What should we think of God’s command to destroy an entire nation?

In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins says,

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

But is this true? Is God who Dawkins makes Him out to be? In order to understand where Dawkins is coming from, we need to look at what the Bible says. One of the events to which he might be referring is God’s command to destroy the Amalekites.

Destroy the Amalekites

The nation of Israel first encountered the Amalekites when they were wandering around in the desert. They were at a place called Rephidim and the Amalekites attacked them. This was the battle where God had Moses hold his hands up. When his hands were up, the Israelites would prevail, but when they went down, the Amalekites would prevail. Ultimately, with the help of Aaron and Hur holding up his hands, the Amalekites were defeated (Ex 17:8-13).

After the battle was over, God promised that one day He would destroy the Amalekites. In Exodus 17:14 God said to Moses,

““Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.”” (Ex 17:14)

By the time we get to 1 Samuel 15, God was ready to make good on that promise.

“…“The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’ ”” (1 Sa 15:1–3)

When we read this, we might think that is a bit extreme. Some, like Dawkins, may even go so far as to call God an unjust Tyrant for not only destroying the military, but the whole nation — women, children, and cattle. Every last thing was to be destroyed.

What should we think of God’s command to destroy the entire nation?

As we think through God’s command, we need to keep several things in mind.

(1) We don’t deserve God’s mercy.

You see, we are all sinners. Paul confirms this when he says in Romans 3:23,

“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Ro 3:23)

When we talk about sin, what we are actually talking about is us living in rebellion to God. Rebellion means that we reject God’s way of doing things for our own way of doing things.

All those who live in rebellion against God are sinners who deserve God’s punishment. Paul makes this clear in Romans 6:23 when he says…

“…the wages of sin is death…” (Ro 6:23)

In other words, the payment we deserve for our sin is eternal punishment.

What these verses tell us, then, is that we don’t deserve salvation. Instead, we deserve condemnation. But, and this is a very big beneficial but, because our God is merciful, He doesn’t always give us what we deserve. Instead, God gives us what we don’t deserve. He gives us salvation from sin, death, and ultimately His punishment. Everyone who calls themselves a Christian has experienced God’s mercy and grace because we are all getting what we don’t deserve.

(2) God is a patient with us 

One of the reasons we experience God’s mercy is because He is patient with us. If God wanted, He could have destroyed us the moment we took our first breath. That’s because we are born sinners. No one is innocent. Honestly, God could destroy us the moment our life begins and still be just. God’s holy and His holiness requires Him to deal with sin. In destroying us, we would be dealing with our sin. Thankfully, God doesn’t destroy us the moment we are born, and He doesn’t because He’s patient.

God’s patience explains why those in Israel’s day were allowed to live. While God was determined to destroy the Amalekites and the other nations Israel encountered in the land of Canaan — the Promised Land — he didn’t destroy them right away. For hundreds of years, He allowed them to chase after other gods, commit injustices, and live by their own wisdom. It wasn’t until the cup of God’s wrath was full that He used Israel as His instrument to destroy them.

(3) God uses others to execute His punishment

That’s what we see in 1 Samuel 15. God uses Israel as His instrument to not only punish the Amalekites, but also the Canaanites, and all the other nations in the Promised Land who deserved His wrath.

The Patient Daming of God’s Wrath

John MacArthur, in his sermon The Wrath of God, uses an illustration from Barnhouse to explain God’s patience, His wrath, and ultimately His offer of salvation in Christ. He says,

In His eternal foreknowledge, God the Father foresaw all of the sin that would be committed after the time of Christ, your sin and my sin, and He stored His wrath against it behind the dam of His patience.  And the wrath of God against sin that even today has not yet been committed is also stored up waiting for the day when His patience shall burst into its holy end.  “For thousands of years, that dam has held and God has held back His wrath.  Occasionally throughout human history He stooped to dip His hand into the pent up flood and pour a few drops of wrath on some especially vicious outbreak of rebellion.  But for the most part, God seemed to overlook the sins of man in the centuries before the cross.  It looked maybe as if sin was tolerated, but it was just piling up.”

You know, the dam broke one day, and it broke at Calvary.  And it broke on Christ and drowned Him in all the sea of sin.  And it will break again, and it will drown all those men who are not in Christ.  Christ took the judgment for those who believe.  For those who do not believe, they will take their own judgment.  And the wrath of God awaits them.  Because they hold the truth, no matter what they claim, but they hold it, and suppress it because of their sin.

So we see that God isn’t an unjust Tyrant. Instead, He’s a patient, merciful, and gracious God, who eventually gives us what we deserve, if we don’t repent and turn to Christ.

Question for Reflection

  1. Do you believe God is an unjust Tyrant or a patient and merciful heavenly Father who gives us what we don’t deserve?

Resources

Post adapted from my sermon Portraits of Israel – Saul

Image