The core of the Bible is that God is love, that God loves humanity (1 Joh. 4:8, 16, John 3:16). But how does that fit with God’s command to Israel to not only conquer Amalek, but to utterly destroy this people, both men and women, children, infants and animals? (1 Sam. 15). We will touch on three reasons why this is in agreement with a loving God.
First, before the command God gave the Amalekites plenty of time and opportunities to turn from their wickedness. When God promised Abraham the land of Canaan He told him he had to wait four generations. Why? Because “the iniquity of the Amorites” were “not yet complete.” (Gen. 15:16). In a similar way God seems to have been longsuffering towards the Amalekites. They were a plague to Israel from the time they left Egypt, they fought the first war against them, plundered them etc. (Deut. 25:17-19, Ex. 17, Judges 3:12-13, 1 Sam. 14:48).
Yet it would take about 400 years before God gave this command and punished them for their evil ways! (1 Sam. 15). And during this time they had many opportunities to hear about God’s might and God’s love. You see, God “has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” (Ezek. 33:11). The act of punishment is described as a strange act to Him (Isa. 28:21). It is the last thing our merciful God wants to do!
Secondly, the Amalekites were not innocent – far from it! They were a very wicked and cruel people – a curse to mankind. They plundered and waged war, attacked the weak and defenseless, despised God and His people, served idols, committed all kinds of sexual wickedness, sacrificed their own sons and daughters to demons (!) and you could go on (Psalm 106:35-39, Deut. 25:17-19, Ex. 17:16, Judges 3:12-13, Lev. 18:24-25, 1 Sam. 15:33…).
”It is worth noting that most of these practices are illegal today, even in modern Western nations, and no religious group that practiced incest, ritual prostitution, bestiality, or human sacrifice would be tolerated even in contemporary societies with freedom of religion laws. Moreover, in many jurisdictions, such as various states of United States, adults who engage in human sacrifice could face the death penalty. Hence the practices in question are serious crimes – not trivial practices of mere personal preference.” (Copan and Flannagan, “Did God really command genocide?”).
“I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doing on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.” (Miroslov Volf, Yale Theologian)
A third reason God gave this command seems to be to protect Israel whom He had chosen to bless and facilitate salvation to the world (Gen. 12:1-3). The Amalekites appear to have been keen on destroying Israel. Yet, king Saul, a descendant of Kish (1 Sam. 9:1, 2), did not utterly destroy the Amalekites, as God had commanded. He did not kill King Agag (1 Sam. 15). Roughly, 600 years later, Haman, an Agagite (Est. 3:1), almost caused the extermination of the Jews. If it weren’t for Mordecai, a descendant of Kish (Est. 2:5), Queen Esther’s willingness to risk her life and God’s special intervention, it would probably have happened. And the promise of a Messiah, from the seed of David, would not have become a reality.
Much more could be said, but as we consider Scripture more thoroughly, we start to see that the challenging passage of 1 Samuel 15 can indeed be in agreement with a loving God. God wasn’t impulsive but longsuffering—they weren’t innocent but a curse to mankind, and finally by preserving Israel the world would be blessed and Jesus, the Messiah would provide the offer of eternal life to every human being, including the wicked Amalekites.
Joakim Hjortland is a Scandinavian church elder and the president and co-founder of IMPACT Generation. Joakim is also author of “A Prophet for This Generation” (prophet.empowermissions.org).