“The Lord says… kill them all…their children and infants.” My unusual reaction to 1 Samuel 15

11 Dec

Warning: If you are an Christian, reared on Veggie Tales, who understands God’s character to be pretty much the same as Santa Claus, read no further.  1 Samuel 15 will disturb you.  Alright, you’ve been warned.

Prophet Samuel rebuking King Saul for failing to kill all of the Amalekites, including their women, children, and infants.

Perhaps you are unfamiliar with the passage or the troubling parts of it.  The history of the Jews up until this point has been replete with violent persecution from pagan nations (read Judges).  But God has secured a home for Israel and installed a king to rule over them (at their request), named Saul.  Israel’s prophet, Samuel, however is given a troubling revelation from God.

And Samuel said to Saul, “The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”

Don’t miss it.  Don’t rush past it.  “Thus says the Lord of hosts… go and strike Amalek…kill both…child and infant.”  To be sure, the Amalekites were not saints.  They did evil unspeakable wicked barbarian things to Israel (and others).  But this was hundreds of years in the past and now children and infants too are to be slaughtered at the command of God for the sake of vengeance.  And for you Christian Trinitarians out there (that should be all of you), that would mean that sweet Jesus Himself was part of the divine counsel that gave the order.

We are next told that Saul chose not to obey the command in full but to spare some folks, like the Kenites and Amalekite king Agag, as well as some choice farm animals.  So Saul was merciful to some extent.  How does God react to Saul’s act of disobedience (I said kill them all!)?  He says, “I regret that I have made Saul King” (v11).  Samuel then chastises Saul for disobediently showing mercy to some (God is merciful, is He not?).  Samuel fully explains the extent of Saul’s disobedience, that the Lord is far more interested in faithful and obedient servants than the spoils of war (Saul said he would use the captured animals for sacrifices to God).  After Samuel’s lecture, Saul doesn’t duck the blame or guilt, but instead confesses rather fully.  He cries, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. 25 Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me that I may bow before the Lord.”  Saul assumes, as we all do in light of scripture many places elsewhere, that God will show mercy to him, a sinner, upon his repentance.  But instead Samuel, God’s prophet, tells him “I will not return with you. For you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.” Samuel attempts to set things right, assuage the anger of the Lord, by “hacking Agag to pieces” (33).  But still, the only word we get directly from the LORD is a reiteration that He “regrets having made Saul king” (35).  

I think the trouble with this passage speaks for itself.  How can a good and loving God order the death of children and infants for evil done by their parents or grandparents?

The regret expressed by God is another troubling statement (made twice) since Samuel says of God in this very chapter that “the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret” (29). So we are left asking, did God have regret or not?  Is God capable of regret or not?  

I am not calling your attention to these passages to unsettle your faith or score points for biblical errantists or to befriend bible skeptics.  I firmly accept the inerrancy and consistency of scripture.  I’m also not going to “answer” these questions at present (to the extent that they can be answered).  I only call your attention to these passages to highlight a difference in the way I once would approach them versus now.

In the past, I would have read this text, felt the unsettling in my stomach, and immediately put on the defense attorney’s suit.  That is, I would place God in the dock and function not as His prosecutor but defense attorney.  I would convince myself (the jury) that there is a perfectly rational and reasonable explanation for these texts.  They make sense, properly understood, I’m sure of it.  I’d quickly set aside the bible (no time for meditation!) and consult the doctors of the church (read: apologists) on how best to deal with them.  I’d read this passage and think that the most pressing need I have at the moment is intellectual harmony, not spiritual balm.  In other words, passages like this (and there are others) would drive me to philosophy, not devotion.  

Maybe it’s simply old age or hopefully sanctification, but my reaction this morning (surprisingly) was very different.  I felt the same unsettling in the stomach (who doesn’t?), but rather than seek out a cogent rational response, I felt my heart drift towards the fact that I’m God’s simple creature and long to be His humble servant.  I’ve been endowed by my Creator with reason, but not omniscience.  That’s not a cop out.  I’m not simply chalking it up to mystery (an abused word in Christian circles if there ever was one).  Rather I found comfort not in dismissing what I don’t know or understand, but standing on what I do know and understand.  I know and understand, from God because He has told me, that His ways and thoughts are not our ways and thoughts (Is. 55:8-9), that the Lord will always do what is right (Gen. 18:25), that man only sees the outside but God sees the heart (1 Sam. 16:7), that God orders all things according to the counsel of His Holy will (Eph. 1:11), that no one knows the mind of God or can be His counselor (Rom. 11:34), that who am I that I should question God (Rom. 9), that God judges nations as well as men (Joel 3), that I wasn’t there when the Lord made heaven and earth, so who am I? (Job 38), that what is man that God is mindful of Him (Ps. 8:4), that man’s frame is tiny, he is but dust (Ps. 103:14), that God decrees both good and evil outcomes according for His own righteous purposes (Is. 45:7) , that the Lord gives  and takes away (Job 1:21), that the Lord gives both life and death (1 Sam. 2:6).

Bless His Holy Name.

Basically, I remembered that “the secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us” (Duet. 29:29).  I took comfort in what I knew and trusted God in what I didn’t.  I repented for assuming the role of God’s defender, as if He needs one, instead of humbly acknowledging that “God is His own interpreter” and that He needs nothing from man.

This is not meant to suggest that a reasoned defense of these passages isn’t appropriate.  Christians (and skeptics) have legitimate questions about these issues and we must give an answer to every man for the hope that lies within us (1 Peter 3:15).  But I realized today that if my first response is not wonder, awe, humility — if these texts do not lead me to meditation or devotion but rather to apologetics, if they lead me to defend God rather than trust Him, then I’m committing the same kind of idolatry that the skeptic does when he uses these verses to denounce God.  I’m exalting finite human reason above divine wisdom.  I’m saying, sit back God, I can make better sense of your character than your Word does.  I’m going out before God instead of allowing Him to go out before me, which is exactly the stuff of pagan idolatry.  You see, the pagan gods needed humans, for everything, for food, for entertainment, for transportation.  Pagan gods are carried along by human effort.  But the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a different God.  He isn’t carried or sustained by us, but he carries and sustains us (Is. 46:4).  We don’t go out before Him.  Rather, he says to His people, “It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed” (Deut. 31:8).

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