“What about the Amalekites? God told Saul to wipe them out, but the people Saul was supposed to wipe out weren’t the ones that attacked Israel. That doesn’t seem fair.” (See 1 Samuel 15.)
I was speaking at the InterVarsity group at Johns Hopkins a few weeks ago and one of the students asked me this question. My response, “What do you think?”
Problems like these about the warlike nature of God trouble anyone who reads through the pages of the Old Testament. I discuss this issue in God Behaving Badly, but (as people love to point out) my discussion there isn’t particularly academic.
For a more in-depth discussion of the topic, check out this new book:
Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem edited by Heath A. Thomas, Jeremy Evans and Paul Copan, from IVP academic.
It looks fascinating, but I may be a bit biased since I contributed an article to the volume.
Holy War in the Bible contains fourteen articles, plus an introduction and an afterword.
Here’s a list of the other contributors:
Geth Allison and Reid Powell; Douglass S. Earl (2 articles); Stephen B. Chapman; Heath A. Thomas; Timothy G. Gombis; Alan S. Bandy; Daniel R. Heimbach; Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan; Glen Harold Stassen; Robert Stewart; Murray Rae; Stephen N. Williams
My contribution discusses the motivations for divine warfare and I conclude that wrath against injustice and compassion for the oppressed motivate divine warfare. I like how the introduction puts it, “Lamb holds that God violently intervenes in order to uphold his will for the world, while not acting out of capricious rage or frivolous wrath” (p. 14).
If you’re interested in understanding warfare in the Bible, check out this article I wrote for Relevant Magazine on the topic of the Canaanite genocide, “Reconciling the God of Love with the God of Genocide.” (To read the full-article you’ll need to register, which will allow you to read free content for 5 articles.)
To see a list of other books I’ve written or contributed to, click here.
I ended up telling the Hopkins student that he was asking a great question and that I assume whenever God delays a judgment he’s giving people opportunities to repent. So while the text doesn’t make this clear in 1 Samuel 15, the Amalekites did not repent of their violent behavior. God is slow to anger, but he gets there eventually. Interestingly, in that same passage, mercy is shown to the Kenites, who showed hospitality to Israel as they entered the land (1 Sam. 15:6). If the Amalekites had shown mercy to Israel, they would have been shown mercy as well.