Saul’s destruction of the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15 is a tough passage of Scripture. God commands Saul to destroy an entire city—women and children included—and rebukes Saul for showing mercy to some residents. Many have called this a “text of terror” that condones a massacre and depicts a genocidal God.
While I have no desire to dodge this being a difficult passage, I do want to offer five observations that give a more nuanced understanding of what’s happening.
1. History of the Amalekites
The Amalekites were not your friendly next-door neighbors. They’re depicted throughout the Bible like muggers preying on the vulnerable. In Exodus 17, they attack Israel—a defenseless nation of homeless, wandering slaves who’ve just left Egypt. In Numbers 14, they attack Israel in the wilderness again. In Deuteronomy 25:17–18, Israel is told, “Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God” (NIV).
It doesn’t stop there. Throughout the book of Judges, the Amalekites are regularly attacking and oppressing God’s people. Later in Esther, it’s an Amalekite who plots genocide against the Jews (more on that below).
The Amalekites are like the Nazis: consistently bent on the Jews’ destruction. In World War II, the Jews even referred to the Nazis as “Amalekites.” As the Jews were exterminated in concentration camps, they looked at their captors as modern-day Amalekites who extended this brutal history into the present.
Sure enough, God cites the Amalekites’ history of oppression as the reason they’re to be destroyed (1 Sam. 15:2).
2. Location of a Military Fort
Cities were different in the Ancient Near East than today. We hear “city of Amalek” (v. 5) and think “civilian population center,” where all the people live. I live in Phoenix—with schools, hospitals, restaurants, and businesses outside my door. In the Ancient Near East, though, a city was a fortified military outpost guarding the roads leading up to the villages where the people lived.
According to archaeological evidence, no civilian populations existed in the cities of this period. As Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright observes, in such encounters “the key military centers—the small fortified cities of the petty Canaanite kingdoms—were wiped out. But clearly not all the people, or anything like all the people, had in actual fact been destroyed.”
Israel is taking out the Pentagon, not New York City. These are defensive military forts, not civilian population centers.
3. Nature of Ancient Warfare
In the Ancient Near East, civilians kept away from the battlefield. It’s not like the Middle Ages or even The Lord of the Rings—where civilians ran inside the castle for protection. Usually only soldiers and perhaps a few government officials populated these cities. When a battle came, any nearby civilians fled.
Israel is taking out the Pentagon, not New York City.
There were likely no women, infants, or civilians present in “the city of Amalek” as it was being ambushed. And if there were, they would most likely have fled. This would’ve been obvious to the original audience, even if less so to us today.
Hebrew scholars note the phrase “man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (v. 3) was ancient stock language for “all.” It didn’t mean each category was necessarily present in a particular battle but that anything and anyone (“all”) remaining in the military outpost after the skirmish was destroyed.
4. Ancient Trash Talk
Like their Ancient Near Eastern neighbors, Israel used dramatic language to talk about war. It may sound genocidal to modern ears, but the reality was more complex.
For example, you can read many battle accounts from ancient nations surrounding Israel who say things like “We annihilated them! We wiped their nation off the face of the earth! They’ll never be around again!” A year later in their war history, though, the same enemies—supposedly wiped off the planet—are back, strong as ever (or even stronger!) and causing trouble again.
It’s like trash talk in sports. After a basketball game, players in the locker room say things like “We destroyed them! Wiped the floor with them!” Taking the players literally, you’d think the score was 120 to 0. But then you check the scoreboard and see it was 120 to 105—a decisive victory, but not as extreme as the rhetoric implies.
The Bible uses language this way. In Joshua 9–12, for example, Joshua celebrates a string of military victories, essentially saying, “We took out all the kings, knocked out all the armies, and conquered all the land of Canaan.” But keep reading Joshua 13–15 on into Judges and 1–2 Samuel—these enemies are still around! What Joshua describes won’t truly happen until the reign of David, decades later.
We know Israel understood God’s original command in hyperbolic terms, since Joshua repeatedly says they carried it out “just as the LORD commanded” (Josh. 11:12–20) even though the surrounding storyline makes clear this carrying out was hyperbolic. God’s primary command was to “drive out” the Canaanites, not to kill them off (this “drive out” phrase shows up frequently for the Canaanites, whereas the trash talking is relatively rare). This is the language of eviction, not murder.
Now, this “trash talk” doesn’t mean 1 Samuel 15 is lying. You wouldn’t accuse the players in the locker room of lying about the game. Similarly, the biblical authors are using an understood way of speaking, common to ancient war histories.
5. Saul’s Not Showing Mercy
In verse 9, Saul spares the Amalekite king: “But Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them.”
Many see this as an act of mercy, so they’re confused why God rebukes Saul and rejects him as king (v. 26). But Saul is displaying greed rather than mercy. God regularly forbade Israel from taking personal plunder in the promised land (e.g., Deut. 7, 13, 20; Josh. 7). Indeed, greed was a major motivator for war. You took the best animals and kept the king like a trophy. But God said, “Not so for my people.” He didn’t want surrounding nations to say, “They just did it for the money.”
Saul is taking the king as a trophy and the animals to enrich his people—and throwing God’s reputation in the dumpster. The narrator highlights these corrupt motivations. Saul had no trouble destroying “all that was despised and worthless” (1 Sam. 15:9)—so long as he can keep the Gucci and Armani. He “set up a monument for himself” (v. 12), exalting his own glory rather than God’s. He “pounce[d] on the spoil” (v. 19), snagging the best stuff he could.
Saul is taking the king as a trophy and the animals to enrich his people—and throwing God’s reputation in the dumpster.
Of course, Saul tries to justify himself, telling Samuel he took it to sacrifice to God (v. 21). That’s like telling your pastor, “I cheated on my taxes to tithe to the church!” God’s not having it: “To obey is better than sacrifice” (v. 22). Partial obedience, after all, is disobedience. He rejects God as king, so God rejects him as king.
Hope for the World
My goal isn’t to soften 1 Samuel 15, but this passage is more complex than the caricature. It even points to our hope in God’s goodness. In the big picture, God is removing the enemy from his kingdom. This points beyond itself to the ultimate victory that’s coming, when evil and its unrepentant allies are removed so they can no longer hurt or destroy, as heaven’s kingdom is established on earth.
Don’t make yourself an enemy of God, or your day of destruction will come. God was patient with the Amalekites for generations, but they still persisted in injustice and oppression until 1 Samuel 15. Likewise, God is patient with us and has made a way of salvation through the cross, where our judgment was borne by the Savior. But a reckoning is coming when he will judge evil and remove unrepentant rebels from his kingdom.
In this way, 1 Samuel 15 points to the goodness of God and the hope of the world.
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