re: claiming the Old Testament — part two

As I mentioned previously, I’m exploring how we might reclaim some of the more troubling parts of the Old Testament like 1 Samuel 15 that speak of holy war and genocide.

Although we haven’t always known how to do it, Christians have long recognised that we must hang onto the Old Testament. Not simply because much of it is beautiful and insightful. But also because — strange and savage as it often is — the story it tells of God and his world is part of our story (at least if we take Jesus and the apostles seriously). There’s simply no option to cut it loose — despite the best efforts of some early Christian heretics and modern atheists!

I’ve sat with this problem over the weekend. And while I’m sure I’m nowhere near solving it, three things have crystallised for me.

First, the slaughter of the Amalekites commissioned in verses 2 and 3 has a surprising rationale:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”

The phrase to focus on is ‘utterly destroy’. The underlying word in the original language speaks of enforcing ‘the ban’ — the devotion of the Promised Land and everything in it to Israel’s God. Now, there’s no getting around the fact that the prescribed method for achieving this is extermination. But this mention of the ban does forge a link with the Deuteronomic vision of the land as a ‘sacred space’ in which God will dwell with his people without distraction or competition.

It’s worth noticing that this means we’re not strictly dealing with an ethnic cleansing in the sense of an attempt to remove an entire group perceived to pose what Terry Eagleton calls an ‘ontological threat’.

Rather, what unfolds in passages like this is a matter of divine judgement or ‘theological cleansing’. As such, it’s inescapably retrospective — it has a view to something a previous generation of Amalekites did (I’ll say more about this in the next post). And yet it’s far more than merely retributive. Ultimately, it’s about God’s gracious intention to deal with sin and clear a space for human fellowship with him. In this we catch a fleeting glimpse of the biblical hope of new creation.

What is more, because this is about God’s recreative judgement, it’s a long way from simply legitimating Israel’s conquest. In fact, it proves profoundly unsettling for Israel. For it points towards the exile with which the narrative of Joshua-2 Kings concludes. The tragedy of Israel’s history is that it fails to heed Samuel’s warning — that ‘rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry’ (verse 23) — and so is vomited forth from a land devoted to God…


  1. Chris,

    Thanks for these thoughtful pieces you’ve written. I think it is great you begin to deal with the charge of ‘ethnic cleansing’, a modern, popular critique of Yahweh (Dawkins makes this accusation when he accuses Yahweh of being one of the most unpleasant characters to have ever lived).

    Yet I think a problem emerges with the the indiscriminate nature of this theological extermination, particularly the culpability of infants. How should we view this ruthless destruction of infants? How could we answer the charge of genocide, given the destuction of infants who have no intellectual assent or even knowledge of the sin of Amelek?

    Further, is the issue of the creation of a ‘sacred space’ for God’s people. Again, I agree with much of what you say, but my concern comes in that Hitler had a similar vision for Western Europe where he needed to clear a ‘sacred space’ (I’m paraphrasing) for his German people. Can we avoid similar comparisons?

    Further again, how do we deal with the potential accusation of God being petty, i.e Amelek opposed us and so we’re going to wipe them all out!

    Thanks again for your reflections, this has touched on an issue which has caused me concern in the past. Would love to discuss further.

    1. Thanks, Rob. Dawkins was in my mind as I mulled this over — although I’m fairly sure I haven’t made a response that would satisfy him! I’m really glad for the opportunity to explore … even if that means discover that the path I thought we take me forward turns out to be an impassible cul de sac.

      I’m not sure quite how to come at the questions you raise. Perhaps you can tell me if my next post sheds any light — particularly on issues surrounding the justice of punishing those who weren’t directly involved in the sin of opposing Israel as they approached the promised land. I’m aware that I haven’t said anything about infants. Mainly because I don’t really know what to say. The best I can manage (which I admit probably sounds kind of lame) is that, if nothing else, we glimpse here the depth of culpable human entanglement with sin and evil as far as a perfectly holy God is concerned.

      In response to the other two issues you raise, I certainly don’t want to be cavalier about the possibility that even if Israel were to recognise the terms in which I’ve explained the rationale God gives, they might find it a convenient legitimisation of horrendously selfish behaviour. However, this is where I think the general drift of the Deuteronomic history may prove illuminating: the God revealed here may use Israel for his purposes but he’s certainly not partisan in the sense of letting them get away with disobedience (if anything, it sounds like he’s going to be more strict with them — considering their rebellion and stubbornness to be as bad as divination and idolatry).

  2. I am leery of overly convoluted efforts to rationalize and justify what appears at almost every level to be irrational and unjust. I agree we are called to examine and interpret this text, but we are called to do so informed by Isaiah and by the teachings of Jesus.

    I don’t have the training to answer this fully, but I am with Job and the picture of God painted in the later chapters of Job both of whom refuse to rationalize evil and call what is evil justice, or to confuse God’s justice with human notions of justice.

    The extermination of the Amalakites by the Jews in the name of God, even if called “theological classing”‘ was nothing more and nothing less than a perversion of God’s will. The attempt to rationalize it within Scripture is preserved for future generations as an object lesson in how not to teach about God.


    1. Thanks for your comment John. I’m not sure I’ve wrapped my head around it fully. So please feel free to set me straight if I head off in the wrong direction.

      First up, I think I’m with you (and Job and the Lord Jesus) in wanting to call evil evil. I’m firmly convinced that God thinks death is evil — it’s represents the opposite of his intention for human life; it’s his enemy, and an uninvited invader in his good world. And yet, in certain circumstance, I think we are compelled to admit that it may also be used as his instrument: e.g., it’s the punishment threatened against sin in Genesis 2 (‘in the say you eat of it, you will surely die’). So I don’t think we can rule out the possibility that a perfectly just God is within his rights to condemn sinners to death. And, on the face of it, that seems to be what he is doing here in 1 Samuel 15.

      Second, if this story is an example of something preserved in the Bible ‘as an object lesson in how not to teach about God’ as you claim, then it seems to run against the grain of how the story is told. What I mean is that the people who endorse the thoroughgoing extermination of the Amalekites (who we’re presumably supposed to condemn on your reading) are the prophet Samuel and whoever wrote 1 Samuel, while the people who conduct themselves more humanely and righteously (who we’re presumably meant to applaud) are Saul and the Israelites. But that would appear to completely invert the point the text is making. So perhaps I’ve misunderstood your point?

  3. Chris,

    You seem to be following my point. The conflict in the presentation which you observe is indeed there, and not easily dismissed.

    Three things I would point to though:

    Prophets have often come along to call out those who have previously claimed to speak authoritatively for God (I am thinking now of Isaiah). Jesus was the ultimate corrective: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Jesus is the truer image of God, and that image was one of virtually unlimited forgiveness, limitless compassion, and an uncompromising command to love one’s enemies. Against such an image, genocidal extermination whether for retributive or theological reasons, cannot be defended or justified.

    In Job those Godly men who think they are properly representing God, Job’s fiends who assure Job that whatever evil Job has suffered is deserved and well within the frame of divine justice, are called out by God for besmirching God’s reputation by calling just that which is unjust.

    I agree that death is part of Creation; it is the wellspring of new birth, and it is the ultimate consequence of human decisions. No one gets out alive, the good and the evil will both parish in their human forms. But those whom God has graciously saved, and I hope it is everyone, will experience eternal life, as God has willed. The consequence of eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is the loss of God’s protection. In choosing not to trust fully in God we have surrender our privileged of relying fully on God. My point here is that death was not a punishment per se, but a consequence of our refusal to trust fully in God. There was death in Eden before Adam and Eve left, the very food they ate had to experience death for their nourishment, as did the food which was consumed by all of the other animals in the food chain. By consuming the forbidden fruit (by failing to give over their full trust to God) they lost access to the tree of life.

    My point here is to acknowledge that death is an integral part of Creation, not a punishment – though it can be.


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