One of our atheist friends asked why God commanded the Israelites to commit genocide in 1 Samuel 15:3. “Now go and attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”
The atheists say there was no reason to kill babies and innocent animals in retribution for what the Amalekites had done to Israel. With that argument, many atheist and skeptic articles and websites use this passage to prove that the God of the Bible is a violent, merciless, abusive, genocidal tyrant. Is that a valid argument? Is it true that a ruthless God commanded the Israelites to commit genocide?
Before they entered the promised land, God warned the Israelites to avoid the practices of the people who lived there. You can read that in Deuteronomy 18:9-13. Leviticus 18:1-30 goes into more detail about what practices to avoid. The actions warned against include sacrificing their children by fire to pagan gods.
God also commanded the Israelites to avoid divination, sorcery, witchcraft, spiritualists, and black magic. The passage in Leviticus also warns Israel against illicit sexual relationships, including sex with animals. The passage concludes by saying, “This is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. For all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you and the land became defiled … Do not follow any of the detestable customs that were practiced before you came.”
Archaeological studies have confirmed what was going on in these cultures. Excavations in Gezer and Carthage have shown that children were placed alive and screaming in pain into the fire as a sacrifice to the pagan gods. Archaeologists have found tombstones and headstones detailing how people died. The forensic studies of bones and burial tissue confirm STDs in the people and animals. Our recent battle with COVID should make it easy for us to understand how disease transmission from animals to humans could happen. The moral instructions, dietary practices, and quarantine commands God gave to Israel avoided those diseases.
So how could God take care of the awful situation? As terrible as it was, the only solution was to completely destroy the practices and all possible diseases of the Amalekite society. God had no choice. Even today, with all of our medical knowledge and expertise, we are having great difficulty managing STDs, COVID, and destructive dietary practices.
God is a God of love and mercy. The first and second of the ten commandments involved love, and Jesus taught that people would know His disciples by their love. (See John 13:34-35.) Those who argue that God commanded the Israelites to commit genocide don’t know the whole story. The tragic consequences of ancient pagan living required a drastic response. It was not abject cruelty but an unfortunate necessity.
— John N. Clayton © 2021