1 Samuel 15 and God’s Approval of Genocide?

I’d like to weigh in with some thoughts on the debate at Vox Nova concerning the “bloodthirsty” God of the Old Testament.  In particular, Kyle here has noticed the problems that arise when reading many (not just a few) parts of the Jewish Scriptures.  He also points to the most difficult one of all for me: 1 Samuel 15.  This is important for me because I teach Scripture in a High School, and my first impulse is always just to skip passages like this one so that I don’t have to deal with them.  But then I always correct myself with the realization that someday someone might bring this up to one of my students and ask why God used to be so bloody and then suddenly got nice with Jesus.  The big problem verse is 3: “Go, now, attack Amalek, and deal with him and all that he has under the ban. Do not spare him, but kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and asses.”  Can God really ask someone to kill men, women and child, innocent and guilty?

Kyle offers for critique one popular interpretation:

According to one reading of the Old Testament, God needed to order genocide for the preservation of his chosen people, who could not survive the influences of certain others, so that the way would be made for the coming of Jesus Christ and the coming of the Kingdom. The eternal salvation of everyone in every time and every place depended on the Israelites maintaining their purity as the chosen people. God’s response to those who threatened to pervert and corrupt his chosen people was annihilation: God commanded the killing of men and women, infants, newborns, and livestock. The other had to be obliterated to preserve the same. It was a horrid but necessary order, one that is, according to this reading, no longer necessary. Obsolete, one might say. Christ made the world anew, and so God has no need to give such orders again.

God used to have to give such orders for the protection of his people, but now he no longer has to do this.  A convenient response, but vastly unsatisfying.  God cannot tell someone to kill an innocent person, then or now.  Abraham only believed that God wanted him to kill his innocent son because he did not yet understand the nature of God.  But God is able to make a lesson out of it about child sacrifice.

The other common response I hear is that since God created life, he can order its destruction any time.  I respond that yes, God can take life any time he wants to.  But he cannot order a human agent at any time to take innocent human life.  Only God can do that.

So the problem is present in 1 Samuel 15.  It has always been for me the make or break chapter; the one I have to find a way to interpret if I am to continue to accept the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture.  And the problem is big.  Not only does God apparently order the massacre of children, but he also punishes Saul for not finishing the job.  He takes away his kingship for not completing his genocide of an entire people.  The problem is starkly posed for us.

Mark Shea offers one possible direction to an answer:

Among other things, this means that our grasp of what God is saying to us could well take all of human history and beyond to fully see what is going on. So it would seem to me quite on the cards that when God reveals himself to a bunch of Bronze Age savages, he will likely be understood in Bronze Age savage terms involving such matters as herem—the ancient Semitic practice of slaying everybody and everything in a village as, ironically, a pious act (“See Lord! I’m keeping nothing for myself!”). One need not, I think, believe that God desires such things to see that he could use such cultural flotsam in a long-term effort (a successful one, by the way) to move Israel away from such barbarism and ultimate to the revelation of Christ, who offers himself as a sort of burnt offering to save us from our sinful barbarism.

But I am still not sure that I can accept this “permit but not desire” response.  Could God really “use” such activities?  And why would he use them?  Don’t they send the wrong message?  Again, we must remember that in the story, God punishes Saul precisely for not killing everyone, for not being fully obedient.

I can really only offer two possible solutions, and these are what I tell to my students.

First, all revelation from God involves interpretation.  And the Old Testament is loaded with “bronze age savages” misinterpreting the will and plan of God.  Their religious sense was simply less developed.  Religion has undergone a very natural and supernatural evolution, and we must always keep that in mind.  Thus, while Jews of that time period had a very clear sense that God desired ritual and national purity, they also misinterpreted the means by which he wanted this purity maintained.

If we respond this way, what do we do with inspiration?  According to the common meaning, it refers to the fact that God intends what the human author intended to communicate, as far as we can make out by careful study.  But doesn’t the human author in this passage “intend” to say that God wanted everyone killed?  Yes.  But it is not the main point of the passage.  The main point of chapter 15 is obedience to God.  The human author, while having minor intentions that misinterpret God, has his major intention correct: That God desires his king to show complete obedience to him.  Without complete obedience, Israel’s reason for existence is gone.  In this case, the “primary” intention of the author is trumping other “secondary” intentional points that he is making, at least the way I’m interpreting.

Second, we can approach this passage in a very different way.  This response goes something like this: The so-called “Historical Books” from Joshua – 2 Kings are more commonly known to scholars as the “Former Prophets.”  The reason they are called prophetic books is because they are basically an unpacking of the book of Deuteronomy and its main message: “Hear oh Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord alone.”  In other words, the Deuteronomistic author wrote them in order to explain to the Israel of his time what happens when God is disobeyed.  They are prophetic more than they are historical.  1 Samuel 15 is not about telling a story from the past, but speaking a word to the present, using a well-known story from the past. These books “speak God’s word” through a series of historical tidbits, legends, stories, tales, etc.  Some might be historical, others are clearly legends, and others morality tales.

In this sense, the “literal” meaning of a story like 1 Samuel 15 would be the prophetic message that it embodies.  Who knows whether or not this event actually happened.  However, whether or not it did, the message is clear: Amalek must be destroyed.  Now, according to the legends of ancient Israel, Amalek had taken on a meaning far great than that of a particular nation.  Amalek represented evil, and the enemies of God’s people.  This goes back to the story in Exodus 17.  Amalek opposes Israel’s journey when God is leading them out of slavery.

So, I tell my students, when we read about Amalek in this story, we should think of them like the Persians in the story of the Battle of Thermopylae.  There probably weren’t exactly 300 Spartans and 10’s of thousands Persians.  That just represents very few and very many.  So Amalek in the story of 1 Samuel 15 is a prophetic symbol of the enemies of Israel.  God needs evil to be destroyed.  If we try to keep it for ourselves, it will destroy us (and so later in the story, Saul’s Amalekite shield bearer kills him).

Amalek is a symbol in a prophetic history of Israel.  And we must read the intention of the author to be to use Amalek as a symbolic character in order to make a point.

This is the interpretation that I prefer, and I belief it is faithful to a proper literal reading of Scripture.  If the true literal meaning according to a proper identification of the genre of 1 Samuel 15 is as “symbolic prophetic history,” then the intention of the author is simply to use the nation of Amalek as a symbol of God’s incompatibility with evil.  Israel also cannot now (at the time of the author) go about making alliances with Egypt and Babylon and still think it is being faithful to the plan of God.

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4 Responses to 1 Samuel 15 and God’s Approval of Genocide?

  1. Beware of Sacrificial readings of OT mayhem: slaughter for a good cause. WE have to remember that revelation is not complete with the Hebrew Bible, it is in travail, slowly and surely weaning us away from the violent divinity who scandalizes modern readers, heir to the full denunciation of violence and its definitive separation from divinity (e.g. MT 5 & 6; the Passion narratives). The scandal, the controversy reminds me of one of my favorite remarks by Rene Girard in his book on Job, to the effect that we love to blame God for violence, especially if we don’t believe in him.

  2. nick says:

    Hi,

    This article is too much of a stretch. Why not just say you don’t have an answer for this dilemna except that, for some reason, God wanted them to perform these violent acts? Not knowing why God did this is better than coming up with answers such as the above, which would take someone really ignorant to believe.

  3. Keefer says:

    I don’t understand why your are stating that God had Saul kill innocent people, that simple isn’t true at all….The bible tells us that all have have sinned(Romans 3:23)and therefore making no one innocent. So when God ordered Saul to destroy all the Amalekites, He used His people to bring judgment to the guilty.

  4. […] to Old Testament prophecy by New Testament writers).  Most Christians look for some kind of deeper meaning in the “difficult” Old Testament stories order to be able to “faithfully” […]

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