“Show No Mercy”

Understanding God’s Command to Destroy the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15

Rev. Gordon Tubbs
14 min readApr 19, 2024
Nicolas Poussin

I’ve found that when it comes to sharing your faith, it’s really easy to keep the conversation focused on who Jesus is, what he did and said, and why following Him as is your Lord and Savior is ultimately the very best decision you can make in life. In other words, it’s easy to keep the main thing the main thing. But even if you believe in your heart and confess from your mouth that Jesus is Lord, you still have a lot of other things to sort out. And these are the sorts of things that have historically divided the Church. There are disagreements about what books belong in the Bible, disagreements about the nature of the Trinity, disagreements about predestination, sanctification, justification, glorification; how the Church should be governed, disagreements about the End Times, who’s allowed to be ordained as elders, deacons, and ministers, and so on and so forth. These disagreements demarcate the boundaries and idiosyncrasies of any given denomination.

Now, it’s important to do a little ‘coat check’ here and say that there’s a boatload of issues that we don’t need to agree on in order to get along with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. But one of the things that we need to see eye to eye on is that the God of the Old Testament is the same God that Jesus calls his Father in the New Testament. And if the person of Jesus is divine, which every Christian believes, then that means Jesus and the Holy Spirit for that matter were present for everything that God did in the Old Testament. Are you with me so far?

The issue then, is that every Christian who has studied the New Testament long enough would resoundingly say that “God is Love.” And yet, when we read the Old Testament, we have a very hard time saying that. Not because we don’t believe it, but because God’s actions at various times don’t come across that way. Two passages that are thematic in this regard, which have been discussed for generations, are Deuteronomy 7 and 1 Samuel 15.

Jesus commands us to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, to be kind to them, serve them, and so forth. And yet, in Deuteronomy 7, we see that God is commanding the Israelites to utterly defeat the Canaanites, and to show them no mercy. Even worse is the text from 1 Samuel 15, in which God commands Saul to kill every last Amalekite man, woman, child, and beast. Hold up now! One of the Beatitudes is “blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7), right? So how can the same God who says “show no mercy” also say “blessed are the merciful”? Of course, it’s one thing for God to send in an angel to do the dirty work, but it’s another thing entirely for God to command His own people to go through this horrendous process of putting every last man, woman, child, and beast to the sword. How can we make sense of this?

This issue has divided scholars since the mid 2nd century, when a guy named Marcion started preaching this idea that the God of the Old Testament (Yahweh) was in fact a false and lesser god, and that Jesus Christ was the true God who came to overthrow Yahweh and Judaism. Marcion’s idea did solve the problem in one sense, in that by rejecting the entirety of the Old Testament, he saw no need to explain why the God of the Old Testament was violent and vengeful. Convenient!

However, Marcion was met with massive resistance from other early Church fathers, and his views were condemned as heretical and he was later excommunicated from the church in Rome. Ever since then, theologians have wrestled with the tension between the violence of God in the Old Testament and the peace of God in the New. And to be perfectly honest, this is something that I find incredibly difficult to sit comfortably with, because we would all recognize genocidal acts as profoundly wrong. And yet to effect, that’s exactly what God commanded. Or is it?

Most of the contemporary discussion around the texts I highlighted and others revolves around the Hebrew word CHARAM, which is translated to “utterly destroy” on most versions of the Bible. However, there is more to this phrase that we might think. CHARAM conveyed a divine ban or prohibition against something to the extent that wherever you came across it, you were supposed to consider it forfeit. It’s kind of like the opposite of being consecrated (or ‘chosen’ as Deuteronomy 14:2 puts it). Instead of being set apart for a special use, something subject to CHARAM is being specifically set aside for destruction or as forfeit.

The meaning of CHARAM in the context of a military campaign is a significant point, because in the normal course of war, the victor normally spoiled themselves with the property and treasures of their defeated enemy. By giving the Israelites the CHARAM order, what God may have actually intended was something on the lines of “do NOT take into possession any spoils of war, but rather destroy them.” This explains why Saul got in trouble and lost his anointing as king — he took spoils that were supposed to be destroyed. He ate from the forbidden fruit, as it were.

The context of Deuteronomy 7 also helps us interpret how CHARAM should be thought of in 1 Samuel 15, because a plain reading of Deuteronomy 7 does not give us the impression that God was giving the Israelites a blanket license to engage in mass destruction and ethnic cleansing, but rather a more specified task. Just take verse 5 for instance: But this is how you must deal with them: break down their altars, smash their pillars, cut down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire” (NRSV). The emphasis here is on maintaining the spiritual and religious purity of the Israelites over everything else. There is nothing in the text that suggests the Israelites were to battle the Amalekites merely because of their ethnicity. No, in fact the primary motivation to attack their settlement seems to be retaliation from an earlier attack (Exodus 17:8–13). But to what extent?

Something to consider is the so-called ‘scorched earth’ tactic that has been used throughout history during military campaigns. A clear example of this can be found with the Mongol Empire as it initially began its expansion. The Mongol Horde would ride through a vast region and if they found a settlement that refused to submit to them, then in some cases they would completely wipe it out. They would kill anyone who fought, slaughter livestock, and burn everything to the ground. They did this so that people would fear them, and so that Genghis Khan could rule by force as much as fear of force. By comparison, this looks a lot like what the Israelites did when they were invading Canaan and expanding their territory.

Of course, if you were to look up the definition of genocide in the Geneva Conventions, then yes — technically the Israelites were engaging in genocidal acts. But as I said earlier, I don’t think we have any reason to qualify these actions as racially-motivated ethnic cleansing like the Nazi genocide or Rwandan genocide was. Instead, what I think 1 Samuel 15 is authorizing is more akin to total war, to battle the Amalekites to the furthest extent feasible. This is made plainly evident in 1 Samuel 15:3, where we read “…kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” But from both a verbal and literary perspective, phrases like these are referred to as merisms, which are rhetorical devices that express the totality of something, and which should NOT be taken literally.

A common example of a merism is like saying “I’ve looked everywhere for my car keys, and I can’t find them.” Did you literally look everywhere? No! And that’s the point. Merisms are hyperbolic and tend to have more figurative meaning than literal meaning. And as it so happened, merisms were quite common in the Ancient Near East as they are today, especially when it came to nations expressing the results of a battle or conflict. There was a tendency to overstate victories and describe them as complete annihilations of the enemy even if only half the enemy army was killed.

The merism in 1 Samuel 15:3 kind of reminds me of the “I Want Him Dead” scene from The Untouchables, in which Al Capone (portrayed by Robert De Niro) gives the order to kill Eliot Ness using extreme language: “I want him dead! I want his family dead! I want his house burned to the ground! I want his house burnt to the ground! I wanna go there in the middle of the night and piss on his ashes!” Now it’s conceivable that Capone was giving his men a command to be taken literally, but it was more likely figurative, especially in the context of the coded language that mafiosos often use (e.g. “somebody go get Vinnie a set of cement shoes”).

On reflection, given a nuanced rhetorical understanding of Deuteronomy 7:2 and 1 Samuel 15:3, I think we can take some comfort in the fact that the command to “utterly destroy” every “man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” was given and received in a figurative rather than literal sense. In fact, according to the Bible we know that the Israelites did not literally kill every Amalekite because there were many who were still living a few centuries later when King Hezekiah fought them. However, the salient point here is that even if these commands were figurative in meaning, they were no less intended to authorize acts of extreme violence. And given how brutal ancient warfare was, there is nothing stopping us from supposing that the Israelites did in fact engage in indiscriminate killing and slaughtered combatants and civilians alike — even children. This poses a serious moral problem with the entirety of 1 Samuel 15.

If, as some progressive theologians prefer to think, this story is purely allegory and might’ve been based on a historical event but later revised in order to justify the narrative that Saul was a bad king, then why even use this event — in all its brutality — as an object for the lesson? Either way you slice it, God commanded the Israelites to kill other people — figuratively, literally, or allegorically. While this might make some difference in the severity of the historical event, it makes no difference in the substance of the moral problem here.

One solution to this problem is to assert that Samuel was improperly executing his prophetic office by speaking for God in this situation, or that he was mistaken about or misinterpreted the message that God gave him. This solution exonerates God so to speak, but it has a profound impact on biblical hermeneutics overall. If we believe Samuel was improperly executing his prophetic office in this case, then why not other cases? What about other prophets, or anyone else who claimed to be speaking for God? Were they all mistaken? Did they all misunderstand God’s message for them to communicate? More importantly, how do we know the difference?

The most popular response to these questions follows this narrative: the full and complete revelation who God is, was made known to us in the person of Jesus Christ. (Basically, Hebrews 1:1–4.) Given this, God’s representations in the Old Testament as often being vengeful, jealous, and ever-willing to punish disobedience and idolatry with extreme prejudice are all misunderstandings on our part because that’s not who God really is, because that’s not who Jesus really is. Therefore, the principle for us to use when it comes to knowing which parts of the Bible are genuinely inspired must be rooted in the love of Christ. If a text is loving, it’s from God; if it’s not loving, it’s human.

In other words, just ask “WWJD?” when it comes to any given text. Would Jesus authorize the destruction of the Amalekites? Would the same Jesus who said “blessed are the merciful” say “show no mercy” to any of your enemies? Etc. Everything we know and believe about Jesus tells us that he would do no such thing. And if “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8, KJV), then Jesus would not have given the command to destroy the Amalekites. And if Jesus would not have, then neither would Yahweh or the Holy Spirit. So in the instance of 1 Samuel 15 (and many others like them), Samuel was indeed improperly exercising his prophetic office.

For what it’s worth, I don’t see this method of interpreting the Old Testament to be unreasonable, but it leads us to an unsettling position in which we have to consider how every time the phrase “thus says the LORD” appears in the Old Testament (which is approximately 418 times in the New King James Version) we have to dance around the text and wonder if it really was God speaking. To me, this seems like we’re entertaining the possibility of the Bible being in error. Most people are happy to accept that the Bible contains literary and grammatical and even historical errors, but if something like “thus says the LORD” is in error, then this amounts to the Bible having a theological error.

The Bible is the Word of God, it is the record of events and experiences that the people of God had in the course of living their lives, and it also records the witness of the prophets — who we believe spoke for God by communicating in their own words and wisdom the message that God gave them to say. This includes monumental figures like Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Elijah to name a few. So if we want to entertain the possibility of Samuel being in error, then by extension we have to entertain the possibility of even Moses being in error. And if Moses was in error, then you may as well kiss the whole Old Testament goodbye!

We read in 2 Timothy 3:16–17 that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (NIV). It’s important to understand here that ALL means ALL. Whether we like it or not, whether Samuel was improperly exercising his prophetic office or not, we cannot pick and choose which parts of scripture are God-breathed or not. If all scripture is God-breathed, then none of scripture is in theological error. None of the prophets who spoke for God misspoke, or misunderstood the message God gave them, because God breathed upon them or those who composed the scripture in the first place or edited it after. This includes Deuteronomy 7, 1 Samuel 15, and every other passage like it. So if for instance we think Samuel was in error, then it’s WE who are in error.

It seems then that we’re back to square one. We cannot hand-wave the moral problem posed by 1 Samuel 15 using nuanced interpretations of the text, nor can we entertain the possibility of Samuel being in error. We must follow the advice of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who in writing his famous character Sherlock Holmes, tells us “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” The improbability that I am speaking to is that God had a morally sufficient reason to justify the destruction of the Amalekites. We may not be able to think of one, but that doesn’t mean God can’t have one himself.

Now, even if the destruction of the Amalekites was morally justified, why is that God didn’t simply destroy them himself? Why didn’t he rain fire and brimstone upon their city like he did with Sodom and Gomorrah? Why dirty and bloody the hands of the Israelites in such a profound way? I can offer only a speculative answer to these questions, and one that I doubt many will find compelling. As with all theological conundrums, we must begin with who and what we believe God to be.

First, I wanted to restate the problem on philosophical grounds. The classical philosophical understanding of God is that his power, knowledge, and love are all perfect. Based on this tripartite formulation of God, there are many who will confidently proclaim that God’s perfect love and perfect power precludes him from using violence as a means to an end. If God knows perfectly well all non-violent options to resolve a problem, and because God’s power is limitless, then God has the power to use any non-violent option to solve a problem. If God really wanted the Amalekites gone from the Earth, then God had the power to simply take them with no effort nor harm nor foul.

The philosophical problem is interesting to think about, but ultimately it is but a façade. God is perfectly loving, has perfect knowledge, and has perfect power — but these are not the only attributes that we believe God has. Unequivocally, God is Love. But, God is also Truth. God is Justice. God is Peace. God is Holy. These are all attributes of God the Bible testifies to. Thus, God has no moral inconsistencies and is blameless in all his dealings.

As creatures made in the Image of God, we have in a small degree the same qualities in us that God has, such as power, truth, knowledge, love, justice, peace, and so forth. These qualities are fallible and imperfect, but they do give us the means to detect truth, to use our power, to have knowledge, to make peace, to do justice, to love, etc. Even in our limited nature, it seems self-evident to me at least that being deliberately violent towards somebody and causing them injury does not convey love. However, my sense of what is just and unjust sometimes overrides my desire to avoid violence. Sometimes, violence must be used to deliver justice and to make peace. Could this not also be the case for God?

God, who is perfectly just, would never fail to deliver justice or allow an injustice to perpetually remain the status quo. Can we really then go on to say that it could never be the case that in the course of delivering justice, that violence could never be utilized as a means to an end? This is a rhetorical question of course, because we are already living in a world and in societies that have historically and firmly upheld that idea. Regrettable as it might be in many instances, violent means have been used throughout history to bring about certain ends for the purpose of peace and justice.

The dynamic tension between love and justice is something that I cannot possibly cover in any detail with this article, but I’m only bringing it up to suggest that our interpretation of texts like 1 Samuel 15 may not be as simple as we like them to be. We dislike the idea of a perfectly loving God authorizing violence, but we also dislike the idea of a perfectly just God failing to dispense justice. These competing dislikes require us to sit uncomfortably with this text, because in my mind there is no uncomplicated and theologically cost-free way to interpret it. We have to wrestle with it.

By wrestling with this text, I think we are also confronted with the fact that our world truly is Fallen. Evil and injustice are rampant, and it’s our own fault. We are living in a mess of our own making. Is it not right of God to ask us to clean it up? I believe it is, and I believe that during the reign of Saul, when the nation of Israel was in its infancy, God wanted to use His people as his vassals, as tools to build a better world. Like any good coach or teacher who wants to see their student succeed on their own, God was guiding the Israelites and teaching them that making a better world comes at a cost, even a violent cost.

Ultimately, it was Jesus who paid that violent cost. As Christians, our view of history has to be seen through the lens of the Cross, of the Crucified Christ. Jesus never spelled it out for us in the Gospels when it came to understanding violence in the Old Testament, but we know that actions speak louder than words. The actions of Christ tell us that his response to all the violence, the brutality, and suffering, was to allow Himself to become subjected to it so that he could show us that we can rise above it, and to triumph over it just as he did through the Resurrection, and as he will do again when one day he will return to make all things new and wipe away every tear.



Rev. Gordon Tubbs

Clear and critical thinking-out-loud about philosophical and theological topics from the perspective of an ordained Christian minister.