I've been discussing 1 Samuel 15, and God's command to Saul to exterminate the Amalekites. So far, I've established that the Amalekites were the nation who, more than any other, attacked and tried to destroy the Israelites. They had been attacking the Israelites right from when Israel came out of Egypt, and they would keep on doing so for another 600 years.
But so far, what I've written could be seen as just God taking sides in an old argument between two nations. Or as someone put it "A toddler-God here, kicking over his blue toy soldiers, because today he likes the green ones better."
To understand why that isn't the case, we need to think about the place of this all in the big picture of the Bible.
The Amalekites in Salvation History
Israel was God's chosen people. But they weren't chosen so God could bless them and curse everyone else. They were chosen to be God's conduit of blessing to the whole world (as Chris Wright keeps pointing out). As God's original promise to Abraham says:
all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.
Genesis 12:3b, NIV
Israel was God's chosen conduit of blessing to the whole world. Amalek had actually had a chance to be there as well, being descended from Esau. But Esau had renounced his blessing, trading it in for a bowl of soup, and Amalek continued in that. They had decided that they would oppose the very means that God had chosen to bless them and every other nation, and by the time we reach 1 Samuel 15, they have been consistently opposing it for hundreds of years and show no sign of letting up.
In his book Violence, Hospitality and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition, theologian Hans Boersma points out that hospitality requires the potential for violence. Suppose that Britain welcomes a refugee from Burma. In Burma, they are being hunted by the authorities because of their statements about human rights violations, or something like that. If Britain really welcomes them, part of that is being willing to resist the Burmese government sending agents over here to kill them, and resisting in a violent way if necessary. Part of hospitality is willingness to protect the people you are being hospitable towards.
In the same way, God is determined to bless the world, and at the stage of 1 Samuel 15, the way he has decided to bless the world is through Israel shining as a light for him among the nations. As it turns out, they're rubbish at that, but that's a different story. Even so, we still get people like Ruth and like the Gibeonites coming in from outside Israel to experience some of God's blessing to the world through Israel. And so part of what it means for God to bless the world is for God to protect Israel, his pipeline for blessing to the world.
The Amalekites had chosen not to be part of the means by which God blessed the world, and now they chose to oppose the means God was using to bring blessing to the world. If God was going to keep on blessing the world, he needed to stop the Amalekites.
But what about the children?
So far, I think I've established a decent reason for why God should want people to fight against the Amalekites. But we still haven't really dealt with the issue – why does God command a genocide here?
I think there are several reasons. Minor ones include that the Amalekites seem to have been notorious for killing children when they attacked (1 Sam 15:33), so it is repayment in kind. But while there's a kind of grisly poetic justice about that, I don't think it's the main reason, and I don't think it's an adequate answer either.
A better reason is the one given in Exodus 17.
The LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.
Exodus 17:16b, ESV
God knew that the Amalekites would always oppose Israel – that the children of the Amalekites would do it when they grew up, and their descendants too – as we see with Haman in the book of Esther.
Time for an analogy. Suppose that you met Stalin, or Harold Shipman, or some notorious evil person, when they were a child. Suppose you somehow knew all the evil they would do, all the lives they would destroy, and that the only way you could stop it was by killing them, and that was within your power. Could it be right to kill them in such a situation?
It isn't an easy question. I think it's probably similar to the one that Bonhoeffer wrestled with. He was a pacifist church leader in Nazi Germany, and was eventually executed for his part in a plot to kill Hitler. He wrestled with it for a long time, and eventually concluded that he had to, not because of what Hitler had done – that's a matter for God's judgement – but because of what Hitler would continue to do if he was not stopped.
My point is this. I think that in a situation like that, God could command the killing of a young Joseph Stalin because he knows the future and knows for certain what would happen if we didn't do it. If we were absolutely 100% certain that we were hearing God correctly, it wouldn't be wrong to obey God on something like that.
And the situation in 1 Samuel 15 is that God knew the Amalekites. He knew they were a nation that had rejected a part in God's plan to bless the world. He knew that their actions for hundreds of years had been set on destroying and stopping God's plan to bless the world. He knew that if they weren't destroyed, they would continue to try to stop his plan. And in fact, they weren't destroyed and they did continue to try to thwart God's plan, so he was proved right by that.
It's an issue of protection. If the Amalekite army had been defeated once in battle and left to retreat, they would have come back eventually. It would have been limited protection for a limited time. But what God wants is total protection for his plan to bless the world, forever. Without total destruction of the Amalekites, they were going to keep on coming back, and God's plan would not be safe.
But this still sounds, well, merciless. We'll see why it wasn't as merciless as it looks in part 3...