Response to William Lane Craig’s Question 225: “The ‘Slaughter’ of the Canaanites Re-visited” Part II

Samuel rebukes SaulIn my last post “Response to William Lane Craig’s Question 225: “The ‘Slaughter’ of the Canaanites Re-visited” Part I” I discussed William Lane Craig’s position on the Canaanite Conquest account (in light of the fact that Craig referred to my argument in his question of the week: “Question 225: The “Slaughter” of the Canaanites Re-visited”). I clarified the delineations as to where he agrees and disagrees with the position I presented at the Evangelical Philosophical Society’s session at the Society for Biblical Literature Meeting in Atlanta last year and I established that the point of divergence in our agreement rests on 1 Samuel 15.

In my Atlanta paper I argued that Nicholas Wolterstorff’s reading of the Canaanite conquest accounts in Joshua can also be applied to the account of Saul exterminating the Amalekites in 1 Sam 15.

First, the so-called ‘genocide accounts’ in 1 Sam 15 are part of a broader context that includes the rest of Samuel and also other canonical books, such as 2 Samuel and the book of Chronicles. When one reads the whole sequence, one observes that while 1 Samuel 15 describes Saul, at God’s command, exterminating the Amalekites, later passages in Samuel and Chronicles proceed on the assumption this never literally happened.

The key passage is God’s command to Samuel, “strike [nakah] Amalek [the Amalekites] and utterly destroy [haram] all that he has, and do not spare [hamal] him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”[1] The text goes on to explicitly state that the Amalekites were all wiped out:

“So Saul defeated [nakah] the Amalekites, from Havilah as you go to Shur, which is east of Egypt. He captured Agag the king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed [haram] all the people with the edge of the sword. But Saul and the people spared [hamal] Agag and the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs, and all that was good, and were not willing to destroy them utterly; but everything despised and worthless, that they utterly destroyed.” [2]

A few verses later (15:33) the text records that Agag, the sole survivor, was executed. So, read literally, this passage states that all the Amalekites were killed and all their livestock were either destroyed or taken as plunder to be sacrificed to God at Gilgal.[3]

Now the language of “defeated” (or struck), “utterly destroyed”, the reference to “sparing” and to livestock parallels the language of the command in 15:3. Given this, it seems implausible that we should interpret the command in verse 3 as literal but the fulfilment, just 4 verses later, as hyperbolic; the text requires that the command and fulfilment be read in the same sense.

That said, when one reads this passage as part of as a single narrative a literal reading appears untenable; the proceeding text states quite emphatically that the Amalekites were not, in fact, literally wiped out. In 1 Samuel 27:8-9 David invaded a territory full of Amalekites:

“Now David and his men went up and raided the Geshurites, the Girzites and the Amalekites. (From ancient times these peoples had lived in the land extending to Shur and Egypt.) Whenever David attacked an area, he did not leave a man or woman alive, but took sheep and cattle, donkeys and camels, and clothes. Then he returned to Achish.”

Not only does this text affirm that the Amalekites still existed but the reference to Egypt and Shur states that they existed in the very same area that Saul ‘utterly destroyed every single one of them’ in in the previous passages. Moreover, David took sheep and cattle as plunder; again, livestock was another of the things Saul was said to have already eradicated.

After the text has told us that Saul “utterly destroyed all the people”, including King Agag, and despite the text telling us that when David attacked an area (the very same areas as Saul) he did “not leave a man or woman alive”, three chapters later we read that a sizeable Amalekite army attacked Ziklag![4] David apparently pursued this army and fought a long battle with them and 400 Amalekites fled on horseback!![5] Where are all these Amalekites coming from?

These are not the only examples. In 2 Samuel 1:8 an Amalekite took credit for killing Saul –but didn’t Saul “utterly destroy all the people”? In 1 Chronicles 4:43 Amalekites were still around in battle-ready numbers during the reign of Hezekiah who reigned after Saul and David.

Read literally, the narrative affirms both that the Amalekites were and were not totally wiped out. This apparent contradiction in the Samuel narrative is not subtle. Those who put these books into a single narrative would have been well aware of the obvious contradictions mentioned above. These editors were not mindless or stupid. If we read 1 Samuel 15 in the broader context of the rest of Samuel and also alongside other canonical books, such as 2 Samuel and the book of Chronicles then the text cannot be sensibly claiming that 1 Samuel 15, 1 Samuel 27, 1 Samuel 30 and 1 Chronicles 4 are all literally true accounts of battles with the Amalekites.

Further, while David’s battle texts appear to be relatively matter of fact records, 1 Samuel 15 appears to be highly hyperbolic and contains obvious rhetorical exaggeration. Saul’s army was said to be 210,000 men, which would make it larger than any army known at this time in antiquity. Moreover, we are told that Saul struck the Amalekites from Havila to Shur. Shur is on the edge of Egypt, Havila is in Saudi Arabia. This is an absurdly large battle field. “It’s impossible to imagine the battle actually traversed the enormous distance from Arabia almost to Egypt”[6] Daniel Fouts notes that exaggerated numbers are common forms of hyperbole in Ancient Near Eastern battle accounts.[7]

1 Samuel 15’s use of the language of “utterly destroying” [haram] populations “with the sword”, is the same phraseology as that is repeatedly used hyperbolically in Joshua. This language also appears to have been used hyperbolically in 1 Chronicles 4. 1 Chronicles 4:41 states “they attacked” [nakah] and “destroyed them utterly” [haram] but only a few verses later we read that the survivors fled to Amalek where they were later all “destroyed” [nakah] a second time.[8] Likewise, the language of killing all inhabitants with the sword is also used hyperbolically in Judges, “after Judah puts Jerusalem to the sword … its occupants are still living there ‘to this day’ (Judg. 1:8, 21)”[9] Similar language is used hyperbolically in the prophetic writings; Paul Copan argues,

“[T]he biblical language of the Canaanites’ destruction is identical to that of Judah’s destruction in the Babylonian exile—clearly not utter annihilation or even genocide… God said he would “lay waste the towns of Judah so no one can live there” (Jer. 9:11 NIV).  Indeed, God said, “I will completely destroy them and make them an object of horror and scorn, and an everlasting ruin” (Jer. 25:9 NIV).  God “threatened to stretch out My hand against you and destroy you” (Jer. 15:6; cp. Ezek. 5:16)—to bring “disaster” against Judah (Jer. 6:19).  The biblical text, supported by archaeological discovery, suggests that while Judah’s political and religious structures were ruined and that Judahites died in the conflict, the “urban elite” were deported to Babylon while many “poor of the land” remained behind. Clearly, Judah’s being “completely destroyed” and made an “everlasting ruin” (Jer. 25:9) was a significant literary exaggeration.”[10]

Compare for example the language of God’s command to “not spare” the Amalekites, to “put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” with the account of Judah’s defeat to the Babylonians in 2 Chronicles 36:16-17:

“But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy. He brought up against them the king of the Babylonians, who killed their young men with the sword in the sanctuary, and did not spare young men or young women, the elderly or the infirm. God gave them all into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar.”

This was written to a post-exilic audience who knew full well that not every one of them had been killed. They, as the descendents of the survivors, knew that Judah had been exiled and was later restored under Cyrus; a fact pointed out only a few verses later.[11]

So we see in 1 Samuel that the author(s) juxtaposed several accounts. One tells us that Saul wiped out all the Amalekites at God’s command using obvious rhetorical exaggeration and language known to be hyperbolic and the other, presented in fairly realistic terms, tells us that the Amalekites continued to live in the land as a military threat. Assuming the author was an intelligent person, we are at least owed an argument as to why the literal reading should be preferred in this context.

Craig suggests an argument: “Samuel’s rebuke of Saul in I Sam. 15.10-16” suggests Saul is condemned by Samuel for not “following God’s instructions”. Now, as I noted above, the text tells us that Saul did carry out God’s instruction to kill all the Amalekites; it was livestock, not humans, which were initially spared. Saul is rebuked for taking sheep as spoil. Nevertheless, one could argue that in Samuel’s amplification of his rebuke of Saul he is rebuked for not taking the command literally; see the immediately proceeding verses:

“Samuel said, “Is it not true, though you were little in your own eyes, you were made the head of the tribes of Israel? And the LORD anointed you king over Israel, and the LORD sent you on a mission, and said, ‘Go and utterly destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are exterminated.’ Why then did you not obey the voice of the LORD, but rushed upon the spoil and did what was evil in the sight of the LORD?””[12]

Craig appears to be arguing against a hyperbolic reading of 1 Samuel on the grounds that such a reading appears to contradict part of the Samuel narrative; he seems to be suggesting that a literal reading coheres better with this part. I would argue that the crucial issue is whether the hyperbolic interpretation is more plausible than the literal one.

Even if Craig is correct about Samuel’s rebuke, it does not follow that a literal reading is more plausible than a hyperbolic one. As argued above, a literal reading creates incoherencies in the narrative; it puts the whole account of 1 Samuel 15 in contradiction with the rest of the 1 Samuel narrative – particularly 1 Samuel 27-30. It also puts the account in contradiction with the account of Saul’s death in 2 Samuel 1 and the narrative of 1 Chronicles 4.

It is hard to believe the author(s) of the final form was meticulously careful to avoid making a minor incoherence in 1 Samuel 15:17-19 and yet was oblivious to the multiple obvious contradictions I have highlighted above. Taking 1 Samuel 15 as a highly hyperbolic account reads as a much more coherent narrative.

It is far more plausible to think that the author was willing to allow some minor inconsistencies in one part of a narrative that is not supposed to be taken as literally true in its details anyway rather than that he intended a highly contradictory literal reading. I think the conclusion one should draw is that the Holy War narratives appear to be highly hyperbolic accounts of victory that the author, elsewhere in the text, quite candidly affirms are not literally true accounts.


[1] 1 Samuel 15:3 NASB.
[2] 1 Samuel 15:7-9 NASB.
[3] “But I did obey the LORD, Saul said. I went on the mission the LORD assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the LORD your God at Gilgal.” 1 Samuel 15:20-21.
[4] 1 Sam 30:1.
[5] 1 Sam 30:7-17.
[6] Ralph W Klein 1 Samuel Word Biblical Commentary 10 (Waco TX, Word: 1983) 150.
[7] Daniel M Fouts “A Defense of the Hyperbolic Interpretation of Numbers in the Old Testament” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40/3 (1997) 377-87.
[8] 1 Chronicles 4:43.
[9] John Goldingay “City and Nation” in Old Testament Theology Vol 3 (Downers Grove IL, InterVarsity: 2009) 570.
[10] Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan “The Ethics of ‘Holy War’ for Christian Morality and Theology” eds Jeremy Evans, Heath Thomas and Paul Copan Old Testament ‘Holy War’ and Christian Morality: Perspectives and Prospects (Downers Grove Ill, IVP Academic: 2011).
[11] 2 Chronicles 36:20-23.
[12] 1 Samuel 15:17-19.

RELATED POSTS:
Response to William Lane Craig’s Question 225: “The ‘Slaughter’ of the Canaanites Re-visited” Part I
God and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part I: Wolterstorff’s Argument for the Hagiographic Hyperbolic Interpretation
God and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part II: Ancient Near Eastern Conquest Accounts
God and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part III: Two Implications of the Hagiographic Hyperbolic Account
God, Morality and Abhorrent Commands: Part I Kant
God, Morality and Abhorrent Commands: Part II Robert Adams
God, Morality and Abhorrent Commands: Part III Philip Quinn
Commonsense Atheism and the Canaanite Massacre


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