In 1 Samuel 15:3 God commands King Saul: “Now go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything they have. Do not spare them. Kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys.”
Bible stories like this are fodder for atheists like Richard Dawkins, who writes in The God Delusion, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Though less strident than Dawkins, other cynics struggle to see God as loving and merciful in light of such scriptures. So we must ask, “Is God a genocidal maniac?”
Hardly. God’s love and wrath are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they are complementary qualities of His divine nature and His plan to rescue humanity.
God orders the destruction of the Amalekites and certain other groups for two primary reasons: to punish their accumulated sins, and to prevent their wicked influence from spreading.
The measure of sin
Scripture indicates that people and groups have a limit to the sins they commit unrepentantly before the Lord brings judgment upon them. For example, in Matthew 23 Jesus tells Israel’s religious leaders they are filling up the measure of their fathers’ sins; 40 years later, the temple is destroyed, Jerusalem is sacked, and the Jews are scattered.
The apostle Paul has a similar message for his fellow countrymen who prevent Christians from spreading the gospel to the Gentiles. “As a result, they are always completing the number of their sins, and wrath has overtaken them at last,” he writes in 1 Thess. 2:16.
In the Old Testament, God tells Abraham that his descendants will be exiled and abused for 400 years before God leads them into the Promised Land. The reason for the long delay is that the iniquity of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure (Gen. 15:13-16). In other words, God plans to wait centuries while the Canaanite groups (including the Amalekites) slowly fill up their own cups of destruction. God never acts hastily or capriciously against them; His grace and mercy are longsuffering.
Walter Kaiser Jr. comments: “These nations are cut off to prevent the corruption of Israel and the rest of the world (Deut. 20:16-18). When a nation starts burning children as a gift to the gods (Lev. 18:21) and practices sodomy, bestiality and all sorts of loathsome vices (Lev. 18:25, 27-80), the day of God’s grace and mercy has begun to run out.”
But why, specifically, the Amalekites? When the weary Israelites pass through the desert toward Canaan, the Amalekites pick off their weak, sickly, and elderly and brutally murder them. Moses reminds the Hebrews, “Remember what the Amalekites did to you on the journey after you left Egypt. They met you along the way and attacked all your stragglers from behind when you were tired and weary. They did not fear God” (Deut. 25:17-18).
Saul disobeys God by sparing some of the Amalekites, as well as their choice animals. As a result, there are consequences. Some commentators believe that Haman, who in the Book of Esther seeks the extermination of the Jews throughout the Persian Empire, is an Amalekite.
All right, but why punish “innocent” women and children? Individuals share in the life of their families and nations, participating in their rewards and punishments. But there is another consideration. If women and children bathed in idolatry and wickedness are spared, how long before a new generation of adults emerges like their pagan predecessors?
Finally, why kill the livestock? God does not want the Israelites to go to war in order to enrich themselves. Their solemn task is to carry out a death penalty, not to line their pockets.
It is God’s sovereign duty to determine when people or groups have filled up their “measure of sin.” When He decides that severe judgment must fall, we may rest assured that He is not forfeiting his grace and mercy; rather, the sinning party has rejected God and passed beyond the point of no return.
This column first appeared August 13, 2013, in The Pathway, the news journal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.