I Samuel 15 – Amalekites and Genocide
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast May 24, 2008
Craig D. Atwood
Introduction Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, NC. I hope it was a good week for you and those you love. Congratulations to the women of Salem College who graduated over the weekend. For eight years I pronounced a benediction for the graduates, and I kind of miss it. When I preached for the hooding ceremony at Wake Forest, I told the graduates that they could comfort themselves with the thought that at theological education teaches you to have contempt for the high salaries it prevents you from earning. I was up in Bethlehem, PA this week consulting with Historic Bethlehem Partnership, Inc. The main topic of conversation was how to best interpret the 18th century Moravians for the general public. It is a challenge, particularly since so many Moravians today, especially pastors, are not fond of the Zinzendorf era even though it was the most creative and progressive time in our church’s history. Colonial Bethlehem was a religious commune in which every member of the society had meaningful employment and was cared for in mind, body, and soul. I think American society today could learn a lot from our Moravian ancestors who valued hard work, good music, and a living faith.
Like those old Moravians, we are engaged in a serious study of the Bible in order to learn new lessons. I have to admit up front that I think our text for this morning is horrifying rather than edifying. It is one of the rare stories in which a priest kills someone. Worse than that, it is a story about an attempted genocide when the king of Israel tried to wipe out another tribe from the face of the earth. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, which was the United Nation’s response to the attempted genocide of the Jews by the Nazis. I Samuel 15 reminds us that genocide has a long and brutal history. We are told in the NT that all of Scripture is useful for teaching and edification, and so we will try to draw some good lessons from this tale of merciless slaughter, but it will not be easy. It is important to recognize that the lessons we draw from this story may be quite different from those originally intended by the author.
Read I Samuel 15
Amalekites Who were these people that Samuel ordered Saul to exterminate with extreme prejudice? They were an ancient nomadic people that the Book of Genesis claims were descendents of Esau. In other words, according to the sacred writings of the Israelites, the Amalekites were descendents of Abraham through Isaac. This is often overlooked in sermons on I Samuel 15, but the Bible included the Amalekites in the original covenant with Abraham. That makes this warfare between them a blood feud between cousins, and it raises serious theological questions for us that have implications in modern politics. If the covenant was given to Abraham and his descendents, why exclude some of the descendents of Isaac? Is the Promised Land only for the children of Judah? I think we have to acknowledge that religious beliefs are often distorted to serve political ends. The simple truth is that the Amalekites and the Israelites had become political rivals vying over the same lands and they hated each other.
The Amalekites were a nomadic people, and many scholars question whether they would have had a city that Saul could have attacked. Saul probably attacked their encampments, but over time the tradition grew and the writer assumed that these nomadic herders had cities like the Israelites. The Amalekites show up several times in the Old Testament, and the good news is that Saul did not actually kill them all. Later kings had to fight Amalekites, too. Ironically, we see that it was an Amalekite who brought word to David that Saul was dead.
Genocide Unlike some of the other neighbors of Israel, the Bible has no good word to say about the Amalekites. Every time they are mentioned, they are enemies of Israel. This is one of those ancient rivalries that make the Carolina-Duke rivalry seem trivial. (I know that is hard to believe.) You get the impression that Israelite mothers would tell their nursing babies about the wild Amalekites and that Israelite fathers would threaten to sell disobedient children to these nomads. The only reason Scripture gives for this deep tribal divide is that the Amalekites had attacked Israel during the Exodus and tried to prevent the wandering Israelites from resting at the oasis of Kadesh. Whenever the Israelites wanted to go to war against the Amalekites, they recalled this ancient grudge, much like the Serbians in the 1990s whipping themselves into a frenzy of hatred against the Bosnian Muslims over the defeat at Kosovo in the 14th century.
According to our text for today, Samuel went to King Saul and told him that the time had finally come to settle all the old grudges against the Amalekites. We don’t have the full text of Samuel’s sermon, but we know that he brought up the ancient grudges. Like Cato calling for the death of Carthage or General Sherman claiming that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” Samuel told the king that God was demanding that every single Amalekite must die. Every man, woman, and child was to be killed. There should be no one left to carry on the family line or remember the dead. Even the animals were to be left to rot in the fields.
Modern Americans have difficulty understanding ancient tribal hatreds, but they lead to genocide. Just think about what the Hutus did to the Tutsi in Rwanda or what is happening right now in Iraq. We should not be shocked at the depth of Samuel’s hatred or the brutality of ancient war. After all, the United States dropped atomic bombs that killed every living thing in the heart of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. What should shock us is that I Samuel 15 claims that it was God’s will that this tribe be erased from the earth.
What do we do with this? There are several ways to deal with this as Christians today. We can simply choose to ignore this part of Scripture and pretend it does not exist. That is what the lectionary does. Or we can say that things were different in ancient Israel, and we should not judge the past by the standards of the present. That is the approach of many modern scholars, such as Bruce Birch in the New Interpreters Bible: “We must forthrightly acknowledge that holy war, as its practice is reflected in this story, cannot be a morally defensible practice for us.” But “it is important to note that the text of I Samuel 15 treats the command of holy war against the Amalekites as a legitimate command of the Lord.” (I Samuel, p. 1092) While this is true, we need to also acknowledge that millions of people do look to the Bible for guidance in morality, and some of them are not bothered by this divine commandment.
There are other ways to deal with stories like this. One of them is to consider the very real possibility that the story is an exaggeration of the historical facts. There is strong evidence to suggest that it was the final author of I Samuel who believed that the history of Israel would have been better if his ancestors had exterminated all the non-Israelites living in Palestine. It may sound odd to us, but it is possible that this is a romanticized version of an ancient story written by someone who wanted Samuel to be like one of those super heroes who kills all the bad guys in comic books. That same author also used this story to explain why Saul was rejected as king. If we are not happy with that idea, we could instead see this as a factual record of events long past that have no relevance for our lives today.
This is one of those times when Christians may simply want to acknowledge that for us the Old Testament is indeed the Old Covenant, and it does not have the same level of divine revelation for us that the New Testament has. We are free to read the ancient Scriptures with a critical eye informed by the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. If we cannot picture Jesus, our high priest, telling Saul to kill babies or using a sword to hack his enemy to pieces, we should be cautious about declaring this story the will of God. We can learn from stories like this, but part of the learning may be contrary to what the ancient writer intended.
One reason I’m spending so much time on this question of interpretation is that this chapter of I Samuel has a long and bloody history in Christianity. Recently I was at a conference on religion and violence at Yale University, and an historian presented research on Puritan preaching on war. He discovered that I Samuel 15 was one of the favorite texts of Puritan preachers in colonial America, particularly when they were encouraging the congregation to kill neighboring Indians. The American Indians became the Amalekites in the hands of the preachers, and the Puritans added their chapter to the history of European genocide against American Indians.
Going farther back into history, the Taborite preachers in Bohemia used this chapter to justify the murder of Catholics. Catholics used this chapter to justify pogroms against the Jews and Protestants. One of the bitterest ironies in history is that a chapter about Israelites exterminating their enemies was used by Christians to justify the Final Solution in the 20th century. This is a very dangerous chapter that challenges our faith and our morality.
The Ban Let us return to the story itself and look at some of its nuances. Samuel has declared that the Amalekites are under the ban or herem. This is the origin of the word Harem, by the way. It refers to a category of things that are forbidden. Samuel was instructing Saul that all living things were to be killed because they belonged to God, not to the soldiers. In other words, in this type of holy war where the ban was in place, the spoils did not belong to the victor.
I know it sounds odd that the priest would consider it moral to kill rather than capture, but you have to keep in mind the nature of ancient war. Women and children were not spared by soldiers out of mercy; they were taken as captive to live their lives in slavery. As we read in the Iliad, young women were taken to be sex slaves and older women were put to work. Children were often sold. The livestock and so forth were likewise used or sold. In other words, the real meaning behind the ban was that the soldiers and king were not to profit from this battle.
Leaving aside the horror of genocide for a moment, lets think on the significance of a ban like this. Imagine if modern nations were to fight wars without enriching themselves at the expense of their enemies. Just think of how different the Iraq war might have been if the United States placed Iraqi oil under the ban, and if American businesses were not awarded lucrative contracts related to the war and reconstruction. Would things have been different if Haliburton had been a non-profit organization? We will never know, but at a minimum we should note that there would be fewer wars if no one thought they would get rich from war. By declaring the ban, Samuel was trying to insure that Saul was fighting the ancient enemies of Israel without thought for personal gain.
God’s Judgment on Saul When Saul returned north from the battle in Judah, Samuel was shocked to hear the sound of sheep. He jumped to the conclusion that King Saul had gone to war on false pretenses. He had claimed that he was making Israel safe from those who wanted to destroy everything the Israelites believed in, but here he was returning with the spoils of war. Samuel thought Saul had hoodwinked him and that the war had really been about sheep and goats and slaves after all. The two men met at Gilgal and Samuel was very angry at Saul’s deception. Though Saul gave a perfectly reasonable explanation for what he had done, claiming that he was bringing the animals to Gilgal to sacrifice them to God, Samuel did not care. The harm was done.
Samuel informed Saul that God had pronounced judgment upon him for his disobedience. Samuel was no longer interested in Saul’s explanations, no matter how pious they sounded. He was no longer interested in Saul’s confession of sin and repentance. We are not told the whole story of what happened between Samuel and Saul, but clearly this was the last straw. Samuel declared that God had rejected Saul.
This is very harsh, particularly since it appears that Saul was sincerely trying to do what he thought was right, but sometimes you need simply to replace the leader instead of forgiving him. It had become clear to Samuel that Saul was not the type of king God wanted for Israel, and he withdrew his support for the king. He even declared that God has already chosen a younger man to be the next king. Saul’s effort to make the Israelites safe from their enemies unexpectedly led to a regime change at home when the war did not go the way it was intended. Perhaps there is some wisdom here for modern world leaders.
This leads us to one of the most famous scenes in the Old Testament. As Samuel turned to leave the king, Saul desperately grabbed his robe. It ripped. If this were a movie, this could be a moment of comic relief, but that’s not how ancient literature works. Samuel saw this as a prophetic moment. By tearing the sacred robe of the priest, Saul had pronounced judgment on himself. The kingdom would be torn from him. It is a visually dramatic scene that sticks with us, but the problem with it is that Saul will die as king of Israel. The rest of his reign, though, will be more of a curse than a blessing as his paranoia grows.
Grief The story ends with Samuel rather than Saul. First, Samuel takes it upon himself to kill King Agag. Keep in mind that one of the worst fates a leader in the ancient world could face was to be taken captive in battle and paraded as a prize before his enemies. Saul had not been merciful to Agag; he was using the old king to enhance his own glory. In some ways, Samuel was being kind. Though the Hebrew is ambiguous, it is possible that Agag saw it that way himself.
The final story is in some ways more moving. We are left with a picture of grief. Samuel grieved over Saul and over Saul’s rejection. As our translator Hans Hertzberg reminds us. “He is the anointed; he is loved by many, even by his opponent Samuel, he is pious in the extreme, brave yet modest, without doubt a man of the stuff of which kings are made.” (I & II Samuel, p. 133) Yet, Saul had failed to live up to Samuel’s understanding of what a king should be. Even God grieved over what happened at Gilgal. If God and Samuel were upset by the events of chapter 15, why should we be any different?
Conclusion This has been a very heavy lesson, and I know you have a lot to ponder. I said we would try to pull out some helpful lessons from this bloody story. First, we can think about the importance of obedience. Jesus himself quotes from this story when telling us that God values obedience more than sacrifice. Churches emphasize forgiveness and repentance so much that we sometime undervalue the importance of doing the right thing to begin with. Second, we can learn something about the complexities of life. Saul may have been acting with good intentions, but the result of his actions were disastrous.
Lastly, we can take a clue from early Christian biblical scholars who read this book as a symbol or parable. For them, the Amalekites were symbolic of those things opposed to God and his people. God calls for us to purify our lives of those things that oppose the reign of God in the world. It is perhaps ironic that this brutal tale of slaughter may inspire us to destroy in our own lives those things that oppose Christ, including hatred, violence, and anger. It is possible that the best lesson we can take from I Samuel 15 is the need to completely destroy the type of violence described in this story. Go in peace.