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…