A sermon by Mike Woodruff (Lake Forest, IL) on 1 Sam. 15 and the question of the Amalekites:
There comes a time in most everyone’s life when they realize that they just are not as good as they thought they were. They are not as fast or as strong as they imagined, not as smart or as popular or whatever. For people who coast through high school, reality sets in during their first year at college. For some who coast through college, reality sets in during their first year of grad school.
When I was ten I played in my first tennis tournament. To say I expected to win is not half of it. Nike was still only a figment of Phil Knight’s imagination, but I fully expected him to sign me to a contract on the spot. I lost 6–0 in the first round.
For some of you, this message will have that kind of shock value. In order to understand how much God loves us, and how amazing his grace is, and how unbelievably good the Good News is, we have to understand how much trouble we are in—how fallen and rebellious we are. It is not pretty. The descent is steep. But the other side is amazing, and we realize what a King we serve.
God commands that the Amalekites be destroyed.
Today we are in 1 Samuel 15—the account in which God orders Saul to totally destroy the Amalekites. This is one of the passages that critics turn to when they want to dismiss the Christian God as nothing more than a tribal war deity or argue that religion causes violence. It is a passage many are shocked by and uncomfortable with. It is one I seriously considered bypassing, and I might have except that this passage—and the six others like it—is often used by those who want to separate people from their faith. The hardest passages—the most shocking—often teach us the most.
It is worth pointing out that this whole discussion makes me a bit uneasy, because in it we are—to quote C. S. Lewis—”putting God in the dock.” We are putting him on trial, asking him to justify his actions to us. We are not the first to do so. Job eventually demanded that God justify his actions. As you may remember, that didn’t go well for Job. God showed up and asked Job a few penetrating questions, and that was about the end of it. It says something about us that we are more concerned with God’s behavior than with our own—that we are judging him rather than worrying about him judging us.
This troubling passage in 1 Samuel leads us to honest questions. I lead us here because I believe there is much to gain by asking hard questions, provided we do so with humility. I hope we’ll adopt that posture. With that, let me read the passage and describe the problem. First Samuel 15:
Samuel, the prophet, is speaking to Saul, the king. He says:
I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the LORD. This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’
There are other passages in the Bible in which people, even children, die. History is littered with death, including untimely death: death by floods and by fires and by war and by disease. Many of these cause crises of faith all their own; we wonder why God allows these things to happen. But this passage is more problematic because it crosses a line. It sounds like an endorsement of Jihad. It appears to violate the Geneva Convention. God is not allowing bad things to happen; God is causing them. It is God giving the orders for an entire village to be destroyed and using his people as the agent of destruction. In this passage God seems vindictive; it makes us feel as though we have higher moral standards than he does or did; or God’s standards have evolved.
Each of these thoughts is trouble. If God is vindictive, that is very scary. It is very scary to imagine that he is not purely good. It also flies in the face of all of the passages that suggest he is just and loving and gracious and kind. It is also problematic to think that God is only now good–that he was not before. If his convictions have evolved, then passages such as Hebrews 13:8—which say that he is the same yesterday, today, and forever—are wrong. And what is to suggest that he might not change back? Under either scenario we have problems.
God commands the Amalekites’ destruction for three reasons.
To understand this passage, it is essential that we realize a few things. The first thing we need to realize is that the call to wipe out the Amalekites was issued by God before Christ, during a time when God was protecting and preserving the Jewish people.
There are six other passages like this one. There are many more passages in which blood is shed for one reason or the other, including when nations are judged for their evil deeds, such as Sodom and Gomorrah. But there are six other passages that embrace what is referred to as “the ban,” where everyone is to be killed and everything is to be destroyed. All seven of these passages are in the Old Testament—mostly in the Books of Joshua and Judges, where God is protecting and preserving the Jewish people.
In his final comments to the nation of Israel found in Deuteronomy 9, Moses looks ahead to when they will enter the Promised Land and says to Israel: Don’t think this is because you are so much better than anyone else. You are better than those you are displacing; they are very wicked, but you are a stubborn and stiff-necked people. I am issuing this order because your oppressors need to be judged, you need to be protected, and because I made a promise—I entered a covenant with your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and promised them this land. Remember: God chose Abraham and promised that through his descendants he would bless the world.
This blessing, of course, is the gift of a savior. It is through the Jewish bloodline that Christ will be born. Therefore, in the Old Testament we find God going to great lengths to preserve the bloodline. This is what is behind the long list of dietary restrictions that baffle us. The restrictions were designed to help people who lived in the desert 3,000 years ago before there was refrigeration. This is what is behind his command to the Jews not to intermarry. The Jews are to be kind to those who live around them—outside of the Promised Land—but are not to marry those who do not worship YHWH, because that would bring pagan influences into the covenant people. And this is part of what is behind his command to wipe out those who are living in the Promised Land. But God also wanted to judge the Amalekites. The Amalekites would pull the Jews off center. Not only that, but God had promised the land to the Jews; he made the land for them.
But the primary reason the Amalekites were to be punished is because they were wicked. The tribes that fall under “the ban” and are to be wiped out are vile. We certainly see that with the Amalekites. They were distant cousins of the Israelites who gained God’s ire by going out of their way to provoke him. They likely knew that the promise God had made was to bless everyone through the blessing of Israel, and they certainly heard of the way God was providing for the Jews; but the Amalekites did not fear God. Instead, they attacked the weakest of God’s people. After giving their promise not to attack, they waited for the Jewish slaves to file through their land on the way to Sinai and then attacked the stragglers—the sick, tired, and elderly. This actually became a bit of a pattern for the Amalekites. They preyed on the weak, and they never missed a chance to attack the Jews.
Even if we leave the Jews out of it, the Amalekites were vile. They burnt their children in front of statues of the idol Molech. William F. Albright, a famous archeologist, once described their religion as “perhaps the most depraved religion known to man.” Their destruction was in so many ways a reaping of what they had sown.
The third observation I would make is that nothing was done in haste. It is worth noting that these wicked tribes were given a long time to straighten out—hundreds of years—and they didn’t.
It is popular in some circles to suggest that the God of the Old Testament has a hair trigger temper—that he flies off the handle at the slightest provocation and orders the death of everyone. This idea was codified by a second century heretic named Marcion, who taught that the God of the Old Testament was a God of wrath who needed to be banished to the ash heaps of history. Marcion taught that the only thing we needed to pay attention to was the God of the New Testament who is altogether loving.
Now, clearly things do change after Christ’s arrival. After the bloodline has been preserved long enough to fulfill its mission, and Christ is born, we do not see any calls to war. There are no orders by God to take action to preserve the bloodline. With Christ we get a different message: his kingdom is not about flesh and blood; his message is not going to be promoted with a sword but by a suffering servant; and while he is ready to die for this cause, he is not ready to kill for it.
We are told to love our enemy, turn the other cheek, and with Paul we are told that we do not struggle with flesh and blood but against “principalities and powers, against spiritual forces of wickedness in high places.” In fact, things change so much that the question is not, “Why does God judge nations that violate his Law?” but, “Why doesn’t God judge nations that violate his law? Why doesn’t he do something about evil in this world?” There is a change in how God operates once Christ arrives. However, Marcion was wrong.
Set aside for now the fact that Jesus makes some very hard claims, as we will see. If you actually read through the Old Testament, you do not come away feeling like God has a hair-trigger temper. Instead, you come away feeling like he is being taken advantage of. You watch how many times the covenant people violate the covenant—how often they turn their back on God and ignore his Law. You find yourself saying: Do not give them another chance! They will only abuse it! They will say anything they need to say to get you back on their side, and as soon as they are out of trouble, they are out of there.
I think it’s fair to say that God is like a woman in an abusive relationship who keeps going back to her abusive partner. In fact, God has one of his prophets—Hosea—marry a prostitute to illustrate how the nation of Israel is treating him. At some point you are saying, “Enough! It’s time to move on.”
If you read the Old Testament, you see that the God of the Old Testament is patient—that given half a chance, he will extend another chance. When Abraham appeals on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, God agrees to spare the city if only ten righteous men can be found in the whole valley. When Jonah wants God’s judgment to reign down on Nineveh because of how wicked they are, he refuses because of the children. God’s decision to judge the Amalekites came over 400 years after they had been warned. His decision to judge the northern ten tribes of Israel came after 300 years of blatant rebellion. The command like it given in Deuteronomy came over 500 years after they had been warned.
As Peter writes in 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” What we have is a situation where, after 500 years of patience, God has decided—in his perfect knowledge—to judge the Amalekites, a people who have done all they can to thwart his plan; a people who are so vile that they sacrifice their children.
So the order is given to wipe them out completely. But, we protest, the call is too much, because it includes a call to kill the children—babies! We can understand that in war soldiers have to die, but how can we make sense of the death of innocent children.
People attempt to explain God’s actions towards the Amalekites in four ways.
It seems to me that we have four options. The first option is to suggest that God lost his temper—completely blew a fuse. This is a view in which God is like us, only bigger and more powerful. We occasionally get mad and act out before we think; well, that is what God did.
Of course this ignores the centuries the Amalekites are given after their warning to correct their behavior. It also ignores what the Bible teaches about God’s anger—it is not like mine. It is not based on incomplete information or influenced by rash emotion. I reject this option out of hand.
The second option is to suggest that the Bible is not really God’s Word; it is only the record of the Jew’s thinking about God—their speculation. The Jews eventually reach a higher level of sophistication, but at this point this is where they are. Their views must have been the same as those of their neighbors. In that era genocide was embraced.
This view takes God off the hook by suggesting that the Bible is not his Word—that there is nothing particularly divine about it. I am not in this camp, because I believe that the Bible is God’s Word, a book that is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword. I believe the Bible is divinely inspired and true, and I am persuaded that it is the view of Christ. I reject option number two.
Which brings us to the third option: the problem is that we are interpreting this passage incorrectly. I am open to the idea that what we have here is a bit of hyperbole. Much is made of discussions about whether or not the Bible is to be read literally. I have shared in the past that these are enormously important but confusing discussions, in no small part because the word “literally” is not used literally. A literal interpretation of literal factors in the literally genre—that is not the common understanding.
For the record, the goal in Bible study is to understand what the text means. Which means that we adjust our understanding of the words based on the type of writing being employed. We interpret poetry differently than parable differently than narrative differently than prophecy differently than discourse. When the Bible says, “the trees of the field will clap their hands,” it does not mean that the trees will grow arms and hands. When we read in 1 Samuel 13:5 that the Philistines have as many soldiers as there are “grains of sand on the sea shore,” we don’t think that there are literally that many soldiers. The trees and the grains of sand are figures of speech. I believe it is possible that what is meant here, when God says to wipe them all out, is that they are to have a crushing defeat.
A friend of mine wrote his doctoral dissertation on this topic and argued that this is clearly hyperbole, pointing to three factors: First, in the Hebrew language, “totalizing terms” like “all” and “every” are seldom absolute. Second, not long after all of the Amalekites were supposedly wiped out they show up again. And third, throughout the Psalms we are told that God drives the people out of the land, not that he wipes them out. My friend may have a point, though it doesn’t sound like hyperbole to me.
I find myself leaning heavily toward a fourth option. This passage means what it says, and we just do not get it, because we look at things quite differently than God does. Our human view is that this life is more valuable than anything else—and that God somehow owes it to us. God’s view is that all we are owed is punishment for our rebellion and selfishness—that life is a gift he can give or take; that he has authority over all things, including us; that he owns all things by virtue of the fact that he created them. And one day he will judge us all—and far more than the brief span of this life is at stake.
Please understand: the issue of infants and children being killed in the battle is not the “take your breath away” issue here in the end, because I believe they go to be with God. On the basis of David’s comments after the death of his infant son, when he said that he would see the child in heaven, I believe that infants and young children go to be with Christ. As one who has had to stand at the front of the church and do funerals when the casket looks like a doll’s, I’ve had to work this out before. Not on the basis of sentimentality but on the basis of the text, I believe that God loves children, and they are safe in his care.
In the case of the Amalekites—a culture that sacrificed their own children—I suspect that ending the life of those born there and ushering them into eternity was probably one of the most merciful things he could do. Get them out of the land of the dying and into the land of the living. Get them out of the sick and demented culture—one that would have led them down the path of sin—and draw them to himself.
God is just, and we will all face his judgment for sin.
In the end, the shock of this text for me is not the challenge of reconciling the order to destroy the Amalekites with the character of God; it is the reminder that we all face judgment. It is realizing how little appreciation we have for God’s ultimate authority and holiness. We seldom fear him. We view our sin as small, insignificant trifles that are beneath our concern, let alone his. We believe that we are good people who simply deserve—and can expect—the benefit of the doubt. We are shocked by a passage that suggests otherwise.
While I am sharing the harsh reality of what Scripture says, let me put it all out there—this is not an Old Testament matter. When Jesus was asked where God was when a tower fell and 18 people where killed—in other words, when Christ was asked, “Where was God when bad things were happening to good people?”—he said, in essence, what makes you think they were good? What makes you think that they deserved life when they were guilty? “But they were no more guilty than you are. And unless you repent you too will perish,” Jesus said. He later says, “Do not fear him who is able to destroy your body but unable to destroy your soul. Instead, fear him who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell.” In other words: fear God.
I know what you’re thinking: Mike! What are you talking about? Don’t you believe in a God of love? I sure do. I absolutely do. I believe in a God of love and grace who gives me what I don’t deserve, who has blessed me, who welcomes me into his arms, who knows me personally and listens to me and sent his son to die so that I can live. I believe in a God who has saved me. But I am under no illusions that this was a small rescue. Or that he had to. Or that he owed me anything other than punishment. That is what makes his grace so amazing.
It is not shocking, really, that after 500 years of being patient, God would wipe out a rebellious group of people who are causing so much harm to so many people—and doing all they can to frustrate his efforts to send a savior. That’s is not amazing. Really. What is amazing is that he gave them 500 years of rebellion before he acted. What is amazing is that a perfect, righteous, holy God can love me, even when I fight against his authority, and rebel, and offend him. What is amazing is that he would send his son to die for me. The only one who is perfect is asked to die.
God’s holiness demands that sin be punished—and one day it will be. One day the period of common grace we live in—a time when God lets the sun shine on the wicked and the good alike—one day this period will end, and we will be judged. God is patient and is not willing that anyone should perish, but there is a limit. One day he will return as judge, and sin will be punished.
You have a choice: you can bear the wrath of God for sin, or you can recognize God’s plan to spare you from his wrath. You can call on Christ who died to pay your moral debt for you. Christ’s death is not an act of vengeance; it is an act of loving sacrifice.
This passage is a harsh reminder that judgment is coming. We should fear God, repent, and embrace Christ.
I’ve given you a lot to think about. The distance between how we tend to think about God—at least today—and who God is as he has revealed himself is not small. There is a lot to mull over and apply. May I suggest that the first application is obedience—and thankfulness for the grace of God extended to us through the death of his son. Christ died so that we would no longer be accountable for our sin, nor live in dread of meeting God.