Our topic today, the destruction of the Amalekites, is really just background in terms of what is focused on in the broader story of 1 Samuel 15, which is Saul’s disobedience. We will come back to this theme.
The events of Exodus 17:8-16 set up our story. This tells how the Amalekites attacked Israel, when they were leaving Egypt. And God promised there that because of this “I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (v. 14).
And then Deuteronomy 25:17-19 says, “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.” These verses establish Amalek’s guilt. They sought to destroy Israel, killing the weak among them. And so God will use Israel to destroy them.
If you’re wondering why the material on Saul’s family and military pursuits comes here, it shows that the right conditions have been met, according to Deuteronomy 25, “when God has given you rest.” Israel had rest under Saul and so now is the time to deal with Amalek. (V. Philips Long)
Now as Christians we rightly have questions about the destruction of whole peoples. If this was merely background in their day because this kind of warfare was known and practiced around them (and so we see no reaction to it recorded in Scripture) for many today this is the focus (even the only focus) of reading this passage.
We know that God loves and cares for all people. So, why would God command this, and previous to this the destruction of the Canaanite nations? These are the two, and only two places where this command is given.
Devotion to destruction
Referring to the Canaanites Deuteronomy 7:2 says, “you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.” And Joshua 6:21 records the fulfillment of this in relation to Jericho – “Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword.”
And these are Samuel’s words to Saul in 1 Samuel 15:3 – “Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”
These verses speak of the practice of Herem, a Hebrew word which refers to something beyond normal warfare – protecting land or invading but making treaties and intermarrying. It is translated here as “devote to destruction,” something more brutal and bloody than the already brutal and bloody warfare of the day in which they lived.
So this is our topic.
What should we say about this?
First, we need to see what actually took place, which is to say that 1. not everyone was killed. Scripture itself makes this clear.
In the case of the Canaanites, Joshua 10:40 says, “So Joshua struck the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings. He left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the Lord God of Israel commanded.” (This refers to the conquest of southern Canaan. See also Joshua 11:12 for his conquest of northern Canaan.) So Joshua was successful and fulfilled the command of the Lord (Deuteronomy 7:2).
But . . . later Joshua 23:12 talks about “the remnant of these nations remaining among you” and gives instructions for how to relate to them. (See also Joshua 13:13; 15:63; 16:10; 17:13. Also Judges 1:1-4. And note the contrast regarding Hebron between Joshua 10:36-37 and Judges 1:10.) Many Canaanites remained.
So there’s some hyperbole going on here. You can actually see this in the space of one verse in Joshua 10:20 – “When Joshua and the sons of Israel had finished striking them with a great blow until they were wiped out, and when the remnant that remained of them had entered into the fortified cities . . .” it goes on to say that Joshua’s army came back to him. So they are “wiped out,” but in the same sentence, it acknowledges that a “remnant” remains.
In the case of the Amalekites, Saul was faithful to the command. As 1 Samuel 15:8 says he, “devoted to destruction all the people with the edge of the sword.” Except, of course, he left king Agag alive and as well, the good livestock. There’s no criticism of him other than these two things. So a straightforward reading of the story seems to tell us that all the rest of the Amalekites are dead.
But . . . later 1 Samuel 27:8 says, “Now David and his men went up and made raids against the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites, for these were the inhabitants of the land from of old, as far as Shur, to the land of Egypt.” Many Amalekites remained. Even in the same geographical area. And later in chapter 30 they attack David. (See also 1 Chronicles 4:43. In the book of Esther, Haman was an Agagite.)
So there’s some hyperbole going on here too. Just as Joshua destroyed the Canaanites, and is praised for being faithful – but many remained, so Saul destroyed the Amalekites, and carried out the instructions in this regard – but many remained.
In both of these cases a Herem war can come across as the complete destruction of a people. Now, this was, no doubt, a bloody affair, but it was not this. In the first, Joshua dealt a crippling blow to the Canaanites to establish Israel in the land. In the second, Saul dealt a crippling blow to the Amalekites who were mortal enemies of Israel.
Judging from all this, it seems that the commands to “devote to destruction” (Herem) were never meant to accomplish complete destruction.
Now, in all of this, we need to understand that 2. God is the sovereign judge of all peoples and nations. As our creator, God has the right and even the obligation to judge evil. Do we not get frustrated when God doesn’t deal with evil as quickly as we want?
And all nations and peoples deserve judgment because of human sin and evil. This is not the world God intended. And it is this way because God allows us to make our own choices. And we are accountable to our creator for these choices.
And God can choose how and when judgment will happen. That’s what it means to be sovereign. The timing and severity of God’s judgments are set by God. Some things are more fully judged in this life, and some will be more fully judged in the age to come. So yes, God can bring about a severe judgment on the Canaanites and the Amalekites for their evil, and others experience less intense expressions of this. Just as God brought a more severe judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah – fire from heaven – than on other sinful peoples.
And God still raises up nations to judge other nations in various ways – just as God used Babylon to judge his sinful people, Judah and then in turn judged Babylon for their sin and evil at the hand of the Persians. And God continues to use the governments of nations to punish evil among their citizens.
The bottom line is that this is not Israel acting on its own. This is God the rightful judge of he universe, sovereignly choosing to judge the Canaanites and the Amalekites.
And judgment, whether in this life or the next is never a pleasant thing. It involves suffering and death. As Paul says, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” – Hebrews 10:31.
We know that none of this was God’s original plan. And given who God is, as Ezekiel 18:23 says, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked? . . . and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” – given this, we know that God judges with a heavy heart.
Now, if we accept the message of the book of Job, that we as humans are not in a place to assess the full moral calculus of God’s administration of this sinful world, we should still note that 3. God is working here in the context of a moral framework.
In both cases we are looking at, the Canaanites and the Amalekites, there are reasons for judgment.
- Amalek’s attempt to wipe out Israel, which we have seen. (In 1 Samuel 15:18 God call them “the sinners.”)
- And the religious and moral depravity of the Canaanites. This is noted in numerous passages – things like idolatry, child sacrifice, religious prostitution, incest and more. (Genesis 15:16; Leviticus 18:24-25; 20:22-24; Deuteronomy 9:5; 12:29-31; Hebrews 11:31.)
But also in both cases there is amazing patience on God’s part.
- He gave the Canaanites 400 years to change according to Genesis 15:16. And no doubt God was working among them, seeking their change. But they didn’t. They got worse.
- And likewise there is a similar span of centuries between Amalek’s attack and the judgment for this. And no doubt God was working among them. But they continued to be hostile to Israel.
Also, we need to remember that non-Israelites could escape by becoming a part of Israel, just as Rahab and her family escaped Jericho. They were to show no mercy, but there was mercy for those who turned to the true God. No doubt many of the remnant of the Canaanites that remained in Israel eventually became a part of Israel.
God also severely judged his people when they practiced what the Canaanites did. God doesn’t play favorites. The northern kingdom of Israel was judged and passed from the annals of history. The southern kingdom of Judah was judged and spent 70 years in exile, vomited out of the land for their sins, just as the Canaanites were. (Leviticus 18:28; Jeremiah 25:9; Amos 3:2)
We also need to take into account 4. the context of God’s larger purpose. These severe judgments were a part of a bigger process of movement forward meant to bless all peoples and nations. This was God’s purpose for Israel. He said to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 – “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
Israel had to be established, and protected from the influence of idolatry to accomplish its mission to the world (Deuteronomy 7:4; 12:29-31). And as the prophets foresaw, this mission comes to include even Israel’s foremost enemies (Zephaniah 3:9-10; Zechariah 9:7; Isaiah 19:23-25) including for sure the Canaanites and the Amalekites.
Finally, 5. God’s highest revelation in Jesus commands us to love even our enemies. One of the most difficult parts in all of this , is that God used his own people as the instrument of his judgment. So could God come to us today and command us to do this? The answer is clearly no.
In certain situations, God allowed and even commanded his people to hate (Deuteronomy 23:6) and kill their enemies (Deuteronomy 7:2) in the Old Testament. Jesus notes this and then raises the standard in Matthew 5:43-44. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
And whatever love means, it certainly does not include killing the person. So not only are Christians forbidden to even entertain the thought of devoting people to destruction, we are not to be involved in any situation that would lead us to kill someone.
Things have indeed changed. We are living under the New Covenant, not the Old. Yes, there is still judgment and the final judgment is coming. But God’s people are not to be his instrument of destruction, but his instrument of grace to the world.
(I am indebted to Christopher J.H. Wright, Paul Copan and Stephen N. Williams)