Saul and that Pesky Amalekite Genocide

Every now and then you draw the short straw for preaching.  Or perhaps the long bow.  But anyway this Sunday I have 1Samuel 13-15, the story of the downfall of Saul for his twin acts of disobedience.

Hey, see what I did there?  I assumed that you would read those three chapters in 1Samuel and tut-tut because the primary problem is that Saul likes to make sacrifices, but has trouble doing what God asks him to do.

Which means you have overlooked the Amalekite elephant in the room.

Chapther 15 contains the completely unsettling act of God’s command for Saul to conduct a wholesale slaughter of a people group called the Amalekites.  Doesn’t that shock you?  Doesn’t that alarm you?  Doesn’t that absolutely throw a very fierce cat among a flock of very docile pigeons?

If we read or preach this, and DON’T experience shock at the story, then we are far more disconnected from our wider culture, and indeed from many of the Christians among us who find it disturbing and have trouble explaining why God would do that, than we think.

For make no mistake, this passage is used repeatedly to discount the idea that God could exist and, just as significantly, why anyone who believes in the God of the Bible can excuse his actions here.  Believe me, I’ve checked.  Even lots of Christians have serious trouble with this. have trouble with this.  Only those with a heart of stone could not.

I’ve read the most erudite apologetic articles for why God does this, replete with suggestions that just as Moses and Joshua were ordered to allow people to surrender before destroying them, (Deut 20:10) so Saul would have been too.

Except God doesn’t give him that option.  He’s commanded to destroy everything.  And no amount of modern apologetics does anything except convince the already convinced, and result in long swathes of angry comments below the line from people who are affronted that anyone in the 20th century can either defend this or believe in a God who does it.

So what to do?  Here’s how I am tackling this philosophically, theologically, biblical-theologically and pastorally. (This is not the primary task of my sermon on Sunday which is about God’s king and the fulfilment of this in the person of Jesus, but it has to undergird what I am going to say).  And it all starts by going on the front foot philosophically.

1.Philosophical

When it comes to a passage such as this I am with Canadian Catholic philosopher, Charles Taylor.  He believes that modern day apologetics cedes ground from the get-go to the secular world and its imminent frame by allowing it to set the rules of play.

 You’d never allow an opposing team to set the rules of the game by which you must play.  Yet we do that in apologetics all of the time, where we are told, “Now given God doesn’t exist, it’s up to you to prove he does and the first thing you need to do is to show why the evidence portraying him as a tyrant isn’t the case, which you can’t because it’s obvious by what it says that he is.”

Ever won that one? Thought not. The secular frame can be intimidating, but starting from a position that God IS and therefore not having to explain why one should believe he exists on the basis of his likeability is not on the table. Besides, that we should believe in a God only on the basis of him affirming what we agree with at all times is, in Tim Keller’s memorable statement, leaves us with a Stepford god.

Hebrews 11:6 puts the spanner in the works of the apologetic task here by saying that people who come to God only do so on the basis that they must believe that he is, and not only that, but that this “isness” has a moral quality in that it rewards those who seek him.

2. Theological

The most obvious point in terms of how can God approve of such a move, or even sanction it is that we are not God and that we are hopelessly compartmentalised when it comes to our attributes (partly to do with our being creature not Creator, and partly due to our fallen nature which desires to compartmentalise our own attributes for reasons such as self-justification when we are not behaving in one area of our lives as we claim is our standard in another).

God’s attributes are indivisible.  He is not a “pie-chart” God in which each slice of the pice is an attribute. His love, mercy, justice, holiness etc are total and totalising.  They are held in perfect harmony (not in tension) and each informs the other exactly in the way it should.  Once again an apologetic argument that cedes this ground at the start won’t get far.

There’s much more to say about this, but not time here to do so.

3. Biblical Theology

For me this is the crux of the matter.  As we put the story of 1Samuel 13-15 into the context of the Scripture, what do we find?  A number of things.

  1. First, this is by no way the biggest genocide story in the Bible. That honour is held by the Flood narrative.  Indeed in that story God gets his own hands dirty, so to speak, and dispenses with an intermediary such as Saul, and wipes out mankind himself. Surprising therefore that you can go to a toy store and buy a Noah’s Ark toy, but not one of the Amalekite slaughter.  Of course the reason is that we have “fairy-taled” the life out of what is a shocking story of judgement.  But even there there is a link with the 1Samuel story, as the same term to describe God’s regret at creating humankind is used of God’s grievance at having made Saul king.
  2. Secondly, and narrowing in on the salvation narrative of which 1Samuel13-15 is part of, this genocide is not the first interaction between Israel and the Amalekites.  And all of them are violence and all of them, up to this point, are instigated by the Amalekites.  The first is right at Israel’s birth as a free nation in Exodus 17.  It’s the famous story of the Amalekites attacking Israel and Moses holding up his hands to give Israel victory.  Several times more the Amalekites attack Israel.  No record exists of this being a reprisal for Israel’s bellicose nature.  Indeed in Deuteronomy 25 God orders Israel to do exactly what Saul is called to do in 1Samuel15.  And the reason given is their determination to wipe out the people of God.
  3. Thirdly, and this hinges on the previous point, the Amalekites are viewed as an existential threat not simply to Israel, but to the covenant promises of God that he will bless the whole world through his chosen people.  The Amalekites are not simply threatening a people group with their determination to wipe out Israel, but they are a threat to the salvation plan of God for all other nations.  As descendants of Esau they had despised the covenant themselves and now were determined that none others could have access to what they had rejected.  This existential threat motif is ramped up even more when we realise that Haman, the advisor to King Xerxes in the book of Esther is an Agagite (the name given to the royal leaders of the Amalekites, including the Amalekite king in 1Samuel15).   And which people does Haman hate with a murderous hatred to the point he organises a genocide against them?  Israel of course. Only when Esther steps in is Israel saved, proving that sometimes the best man for the job is a woman.  Simply put, the Amalekites are like the bad Terminator in Terminator II – you’ve got to finish the job or he’ll re-form and keep coming after you.
  4.  Remember point 1?  The bigger genocide story in the Bible?  Well there’s one bigger than that – it’s the final judgement battle in the book of Revelation in which the blood of the judgement battle is described as coming up to the horse’s bridle. That’s a lot of blood.  What we find, counter-intuitively, is that the Old Testament doesn’t contain all of the big judgement stories, and the New Testament none of them or a decreasing amount, but rather the NT ramps up judgement.  In fact Paul with his pen in Romans 3:21-26 and in his proclamation in Acts 17 in Athens, indicates that “in the past” (meaning OT salvation past), God overlooked/passed over sins, but has now, in Christ announced that he is going to “wink at sin” no longer and it is far more in his judgement firing line now that it ever was back in the Old Testament prior to Christ.
  5. In line with this is the idea of people like Meredith Kline that the judgement stories in the Old Testament are eschatological judgement “intrusions”: judgement events that break into history at certain times as precursors to the final judgement of sin.  God models his final day, eschatological judgement, to humanity at certain critical points; the Flood, this Amalekite narrative etc.  But Jesus uses such a framework at times too.  He says in Luke 13 that the collapse of the Siloam tower that killed 18 people (although not an act of judgement in and of itself for specific sin), nevertheless points to a pattern of final day judgement for all of those who do not repent.  And the era of the New Testament church experiences this too in Acts 5 and the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit.
  6. Of course this intrusion theology is fulfilled by the ultimate eschatological judgement intrusion – the cross of Christ.  There on the cross Jesus takes on the force of God’s judgement upon himself, despite his obedience to God and our disobedience.  He takes in the present the curse of what was coming our way in the future. In so doing he creates an eschatological future for us that is not of coming judgement, but the salvation that God had promised for the nations to Abraham back in Genesis 12 and 15.  And did you notice what God did through this Christ – this king?  This King, unlike Saul, was an obedient king.  This King, unlike Saul, exhausted the judgement of God that the king required  for those opposed to God’s salvation.  But how did it happen?  By the God of indivisible attributes exhausting this judgement upon the King, his Son. and not on us.  God in Christ took on the sword of judgement.    That’s the gospel right there!  And it’s right there that we as Christians seeking to defend the gospel against those who hate it, or even those who are genuinely curious, can confidently say that our God would never speak to us like he spoke to Saul through Samuel, and mete out a genocidal vengeance on anyone.  It’s not possible because it’s no longer required.  We are, because of Christ, currently in the eschatological period of amnesty awaiting that final judgement.  The Son is God’s final word to us, so that’s the point we need to make to people.  That, of course, won’t make people affirm God’s justice and rightness for what he did to the Amalekites, but there is a a theological reason for that that no amount of apologetics will suffice for or cover: their hatred of God in spite of his love for them.

4. Pastoral

I hope at some level I have made the primary pastoral point of the text, in that Jesus is the truly obedient King who takes the force of his own judgement blow against sin.  For me that’s the point of the 1Samuel 15 text, despite its tensions.

But there are other pastoral implications.  For a start we need to see that what we view as unjust treatment is inextricably linked towards our inability to take sin seriously enough, both the sin of others and our own sin.  Why should we expect someone who is not Christian to take the sin of the Amalekites so seriously that they could see how God would be just in wiping them out, if we don’t take our own sin that seriously?  This passage tells us that God takes sin so seriously that he cannot allow it to continue.  And the price he pays for that himself is the death of his Son on the cross.

But the passage also helps us see that we must put our own sin to death.  A sin that is a major threat to us cannot be given any oxygen for it will, like Terminator II’s bad boy, regroup and attack us again. It must be killed.  The fact is Saul did not fully kill the Amalekites, and neither did his successor, King David, manage to do it even though he was the proto-type of the coming king.  And look what happened!  Haman cropped up with a genocide plot of his own.  When it comes to sin, it’s a case of kill or be killed.  Simple as that.

The other pastoral point – especially for those affronted by the incident – is that everyone has a deep desire to see justice served to those who have been thumbing their nose at what is good, right and true.  Everyone has a desire for the right to be done, and everyone recognises that there is a constant thwarting of the right through the injustice of others.  Justice doesn’t just naturally rise to the surface, it is fought for, hard. None of us is under any illusion that the fight for justice in this world is anything less than a fight.  And the bigger the issue that requires justice the bigger, and often bloodier, the fight.

As I conclude I know that this has been a long piece and may indeed get push back.  But my aim in using it to undergird my sermon on Sunday is not to try and soften the blow of the text, or make God seem more manageable.  It has one goal and one goal only – for people to give God the glory due to his name.  The glory is going somewhere, let’s make no mistake.  And unless you’re giving glory to God, you’re giving it to something or someone else.  I want us to end the sermon glorifying God despite ourselves and exclaiming with Paul, who deals with equally deep mysteries in Romans 9-11, by saying:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
    or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
    that he might be repaid?”

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.