“Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” (1 Samuel 15:3)
As Israel was journeying from the Red Sea to Mt Sinai, they were suddenly, and without provocation, attacked by the Amalekites:
“Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim.” (Exo 17:8)
Israel’s first use of the sword was in the initial reprisal upon Amalek on Moses’ orders. This page discusses Israel choice to use the sword and how, having just been released from slavery, they had acquired weapons in the first place. They did win that first battle against the Amalekites.
Many years after the exodus, when King Saul was leading Israel, the fight with Amalek was resumed upon the order given by the Lord and related to King Saul in 1 Samuel 15:3.
The question that will be addressed here is specifically: why slay the women, children and animals? Normally, warfare is conducted against enemy combatants and when they are sufficiently defeated there is a peace deal which may involve some sort of subjugation but not total slaughter. It sounds extremely harsh and is often used by those who see or even want to portray God as cruel. But God claims to be loving and out to bless everyone. What is going on with this passage?
The verse just before gives some background:
“Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt.” (1 Sam 15:2)
A passage in Deuteronomy spells out in more detail what Amalek did:
“Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way, when ye were come forth out of Egypt; How he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, even all that were feeble behind thee, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God. Therefore it shall be, when the LORD thy God hath given thee rest from all thine enemies round about, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget it.” (Deut 25:17-19)
So what Israel was told to do to Amalek seems like nothing more than revenge. The use of the word “remember” seems to reinforce that. It was like God had marked the cruelty of Amalek and wanted to make sure they got payback for it. However, this is the only time in 305 occurrences of the original word (“paqad,” Strong’s H6485) that it is translated as “remember.” It is frequently translated as “visit” which brings to mind this verse:
“Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.” (Exo 34:7)
“Visiting,” in that verse, is from the same original word. How does God “visit” iniquity or, we would more commonly say “execute judgment”?
“The LORD is known by the judgment which he executeth: the wicked is snared in the work of his own hands.” (Psa 9:16)
“Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” (Matt 26:52)
God simply allows man to reap what he has sown – cause and effect.
But there is still the question of why Israel should do it; why carry out these executions? Remember that God had proposed to drive the Canaanites out ahead of Israel; He did not even want them to see or experience war. However, they refused His ways, they took up the sword and so God left it to them to do it their way. Read a very good illustration of how this works and how God does the best thing possible in the situation.
Why Slay Women and children?
But still there is another question – why slay the women and children?
We need to remember the state of those people. They were involved in degrading acts as bad as sacrificing their own children:
“Moreover he burnt incense in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and burnt his children in the fire, after the abominations of the heathen whom the LORD had cast out before the children of Israel.” (2 Chron 28:3)
They were living in misery. The situation they were in and the best way to deal with it is described here by Troy Edwards:
“We may have difficulty understanding this from our modern day western minds, but the killing of the women and children along with everything else was an act of practical wisdom on God’s part. If Israel had left the children alive they would have been orphans. Without parents around to care for them they would have died slower and more painfully agonizing deaths. This was much more cruel than slaughtering them.
To avoid leaving the infants as uncared for orphans or placing future enemies within their own households, Israel would have to leave the mothers alive if they kept the children alive. The mothers would still have taught them to worship the gods of their nations and the children would have grown up manifesting the same demonic practices. Eventually they would have infected Israel.
If the Israelites had taken the children and raised them, sooner or later the children would have found out their true heritage. They would have learned how the Israelite family that adopted them were the ones who killed their parents and destroyed their country. They would have sought vengeance. Vengeance would have led to them reforming their nation and reviving its demonic practices.” (Troy Edwards, Vindicating God, p58)
Why Kill Even the Animals?
But there is yet one more question: why kill even the animals? They were not idolaters. We don’t know all the circumstances. It could be that they were not healthy and would have infected the Israelites herds and flocks.
A more likely reason it that God did not want Israel to profit from the spoils of war. That would just encourage them to do it more. They badly needed to learn dependence on God.
We do know too that God loves animals, so it could not be that God had anything against them.
Instructions similar to those in 1 Samuel 15:3 were given in, for instance, this passage:
“But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee:” (Deut 20:16-17)
Some of the same reasoning is used:
“That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the LORD your God.” (Deut 20:18)
An Alternative to the Sword
Evidence that Israel could have chosen a different path should have been quite apparent to them from their history. In fact, probably the best example from their past came from the ancestor for whom they were named. Their father Jacob was given the name Israel in connection with choices he made to not take up the sword. This was well-described by Fred Wright who wrote an account of the patriarch Israel (Jacob) and his choice to depend completely on God (opens in separate window).
God understood very well the principle that those who live by the sword tend to die by the sword. It could be predicted that if Israel was to take up and continue the use of the sword that they would eventually be destroyed by it (as happened in 70 AD). From just this, we could reason that God would not have sanctioned their use of the sword. If He had, He would have been largely responsible for bringing about their destruction.
This is one point on which God has been almost universally misunderstood. His directions, as given in verses such as 1 Samuel 15:3, to minimize the suffering resulting from Israel’s initial decision to take the sword have been judged to be Him sanctioning violence and the use of the sword.