Over the last few weeks, we’ve taken a look at the apparent doctrinal conflict between the order to kill every Amalekite man woman and child (1 Samuel 15:2-3) and the statement of 2 Peter 3:9 that God would have all to be saved. In Part I we explored the issue of guilt and innocence and the ways in which our presuppositions influence our understanding of these passages. In Part II, we took a look at the plight of those who weren’t “guilty” through an act of commission, i.e., who weren’t sacrificing children or engaged in warmongering and the options available to them. And in Part III, we examined the conflict in light of God’s mercy, love, and justice. This week, we’ll conclude our series with a close look at one of the most important questions of the passage: What about the children and animals?
Before I begin my explanation, however, I need to provide a brief lesson in anthropology (the study of mankind). Throughout much of its early history, anthropologists engaged in what is known as “etic” anthropology, i.e., they looked at cultures from the outside and drew broad conclusions about what they saw. While this helped to explain similarities between cultures, it didn’t usually do much to explain the differences. And, more importantly, it didn’t explain why those similarities or differences existed.
For this reason, “emic” anthropology grew in importance. By immersing themselves in a culture (usually as a part of that culture), anthropologists could better understand the factors which influenced the people group in question and, through that understanding, were often able to explain the reasons for the similarities and differences.
It’s important to note that one of the keys to performing successful anthropology of any kind is an ability to approach each people group with neutrality and a willingness to acknowledge that what seems different in the group’s thinking or approach to life isn’t necessarily “wrong” just because it doesn’t look like our culture or system of belief. This can be particularly difficult to do when it comes to highly charged topics like religion or political structure, but it needs to be done if a person really does desire to understand why Christians don’t see a conflict between the passages in question.
Let’s take a quick moment to review what we’ve learned so far and see if we can’t fill out our perspective:
- History demonstrates that the Amalekites as a people were not morally innocent. They were guilty of both child sacrifice and warmongering, leaving us reason to believe the Biblical account that they were the first aggressors.
- Even many of the Amalekites who did not participate in these practices would have been guilty, merely because they chose not to speak up or rejected the opportunity to withdraw from the society either through embracing the God of Israel or finding another place to settle.
- God gave the Amalekites the ability to know the truth, hundreds of years to embrace what was morally right, and foreknowledge of Israel’s advance against them.
- Those who remained likely fought to defend their homes regardless of whether they were male or female and, as such, were aggressors and a threat.
From a Christian point of view, the battle is morally justifiable as a defensive action against a regular aggressor… even if God, Himself, had not commanded it through His prophet. And yes, even the killing of those too young to participate in the action can be understood as being reasonable given the circumstances:
Many of those who could not participate in combat would have been old enough to remember the lifestyle they’d seen their parents’ exhibit. The old saying that, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” is apropos. Those who had witnessed child sacrifice, temple orgies, and warmongering would be predisposed to engage in the same activities themselves and, as such, their deaths may be seen as an act of mercy: God preventing them from even having the opportunity to commit the sins of their parents.
And the infants? I’ll be honest: I can’t answer this one. Were the Israelites incapable of taking in and supporting additional children? Was it possible that as they grew, the Amalekite children would feel a deeper connection to the surrounding nations and chose to embrace those crimes as their parents had, despite the fact that they had not witnessed them previously? Could the complete obliteration of these people serve as an act that benefited the “greater good,” serving as a warning concerning the potential fate of the rest of the Canaanites? Did their deaths ensure that they would ultimately reside with God for eternity – something that might not have happened had they lived? Truth be told, as a Christian, I can only claim that I believe the God of the Bible to be just, merciful, and loving… and I trust that whatever happened to these children will prove, in the end, to be just that.
What about the slaying of the animals mentioned in the passage? The Scripture isn’t clear about the reason for this, but a careful look at the passage reveals that the Israelites were not ordered to kill every animal, but only the oxen, sheep, camels, and donkeys. Since none of these animals were dietarily forbidden, it is possible that they were slaughtered in order to feed the army.
If you feel like you’re seeing a bit of circular reasoning here, you aren’t alone! Most of us struggle to wrap our minds around thought processes unlike our own and it usually takes a willingness to sit down with people who think differently, to ask genuine (polite) questions, listen carefully to their answers, and ask further questions to clarify those answers before we begin to understand the way they think and why. If you aren’t already a Christian, it may take some time to understand the Christian point of view.
Next week, we’ll tackle a follow up question to this article: What does the belief that this destruction was God’s Will mean for Christians today? Are we to support or, worse yet, engage in genocide? Should we participate in the murder of children? These are good questions and we’ll take a look at each in turn. In the meantime, I encourage you to take some time to examine the views of others (not just Christians) with an open mind and a willingness to learn. You may be surprised at the understanding you gain!