Why did God condemn Saul for not completely destroying the Amalekites?
It might be reasonably suggested that perhaps Israel—a people often known for their disobedience in the Bible—were simply being disobedient to God when they did not literally “destroy” their enemies in toto. Yes, it seems clear that not everyone they were told to kill was killed, and not everyone they said they killed, was killed. Perhaps that is just because they did not obey God’s commands to kill everyone—they did not do what He asked them to do. This would not be entirely surprising; as a matter of fact, sometimes in Scripture they are explicitly condemned for not killing those whom God commanded them to kill! We will discuss this more when we look at the example of the Amalekites.
Destroy the Amalekites: Who?
The Amalekites were a people group living just south of Canaan who had attacked Israel during their exodus from Egypt (Exodus 17:8-16). Israel had just fled Egypt, a group of runaway slaves who by all earthly standards were defenseless and ripe for the picking. The Amalekites were nomadic raiders known for their brutality and guerilla warfare. It is only by the miracle of Yahweh that Israel escaped.
When we come to 1 Samuel 15, we see that Yahweh is judging the Amalekite attack on Israel that took place hundreds of years before. Knowing of God’s patience and His willingness to forgive the repentant heart, we can only assume that the attack on the Amalekites took place because it was the last hope in stopping their brutality, much like the Canaanites.
Hyperbole? It’s Complicated.
We see this notion on display explicitly in 1 Samuel 15. In this chapter, Saul is commanded to perform total war on the Amalekites. The LORD had told Saul, through the prophet Samuel, to “attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys” (v. 3). The narrator then tells us that Saul spared the life of Agag, the Amalekite king, and many of the animals, but “he totally destroyed with the sword” the rest of Agag’s people (v. 8). This should not be considered such a bad thing if, as we have thus far been suggesting, hyperbole is understood. However, God is angered by what Saul did by not carrying out his instructions exactly (v. 11). The fact that Saul did not “completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites” is called doing “evil in the eyes of the LORD” (v. 19). This is no small offense. No, it is the straw that broke the camel’s back: “You have rejected the word of the LORD,” Samuel says to King Saul, “and the LORD has rejected you as king over Israel!” (v. 26).
Though Saul had spared the Amalekite king Agag’s life, Samuel sets about doing what Saul did not do. Agag is brought to Samuel in chains. Samuel pronounces death on Agag, saying, “As your sword has made women childless, so will your mother be childless among women” (1 Samuel 15:33). Samuel then puts Agag to death. If we are reading the text literally and without hyperbole, this should be the end of the Amalekites. Samuel has done what Saul would not do; in so doing, then Samuel seemingly completed what the LORD wanted to be achieved in the first place. However, there is a hint of hyperbole because we see Amalekites pop up later in the Old Testament. There is the case of an individual like Haman the Agagite, a descendant of King Agag, in the Book of Esther. Interestingly, Haman is still very much like other Amalekites in that he hates Israelites. More strikingly though, we see Amalekites within the same book—1 Samuel—and not just one or two but a whole army (1 Samuel 30).
Like other military campaigns mentioned thus far, the city of Amalek where the attack took place was most likely not a “city” like, say, Chicago. Rather, it is most likely that this is a fortified military camp. Innocent non-combatants would not have been present. As a matter of fact, most of the killings done here and in Canaan, at least intentionally, would have been of key military leaders and rival kings. In other words, “destroy the Amalekites” would be akin to saying you hope your College football team “destroys Georgia,” meaning the football team and not the state.
It is important to rewind a bit and reiterate a point: nowhere in the Book of Joshua is Joshua condemned for the failure to kill all the people it is claimed that he killed. In fact, Joshua is commended for his complete obedience (Joshua 8:30-31; 11-15). While Israel may be condemned for failing to totally cleanse the land, it has more to do with the presence of Canaanites still on the land, not the fact that the Canaanites are still alive. As with the Jebusites above, the concern with the Amalekites was their presence on the land, not their life. So long as they were outside of the Eden-like Canaan, a restored community where God could dwell among His people, then that would be good enough for the moment.
Why, then, was God so angry at Saul? Though the face-value reading may seem as if it was simply because Saul did not kill all Amalekites, the other context we read from the book of 1 Samuel shows that this cannot be the case. The ultimate reason, explain Webb and Oeste, is not that Saul chose to spare King Agag for reasons of mercy. Rather, “Saul’s motives are self-serving and prideful in his attempts at legitimation with actions that honor himself (but not Yahweh).” After all, Saul did not just spare the Amalekite king (against Yahweh’s command), but he also set up a monument to honor his victory (1 Samuel 15:12). Saul also sought to provide a giant sacrifice to Yahweh by bringing the Amalekite animals back to be sacrificed, though God’s commands were to kill them where he found them. (This could mean, just as it did with humans, to drive them out of the land with their owners, for to destroy the Amalekites meant something other than killing them. It meant to remove their lives and legacies from a plot of sacred land, not the whole earth). Saul sought to be seen as one who was very obedient to God, more obedient and more sacrificial than all others. The problem is that he did so without actually being obedient at all. Samuel scolds him, asking “Does the LORD delight in burn offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD?” Saul’s rebellion is like divination and his arrogance is like idolatry (1 Samuel 15:22-23).
Saul’s failure to be obedient to Yahweh will, in the end, bring more pain and suffering to the region. By keeping the Amalekite king alive, he keeps the Amalekite vision and influence alive. Perhaps he sought to cash in on that influence and their political relationships. He did not seek to “destroy” the Amalekites in the way that Yahweh had commanded becasue he did not wish to destroy his own future (though, in the process, he did just that). Either way, this supposed mercy serves only to further the cause of all those who oppress the weak, which Yahweh is attempting to stop by judging the nations through Israel, the weakest of all. Yahweh is attempting to set the world aright, to realign values and how we consider concepts like power and weakness, but King Saul could not fathom such a world.
All articles in this series:
Old Testament Violence | Part 1 Introduction
God’s Judgment | Old Testament Violence, Part 2
God’s Jealousy | Old Testament Violence, Part 3
God’s Wrath | Old Testament Violence, Part 4
God’s Hatred | Old Testament Violence, Part 5
The Fear of God | Old Testament Violence, Part 6
Warfare in Ancient Israel | Old Testament Violence, Part 7
Did God Destroy the Canaanites? | Old Testament Violence, Part 8
Did God Destroy the Amalekites? | Old Testament Violence, Part 9
Plague on the Firstborn | Old Testament Violence, Part 10
The Flood | Old Testament Violence, Part 11
Understanding Old Testament Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 12
Death Penalty in the Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 13
Women and the Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 14
Slavery in Ancient Israel | Old Testament Violence, Part 15
To His Way of Loving | Old Testament Violence, Part 16
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Image: Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), “The Clash,” 1964
 David G. Firth, 1 and 2 Samuel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; Nottingham, UK: Apollos, 2009), 173. In Copan, 174.
 William J. Webb and Gordon K. Oeste, Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric? Wrestling with Troubling War Texts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 161.
 Webb and Oeste, 179.
 Ibid. And in Heiser’s view, there would have been a major problem with allowing the Anakites demonic bloodline to continue. “We know that Israel ultimately failed. The seeds of that failure were sown in the events of the conquest. For whatever reasons—lack of faith or lack of effort or both—Israel failed to drive out their enemies. They allowed vestiges of the targeted bloodlines to remain in the land in the Philistine cities. They chose to coexist (Judg 1:27-36). The visible Yahweh, the Angel, asks the rhetorical question, “Why did you do such a thing?” and then announces the consequence: “Now I say, I will not drive them out before you; they will become as thorns for you, and their gods will be a trap for you” (Judg 2:2-3). The name of the place where he uttered these words was thereafter appropriately remembered as Bochim, a Hebrew word that means “weeping” (Judg 2:5).” See Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 202-17. Dr. Heiser has several resources available for free at https://drmsh.com/.
 Ibid., 229.