1 Samuel 15:3
Go, now, attack Amalek, and put under the ban everything he has. Do not spare him; kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys.
What are we to make of this? Samuel has conveyed a message of the Lord to Saul: place Amalek (the people) under the ban, which amounts to total annihilation. Amalek has been a mortal enemy of Israel from the time of the Exodus, and God has sworn to deal with them once and for all.
Saul’s failure to complete this task - saving the best of the spoils in order that they may be offered as sacrifice to God - removes him from God’s favor, ultimately setting the stage for the anointing of David as king. This verse came up in a recent adult study class in church, and we’ve been reading and studying it since. This post is meant to summarize my readings and help put my thoughts into some semblance of order.
The USCCB’s online bible has this footnote for ban which reads:
…this terminology mandates that all traces of the Amalekites (people, cities, animals, etc.) be exterminated. No plunder could be seized for personal use. In the light of Dt 20:16–18, this injunction would eliminate any tendency toward syncretism. The focus of this chapter is that Saul fails to execute this order.
The Catholic Study Bible notes:
The interpretation of God’s will here attributed to Samuel is in keeping with the abhorrent practices of blood revenge prevalent among pastoral seminomadic people such as the Hebrews had recently been. The slaughter of the innocent has never been in conformity with the will of God.
Compare with the Flood, or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In those cases, though, the effects are through the direct action of God Himself. In this case, it’s people taking up the sword. We’re horrified and rightfully so.
I want to approach this text with a couple of things in mind. First, I desire for my reading to be consonant with the Catholic approach to the scriptures. Secondly, the difficulty of this verse presents a stumbling block for many, and it’s important to be able to give an answer of some kind that meets the person where they are while maintaining fidelity to the text. That is, without whitewashing or hand-waving.
I have done a good bit of research on Amalek, Saul, this ban, and the challenges associated with it from a variety of sources: Catholic, Protestant and Jewish. The study, I think, has been fruitful and moved me to dig even deeper into the Old Testament.
First, is it even historically accurate? The Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies alleges that wholesale exterminations as described in ancient texts probably never happened quite as described.
The genocidal campaigns claimed for the early Israelites, however, were largely fictional: the intrinsic improbability and internal inconsistencies of the account in Joshua and its incompatibility with the stories of Judges leave little doubt about this. Much of the biblical ideology of the ban was fact formulated later, in the seventh century BC, yet it was neither unique nor entirely a later literary invention.
And to be sure, the Amalekites pop up again several times in the OT. 1 and 2 Samuel were likely written between the 6th and 5th centuries BC. David was born around 1000 BC, so at a minimum we’re looking at a few centuries between the events described and the final versions of the text. Even if portions of 1 Samuel were written by Samuel, the New Jerome Biblical Commentary suggests evidence of heavy redaction after the fact. On the other hand, maybe it happened exactly as described. There’s no real reason to take the text at anything other than face value, except that it feels shockingly horrible. Moreover, we can’t even impute the failure of Saul to tenderheartedness or moral objection - later in 1 Samuel 22 we read that he had an entire city of priests killed for assisting David - “men, women, children, infants, and oxen, donkeys and sheep.” (1 Sam 22:11-19)
Questioning the absolute veracity of these accounts may seem to open the door to questioning the authority of anything else in the OT, but I’m not sure that necessarily follows. Dei Verbum is clear (emphasis mine):
…attention should be given, among other things, to “literary forms.” For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another. But, since Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written, no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out.
So maybe it’s not history as we understand history today: a careful presentation of facts designed to convey, as accurately as possible, the events described. It doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable to me that a set of stories about how a people came to be would be subject to a bit of dramatic embellishment over time, particularly in the context of David’s ascendancy to the throne. I hasten to add at this point that this is most certainly not the position I have found in the rabbinic commentaries I’ve looked at. Amalek represented nothing less than the complete annihilation of the people of Israel, stretching all the way back to the Exodus and threads of which continue into the modern age. At least one of the commandments given to Jews regarding Amalek is observed in the festival of Purim, remembering “what Amalek did to the Israelites.”
Even so, this text seems to have occasioned a fair amount of discussion, much of it devolving to the source of morality - in the act itself, or in the command?
Avi Sagi writes:
The question of whether moral obligations can be see as contingent on God’s command is an ancient one. Philosophical tradition tends to credit Plato, in the Eurthyphro with it’s first formulation. Current philosophical discourse usually presents the question in terms of the following dilemma: Is an act right (or wrong) because God commands it (or forbids it), or does God command (or forbid) an act because it is right (or wrong)? According to the first option - that an act is right or wrong because God commands or forbids it - moral obligations have no independent status and are conditioned by a divine command, which determines the moral value of an act. This approach, which in modern philosophy is referred to as “divine command morality,” is deeply rooted in Christian tradition and in contemporary philosophical thought. According to the second option - that God commands or forbids an act because it is right or wrong - God’s command does not determine the moral value of an act. Rather, God commands or forbids certain acts because of their intrinsic positive or negative value.
Later, in a summary of three major schools of thought opposite the position of strict realism:
The realistic approach suggests that the punishment was justified in light of Amalek’s wickedness. The various trends grouped under the rubric of the symbolic approach endorse a different view. The metaphysical trend intensifies the Amalekite evil and transforms it into the demonic foundation of existence. The conceptual trend expands the concrete dimensions of the story and turns it into a contest between ideas, whereas the psychological trend sees the story as a symbol of the existential human drama, a struggle against the evil inside us. All these trends agree on a characterization of Amalek as identical with evil and thus justify total war against it.
However, Maimonides found an interesting synthesis:
…Maimonides relied on two assumptions. First, that Amalek was punished because of a real event that took place in the past, and that this punishment was not meant as revenge; rather, its purpose was to prevent the occurrence of similar acts in the future. Second, he assumed that the Torah the biblical text as well as the rabbinic literature which refers to it make up a coherent legal system. If the Torah contains a general guideline forbidding the punishment of children for the sins of their fathers, then this instruction must also apply to Amalek. Resting on these two assumptions, Bornstein concluded that if the Amalekites no longer behaved like Amalekites, and, moreover, clearly expressed this through their readiness to adopt the basic norms of the seven Noachic commandments, as well as to pay tribute and enter into servitude, it would be wrong to kill them.
The first premise of the moral trend is that the text must be interpreted coherently; neither the exegete nor the halakhist look at the text as an isolated unit, divorced from the broader context of the Torah and the rabbinic tradition. Moreover, if the basic assumption is that the Torah conveys the word of a good God, then a moral reading of the canonical text is not only a theoretical option but a religious obligation.
The moral approach is preferred by its supporters on the grounds that a literal reading may at times cast doubts on the notion that God is a good God. Advocates of the literal trend take issue precisely with this point. Although they accept that the text is usually read within a broader context, they do not believe that this context including an assumption of God’s goodness can be used to change the text’s clear meaning. The context might be useful in instances of textual ambiguity, they argue, but the punishment of Amalek is an explicit command and, therefore, we must assume that it is also morally correct.
As Christians, we read the OT with the knowledge of the Incarnate Christ and everything that happens with and through His passion, cross and resurrection. These graces come from the Holy Spirit, and would not have been available (or even comprehensible) to a reader contemporary with Saul. It’s impossible to separate the OT from the NT, as they effectively form one single history of our salvation. We read the OT for the story of the covenants that we might understand more deeply their fulfillment in Christ. Neither can stand alone.
The Catechism (emphases mine):
107 The inspired books teach the truth. “Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.”
109 In Sacred Scripture, God speaks to man in a human way. To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm, and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words.
110 In order to discover the sacred authors' intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. “For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression."
111 But since Sacred Scripture is inspired, there is another and no less important principle of correct interpretation, without which Scripture would remain a dead letter. “Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written."
115 According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.
Approaching scripture through the four senses, I come up with the following takeaways, starting with the position that this story is told, for our benefit and in this way for a particular reason, and probably not for the same reason that the writer intended for the original audience 1,500 years ago.
Literal: an order was given which flies in the face of everything we hold as Christians, but are we carrying modern sensibilities to a Bronze age semi-nomadic people? Certainly this seems to directly contradict the commandments against killing. Why was Amalek singled out for such a thing, whether it happened as described or not? If this was an error of interpretation on the part of Samuel, how was there no correction issued at some point? Or does the order - however it was carried out - simply play a part in the larger story of Saul vis-à-vis David? Certainly Amalek reappears later on in Scripture (1 Chron 18:11). In context, 1 and 2 Samuel tell the story of 2 kinds of king, a prophet, and God’s plan for his chosen people.
Allegorical: The struggle against evil in the world is very real. God intends to carry the people of the promise safely onward through history in order to form and prepare the nation from which the Savior will come in the fullness of time. Stephen Clark writes in The Old Testament in the Light of the New:
…The command to destroy the Amalekites is a special case in the history of the Israelite monarchy and has occasioned much discussion…the incident is probably a matter of spiritual warfare, warfare with Satanic forces, not just human warfare that we have considered in discussing the challenge of the Canaanites in the land. The Amalekites were a people who tried to destroy God’s people while they were being redeemed by God and were being provided for by him in the wilderness. (Ex 17:8-16; Deut 25:17-19). Their attack was therefore more directly on God himself than most later attacks and was perhaps the paradigm example of other nations attacking God by attacking his people….
The Amalekites could be considered typological of those who seek to wipe out God’s people and God’s rule in the world, and God’s response was typological of his commitment to destroy the kingdom of Satan. God’s command for how to deal with the matter was likely in many respects beyond the comprehension of his servants, but therefore all the more needed to be strictly obeyed.
Moral: “for our instruction” (Rom 15:4), Saul was not a man after God’s own heart. He lacked the inward disposition toward God’s will and instead substituted his own, preferring the externals of sacrifice, and probably insincerely at that. The lesson here for us is clear.
Anagogical: we are destined to be people after His heart, if only we turn from our idols here on earth. Our sin must also be completely put to death, in all of its shapes and forms. We will not be able to do it, not alone anyway.
Final thoughts I believe consonant with a Catholic understanding:
Whether this happened as described, as history, we cannot know precisely. These texts were completed at some remove from actual events. Nevertheless, the story is here, in scripture, “for our instruction.” What is this instruction? It certainly has nothing to do with genocide, or arbitrary killing - look at the totality of scripture, and especially the fulfillment of the Law in the person of Christ. Nothing could be further from any rational reading of the scriptures or sacred tradition.
What is God saying to us, today, through this text, even as we are conscious of the vast distance in time and space between the author and listener?
What was God asking of Saul? Obedience. Was he? Clearly not. Compare with Abraham, who obeyed and whose hand was stayed by the Lord. Who is to know what would have happened had Saul obeyed as instructed.
First, Amalek represents a type of sin and evil; we too must be ready to annihilate sin completely (though, like Saul, we will not be successful). Unlike Saul, we should strive properly order our disposition towards God’s will, even - and especially - when we don’t understand.
Second, these sayings are hard, and it is right that we struggle with them. Jews have likewise struggled with them for a long, long time. As Catholics we must take a multi-layered approach to scripture. This is borne out in the CCC, Dei Verbum, and in the Magisterium of Holy Church.
Third, we must acknowledge that some (all?) of this understanding comes as part of the gift and graces of faith, and that hard sayings are stumbling blocks.
Finally, without deep study, we will not be “prepared to give a reason” (1 Pt 3:15) We must continually read scripture in its totality, not in bits and pieces, isolated from context. We must also be sure that we are in harmony with the teachings of the Church, though which God continues to sanctify the world and save souls.
- 1 Samuel 15:3, USCCB
- Dei Verbum
- Catechism of the Catholic Church
- Saul and the Amalekite Genocide, Pastor Steve McAlpine
- Did God Command Genocide?, Msgr. Charles Pope
- Hard Sayings of the Old Testament, Jimmy Akin
- EWTN Forum: Saul and Amalekites, Fr. John Echert
- Who Was Amalek and the Amalekites, Boruch Altein
- Does Torah Promote Genocide?, Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
- Torah and Genocide FAQ, Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
- Ancient Jewish History: The Amalekites , Jewish Virtual Library
- The Catholic Study Bible
- The Old Testament in the Light of the New, Stephen B. Clark
- Reading the Old Testament, Lawrence Boadt, C.S.P.
- The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond Brown, S.J.
- The Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies, ed. Donald Bloxham and A. Dirk Moses
- Sagi, Avi. “The Punishment of Amalek in Jewish Tradition: Coping with the Moral Problem.” The Harvard Theological Review, vol. 87, no. 3, 1994, pp. 323–346., www.jstor.org/stable/1509808.