Today, we’re continuing our four part series “A God of Wrath and Love” in which we’re examining the apparent doctrinal conflict between the text of 1 Samuel 15:2-3 (in which the Israelites are ordered to kill every Amalekite man, woman, and child) and 2 Peter 3:9 (in which God expresses His desire for all to be saved). In Part I, we took a look at a few of our presuppositions about the passage and how they influenced our view of the Amalekites. In Part II, we considered the options available to those disinclined to embrace the God of Israel. This week, we’ll take a look at God’s patience and love and the role that they played leading up to the battle.
Before we begin, however, we must define what we mean by “love”. For many people, the word conjures mushy feelings of “good will” – something we give to people unchecked regardless of how deserving they may or may not be. It’s our willingness to turn our heads and look the other way when someone slights us. In Biblical terms, this is considered “mercy” and it does have an important role to play when it comes to love, especially the unconditional kind. But it isn’t the only aspect of genuine love and, by itself, it becomes license – allowing an offending party to do whatever they please without fear of repercussion.
Take a look at the shopping mall and you’ll probably see your fair share of children throwing fits because they didn’t get what they wanted from the toy department. You’ll probably also see a fair number of parents punishing the children for their bad behavior. Are these children unloved? Probably not. While genuine love recognizes the need not to hold the fit against the child (mercy), it also recognizes that this behavior is inappropriate and will harm the child later in life. (Imagine a full-grown adult pounding the floor of his boss’ office screaming and crying because he didn’t get the raise he wanted!) A good parent will take the time to discipline the child (justice) in the hope that their efforts will result in a well-adjusted adult, capable of functioning within our society.
It isn’t surprising to think that God does something similar with the people of the earth. While we tend to focus on the major acts of judgment portrayed in Scripture, i.e., the flood (Genesis 6-9), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18-19), and the obliteration of entire villages during the conquest of Canaan (Numbers-Joshua), these were only the final punishment after smaller rebukes were ignored. (In a way, they would not be unlike the adult mentioned in the previous paragraph losing his job after that unsightly tantrum!)
Unlike a parent’s rules which may or may not be evident to the child, the Bible tells us that God’s standards are known to all the people He created:
“For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” (Romans 1:20-21)
A few acts of disobedience, however, aren’t enough for God to give up on us. 2 Peter 3:8-9 declares, “…do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” Nahum 1:3 explains that, “The LORD is slow to anger and great in power.” And we see this demonstrated in the case of the Amalekites.
In the Bible, we need flip only a few pages between God’s promise to give Abraham the land of Canaan and the conquest of the land, yet in reality, over 400 years passed between that promise and the giving of the Ten Commandments at mount Sinai – and another 40 between that and the actual conquest! Why so long? “God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” (Genesis 15:13,16) If we approach the passage with the presupposition that the God of the Bible is true and that the text as a whole is non-contradictory (we’ll talk a bit more about why even a non-Christian should at least take a moment to attempt to view the text this way next week), we can presume that God didn’t just deal out judgment on a whim. He gave the Amalekites sufficient knowledge of their sin and plenty of time to correct it – enough for several generations to pass!
For most of us, though, these are just “side issues.” In the end, the destruction of all the men and women in the city could rightly be anticipated were the invading army to win. Unlike the Amalekites, who launched an attack against Israel when they were weak and unarmed, the Israelites were coming against a defended city – one in which despicable acts were taking place. Each of us is aware that most human beings are willing to fight for the sake of their homes and loved ones. Even many children will stand and fight the enemy (real or perceived) in such a situation and we see this played out regularly in wars fought around the world. Everyone on the side of the “invaded” becomes a combatant. Everyone on the side of the “invaders” becomes an enemy. In a situation in which nearly everyone is an aggressor, the options that remain are to kill or be killed.
But what about those too young to fight? Those who aren’t old enough to know right from wrong or to make a moral judgment based on anything more than, “My parents said…”? If you feel there’s a moral conflict here, you aren’t alone. We’ll tackle this difficultly next week beginning with a brief lesson in anthropology.
 Traditionally, the term “Amalekite” was used as a reference to both the Amorites and the Canaanites. This verse, then, would be a reference to a subgroup of Amalekites.