Infant murder in I Sam 15

From: John or Carol Burgeson (
Date: Tue Dec 17 2002 - 11:40:15 EST

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    My comments on the problematic passages in I Sam 15 have generated more
    off line notes. Two of these I will address here.

    I was asked how I "knew" that the destruction of the Amalekites (actually
    the murder of the Amalekite infants) was not the best solution, the least
    of several actions/inactions that God might have commanded the Israelites
    to do?

    First of all, in the sense of Daniel Taylor's book THE MYTH OF CERTAINTY,
    I don't "know" this. That is indeed a possibility.

    Second, what I cannot see is any scenario in the case of I Sam that would
    suggest the murder of infants is the better of two or more bad
    situations. Perhaps there is such a scenario. Perhaps someone here can
    suggest one.

    Another correspondent told me that the passage was clear -- the "cup of
    the Amalekites" was full. Something like that anyway.

    Verse 2 says that the murders were commanded by God because the ancestors
    of the Amalekite tribe to be destroyed had given the ancestors of the
    Israelites a bad time during the exodus from Egypt, many hundreds of
    years previously. OK, those Amalekites had continued to be at war with
    Israel since then too, as previous text in I Sam indicate. I will take it
    as given that they were, as a tribe (there were other Amalekite tribes)
    probably deserving of destruction.

    But this does not say that every individual person in the Amalekite
    community was a "bad guy." In particular, it is difficult to ascribe that
    characteristic to -- say -- the unborn fetuses of the pregnant Amalekite
    women, even if one does ascribe "original sin" to a baby just delivered.
    Both were slaughtered.

    Two rather far out solutions suggest themselves. I don't like either one,
    but both seem to be possibilities.

    1. The Amalekites were not humans, in the sense of "imago dei," but were
    of the same nature as animals.
    2. The Amalekites were a communal being, not individual persons. The
    tribe was the actual sentient organism and individual Amalekites were
    parts -- as a person's finger is part of that person. Some of the data
    presented in Julian Jaynes' book THE ORIGINS OF CONSCIOUSNESS... might be
    used to defend this particular view.

    With either of these, the killing of Amalekite infants would not be
    murder, and so the moral dilemma avoided.

    Two correspondents express the view that God is God and (1) can do what
    He wants and (2) has reasons and thoughts so far above ours that we ought
    not question the text but take it as factual.

    I agree with both those assertions, but I do not see that the conclusion
    necessarily follows. The issue is NOT whether God can do -- whatever --
    that is agreed upon. The issue is whether (or not) in this particular
    case God did command the murder of innocents. Those who insist that He
    did so may, indeed, be correct. But that position suggests an attribute
    of God which makes loving Him difficult. It also suggests that the
    killing of innocents in our day (nuke all IRAQ?) may be justified.

    I don't have a solution to I Sam yet that satisfies me. And maybe I never
    will. The one which to me makes most sense -- and there are problems with
    it, too, is to interpret the text as a historian. "God" is never a
    participant in I Sam 15 until the last verse. The writer reports that Sam
    claimed to be speaking for God -- he does not report that God spoke to
    Sam (in this case). And so, Sam spoke what he thought God was saying to
    him, and was wrong.

    I always think, in such cases, of the conditional subjunctive. What would
    have happened if Saul had told Sam "No way am I going to kill babies!"
    Maybe the drama would have played out differently. Maybe God would not
    have repented that he had made Saul king (I Sam 35).


    John Burgeson
            (an eclectic web site about science/theology, quantum mechanics,
             ethics, baseball, humor, cars, philosophy, etc.)

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