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Was the Amalekite Massacre a Moral Atrocity?
by Farrell Till

1994 / January-February

The story of the Israelite massacre of the Amalekite nation is recorded in 1 Samuel 15 . The facts of the case, as claimed in this chapter, are these: Yahweh sent the prophet Samuel to command Saul, the first king of Israel, to "go and smite Amalek" and to " utterly destroy all that they have and spare them not" (v:3 ); the command explicitly stated that Saul was to kill "both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass" (same verse). According to the story, Saul took "two hundred thousand footmen and ten thousand men of Judah" (v:4 ) against the Amalekites and "utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword" (v:7 ), except for Agag their king, whom he kept alive to take back as a prisoner. This act of mercy, of course, was a clear violation of Yahweh's instructions, which were to kill everyone and spare no one. In addition to this act of disobedience, Saul also kept alive "the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them" (v:9 ).

Saul's disobedience irked Yahweh, whose word came to Samuel (as Yahweh's word had a habit of doing in those days) and said, "It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king, for he is turned back from following me, and hath not performed my commandments" (v:10 ). Apparently when Yahweh said kill everyone and everything and spare no one and nothing, he meant kill everyone and everything and spare no one and nothing. Samuel left the next morning and met Saul returning home from battle. Samuel sharply reprimanded Saul for not executing [no pun intended] Yahweh's word to the letter and informed Saul that Yahweh had rejected him from being king (vv:17-23 ). Samuel ordered that Agag, the Amalekite king, be brought out, and then in the presence of Yahweh, Samuel hacked Agag to pieces with a sword (vv:32-33 ), presumably to show the people that when Yahweh said kill everyone, he meant kill everyone.

What happened on that day, if indeed it did happen, must by all standards of decency and morality--except for biblical standards, of course--be considered a moral atrocity. After all, this is a case where an attacking army went beyond the killing of the soldiers they fought against to the butchering of women and children and even infants still nursing their mothers' breasts. Please notice that Yahweh's order was to slay even "infant and suckling" (v:3); no one--nothing--was to be spared. As we will soon note, it was Yahwistic vengeance at its bloodiest.

My position, which is the position that any humanitarian would take in the matter, is that such an event as this must be considered a moral atrocity. The American Heritage Dictionary defines moral as that which is "concerned with the judgment of the goodness or badness of human action and character; pertaining to the discernment of good and evil." It defines atrocity as an "atrocious condition, quality, or behavior; monstrousness; vileness." Atrocious is defined as "extremely evil or cruel; monstrous; exceptionally bad." What degree of judgment is required for one to determine that killing defenseless babies is "bad"? In the following article, Lindell Mitchell will deny that the massacre of the Amalekites was a moral atrocity, so I wonder if Mr. Mitchell will tell us that killing children and babies in his "judgment" is not "monstrous" or "exceptionally bad," that it can, in fact, be an act of goodness? Indeed he will, because he is a Bible inerrantist and can take no other position.

The killing of just one Amalekite woman or child or infant, solely because of her, his, or its nationality, would have constituted moral atrocity by any civilized standard of morality, but to put into proper perspective the extent of this massacre, I want first to establish a concrete image of what probably occurred on that occasion. If the story happened as recorded, then by necessity, hundreds of women, children, and babies were killed by Israelite soldiers. How do I know this? Well, even though Saul "utterly destroyed" the Amalekites, except for Agag, whom Samuel quickly took care of, the Amalekites were, inexplicably, still around just a few chapters later where the guerrilla escapades of David were chronicled. On one occasion, David raided the Amalekites and "saved neither man nor woman alive" (1 Sam. 27:8-9 ), yet these twice-utterly-destroyed Amalekites somehow made a speedy comeback, raided David's camp at Ziklag (30:1 ), and took the women captive. (Apparently, Amalekites were more humanitarian than the Yahwistic Hebrews.) David pursued the Amalekites, and when he reached their encampment, he "smote them from the twilight even unto the evening of the next day" (v:17 ). There "escaped not a man of them, save four hundred young men, who rode upon camels and fled" (v:17 ). Now if David smote these twice-utterly-destroyed Amalekites from twilight until evening of the next day, there must have been a lot of them when the battle started. The extent of their numbers would also be indicated by the way it was said that "there escaped not a man of them, save four hundred young men." In other words, the writer must have intended for us to understand that the "four hundred young men" who escaped on camels represented just a small fraction of the total Amalekite population.

If 400 young men escaped on camels, we can reasonably assume that many other young men were killed when David was smiting the Amalekites "from the twilight even unto the evening of the next day." So if that many young Amalekite men were alive at the time of this encounter with David's guerrillas, we can imagine how many of them there must have been before Saul and Samuel utterly destroyed them. Be that as it may, we can assume that if there were at least 400 young Amalekite men, there were probably that many young women too. Young men able to escape on camels were probably not children, and certainly they were not infants. A steadiness of tribal growth from year to year, then, would suggest a population of at least several hundred children and infants at the time of David's battle with the Amalekites, so before the Amalekites were "utterly destroyed" by Saul and Samuel, there must have been thousands of children and infants. The point is that, if there is any degree of accuracy at all in the Bible, inerrantists will have to concede that the Israelite massacre of the Amalekite nation in 1 Samuel 15 entailed the killing of thousands of women, children, and infants. Mr. Mitchell wants us to believe that this massacre was morally proper.

To put the incident--if indeed the massacre of thousands of women, children, and infants can properly be called just an "incident"--into a clear perspective, let's try to visualize in specific, concrete terms what had to have happened on that day, not just once, not just twice, but hundreds of times. The instruments of warfare at that time were swords, spears, and bows and arrows, so we can only assume that these were the weapons used to "slay both man and woman, infant and suckling" (1 Sam. 15:3 ). David, whom the Bible describes as a man "after Yahweh's own heart" (1 Sam. 13:14 ), made the survivors of a battle with the Moabites lie on the ground so that he could measure them off in three "lines." Two of the lines were killed, and the third was kept alive to become "servants of David" (2 Sam. 8:2 ). As brutal as this was, it was comparatively civilized in terms of the treatment that the Israelite king Menahem accorded his captives. He "ripped up" the pregnant women captives after a military campaign against Tiphsah (2 Kings 15:16 ). The point is that these were barbaric times, so we can reasonably assume that what contemporaries did with civilian captives was probably what the Israelites did with the Amalekites.

I have often wondered if inerrantists defend biblical events like the Amalekite massacre because they don't take the time to think in specific terms of everything that such an event would necessarily have encompassed. I don't know; I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Do men like Mr. Mitchell see thousands of Amalekite women, children, and infants as merely an abstract concept or words on paper rather than specific, living and breathing individuals with hopes, aspirations, and a desire for life as real as yours and mine... and Mr. Mitchell's? Does he think that Amalekite children and babies somehow didn't bleed when spears were thrust through them or feel pain when they were hacked with swords? Recalling again that the weapons of the time were swords and spears, we can reasonably assume that these were the instruments of slaughter that the Israelites used to kill the Amalekite women, children, and infants. So, if the story happened as recorded, Mr. Mitchell has to know that not just once, not just twice, but hundreds of times, a specific Israelite soldier, wielding a specific sword or spear, thrust his weapon through a specific Amalekite infant. We can hardly imagine that all of these children and infants were killed simultaneously. The massacre was surely a sequential affair. Some were killed first, then others, then others, then others, etc., as the Israelite army passed through the civilian population. We can imagine, then, the terror of screaming children who, seeing what was happening as the soldiers advanced toward them, knew what was soon going to happen to them. How many of them were thrust through from the back as they tried to flee for their lives? We can never know, but from reports of what happened at places like My Lai, we can be reasonably sure that it did happen. So these Amalekite children were not just abstract concepts or words on paper; they were real individuals, just as real as Mr. Mitchell's children (if he has any). They had individual names and personalities, just as children today have. They were the Jasons and Brandons and the Jennifers and Lisas of their time and place--and they were all killed, individually, by specific Israelite soldiers, presumably acting on orders from the God of heaven. We can imagine too Amalekite mothers futilely trying to shield their babies from Israelite swords and spears with their own bodies, because we know from many documented cases that this routinely happens when mothers sense threats to their babies.

If Mr. Mitchell's inerrant "word of God" is truly inerrant, the scenario I have just described is exactly what happened on that day. So now I am going to state my position as emphatically as I know how. If such a scenario as this is not morally wrong, then nothing is! I will repeat it. If such a scenario as this is not morally wrong, then nothing is! And I can't wait to put Mr. Mitchell's defense of this atrocity into print, because I want the world to see the extremes to which blind allegiance to the absurd doctrine of Bible inerrancy will lead one. It requires its believers to defend the killing of children and babies for no other reason than the circumstance of national birth, and such a belief is repugnant to everything that modern civilization stands for.

To cut right to the heart of the matter, I am going to ask Mr. Mitchell a question that will let us know just how sincere his belief in the moral rightness of the Amalekite massacre really is. I will state it in the form of a true or false question:

If I, Lindell Mitchell, had been born an Israelite in the time of King Saul, I would have willingly and gladly participated in the Amalekite campaign by killing women, pregnant women, children, infants, the elderly, the sick, and the feeble.

I sincerely hope that he will answer false, but I know that he won't. To do that would raise questions highly detrimental to his inerrancy position. Why would he not willingly do the will of God? Why would he not gladly do the will of God? In all probability, he will somehow evade the question, but if he does answer it, the only answer he can give, without surrendering his position, is true. So an honest and forthright answer from him will put this issue in a crystal clear perspective for our readers. It will enable them to see that belief in Bible inerrancy will require them to defend the killing of babies.

I know that Mr. Mitchell is not completely without compassion for children, because he usually plasters his letters to me with "pro-life" stickers that say such things as, "It's a child, not a choice." Although I don't agree with his position on the issue of abortion, I do recognize that his position implies a concern for children. So now I will ask him to explain something that puzzles me. If abortion, even in the very first days of pregnancy is morally wrong (as he seems to believe), then what made morally right the abortions that the Israelite soldiers performed on Amalekite women that day? We can certainly assume that in a population of thousands (as already established) there were many pregnant women, so when the Israelite soldiers utterly destroyed "man and woman, infant and suckling," they necessarily terminated many pregnancies. Why was that morally right if abortion is wrong, period? What had those unborn Amalekite babies done to deserve death? For that matter, what had the babies already born done to deserve death? Mr. Mitchell has a lot of explaining to do.

Now inerrantists like Mr. Mitchell would have us believe that the massacre was done upon direct orders from God, so somehow that made everything all right. You see, God can do no wrong; God knows things we cannot know, so he had special omniscient insights into the matter that enabled him to understand the necessity of the massacre, no matter how shocking it may seem to our pathetically finite minds. In the sweet by and by, however, we will understand God's ways, which are higher than our ways, so then we will know why God had to do this, and it will make perfectly good sense to us. I have debated this subject with Bible fundamentalists enough to know that we can expect to hear some kind of doublethink like this as Mr. Mitchell seeks to explain it all to us. Meanwhile, as we wait for Jesus to pass out answers to us in the great beyond, we can take solace from knowing that God actually did the Amalekite children and infants a big favor by commanding Saul to massacre them. Had they been permitted to live, they would have simply grown up to be wicked like their parents. By having them killed as children living in a state of innocence, he assured them of a place in heaven, so now they won't have to fry in hell. Yes, expect Mr. Mitchell to say such stuff as this too. If you don't believe that anyone could possibly advance an argument as asinine as this, see page 6 of Clarence Lavender's article ("Was It Morally Right for God to Order the Killing of the Canaanites?" TSR, Winter 1993), where he actually said that the Israelite massacre of Canaanite children was the "best thing that could have happened." I don't make this stuff up, readers. I just encounter it in my engagements with fundamentalists and pass it along to you. So you can expect to see some kind of rebuttal from Mr. Mitchell that is based on the premise that God did it, so it had to be all right. He will expect us to believe that, somehow, a deity whom the Bible describes as the "Father of mercies and God of all comfort" (1 Cor. 1:3 ), "merciful and gracious" (Ex. 34:6 ), and who is "abundant in lovingkindness" (Ibid.), and who is praised with various other descriptions intended to convey qualities of goodness and righteousness, was simply manifesting his supreme moral excellence when he ordered the slaughter of the Amalekites. I have yet to see a logically coherent defense based on this premise, so I don't expect one from Mr. Mitchell either. Whatever he says, I will respond to it in our next exchange.

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