Wrestling with the Violence of God

Saul was a bad king. He was impatient when he should have waited, and he hesitated when he should have advanced.

Chapter 15 of 1st Samuel is a dark moment for Saul.

He was at war with Israel’s arch-enemy, the Philistines.  He was outgunned and outnumbered. He’d had a few fantastic victories, but no one expected his winning streak to continue and everyone knew this war would not be quick.

Additionally, Saul was fighting with God’s representative, the prophet Samuel. Samuel didn’t want a king in the first place. He believed the nation was just fine when he was serving as the voice of God, speaking directly to the people.  And then, in chapter 13, Samuel was running late, and the soldiers were getting restless, and they were talking about bailing on this whole war thing. So Saul did Samuel’s job for him; and, of course, right as Saul was finishing, Samuel came walking up. It was a mess.

In chapter 15, Samuel comes to Saul with an order from God.

Then Samuel said to Saul, “The Lord sent me to anoint you as king over His people, over Israel; now, therefore, listen to the words of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he set himself against him on the way while he was coming up from Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.'”

It’s a difficult command to read. God is asking Saul to commit genocide. Man and women, children and infants – all dead.

My son, Jackson, brought this passage to me with a question. He asked, “Dad, I don’t understand. I thought Jesus (God) was loving. How could he do this?”

What makes this passage especially difficult is that I can’t do with it what I like to do with things like natural disasters or wars. I can’t explain it away with  “sinful people do bad things to each other” or “the world is a broken place where bad things happen” because this time, the genocide comes directly from God’s mouth; and he is clear. Kill them all. Even the ox and sheep. Even the camels and donkeys. Even the children and infants. Everything.

So Jackson and I begin working through the options together.

Option #1: The Old Testament God is different than Jesus. 

This solution provides an easy answer. The Old Testament God is all about power. The New Testament God is all about love. My problem with this fix is that, if we accept it, we will have to discount most of the New Testament. Paul (the author of most of the letters in the New Testament) absolutely did not see it this way. For him, Jesus was the God of the Old Testament and his work was a continuation of what was happening in the Old Testament. Additionally, in the Gospels, Jesus and everyone around him connect his work directly to what is going on in the Old Testament.

Accepting this option, therefore, leaves us with a bigger problem – selecting which New Testament texts we like and which we don’t – a dangerous path that will leave God looking a lot like you.

Option #2: Sometimes God loves. Sometimes God kills people. He’s God. He can do what he wants. 

While it isn’t often expressed so simply, this is a historically popular option. This option would define the primary quality of God, the aspect of his personality that trumps all others, as sovereignty – above all else, he is all powerful. This option would then lead us to believe that we should treasure his love even more because he doesn’t have to give it to us. Our primary response to God must be fear and obedience because it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of a living God who is all powerful.

While I have great respect for this option, it rings inconsistent with me. Jesus, the clearest representation of God we have in the scripture, never asserts power. He is, in fact, defined as the God who dies in a sacrifice of power in order to save others – which is the definition of love. In essence, the crucifixion is a sign that God’s love will trump his power; and that, he does not wish humanity to fear and obey him. Rather, his desire is to see his creation achieve its full potential, to become what he intended it to be, to live in perfect harmony with him and one another as gardeners to the world.

Option #3: Genocide was the most loving option.

The third option before me demands a choice, a world view defining choice, an “everything must be defined by this” choice.

That choice is to view everything through the lens of “God is love.”

Even this passage.

This means that, when faced with all possible outcomes, the most loving thing was total destruction.

If we read on in chapter 15, we find that Saul did not follow orders. He kept spoils for himself and his men. He left the king alive as a trophy. Saul and his men treated this battle like any other battle.

Let’s not forget that this passage happened in a different age, an age in which no one cared about civilian causalities. In battle, the women were raped and taken as slaves, babies and children were killed or left to starve, and the livestock was taken as a prize. This is, in fact, was why people of this age went to war. They wanted the spoils.

God’s response to Saul’s action is terrifying.

Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel, saying, “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned his back from following Me and has not carried out My commands.” And Samuel was distressed and cried out to the Lord all night. 

I can’t find another passage in the Bible where God regrets something. (If you will read the comments below you will see a brilliant friend provided me with several examples.) What does that even mean, that the all powerful, creator of the universe is sorry that he did something?

I think what brings such a powerful emotion from God is that this moment in the story of the Bible was painful and difficult for him. He was ordering the total destruction of people he knew and loved. It was a great sacrifice. One Saul disgraced by making the battle about personal gain. Saul was unmoved by the destruction of a people because he was a bad king.

You might ask, “Does this mean, Jeff, that you believe God might order a genocide today and it would be completely justified as the most loving option?”

No.

It’s a different age. In our present age, the action of Saul is not common place. It is completely inexcusable.

Conclusion

My problem is, I want more. I want to know why God would do such a thing, but the scripture does not give it to me.

In the absence of that information, I am forced to ask myself what I know about God.  And what I know is that God is love. And I chose to translate all things through that lens.

I don’t think passages like this one should be ignored. I think there are in the Bible for us to wrestle with. I hope that in wrestling, like Jacob, I will come out broken and changed, carrying the name Israel, “the one who wrestles with God.”

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3 thoughts on “Wrestling with the Violence of God

  1. This is not the only time in which the LORD ‘regrets’ or ‘repents’ of something (Hebrew “NHM”). I have omitted many instances in which the same root can mean ‘console’ or ‘comfort’

    Other instances occur in:
    –Gen 6:6 and 6:7 (for making man on the earth)
    –Ex. 32:12-14 (Moses asks the LORD to “NHM” of His plans to destroy the Israelites (and the LORD does indeed repent)
    –Num. 23: 9 (In Balaam’s prophecies) says that the LORD is not a man who repents
    –Judg. 2:18 the LORD was moved to ‘NHM’ by the groaning of the people
    –1 Sa. 15:29 (later in this passage) echoes Num. 23:9
    –2 Sa. 24:16 the LORD repents from a plague He inflicted on the Israelites (also in 1 Chr. 24:15)
    –Ps. 106:45 The LORD relents for the sake of His covenant
    –Ps. 110:4 the LORD has sworn and will not ‘NHM’ that you are a priest after the order of Melchizedek
    –Is. 57:6 The LORD rhetorically asks if He should relent from bringing justice on the unrighteous
    –Jer. 15:6 the Lord is tired of relenting from His punishments
    –Jer 18:8 the Lord will ‘relent’ from a promised punishment if a nation relents
    –Jer 18:10 the Lord may ‘relent’ from promised blessings if a nation acts wickedly
    –Jer 20:16 the Lord overthrew cities without relenting
    –Jer 26:3 and 26:13 and 26:19 the Lord may relent if people repent
    –Jer 42:10 the Lord will repent of a promised calamity
    –Ez. 24:14 the Lord will not repent from a promised punishment
    –Joel 2:13 the Lord relents from evil
    –Joel 2:14 the Lord may relent from punishment
    –Amos 7:3, 7:6 The Lord changed His mind about a punishment
    –Jonah 3:9 the Lord may change his mind about a punishment
    –Jonah 3:10 the Lord did relent from the punishment
    –Jonah 4:2 God is one who repents from punishements
    –Zech. 8:14 the Lord has not repented from a promised punishment

    As you can see, most of the time, when the Lord repents of something, it is by not inflicting a punishment He has promised. But sometimes, He actually regrets something He has done.

    This is why “NHM” is a major argument in favor of open theism. I wouldn’t go that far myself, but I can understand why some would.

    As for the matter at hand, I agree with your assessment about the cultural context of the passage. The Israelites were in a ‘kill or be killed’ situation; the Amalekites would likely have done the same to them were the situation reversed. And the failure to eradicate the Amalekites would eventually lead to the crisis in Esther, because Haman was a descendant of the Amalekites. Not that this is particularly comforting to the present reader. But on the other hand, neither is God’s regret at creating the world in Gen. 6.

    All this to say, I enjoyed the article, and it speaks well of their father that your kids are starting to ask these questions.

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    1. Your comments are the absolute BEST!!! I’m totally digging into all those verses and doing an analysis of when God regrets. You rock. Thanks E!

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  2. Good thoughts. I found this book to be helpful in wrestling through these questions:
    Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide

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