The Amalekite massacre as a failure of Israel’s obligation

Brandon does a very good job of avoiding the literalism and emotionalism on the question of the Amalekite genocide (see comments of first link).

It strikes me that the simplest way to follow Brandon’s advice in a debate with Craig would be to compare the divine command to slaughter the Amalekites to two other commands to destroy cities given to righteous men: the destruction of Sodom proposed to Abraham; and the destruction of the Israelites proposed to Moses on the mount. In light of these, it seems that the righteous response to God telling you about the slaughter of a whole people is to plead with him to be mindful of his mercy, and to persevere in this until he relents. So far as Israel alwasy had an obligation to follow the righteous example of its patriarchs, the call to intercede for those who are (justifiably) doomed is a true obligation, and to fail in this obligation is a serious fault. Notice that this obligation is more directly based on the literal sense of Scripture more than Craig’s divine command literalism – it is exactly how Saul would have responded to the command if he took the literal sense of scripture as his guide in life.

On this account, the real failure of the Amalekite massacre is that Israel fails to extend the mercy of God to the nations. They choose to be simply like the other nations, and perform a rather typical action of a conquering army. The Amalekite massacre is really a failure of Israel to “let God be their king” and instead to just “have a king like other nations”. If God were their king, as he was for Abraham and Moses, the Israelites would have been true to their obligation, which has always been to be a conduit of mercy to all nations.



  1. Brandon said,

    June 3, 2011 at 11:58 am

    That’s a really good point that I hadn’t thought of in this context; it’s one of the things that distinguishes Islam, based on pure submission, from Judaism and Christianity on the other.

    One could perhaps put the argument another way and argue that the problem with divine command theory from a Christian perspective is that it seems to leave little room for filial fear.

  2. thenyssan said,

    June 3, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    My 7th-graders see the connection between Abraham’s success and Saul’s failure pretty quickly–I’m amazed this approach is not more widely used in discussions of this “problem passage.” Another way to look at it is as a test (or just a demonstration) of the covenant mediator. Can this man judge the nations like God does? Abraham seems to pass the test or show us a God-like covenant mediator with his wise concerns for justice (for all those endangered by Sodom) and mercy (for the people of Sodom). Saul shows no such wisdom and clearly fails, turning his test into an opportunity for gain. Saul’s conversation with Samuel is also highly evocative of the interrogation of Adam and Eve by God in Genesis 3.

  3. PatrickH said,

    June 8, 2011 at 6:20 am

    Should not the failure to argue for mercy for the Amalekites be the failure not only of Saul, but of Samuel? Neither Moses nor Abraham had a prophetic figure haranguing them to finish the job, let alone going so far as to take the matter in his own hands as Samuel did when he executed Agag. What strikes me as so problematic about the Amalekite massacre is the presence of Samuel, who seems clearly to be understood as God’s representative, arguing not for mercy, but for the completion of the genocide.

    • June 8, 2011 at 8:22 am

      Since Israel is fundamentally a nation, and the course of the nation is at this point determined by a king, I see Saul as the one who decides the destiny of Israel (perhaps the people as a whole could have done so too). Samuel’s role is therefore derivative and secondary, and his actions are conditioned by the failure of the nation (either through the people or Saul) to be faithful to their vocation to extend mercy to all nations. We can see Samuel as a sort of prophet for the vengeance of God – a vengeance that we fall into when the gates of mercy are closed by the nation (or Church) entrusted to open them.

      God brought good out of the campaigns to take the Holy Land, but certain goods were lost forever. We can see this by considering the line of development from Abraham to Moses that is ruptured with the rise of the judges and the kings. Abraham intercedes and saves his family; Moses intercedes and saves his nation; the next step Israel was supposed to take was to intercede for the salvation of all nations, but their rejection (or overlooking) of this marred the development of the Old Covenant and took a good away from salvation history that was supposed to be there but cannot be replaced or corrected – for the moment is passed.

      Just imagine what a glory it would have been if Israel had been true to their calling! The Edomites, Moabites, Philistines, etc. would have all converted to the God of Israel, and the faith would have spread throughout the whole world by the time of Christ. Just to think about what a marvelous prayer would have been said to convert the nations! The words of that prayer would be known to everyone and would be said at every liturgy, and in every private devotion. The whole world would have gotten an 1000 year head-start on the benefits that come from following the God of Israel, and no heretic would have ever suggested a divide between the Justice-God of the OT and the merciful father of the NT. The NT itself would be a clear perfection and completion of the old, as the last possible consummate work of mercy in a clear line of the extension and advancement of mercy from Abraham to Christ.

      But all this was lost with the choices of Saul and the Israelites. In fact, killing the Amalekites was a small evil compared to the evil of rejecting the call to mercy, since by rejecting mercy Israel killed all nations.

  4. thenyssan said,

    June 8, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    The defining moment of I Samuel (and really the next few books) is when the people demand a king in chapter 8. Samuel is deeply grieved but God consoles him by saying that they are rejecting Him, not Samuel. God gives them what they ask for along with every evil thing that inevitably entails. Samuel’s time ends and Saul’s begins; Samuel takes up the role of the prophet-as-foil-to-the-king. It’s not even clear that Samuel ever enjoyed covenant mediator status as the judge of Israel, but if he did that time had clearly passed by the time of chapter 15’s slaughter.

    Does Samuel fail in chapter 15 in his role of prophet-as-foil? Maybe; I don’t think there’s anything impious about holding that interpretation. I don’t think Samuel is held up as a moral paragon. But his actions can also be seen as a closing of the circle or best-fix to a bad situation. Saul, whatever his evil designs, will not have his trophy/hostage/cash cow in Amalek.

    There’s also the importance of the spiritual sense: the one enemy that we must eradicate without mercy is sin. The destruction of Amalek is parallel to Abram refusing the loot after the battle of Ten Kings–we will serve God alone and Him without reservation.

  5. Gabriel said,

    June 9, 2011 at 7:11 am

    I find this line of reasoning to be appealing. It is very consistent with the negative portrayal of Saul in the books of Samuel. That said, Joshua was arguably guilty of the same behavior in Jericho, Ai, and other cities, and no part of the Bible ever seems to hint that Joshua was ever disobedient to God or otherwise unworthy.

    • June 9, 2011 at 10:33 am

      That’s right, but I see your argument as showing that mercy is not a matter of obedience or disobedience. We don’t call Moses disobedient for interceding for the Israelites, or Abraham disobedient for pleading with God to spare Sodom. There is something crucial here about mercy – God is highlighting its utterly gratuitous character, that is, how it does not follow from a law as justice does. Justice is a matter of obeying or not, since it is tied up with law, but it was never God’s intention that Israel remain a people of the law, as St. Paul makes clear.

      A consideration of Jonah might also be appropriate: for Jonah mercy was a matter of obeying God; though here again this is not according to law. This might be a secondary sense of Christ’s claim that, in him, the world was given “the sign of Jonah”.

      • thenyssan said,

        June 9, 2011 at 12:23 pm

        That’s really nicely said. How about St. Anselm’s claim (certainly not unique to him) that justice and mercy flow from the same wellspring: God’s infinite goodness. That they are united is obvious; how, less so to us.

        Justice is God’s goodness according to the mode of law.
        Mercy is God’s goodness according to the mode of…gift? Where the difference between law and gift is “due” or “obligation?”

        I feel like I don’t understand the words I am saying though.

      • Gabriel said,

        June 9, 2011 at 12:23 pm

        Hence, we could say that Joshua ought to have interceded for all of the residents of Jericho, for their conversion, as did in fact occur to some degree with the Gibeonites. His failure to do so was a huge setback to God’s ultimate purposes. A symptom of his failure was the greed evidenced by the Hebrews subsequent to the taking of Jericho.

        This is a really interesting and provocative line of thought. As I mentioned before, it appeals to me. Might there be some precedent for this line of thought somewhere in the depths of our Catholic tradition?

  6. June 10, 2011 at 2:08 am

    I definitely agree. When Israel fails to make “God as their King,” it also fails to be a conduit of mercy to other nations. This is probably why many Middle East nations have become enemies with Israel. Saul’s heart was not right with God and so he failed to plead for mercy for others. May God continue to bless Israel so it becomes a blessing to other nations.

  7. Kristor said,

    June 10, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    “Justice is God’s goodness according to the mode of law. Mercy is God’s goodness according to the mode of…gift? Where the difference between law and gift is ‘due’ or ‘obligation?'”

    Justice requires compensation. This is easy to see by analogy with driving: err to the left, and you may avoid catastrophe only by a correction to the right. To stay on course, likewise, the world in its every errant part needs constant, pervasive correction. And such corrections may entail destruction of some creaturely good (the correction to the right may save the oncoming minivan, at the cost of the driver’s life when he loses control and plunges off the right side of the road). Indeed, by its foreclosure of alternative futures, any decision destroys myriad opportunities, each of which has some present value (options are valuable).

    Say then that a driver errs and kills someone. At his trial for manslaughter, the grieving widow of the victim, despite her agony, pleads to the judge for mercy upon the young man who killed her husband. She and her husband have been hurt, and full compensation for the error is due; but by her plea she informs the court that the total cost to her and her husband – and, by implication, so far as she is concerned or can calculate, to the whole world – of the driver’s error would be lessened by mercy to the driver, who meant no harm, and whose young life is at the verge of utter ruin. I.e., she makes known that not as much compensation is needed in the world as it now actually is (and, thus, given what it could now possibly achieve) as the laws of compensation would otherwise require. In doing so, she opens moral room – i.e., room that is economic, causal, and ontological – for the judge to arrive _justly_ at a lenient sentence. She opens room in the course of history for mercy to break in, gratuitously – but without the least weakening of the Law. This she does by virtue of a prior imaginative and charitable accounting of the cost to the young driver, his family and heirs, indeed the whole future of the world, that would follow if justice were to work its way pitilessly to an equitable balance, and to a cosmic equilibrium, uninfluenced by her charity and forgiveness. The calculus of the Law then proceeds to exact the penalty due – but, thanks to the widow’s charity and forethought, her anamnetic moral remembrance, the penalty is less than it would otherwise have been. The Law has not been bent at all – not one jot or tittle of the Law has been changed, and indeed it has been fulfilled to the very letter; but it has been influenced, by having been informed. Its output has differed, thanks to the difference in its inputs the widow has made. Creatures can, indeed, influence the course of the world’s history, within the constraints of the Law (if they could not, there could be no such thing in the first place as obedience to the Law, or therefore to any failure therein, or, finally, of any causal function, or need, for the procedures of justice, in any court of Heaven or Earth).

    This is just what happened when Abram prayed for mercy to Sodom, and Moses for mercy to the Israelites. It is also what happened when Christ prayed from the Cross that we be forgiven for our ignorant sin. Prayers change things. Indeed, it might even be said that prayer _is_ what changes things – that motion as such just is a sequela of prayer.

    It might be objected that omniscience has no want of information about the values that would be lost to history as a result of a given judgement in justice, so that the pleas of the widow or of Moses do not add to His store of knowledge, or therefore affect His judgement. But the facts of the situation on the ground, to which Justice must respond with perfect accuracy, include the facts of the willingness toward charity or forgiveness of those who enter such pleas – concrete facts about people that can make an immense difference to the whole future of the world (as James makes clear above) – and those facts become factual through the free acts of those agents. Had those acts not occurred, the situation would be different than in fact it turned out to be, and the penalty of justice would have been less merciful. Omniscience knows what history will be in the event Moses enters no plea for the Israelites, and also what it will be in the event that he does. In the event, he makes his prayer; and this is what makes the difference, for in answering Moses’ prayer, God is responding to a world that differs from the one wherein Moses had remained silent, and that would, therefore, have called for a different judgement.

    James writes:

    “Just imagine what a glory it would have been if Israel had been true to their calling! The Edomites, Moabites, Philistines, etc. would have all converted to the God of Israel, and the faith would have spread throughout the whole world by the time of Christ.”

    A wonderful, sorrowful vision. Particularly when we remember that in addition to the Edomites, et al., Israel would also have been able to convert her near neighbours, just across her southern border: the many tribes of the children of Ishmael. We are still compensating for that error.

  8. June 17, 2011 at 2:48 pm


    I was discussing your solution to this problem with some friends last night, and we were wondering why, on your account, God didn’t stop Saul from carrying out His command like He did as Abraham was going to kill Isaac? If God realized that Saul was not going to pass the test and intercede on behalf of the nations, then why didn’t he just retract the command before Saul carried out the order, thus sparing the Amalekites and yet succeeding in testing Saul? Finally, Samuel does not scold Saul for failing to intercede for the nations, but because Saul didn’t carry out the ban well enough.

    What say you?

  9. Insane said,

    June 26, 2012 at 1:09 am

    How might this analysis apply (or not) to the narrative of the Genesis flood where an even broader “genocide” involving virtually the whole of mankind except Noah and his family were wiped away? In this narrative there was no intervening agent to blame; God himself performed the enormous massacre. Even if it is argued that Noah was morally deficient for not praying the wicked generation be spared such a flood, it would seem to leave God choosing to respond to a morally deficient servant by annihilating most of mankind in a sort of “mega-genocide.” Thoughts?

    • June 26, 2012 at 9:16 am

      The argument here is about Israel, which starts with Abraham. The distinction is important as it marks off different eras of the Church. It was Israel that was called to be the mediator of mercy to the world. Prior to this, there does not seem to be any intercessors of mercy. If the question is “why not call Israel from the beginning?” then we’ve changed the question from the one being asked here, and I don’t know that I have the answer. We would have to appeal to some philosophy of history to answer the question (In Vico or Hegel’s sense), and I’m not sure that this is the sort of knowledge that we can have.

      If you want to raise the general problem of evil in scripture I would say different things, some of which you’ve probably heard before. One objection I’d make to your account of things is that you’re treating good and evil as the same sort of thing for the purposes of describing God, but they are not. An infinite justice or mercy or goodness is possible in a way that an infinite evil is not. Whatever the imagination might gin up as an image of an evil god, it cannot be a coherent view of a being to which no superior is possible. We can speak of an evil Absolute and perhaps even imagine it as easily as we can imagine a greatest prime number, but it was one of the great contributions of Christian thought (working off of insights from Plato) that such a being is not possible. The attempt to speak of God by terms that denote defects or evils (“one who commits genocide” etc.) require imagining that evils are ontologically similar to goods, but they are not.

      No one sees God. We’re stuck having to move from effects to causes. In the language of the Old Testament, God was responsible for everything in one way or another and there was no way to describe him as evil. Evils were therefore seen according to the evils which are used by good agents (i.e. as punishments or things allowed for the good of the whole). There is sound metaphysics in this, even if the idea of punishment or allowance for the common good are not adequate as a categories to capture every evil that is used by good agents. My suspicion is that they are not adequate, and that we simply do not have an exhaustive grasp of the categories in which evils are used by good agents, or of the ways in which these categories are verified in different aspects of revelation. While I accept Christ’s teaching on the reality of Hellfire, for example, I cannot see exactly how it is an aspect of divine justice even though I can see that it is so.

      • Graham said,

        July 12, 2012 at 8:54 am

        I don’t think that really works because there may have been different eras of Church, but not different eras of God. I have to admit I struggle greatly with the difficult passages, and no spiritual guidance or reasoning seems to be satisfactory.

        The unfortunate implication of these arguments is that they are defensive in nature, and could be perceived as mere sophistry to avoid repudiating that genocide (the flood) or killing of infants is supported in certain situations. Nor would I condone as moral principle that the massacre of infants is ok if they receive immediate salvation (which we don’t really know anyway).

        A part of me thinks such issues don’t require the dexterous logic that is being applied. We simply repudiate these difficult passages on that basis that although God has never changed (as He is unconstrained by time), our knowledge of Him has been and still is a revelatory process. Given also the physical sciences have revealed to us more of the natural world, and that there is no evidence accepted by the scientific community of a great flood as described in Genesis, a repudiation seems safe. After all, the loving God that we love (and do not fear) would not do such a thing and there is no evidence of such a great flood previously anyway. On the surface, the cost is Bible inerrancy.

        But alas, it is not so simple if you follow that line of thought further. I can only repudiate support for the “difficult” passages and admit with quite a degree of humility that I don’t know how to reconcile it with doctrine.

      • July 12, 2012 at 2:28 pm

        But Scripture is not the history of God, but the history of the Church. At the very least, we cannot say it is the history of God as opposed to the history of the Church or Israel.

        Sophistry is by definition apparent philosophy, and so all philosophy or wisdom can appear to be sophistry. But It seems to me this is not what your main issue is. What you appear to be most concerned about is that apologetics is simply a just so story to justify an already held belief, and that it is not really a rational exercise but an exercise in rationalization. There is a truth here, even if it is distorted: apologetics is a defense, and a defense assumes that one is stading his ground, that is, that he is committed to something. The faith can never be just a conclusion waiting to be made. Apologetics is not some attempt to produce belief in others, but to preserve belief in ourselves. Christians do not go out with arguments alone, we also go forth with testimonies and as witnesses to a hierarchy. It’s not as if we could simply spot an evangelist nothing but historical rational arguments and Scriptural texts and expect him to reproduce all of orthodoxy with the sort of certitude that is required for dogma. And inerrancy is a dogma, not a rational hermenutic that all right-thinking Scriptural scholars are rationally bound to accept on the basis of historical evidence. It is doubtful that history, or any product of the human mind could rise to the certitude of a dogma – it would be like demanding that a work of human art last as long as the universe. We just can’t make anything like that, whether with minds or hands.

        More on this in a post today or tomorrow.

  10. Graham said,

    July 13, 2012 at 2:14 am

    Hence my need for a satisfactory defence and a leaning toward repudiation! Or more specifically of the difficult passages that perceives malevolence and caprice. Although repudiation leaves loose ends.

    A wonderful blog BTW and thanks for letting me drop by.

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