There was a disturbing juxtaposition last week between the Old Testament reading set for Morning Prayer on Tuesday and what was being reported on the news.
The news last week was full of expressions of outrage against the actions of the Sunni militants belonging to the Islamic State in Iraq who have been busily engaged in killing Yazidis, Christians, Shiite Muslims and anyone else whom they do not like. There were innumerable Christian voices in the press and on social media sites saying that what these militants were doing was simply wrong and that action needed to be taken to stop it.
In the light of this last Tuesday’s Old Testament reading was particularly uncomfortable because it was 1 Samuel 15:1-23, which is the story of how God deposed Saul from being king over Israel because he was insufficiently thorough in his slaughter of the Amalekites.
At the start of this reading God gives Saul a direct and unequivocal command through the prophet Samuel: ‘Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.’ (1 Samuel 15:3)
The reason Saul proves himself to be unworthy to be King of Israel is because he and the people with him do not fully obey this command. In 1 Samuel 15:9 we are told:
‘Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them; all that was despised and worthless they utterly destroyed.’
When Samuel finds out about this failure of obedience he declares in verses 22-23:
‘Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king.’
These verses are quite frequently quoted as proof text to show the superiority of moral obedience over cultic ritual, but in their original context what they are saying is that when God says ‘kill them all’ he really means it and expects to be obeyed.
The reason that this reading is disturbing when read alongside last week’s news about what was going on Iraq, is that it seems to suggest that the Old Testament supports the kind of violence being meted out by the fighters of the Islamic State. There are two issues here: (1) Why does God command the complete destruction of the Amalekites and their livestock? (2) Doesn’t this story give sanction to people engaging in this sort of slaughter today?
To begin to address the first issue we have to understand who the Amalekites were. Amalek was the grandson of Esau (Genesis 36:12 & 16) and the Amalekites were his descendants. In spite of this kinship with the people of Israel, the Amalekites continually attack the people of Israel and try to destroy them. This happens for the first time just after the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 17:-16), happens again at the time of Israel’s first abortive attempt to enter the Promised Land (Numbers 14:45) and happens twice more during the period of the Judges (Judges 3:13 and Judges 6-7). Centuries later, it was also a descendent of the Amalekites, Haman the Agagite, who made one last attempt to wipe out the people of Israel during the period of the Persian Empire (Esther 3:1-6).
This means that as far as Israel was concerned the Amalekites were extremely bad news. As the Australian writer John Allister puts it:
‘The Amalekites weren’t just any old people. They were the nation who more than any other tried to destroy Israel. They had been trying to eradicate and plunder Israel from the very birth of Israel, 200-400 years before the command in in 1 Samuel 15, and they would continue for another 600 years.’
Furthermore, by trying to eradicate Israel to Amalekites were seeking to derail God’s cosmic plan.
As Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God himself is three Persons who are united with each other in love and he desires to share that loving unity first of all with his Church (John 17:20-23) and then ultimately, through Christ, with the whole of the creation. As Kallistos Ware puts it in his book The Orthodox Way
‘To love means to share, as the doctrine of the Trinity has so clearly shown us: God is not just one but one-in-three, because he is a communion of persons who share in love with one another. The circle of divine love, however, has not remained closed. God’s love is, in the literal sense of the word, ‘ecstatic’ – a love that causes God to go out from himself and to create things other than himself. By voluntary choice God created the world in ‘ecstatic’ love, so that there might be besides himself other beings to participate in the life and the love that are his.’
God’s purpose in creation is thus that of love. God wills to share with his creation that eternal relationship of love in which He Himself exists by uniting all things in heaven and on earth to himself through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:10). However we should not be misled by sentimental human ideas of love into thinking that because God’s purpose is one of love this means that God will not insist on having things his way and will allow his purpose to be frustrated.
On the contrary, as Paul says in Ephesians 1:11, God: ‘accomplishes all things according to the council of his will’. God’s love is the ultimate ‘tough love’. It is a love that will brook no obstacle in achieving the goal which it intends. And, indeed, as the 19th century Scottish theologian George MacDonald maintains, it is in the very nature of love, properly understood, that it has this inexorable quality.
‘Nothing is inexorable but love. Love which will yield to prayer is imperfect and poor. Nor is it then the love that yields, but its alloy…For love loves unto purity. Love has ever in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds. Where loveliness is incomplete, and love cannot love its fill of loving, it spends itself to make more lovely, that it may love more; it strives for perfection, even that itself may be perfected – not in itself, but in the object…Therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of love’s kind, must be destroyed. And our God is a consuming fire.’
The existence of the people of Israel was an integral part of the achievement of God’s loving purposes. It was through Israel that ‘all the nations of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3) because it was through Israel that the knowledge of the true God would be maintained in a fallen world and because it was as an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, that Jesus would be born as a human baby to be the promised saviour of the world.
What follows from all this is that the destruction of the Amalekites was a necessary part of God’s inexorable loving purposes. To quote John Allister again:
‘The situation in I Samuel 15 is that God knew the Amalekites. He knew they were a nation that had rejected a part in God’s plan to bless the world. He knew that their actions for hundreds of years had been set on destroying and stopping God’s plan to bless the world. He knew that if they weren’t destroyed, they would continue to try to stop his plan. And in fact, they weren’t destroyed and they did continue to try to thwart God’s plan, so he was proved right by that.
It’s an issue of protection. If the Amalekite army had been defeated once in battle and left to retreat, they would have come back eventually. It would have been limited protection for a limited time. But what God wants is total protection for his plan to bless the world, forever. Without total destruction of the Amalekites, they were going to keep on coming back, and God’s plan would not be safe.’
It also needs to be noted that, like Rahab and her family at the time of the fall of Jericho (Joshua 2:1-21 and 6:22-25), individual Amalekites had the opportunity to renounce their Amalekite identity and align themselves with God’s purposes. They had the opportunity to save themselves and their families if they chose to do. In addition the destruction of Amalekite livestock was to make it clear that the destruction of the Amalekites was a holy action designed to protect Israel and not an opportunity for the Israelites to enrich themselves by getting hold of other people’s possessions.
As John Goldingay writes, God’s command to Saul in 1 Samuel 15:3 is therefore precise and limited: ‘If anyone – man, woman, child or whoever – doesn’t take the chance to give up their identity as Amalekites and therefore also their opposition to Israel, then kill them. And make sure that you don’t profit from doing it.’
Paradoxical though it may seem, God’s command to destroy the Amalekites is thus an act of merciful love designed to further God’s saving purposes, purposes with which individual Amalekites were free to align themselves. God commands the destruction of the Amalekites not because he is not loving, but precisely because he is. The story in I Samuel 15 is thus one more biblical witness to the love of God and also an awful warning to those who choose to reject God’s love of the destruction that they are bringing upon themselves both in this world and the world to come. Like Agag they should not kid themselves that they can escape God’s judgment (1 Samuel 15:32-33).
An objection might be made at this point that the Amalekites are being used by God as the means to an end. God sacrifices the Amalekites in order to achieve his loving purposes for the world as a whole. However, this objection does not take into account the fact that God’s purposes are to make eternal salvation possible through the death of Christ for every human being that there has ever been or ever will be, ‘One has died for all’ (2 Cor 5:14). This means that the destruction of the Amalekites was for the benefit of the Amalekites themselves because it made eternal salvation possible for any of them who were saveable. The Amalekites were therefore the end as well as the means. They too were part of the world that God loved and Christ dies to save.
Because this is the theological meaning of the story of the destruction of the Amalekites it follows that it does not provide a warrant for acts of killing today. This is because the group that did the killing would have to have the same place in God’s purposes of salvation as the people of Israel in the Old Testament and would also need a direct command from God that authorized them to take such action and there is no contemporary situation where both these conditions can be met. There is nothing in the New Testament that authorizes God’s people to exercise God’s on any group of people the same sort of judgment that Saul was called to exercise on the Amalekites.
In the case of the killings currently being undertaken by Islamic State there is a further issue. The goal for which these killings are being undertaken, the creation of renewed Islamic Caliphate, is itself contrary to God’s purposes because it is rooted in desire to propagate a theology which explicitly rejects belief in Jesus Christ as the saviour of the world. Islamic State’s activities are thus doubly wrong. They not only lack a mandate from God, but they are actually fundamentally opposed to God’s loving purposes.
Martin Davie’s commentary on the Thirty Nine Articles, Our Inheritance of Faith, is available from Gilead Books at www.gileadbookspublishing.com