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.