In one of his debates, now-deceased atheist Christopher Hitchens said that if God existed, the God of the Old Testament was unworthy of the name God. Why? Because, according to Hitchens and so many other critics and skeptics, the God depicted in the Old Testament is a genocidal maniac. (See “Christopher Hitchens vs. Douglas Wilson at Westminster,” http://www.youtube.com.) Have you heard anything like that before?
One classic biblical example that leads to this objection is 1 Samuel 15, where the Lord commanded Israel’s King Saul to “devote to destruction” the people known as the Amalekites. We can readily agree with even the most strident atheist that these are difficult and severe words. Of course the Christian looks at these words through a different worldview from the non-Christian. The non-Christian uses words like those in 1 Samuel as a reason to blaspheme the God who spoke them—the God who gave the oxygen and the vocal cords to the atheist to do so!
As you read 1 Samuel 15 you should ask yourself, “How am I to understand such words? How could God speak so harshly?” Is God a genocidal maniac? is the question.
A Word about Defending God
Let me first offer a word about defending God. Christian, you don’t need to defend God. This is the Word of the Lord—thanks be to God—and he doesn’t need you or me to defend him. When Hitchens or your friend says what they so often say about God in light of this story, we are reminded that those outside of Jesus Christ are going to suppress the truth by using every excuse including the kitchen sink to justify their unbelief and rebellion against the God who gave them life (Rom. 1:18–32). This should not take us by surprise. As Paul says in Romans 8:5, “Those who live according to the flesh”—in contrast to the Spirit—“set their minds on the things of the flesh.” To do this is “death” because it evidences their hostility and lack of submission to God (Rom. 8:6–7). Elsewhere, in 1 Corinthians 2:14, Paul says that “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” You cannot defend spiritual realities to unregenerate, unspiritual minds and hearts.
A passage like 1 Samuel 15 is part of the reality and worldview that the Bible proclaims. To understand that worldview, one must enter into that world. How? The only way is by repenting of your own wisdom and trusting in God’s wisdom in the person of Jesus Christ. Many Christians, though, don’t really understand this and think that they need to apologize for God and try to make him seem more reasonable and palatable to unbelieving people. For example, some Christian commentators have said that this story is just part of the provisional ethics of the Old Testament that would come to an end with Jesus Christ. What does that really mean? “Well, that was the Old Testament and the Old Testament God of wrath, but we live in the New Testament with a God of love.” Others have said that those Israelites who participated in such atrocities needed to understand the character of God better. What does that really mean? Does it mean that the Old Testament is not the Word of God, or the God of the Old Testament allowed things to happen that were contrary to his character that he really didn’t want to happen? Of course the problem with all this is that it was precisely God who issued the terrible command in 1 Samuel 15.
All this is to say that Christians need to stop trying to defend God and instead proclaim the God of the Word to the world.
A Witness to God’s Justice
Getting to the heart of the matter, the story in 1 Samuel 15 is a witness to God’s justice. It is just like all the other stories similar to it in both the Old and New Testaments. In reading 1 Samuel 15 you may be tempted by the world’s wisdom and by the deceit of the devil to read it as a skeptic. You may be thinking, “How could my God command genocide and ethnic cleansing?” Or, “How could my God say, ‘Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey’” (1 Sam. 15:3)?
The Hebrew term translated here as “devote to destruction” is herem. It is used eight times in this chapter (vv. 3, 8, 9 [twice], 15, 18, 20, 21). This meant that certain people, places, and property were off limits for Israel’s use and were to be devoted to the Lord alone.
Why does God command this? Not only is God the Creator of all things in heaven and earth (Gen. 1:1) and the Lord of all who does “all that he pleases” (Ps. 115:3), the God of the Bible is a God of absolute and perfect justice. The Amalekites who were to be devoted to the Lord were the descendants of Esau’s grandson. These were the same Amalekites who, unprovoked, once attacked Israel as they made their way out of Egypt and into the desert of Sinai (Ex. 17:8–16). Because of this the Lord spoke to Moses: “I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven,” to which Moses responded with an altar, saying, “The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Ex. 17:14–16). We read later that the Amalakites attacked Israel again (Num. 14:45). That’s why we read in 1 Samuel 15:2–3: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have’” (1 Sam. 15:2–3). Moses recounted that the initial encounter with Amalek was an unjust attack (Deut. 25:17–19). During the days of the judges, the Amalekites joined with the Moabites in attacking Israel (Judg. 3:13). They invaded Israel and sought to wipe out their crops to starve them to death (Judg. 6:3–4). In Judges 6 and 7 they invaded again in the days of Gideon. In 1 Samuel 15 the Amalekites had still not repented of their acts. This means that the Lord had actually shown tremendous patience with them—hundreds of years, in fact. And even after this patience and Saul’s disobedience in not carrying out the Lord’s command, we read that six hundred years later, when the Persians ruled the Promised Land, a man called Haman, an Agagite, had much power over Israel (Est. 3:1–6). Generation after generation, this nation that was once close to the Lord’s people was continually at war with the Lord’s people and with their God.
All this is to say that the Amalekites were not innocent bystanders the Lord unjustly or sadistically wanted dead. The Amalekites are called “sinners” (1 Sam. 15:18), and, like all humanity, they “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Their king, Agag, was known for his war crimes: “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.” We read that old Samuel the prophet did what Saul refused to do and “hacked Agag to pieces before the Lord” (1 Sam. 15:33). Thus, everything God commanded in 1 Samuel 15 is consistent with what Scripture says about God being just (Gen. 18:25) and having no injustice in him (Rom. 9:14).
Some people might ask, “But how could God command ethnic cleansing?” He didn’t. In his law were two types of wars: those outside the Promised Land, which allowed for mercy (Deut. 20:10–15), and those inside the Promised Land, which did not allow for mercy (Deut. 20:16–18). The reason for this total destruction of enemies was not based on ethnicity or bigotry but upon rebellion against God’s laws.
This all sounds so severe to us today, doesn’t it? One of the reasons is that we Christians are guilty of portraying God to the world merely as all-loving. We preachers are guilty of proclaiming the Word merely as an offer of grace—take it or leave it. And how many of us have turned the stories of Scripture into merely a collection of nice fairytales and good moral lessons like Aesop’s Fables or, worse, Veggie Tales? The other side of the good news proclaimed in the Word of God, though, is often missing. Is God love? Absolutely! But he is also “holy, holy, holy.” And if he is not holy and just, how can we say he is merciful? The God of Scripture is both.
Again, because God is holy and just, every violation of his holy and just law deserves a holy and just punishment. And this justice is not discriminatory anger or bitterness. God is not like you when you “lose it.” God’s justice is purely executed on the truly guilty. This justice was illustrated not only in the treatment of the sinful Amalekites and their unjust king, Agag, but also in the command to the Israelites to slay everything equally and not benefit from their possessions. This was not a raid, but an execution of justice.
This is the God of the Bible. What is described here in prose was later inscribed in poetry in the songs of worship of God’s people in the Psalms. There are certain psalms we call imprecatory. The word imprecatory comes from the Latin imprecatio, which is an invoking of a curse. The Psalms include prayers of the godly for the destruction of the ungodly. For example, most famous are the words of Psalm 137:8–9, which have been versified for singing in The Book of Psalms for Worship:
O daughter of Babylon—destined to ruin— He’s blessed who repays as you’ve done. How blessed is the one who will seize on your infants And hurl them to smash on the stone.
How could a holy God inspire his holy people to sing such “unholy” words, as they seem to us? What our forefathers sang of was in recognition of the holy justice of the true God. And his holy justice was true not only in their time, but also ultimately in eternity. Therefore, the justice that God executed in the Old Testament upon his enemies was a small picture of his eternal justice that will be unleashed upon sin at the second coming of Jesus Christ, the judge of the living and the dead (Acts 10:42; 2 Tim. 4:1; 1 Peter 4:5).
A Warning to the World
This means that this Old Testament story is a warning to the world. If you are reading this article and trying to hide out among your parents or friends who believe in Jesus Christ while you really don’t, or if you are reading this and have never given your life to Jesus Christ by turning away from your sins (repentance) and trusting in him (faith), hear God’s warning in this biblical story. God is not some unjust judge whom you can bribe so easily; he’s not a God who looks the other way. God is a perfect judge who must punish those who violate his laws. God must punish your sins.
And if you think this story sounds harsh, he warns you of an even greater judgment not upon one nation, but upon all peoples. When Jesus Christ returns from heaven he will judge both the living and the dead. In 2 Thessalonians 1:5–9, the apostle Paul wrote to comfort Christians who were being persecuted, mocked, and ostracized from society:
This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering—since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.
There is only one way to escape this warning: Jesus Christ. Cry out to him now with all your sins. Tell him you are sorry for your sins. Tell him you do not want to be judged for them. Tell him that you believe that he alone can forgive your sins because he alone suffered your judgment in your place on the cross.
A Way to Respond
I would like to conclude by offering a way for God’s people to respond to those who question passages such as 1 Samuel 15. I will adapt for our purpose William Ames’s (1576–1633) helpful words on how we as Christians can sing imprecatory psalms in Conscience with the Power and Cases Thereof, 4.19.8–10:
First, respond in sheer awe and wonder that this judgment of God upon the Amalekites that you also justly deserve has not fallen on you, but Jesus Christ on the cross!
Second, respond in godly fear and trembling for the reality of the just judgment of God against the sins of impenitent persons: “Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed” (Rev. 15:3–4).
Third, respond in prayer, in deeds, and in words towards your unbelieving neighbors. Since we do not desire their eternal death we need to call the world to repentance in light of Jesus Christ’s soon coming in judgment.
Fourth, engage in biblical spiritual warfare (Eph. 6:10–18). Don’t do so against your private and personal enemies but against the spiritual forces of wickedness, which are enemies of Christ’s Church.
Fifth, and finally, respond in hopeful confidence. This story teaches us that God will ultimately throw down all our enemies. This is the prayer of heaven: “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:9). God’s answer was to “rest a little longer” (Rev. 6:10). God didn’t answer immediately the beheaded martyr’s prayer for justice, and he may not ours. Yet we wait with hope our full vindication.
Is God a genocidal maniac? No, God is a supremely merciful and supremely just God, and those aspects of God’s character are supremely revealed in Jesus Christ. We who are Amalekites by nature and deserve his justice are offered the mercy of God because Jesus became an Amalekite for us and suffered our judgment.
Rev. Daniel R. Hyde is the pastor of the Oceanside United Reformed Church in Carlsbad/Oceanside, CA. He is the author of ten books, including God in Our Midst, Welcome to a Reformed Church, Why Believe in God and Jesus Loves the Little Children.