Monday, December 01, 2008

The Agagite, the Jews' enemy (1Sam 15)

Now whereas I usually feel there is an easy response to challenges of violence and intolerance (most of what has been seen in this book so far has been violence in self-defense), chapter 15 presents us with the first example of God-ordered genocide with no immediately obvious purpose. Sure, back in Joshua it was a matter of establishing the nation in the land of Canaan, both for the benefit of Israel and the punishing of evil pagan nations. Here, however, God orders Saul to take his now-sizable and experienced army and attack a foreign country for what seems to be a petty reason. Not that what Amalek did to the Israelites wasn't serious, but as the SAB points out, we're talking about an event centuries previous. In some respects, it seems something akin to me taking it upon myself as a grown man in my mid-thirties to working out and getting strong so I can go pummel a bully who took my lunch money in first grade.

Furthermore, there is no ambiguity here; God really is looking for genocide, not merely punishment, ordering the complete destruction of men, women, children, babies and even livestock. Why does God want this? There's a very subtle clue that we won't find in this chapter, but it brings up possibly another issue that the SAB does not address. After all this setup, I intend to answer this at the end of the entry.

Saul goes off to battle, but he doesn't end up completely destroying everything, saving some of the best livestock, and king Agag as a prisoner. God's not happy, and He says, "It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king," leading the SAB to ask the important question, "Does God repent?" I think I addressed this before (yep, here it is), but just in case I didn't, the answer is, "Well, it depends on what you mean by 'repent'." It's understood that the nature of God is such that He, being all-knowing, never comes to be surprised by the outcome of His decisions. Since He knew all that Saul would do as king from the beginning of time, it wouldn't be theologically proper to interpret this verse as God saying, "What was I thinking when I let this joker be king?!" When God "repents", what it means is that He has let the course of history go on long enough, and He is going to now step into the picture and move things in a new direction. The people wanted a king, and God gave them Saul. Now Saul is no longer of any use to God in his position as king, and God will now take steps to remove and replace him. (Note also that in the very same chapter, we are told that God does not repent (v. 29), so clearly the writer means something unusual here, or you have to assume almost immediate self-contradiction, which seems unlikely.)

Samuel comes to Saul and asks him why he didn't obey the command of God. Saul blames the people, saying that they wanted to take some of the best sheep and bring them back as a sacrifice. This is of course, a very lame excuse for a couple reasons, only one of which is stated in the text at this point. The unstated reason is that Saul is the king, which makes him supposedly the man in charge. If things go wrong, he has to take responsibility, not say, "Well, these people didn't want to do it." Secondly, as Samuel points out, isn't it better to just do what you're told than to disobey and excuse your actions by saying, "I was going to do this other thing that I thought would be cool!"

Samuel informs Saul that since he rejected God's command, God's rejects Saul's kingship. Finally, Saul admits he screwed up, and admits both aspects of his mistake, asking Samuel to pray for his restoration, which Samuel refuses to do. However, in some manner that's hard to fully decipher in the King James English, he does something to allow Saul to save face to some degree.

Now, Samuel turns to the matter of the remaining Amalekite, King Agag. He calls for him to be brought, and Agag is nervous, pleading that surely he himself need not die. Samuel kills him, making the genocide of the Amalekites almost complete.

What's missing, and what was the point of all this bloodshed? Some have made the point that Saul's failure led to a dark day in Israel's history, centuries later. In the book of Esther, a man by the name of Haman rises to power in the Persian Empire, and uses his authority to attempt to exterminate the Jews. Who is Haman? He is identified as an "Agagite", that is, he is a descendant of King Agag, the last surviving Amalekite. The issue that this brings up for some skeptics is, if Agag was the last survivor, how is it that he seems to have had children? Two possibilities exist. Either Saul, in sparing Agag, also spared his children, or the possibility also exists that Agag had children in the time span between the destruction of Amalek and his death at the hand of Samuel. This second possibility points out how sometimes a careful reading of Scripture can make you aware of the passing of time that is not obvious on a quick surface read. In verse 12, Samuel hears, "Saul came to Carmel, and, behold, he set him up a place". Other translations make this clearer; what has happened is Saul has stopped on his return home to have a monument built in his own honor. This must have taken some time, perhaps even months, and the war itself wasn't instantaneous. In this time, it seems likely that Agag's children somehow escaped, and grew over time into a small nation that had, perhaps understandably, some unresolved issues with Israel. God understands the relationships between nations, and does what He must to preserve Israel against violent opposition.

22 comments:

Steve Wells said...

Brucker,

Is God evil for saying the words in 1 Samuel 15:2-3 or was Samuel evil for saying that he did?

Maybe God (if there is one) was misquoted here. Maybe God is not as evil as the Bible suggests.

Brucker said...

I see no reason to suggest that God was "misquoted" as you put it. Does that answer your question?

Steve Wells said...

So you think God is evil then?

Brucker said...

Is this a rhetorical question? Of course I don't.

Steve Wells said...

No it's not a rhetorical question, Brucker.

I assumed you think genocide is evil. God ordered genocide in 1 Samuel 15:2-3. Therefore, God is evil (or at least he commands people to do evil things).

I've been waiting for you to get to 1 Samuel 15, and then you shrug completely shrug it off (Yeah, it was genocide. So what?), saying "God does what he must to preserve Israel against violent opposition."

What kind of a monster God do you worship, Brucker?

Brucker said...

So self-defense is not an acceptable reason as far as you're concerned?

Steve Wells said...

Self defense? Here is what your pig god supposedly said:

"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."

Do you really consider genocide "self defense"?

Brucker said...

In this case, it's the only explanation I have. I completely understand that it might not be an adequate explanation for most people's taste, but I never pretended to have an answer for everyone.

Steve Wells said...

I completely understand that it might not be an adequate explanation for most people's taste

Is it an adequate explanation for your taste, Brucker?

If God gave the command in 1 Samuel 15:2-3, then he is evil. You need to either embrace or reject the evil. Which will you do?

Brucker said...

Yes, it's adequate for me. And I don't call it evil, sorry.

Steve Wells said...

What was the explanation again, Brucker?

And you don't find genocide evil? Is anything evil to you? Or is it all good as long as it's done by God?

Brucker said...

The explanation is that this is a preemptive strike against people who are a danger to the welfare of Israel. Israel's place in history is too important to let them be wiped out. That's my understanding of the matter.

Allan Crossman said...

Is slaughtering not only men, but also women and children, really the best solution to the problem that an omnipotent being could come up with?

I don't find this plausible.

Brucker said...

See, now that's an issue I do have a hard time fathoming. Most of the time I don't accept the "If God's omnipotent, why doesn't He just fix everything and make it perfect?" argument, but there are also particular moments where I wonder.

This was God's solution to the problem, and He may have had a really good reason to solve it in this manner, but if so wee're not told explicitly. Even the suggestion of a reason that I give is only a guess, and even if it's right, it does seem questionable that it would be the best solution.

If the Amalekites are inherently a sinful nation that had to be wiped out as the Canaanite nations did, then why didn't God just say so? If they were a nation that posed a threat to Israel, might not driving them out of the land have been enough? Even if, in the end, they had to simply be destroyed, why make Saul do it? God could have chosen another dangerous nation to fight them and have them mutually annhilate each other, or had an earthquake swallow them up.

The nature of and reason for this genocide is far from 100% clear, I won't pretend that's not the case. This is simply the best answer I have, and I know it won't be good enough for many people. I simply know from the larger picture of His character that I have that God is not arbitrary.

Anonymous said...

Things are different today. Things are the same today. Both are simultaneously true. In days of old, such as the days of Saul and Agag, people did not just get up and migrate all that easily. You could not take people out of a land that they believed was ruled by a god they worshipped without raising a long-term firestorm of retaliation. We see this today in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It exists in various forms and with shades of differences in reasons in places like Northern Ireland and Cyprus. The Kurds can give a lesson in giving up their sovereignty to people other than themselves, as they are ruled by the Turks, the Iranians and the Sunni-Shiate hub of Iraq for reasons that have more to do with Western interests in the 20th Century than their own conflicted history. The Amelekites simply lived in the wrong place at the wrong time. God had given this land to Abraham, but told him that it would be 400 (plus) years before the vision would be a reality because "the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full." By Amorites, there is an indication that all the inhabitants of the land of Canaan were somehow not bad enough to experience this form of judgment and cleansing of the land of their presence before the Exodus. This "fullness of iniquity" is not sufficiently explained in the Bible, so critics, using modern values superimposed on a time they could hardly understand, assume that God issued an immoral command to His people. I do not share that view. There is a truth that during this period, God was both the transcendant God of heaven and earth, AND the earthly king of Israel, responsible for police, politics and military functions. Richard Nixon may have not been correct when he said "When the president does it, it IS legal," to David Frost, but one can assume that the owner of the ant farm can shake it any way He wants! The Bible just tells us "ants" something about the rules, expectations and attributes of that owner. If you don't like Him, I am assured you will get your opportunity to take it up with Him face to face.

julius said...

Brucker: There is no god...all your mental gymnastics will not establish that which is not...
Ramon

Brucker said...

Well, thanks. That explains everything. I don't know why I didn't think of it before.

Anonymous said...

Psalm 53:1
The fool has said in his heart, "[There is] no God." . . .
For all who doubt if there is a God. . . I think He's got that covered:)

Brucker said...

Well, that's a simple answer, but I think it's almost TOO simple. While I of course am a person who believes that the Bible is right in the things that it says, including this, I've always felt distaste for an attitude of, "I don't need to respond to your position because it's silly (foolish?)."

A truth claim may indeed be silly/foolish, but I still think one needs to explain why it's foolish. I think there are many people who have entirely non-foolish reasons to not believe in God, and likewise, both believers and non-believers are groups that contain foolish people.

Anonymous said...

So to be safe, Yahweh ordered everyone killed, even babies. I can almost buy the speculative pre-emtive threat theory, but then why the innocent animals? Surely they would not one day rise up and be a threat?

Brucker said...

That's an excellent question! In the post and the comments I've really been pushing the "preemptive self-defense" theory, but I can hardly claim that there was a chance that Amalekite sheep would someday take up arms against Israel, right?

I think this is an interesting thing that is a common (but not 100% consistent) pattern in God-mandated wars in the Bible. In modern times, if a political leader says, "I'm invading this neighboring country because it's God's will that I do so," 99% of us call bullshit and assume the leader is grabbing land and resources for his own purposes. In ancient Israel, God often wants to make it clear that the nation shouldn't go to war in order to make a profit; I think this would set a bad precedent. If Saul kills the Amalekites and comes back with a couple thousand sheep, he'd likely be tempted to think, "Hey, foreign invasion is good business! I should do this more often!" I think when God orders complete destruction like this (which I don't believe is unique) He's saying that the nation in question should be destroyed, and nobody should reap the rewards of that nation's evil deeds.

Just my thought; I should have put it in the entry.

Anonymous said...

“When you approach a city to fight against it, you must make an offer of peace. If it accepts your offer of peace and opens its gates to you, all the people found in it will become slaves for you and serve you.
However, if it does not make peace with you but wages war against you, lay siege to it. When the Lord your God hands it over to you, you must strike down all its males with the sword. But you may take the women, children, animals, and whatever else is in the city — all its spoil — as plunder.
You may enjoy the spoil of your enemies that the Lord your God has given you. This is how you are to treat all the cities that are far away from you and are not among the cities of these nations.
However, you must not let any living thing survive among the cities of these people the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance. You must completely destroy them — the Hittite, Amorite, Canaanite, Perizzite, Hivite, and Jebusite — as the Lord your God has commanded you" (Deuteronomy 20:10-17)