Gleanings in 1 Samuel [17]

amalekitesThe Destruction of the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15:1-3)

I have been considering the life of Saul. He is Israel’s first king, but as I have been noting the last couple of studies, he is being exposed as a man who does not fear God. Though he has led Israel to some significant, military victories, when we saw him in chapters 13 and 14, his army had fled and they were powerless against the onslaught of the Philistines.

Even after Jonathan and his armor bearer acted heroically, because of a foolish vow, Saul was prepared to kill his son because he ignorantly acted against that vow.

When we come to 1 Samuel 15, Saul’s unfaithfulness is fully realized as he blatantly –  with a high-hand – disobeyed the LORD. It was the final nail in the coffin for Saul’s monarchy.


Sometime after the events in chapters 13 and 14, perhaps anywhere from a few months or a couple of years, an aging Samuel comes to Saul and pronounces a word from God almighty.

We may recall that there was something of a “falling out” between Samuel and Saul from chapter 13. As far as the biblical record tells us, Saul had not seen Samuel for some time. We can’t be entirely sure of this, but Samuel is absence from the much of the narrative in Chapters 13 through 14.

In chapter 15:1,  Samuel pronounces a “Thus says the Lord of Hosts,” which translates Yahweh Sabbaoth.  It is an unique description of God.  The idea of “Hosts” is connected to Israel coming out of Egypt in Exodus 12:41 where it speaks of Israel as “all the armies of the LORD.” The expression further speaks to God being the sovereign of all and describes His move to exercise judgment. In the case of 1 Samuel 15, God says he will judge the Amalekites for what they did and Saul is to lead Israel to be that instrument of judgment.

The judgment is severe: All men, women, children, sucklings, and domesticated animals were considered herem, or “under the ban” and were to be destroyed.  The “ban” was practiced only against those who had come under the LORD’s severest judgment.  To exercise such a judgment was considered a solemn and holy one.


I want to pause here and consider this passage as an apologetic point, before moving into a study of it, which I will do next time.

Skeptics of Scripture are quick to point out what they perceived as an immoral implication.  We must confess that what we read here is staggering – All people of the Amalekites, no discrimination, is to be destroyed. Critics will say God is cruel and unjust with such a decree.  Some liberal commentators attempt to smooth over the severity of the proclamation by arguing that Israel did what they did because they were not “evolved” in their development as a nation.

Since 9-11, this passage, and others like it, is used by biblio-skeptics to demonstrate that the Bible is no different that the Quran, or that Jews and Christians are no different than Muslims and their jihad.

More mushy-minded Christians, typically from a Red-state, evangelical conservative ideology, will claim the problem is misguided “fundamentalism” that gives the Bible a bad name, not Christianity particularly, as if fundamentalism is the error.  Additionally, they will claim these events took place 1000 B.C., so we need to read the text in light of those events being so long ago.

In order to answer the critics, as well as get a handle upon what is going on here in 1 Samuel 15, it will be helpful to dig a little deeper into the background of these events.

Identifying the Amalekites

Though there is some debate among historians, the Amalekites were more than likely the descendants of Amalek, the grandson of Esau (Genesis 36:12, 16).  Throughout Israel’s history they were a constant threat.

They are first encountered in Exodus 17:8-16 when they attacked Israel as they traveled through the wilderness. God makes a prophetic pronouncement upon them in 17:14 when He states, Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.  In verse 16, God says, The LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.

But that passage raises the question, what exactly did Amalek do that stirred God’s judgment against them? Deuteronomy 25:17-19 explains why God wished to judge Amalek,

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.

Two things are noted in this passage. First, Amalek did not fear God, meaning they blatantly went out and attack God’s people Israel. Second, they specifically attacked the feeble and weak in the group killing them and plundering them. Later, in the book of Judges, they joined forces with the Midianites and raided Israel’s farm lands (Judges 6 and 7).

So, it is clear that they are not “innocent” people. Critics would like to think God is commanding the Jews to slaughter a hobbit like village of garden tending poetry lovers, but this is hardly the case.

The Question then Arises: Is God Just?

– God is the protector of His people. He comforts those who love Him and is a dread upon those who do not love Him.

– God must execute judgment against sinners. Psalm 94:1-11. For Him not to do so would make God unjust.

But what about the children? Were they not innocent?

There is a principle of headship here. The sin of the one will impact the entire whole.  They were identified with a nation that was under judgment.

God extended His mercy for a long time. For nearly 400 years from the time God pronounced judgment upon the Amalekites around 1440 BC to about 1050 BC, He postponed utterly blotting them out. But God-defying, unmerciful people who do nothing but practice cruelty deserve judgment, even their children.

God is sovereign and alone exercises divine prerogative to exercise judgment when He chooses.  We must remember that God has brought full scale judgment upon humanity without discrimination:

– The global flood (babies were killed)
– Death of the Egyptian firstborn
– At the coming of Christ, the entire world will be engulfed with divine fire.

As the Psalmist concludes in Psalm 83, a judgment Psalm,

Let them be put to shame and dismayed forever: let them perish in disgrace, that they may know that you alone, whose name is the LORD, are the Most High over all the earth.

2 thoughts on “Gleanings in 1 Samuel [17]

  1. I’m wondering if I understand what you are saying.

    If a nation is “under judgment”, then it becomes good and right and moral to kill every man, woman and child in that nation? Killing babies isn’t wrong if a nation is under judgment? In this case, killing babies isn’t murder? In fact, it would be immoral to not kill babies? Do I have this right? Of course, I can’t possibly know myself if killing babies is wrong, so I’m asking you.

    In other words, if a nation is under judgment, then the absolute, objective moral rule against murder is rescinded and contradicted, yes? Is Ezekiel 18:20 also rescinded? Is this what you are saying?

    How does this collective guilt thing work exactly? What percentage of a population must “practice cruelty” (or doing something similar) before all in the population are to be killed or before a nation is declared to be “under judgment”? What if there are some non-cruel people within the population? A nation is not a person, it’s a collection of individuals, and these individuals vary in their actions. At what point is it moral to kill everyone in the nation in response to the actions of just some of the individuals in the population?

    By the way, did you notice that one item in your list of mass killings was not like the others? In three cases, (flood, Egyptian firstborns, world on fire), God does the killing directly, that is, God does his own dirty work. (We’ll put aside how this makes God look.) But in the case of the Amalekites, God contradicts the absolute, objective moral standard that it is morally wrong to murder, and sends the humans to do the killing.

    Now, that seems to me to be a problem, because honestly, what good is an objective moral rule if that rule can be reversed, contradicted and rescinded? I mean, what is murder anyway? Is it wrong to murder or not? Yes or no? Sometimes you can kill babies and sometimes you can’t. I’m so confused!

    If God told you to kill me, would you do it, and would your murdering me be a morally good, justified and righteous act? Surely, I deserve to be killed, right? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that it would be wrong to kill me. I’m just wondering what you would say about this matter. You’re the one with the superior, objective, absolute moral code, so I’m asking you about what is wrong and what is right, because this is just all so confusing.

  2. Pingback: Gleanings in 1 Samuel [18] | hipandthigh

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