During the Exodus, as the Israelites journeyed from Egypt into the Promised Land, they faced stern resistance from the Amalekites (Exodus 17:8-16; Deuteronomy 25:17-19), descendants of Esau (Genesis 36:12; I Chronicles 1:36). Years later, the prophet Samuel informs king Saul that God has decided to repay the Amalekites for their opposition during Israel’s march to independence (I Samuel 15:1-2). The punishment was harsh - the Amalekites were to be eradicated (I Samuel 15:3).
“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.’” (I Samuel 15:3 NASB)Saul summons his troops, ambushes the target and wins the battle (I Samuel 15:4-8). In the process, Saul also captures the opposing king, Agag (I Samuel 15:8). In war, as in chess, the capture of the king symbolizes victory. Saul makes Agag an exception to the rule. Instead of slaying the king as he had done to his army, Saul takes Agag alive (I Samuel 15:8).
But Saul and the people spared 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. (I Samuel 15:9 NASB)This aberration is striking. Robert D. Bergen (b. 1954) explains, “So significant was Saul’s action to the writer that he recounted it twice, using two different verbs to describe the same event; Saul both “took Agag king of the Amalakites alive” (I Samuel 15:8) and “spared Agag” (I Samuel 15:9) (Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel (New American Commentary: Vol. 7),169).”
There are two biblical kings named Agag (Numbers 24:7; I Samuel 15:8-33) , both Amalekites, and as such it has been posited that Agag was a dynastic name. Robert P. Gordon (b. 1945) writes, “Agag is a name, or title (cf. Pharaoh, Candace), occurring also in Numbers 24:7 and perhaps perpetuated in the adjectival ‘Agagite’ used to describe – perhaps vilify – Haman in the book of Esther (Esther 3:1, etc.). (Gordon, I & II Samuel: A Commentary (Library of Biblical Interpretation), 144).”
Hans Wilhelm Hertzberg (1895-1965) speculates:
The naming of the personification of anti-Semitism, Haman, in Esther 3:1 as Agagite shows clearly that Agag became almost the type of the enemy of Yahweh and his people. Saul’s subsequent action must therefore have been regarded all the more seriously at a later time. (Hertzberg, I and II Samuel: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 125)By this rationale, calling Haman an “Agagite” is tantamount to calling a tyrant a Hitler-ite in today’s world with Agag corresponding to Adolf Hitler (1889-1945).
An intentional verb-subject disagreement demonstrates that Saul alone was responsible for the decision to spare Agag. Robert Alter (b. 1935) deciphers:
The Hebrew says simply “Saul and the troops spared Agag,” but because a singular verb is used with the plural subject, it signals to the audience that Saul is the principal actor and the troops only accessories. (This highlighting of the first-mentioned agent through a singular verb for a plural subject is a general feature of biblical usage.) When confronted by Samuel, Saul will turn the responsibility for the action on its head. (Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel, 78)In short, Saul makes the call. His reasons are unknown. Some have theorized that Saul plans to make sport of the losing king as part of a victory celebration, as was often customary.
Others have seen Agag’s reprieve as an extension of the Israelites’ policy of destroying the weak and despised while keeping the best (I Samuel 15:9, 21). David Toshio Tsumura (b. 1944) writes:
Modern translations differ among each other in their understanding of the syntax of the phrase, literally, “the best of the sheep and the cattle and the fatlings and the lambs and all that was valuable.” The question is how far the scope of “best” extends. (Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 395)Whatever his rationale, the king’s disobedience leads to God regretting Saul’s appointment as king (I Samuel 15:10-11) and the prophet Samuel confronting Saul at Gilgal (I Samuel 15:12-23). The celebrating king clearly did not understand his failure (I Samuel 15:13, 20-21). Some have speculated that Saul’s transgression represents a misunderstanding of the scope of his orders.
Francesca Aran Murphy (b. 1960) explains:
“Utterly destroy” translates the Hebrew hrm. But did Saul know to interpret hrm as meaning destroy in the straight sense of annihilate then and there?...hrm could mean “something like ‘devote to a god by destruction.’”...Only the best meat could be used in sacrifice. King and people would not utterly destroy the best of the animals, because of this analysis their highest priority was to take the finest specimens to sacrifice to Yahweh. Gilgal was the place of sacrifice. Why go there, unless it was to sacrifice? (Murphy, 1 Samuel (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 139)When confronted, Saul repents but Samuel will not relent (I Samuel 15:24-31). Saul had been given the opportunity to demonstrate his covenant leadership by being obedient and he had failed.
Samuel then finishes Saul’s job, carving the defeated king into pieces (I Samuel 15:32-33). Noting that Agag had employed similar tactics, Samuel butchers the Amalekite.
Afterwards, the prophet and the king part ways. Saul returns to his house at Gibeah of Saul while Samuel goes to Ramah (I Samuel 15:34). The doomed king and the prophet would never again see one another on this earth.
Saul spared only the best livestock. Did he regard the opposing king as the human equivalent? Why did Saul spare only Agag? Why did God want to expunge the Amalekites?
Ultimately, in the biblical narrative, king Agag is only a pawn in the account of Saul’s rejection. In this story, the background is far more problematic than the foreground – Saul is commanded by God to commit genocide and is reprimanded for showing (albeit a small) mercy.
The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (1875-1963) writes of an encounter he had while on a journey with an acquaintance whom he knew to be a devout Jew. As people are prone to do with clergy types, the conversation made its way to problematic biblical texts and eventually the story of Agag’s demise (I Samuel 15:1-33).
I told him how already at that time it horrified me to read or to remember how the heathen king went to the prophet with the words on his lips, “Surely the bitterness of death is past,” and was hewn to pieces by him. I said to my partner: “I have never been able to believe that this is a message of God. I do not believe it.” With wrinkled forehead and contracted brows, the man sat opposite me and his glance flamed into my eyes. He remained silent, began to speak, and became silent again. “So?” he broke forth at last, “so? You do not believe it?” “No,” I answered, “I do not believe it.” “So? so?” he repeated almost threateningly. “You do not believe it?” And once again: “No.”Some have taken solace in the fact that, as Buber alludes, Saul’s orders are indirect. The story’s first verse reveals a chain of command in which God speaks to Samuel and Samuel to Saul (I Samuel 15:1). The genocidal orders are not spoken directly by God but instead God is only quoted by the prophet (I Samuel 15:1-3). It is certainly easier to believe Samuel, who cut his enemy to pieces at the text’s conclusion (I Samuel 15:32-33), a monster than God. While this theory works for the story’s first panel, in its second God is seen as complicit with the prophet (I Samuel 15:10-11) which moves the criticism from the prophet’s behavior to the text’s credibility.
“What. What”—he thrust the words before him one after the other—“What do you believe then?” “I believe,” without reflecting, “that Samuel has misunderstood God.” And he, again slowly, but more softly than before: “So? You believe that?” and I: “Yes.” Then we were both silent. But now something happened the like of which I have rarely seen before or since in this my long life. The angry countenance opposite me became transformed as if a hand had passed over it soothing it. It lightened, cleared, was now turned toward me bright and clear. “Well,” said the man with a positively gentle tender clarity, “I think so too.” And again we became silent, for a good while. (Buber, Meetings: Autobiographical Fragments, 52-53)
Does Samuel act with true divine authority or, as Buber suggests, does he confuse his own desires with God’s will? How do you handle/interpret the genocidal command of I Samuel 15:3? How do you differentiate between God’s voice and your own?
“The first point of wisdom is to discern that which is false; the second, to know that which is true.” - Lactantius (240-320), advisor to the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine I (272-337)