waste the land as they came in. (Judges 6:3-5 ESV)

So, it seems that, generation after generation, the Amalekites were at war with God and his people. This is no sudden strike for an ancient wrong – this is the last act in a centuries-long war. The Amalekites were, it appears, intent on destroying Israel. God’s intervention was, therefore, necessary.

Not unnecessary

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3 ESV)

God had promised that, through Abram (later “Abraham”) all the earth would be blessed. Israel becomes the inheritor of this promise – and later, Jesus fulfils it as he becomes the salvation of the world. But, had Amalek not been stopped, then Israel – God’s people – may have been destroyed. Had Israel been destroyed by Amalek, then salvation could not have come from it, and all people would still be under God’s judgement.

Not inhumane

Why kill the women and children?

  1. Those that remained in the city were those that refused to give up their Amalekite identity.
  2. From their history, it appears that a key element of the Amalekite identity was a vendetta against Israel.
  3. Had the women and children survived, clinging to their old identity, then they would have perpetuated the cycle of violence to yet another generation.
  4. Had the women and children survived, they would have been deprived of their fathers and husbands – their primary sources of food and physical security. Leaving them alive would be akin to condemning them to death by starvation (or worse). Given the way things were back then, leaving them alive would have been less humane.

The lessons of the Amalekites

Here are some things we can learn from the Amalekites:

  • God is just and is not patient with sin forever. Sin deserves punishment, and God will not delay it forever.
  • God is merciful and patient. He did not destroy the Amalekites for hundreds of years. There was plenty of room for them to turn back or to disown their evil.
  • God is sovereign. He knew that the Amalekites would choose to attack him and his people from generation to generation.
  • God’s salvation plans will not be thwarted. He saved Israel (time and time again) so that he could fulfil his plans to bless the whole world through Christ Jesus.
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