Why was God so mean to Saul (1 Samuel 13, 15)? Part 3

David committed murder and adultery and he was allowed to remain as king, but Saul performed a premature sacrifice and he lost the throne.  What’s up with that?  Why was God so mean to Saul?

Here are the earlier two posts where I discuss why God judged Saul so severely.  Part 1.  Part 2.

But perhaps the most troubling aspect of Saul’s narrative involves God’s command to Saul through the prophet Samuel to destroy the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15).

Thus says YHWH of armies, “I will punish the Amalekites for what he did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt.  No go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spore them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” (1 Sam. 15:2-3).

There are two problems associated with this incident.

1) Why does God command Saul to wipe out, including women and children, all of the Amalekites?
2) Why does God condemn Saul for not completing the slaughter? 

I addressed the first problem of God commanding the slaughter in my blog interview with Frank Viola recently, so I’ll just include the link to that here.  Here is the related link to my Relevant Magazine article on the Canaanite genocide (pages 108-111).

But what about the 2nd problem–why does God condemn Saul for not completely destroying the Amalekites?  Shouldn’t God affirm Saul for showing mercy?

There are three points to make here in response to this problem.

First, Saul wasn’t showing mercy to the Amalekites.  He didn’t save the women and children.  He saved the king and the livestock.  He saved the king probably to not set a precedent for regicide (that can come back to haunt a king later on).  He said he saved the cattle to sacrifice them to YHWH, but that doesn’t make any sense because YHWH already told him to sacrifice them.  He was probably saving them to enrich his own flocks and herds.  (Although, Saul does show mercy to the Kenites.)  Saul was showing mercy to Saul.

Second, Saul was condemned for blatant disobedience.  God had told him what he wanted to do and since the execution of this command was performed by the army, the nation was aware of the command.  Saul’s disobedience was public and obvious.  He was modeling disobedience for the nation.  For a nation who struggled to trust God and obey, it was intolerable to have a ruler who could follow God’s commands.

Third, Saul had disobeyed before and hadn’t learned from it.  This was Saul’s second offense (so, two strikes and you’re out).  Even in our legal system, repeat offenders are punished more severely.  It makes sense Saul was punished for his incomplete slaughter.

Remember, God didn’t remove Saul from the throne instantly (but he did send an evil spirit: 1 Sam. 16:14–huh?), but the main punishment for Saul was that his son Jonathan was not able to rule after him.

What do you think about God sending an evil spirit to Saul?  Has God ever done that to you? 


  1. Do you really think Saul got in heck because he didn’t commit genocide because the Amalekites pop up again later on in 1 Samuel 27 and in the same region? Plus you argue in your God Behaving Badly book that conquest stories in the bible like those in the ANE are hyperbolic. Couldn’t it be that Saul was really getting in heck for not driving out the Amalekites and their livestock?

  2. I still don’t understand why your god commands to kill even weak and innocent people like children and infants? Why did not your god command to save them and teach/lead them to the better way if he really is a merciful.

  3. Thanks for your work on God and his relationship with Saul. One thing that I recently re-read and had questions about comes from 2 Samuel 21. Here, David hands over seven of Saul’s descendants (sons and grandsons, I think) to the Gibeonites. Apparently, Saul had killed the Gibeonites, and they want revenge. While the thirst for revenge certainly characterizes human tendency, what’s strange is that Yahweh also seems to be in favor of this. Israel is suffering a famine which isn’t ameliorated until after the execution. Furthermore, the language of the text (vs. 6) talks about these seven men being impaled before the Lord at Gibeon on the mountain of the Lord. I feel uncomfortable saying this, but Yahweh here seems surprisingly similar to a pagan god requiring human sacrifice before harvest time (read on through verse 10). Strangely, David seems to later gather the corpses of the executed and along with the bones of Saul and Jonathan, give them an honorable burial.

    While the idea of guilt being passed from generation to generation is not unknown in the Bible, there are other passages (Ezekiel) talking about Yahweh not holding sons responsible for the sins of their fathers, and vice-versa. Furthermore, David had already chosen to show mercy to Mephibosheth–so why not show mercy to others in Saul’s family? And that all this happens according to the seeming intentions of Yahweh make it all the more disturbing.

    Any thoughts?

  4. I’m still stuck in 2 Samuel, now chapter 24 is troubling me. Yahweh is angry with Israel, and incites David “against them” (vs. 1). David’s action is to take a census, and though he is counseled by Joab to refrain, he goes through with it anyway. By verse 10, David realizes his error, and confesses his sin (though the reader is not told exactly what that sin was). Yahweh allows David to “pick his poison”: 3 years of famine, 3 months of being pursued by enemies, or 3 days of pestilence. David chooses the pestilence, and 70,000 people are killed. Yahweh then commands the destroying angel to stop just before it/she/he wipes out Jerusalem.

    If Yahweh were angry at Israel, why not just issue a punishment directly? Yahweh had done this in the past. How do we escape the conundrum that it seems like Yahweh provokes David to sin? And if Yahweh is the one who incites David, why is David regarded as sinful, and blamed for the terrible punishment? Why would an angel, even if charged with killing people, be on the verge of wiping out Jerusalem? I admit, this chapter is tough.

  5. Jaegwan Lee: Peter said, “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day (2 peter 3:8).” God is the Almighty, who sees the past and future that humans cannot see. Therefore, through Saul, God trained David and raised him to be a king who obeys God. I think that God sent an evil spirit to Saul to use it as a tool to realize God’s plan. Humans should praise God, who uses even Saul’s wickedness. People study theology to understand God. However, there is no such thing as an exact answer in this study. All we have to do is to thank God for his love for sending Jesus Christ, and study His deeds, and try to live the life He wants us to do. People can say that God who killed women and children through Saul was cruel. But I think God has a great will for it. Biblical scholars say that the descendant of King Agag was Haman, who tried to slaughter the Jews. If Saul had completely obeyed God’s command and completely destroyed Amalek, Mordecai and Esther would not have suffered. In this way, God was carrying out a plan for the people of Israel, and it seems that the people of Israel have committed the sin of consistently acting contrary to His will. we should not say through the Bible story that God is cruel. In otherwise, we should worship the greatness of God who is in control of everything.

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