A tough passage
|Samuel said to Saul, "I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the LORD. 2 This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. 3 Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.' " (1Samuel15:1-3)|
It is, on face value, a God-given order for genocide. Saul is clearly instructed to go and utterly wipe out the Amalekites: men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.
What do we do with a passage like this?
Firstly, let's understand what they did to the Israelites... Apart from regularly attacking the Israelites in the wilderness and in the time of the judges (often teamed up with other enemy nations), Deuteronomy 25:17-18 best describes what they did: "Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and cut off all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God."
Essentially the Amalekites behaved as predators. They pounced on the stragglers: the weak, the weary, the old, the worn-out and children. And they did it because they "had no fear of God."
Secondly, this idea of irrevocable destruction, was seen as an ultimate giving over to the Lord. As though to say - the only way for such evil to be redeemed is for it to be utterly destroyed. There is no fear of God - they are not going to turn...
Thirdly, the Old Testament deals differently with nations and individuals. A nation can be condemned and an individual can still find salvation. Rahab the prostitute is rescued and saved (in the fullest sense of the word) while Jericho is destroyed. Nations represent evil systems and the Old Testament makes it clear that evil systems must be destroyed.
Fourthly, in the Old Testament we are dealing with "Revelation History" and not "Precedent History". The Israelites are the fledgling priesthood nation who carry God's word and message to the world. Their story is a parable of God's Word coming to us. What happens in Israelite history offers us principles but not precedents. The principle is that evil systems had to be destroyed. To make this a precedent for destroying people is not valid.
Fifthly, all this difficult history must be seen through the lens of the Cross, where Jesus was utterly obliterated as the scapegoat and Passover Lamb being utterly cut off from God.
So, to sum up this very difficult passage: When we deal with terrible evil, we cannot hesitate - we must break the systems. In ancient societies evil became imbedded in nations and this power had to be broken. But the New Testament shows us how evil has been conquered by the One who was utterly destroyed for our sake and so we never have to repeat the history of the OT.
This tough story reminds us that evil is real but that God is just and takes evil seriously. The cross reminds us that God's justice is also ultimate love.