Why the OT Genocide Commands Are Likely Hyperbole

1 Samuel 15:3: “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.’”

This command (and others like it) is jarring to read. It seems to authorize God’s people to slaughter non-combatants indiscriminately, even to the degree of committing genocide. I have written at length elsewhere about the Canaanite conquest in general (which you can read here), but here I want to limit myself more narrowly and offer a concise explanation of why the commands, like 1 Samuel 15:3, should be understood to by hyperbolic commands not to be interpreted literally:

In 1 Sam 15:7-8 we are told: “And Saul defeated the Amalekites from Havilah as far as Shur, which is east of Egypt. And he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive and devoted to destruction all the people with the edge of the sword.” So we are told that apart from the king Agag, Saul is successful in devoting to destruction “all the people”. 

But, interestingly, later in 1 Samuel we are told that there are Amalekites again! In 1 Samuel 30:1 we are told, “Now when David and his men came to Ziklag on the third day, the Amalekites had made a raid against the Negeb and against Ziklag. They had overcome Ziklag and burned it with fire,” (see also 1 Sam 27:8; 30:18; 2 Sam 1:1; 1 Chron 4:41-43; Esther 3:1; 8:3; 9:24). If Saul devoted all the Amalekites to destruction, then where did these Amalekites come from? Well, you could say, I guess Saul didn’t do what he was supposed to do then. But 1 Samuel 15 says the exact opposite. It says that he was successful, except for Agag (who is put to death by the end of the chapter). 

The same phenomenon happens repeatedly in the book of Joshua. For instance, in Joshua 10:36-37 we are told that Joshua kills “every person” in the city of Hebron so that there was “none remaining…and he devoted it to destruction and every person in it.” Yet, in Joshua 11:21, we are told that Joshua must again fight the inhabitants of Hebron and “devote them to destruction.” But, you know who we find again in Joshua 15:13-14? You guessed it, people from Hebron. There are many, many instances of this in Joshua. How are we to make sense of this?

You could say, Well, I guess that is just proof of how unreliable the Bible is. It obviously contradicts itself. But even if we, for the sake of argument, have the most skeptical of all possible perspectives in the Bible and deny it was divinely inspired and inerrant—then there still was an editor who collected these stories, wrote these stories, and wouldn’t they notice these discrepancies? Wouldn’t they iron them out? Sometimes, the discrepancies are in the very same verse (Josh 10:20). Even if they are making up the story wholesale, the editors/authors of this story didn’t think it was contradictory to say that a certain group or people were totally “devoted to destruction,” yet numerous people remained. How do we make sense of that?

We understand that what is being used here is hyperbolic, exaggerative language. If you read carefully, you notice the language itself bears a kind of poetic structure: notice the four word pairs that are used: “Man and woman (gender), child and infant (age), ox and sheep (livestock), camel and donkey (pack animal).” This is known as a merism, a figure of speech where two polar terms stand in place for the whole (come one, come all). These four merisms themselves together form a four-fold merism referring to all people and all animals. But, much like in English, the meaning of the merism isn’t a literal one, but figurative. If I tell you to search “high and low” for something, to look in every “nook and cranny,” you know that I mean something more than literal height and cracks. What do I mean? Look everywhere. So too, the poetic structure of the phrase itself should give us pause in thinking it is to be interpreted literally. Further, theologian Paul Copan explains: “The expression ‘men and women’ or similar phrases appear to be stereotypical for describing all the inhabitants of a town or region without predisposing the reader to assume anything further about their ages or even their genders…The use of “women” and “young and old” was merely stock ancient Near Eastern language that could be used even if women and young and old weren’t living there,” (Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? P. 175-76). 

And, when we compare other Ancient Near Eastern sources, we see that speaking in inflated, hyperbolic manners about the scope and severity of battle was the norm.Just to give one example, here is the Assyrian governor, Ninurta-kudurri-usur, relating his victory over the Arameans: 

I decisively defeated them. I annihilated them…I captured those who attempted to escape. I caused their blood to flow like waters of a river. The road with their corpses was visible to the eagles and vultures. I filled the mountains and wadis with their skulls like mountain stones. Birds made nests in their skulls. 

“Yet, just a few lines later, he admits that while he killed 1,846 of the enemy’s troops, 254 soldiers escaped. Thus, while he may have decisively defeated the enemy, his claim of having capture those who attempted to escape is hyperbolic,” (William Webb and Gordon Oeste, Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric?, p. 144).

If we are watching a basketball game together and I say, “That guy broke his ankles,” or, “They got slaughtered out there,” no one would assume that I literally thought the man’s ankles were broken or that a great massacre occurred. Our cultural transmission codes about victory in the sporting arena makes it clear that I am just speaking in a hyperbolic manner. So too, we need to be able to understand that the Bible’s conquest and war narratives can speak about enemies being “devoted to destruction” without it meaning that genocide is happening. 

Instead a careful reading of the text shows us that what is in mind is a decisive victory that leaves the enemy militarily crippled and thus rendered no longer a threat to God’s people. 

A couple of other arguments that incline us to assume that the typical war-hyperbole of Samuel’s day is being employed and that a limited military victory, not total genocide, is assumed:

  1. The troop size of Israel’s army. We are told that Saul summons 200,000 foot-soldiers from Israel and 10,000 from Judah (1 Sam 15:4). But just a few chapters ago, the entire army Saul is able to summon ranged from 600 up to 3,000 (1 Sam 13:2, 15). It is is possible that the reason for this is a confusion around the Hebrew term for “thousand.” The word (elep) can also be translated as “group” or “platoon”, as in, a military unity. So, perhaps it could be read as: 200 military groups from Israel and ten from Judah. Both translations are lexically possible. But, it could be that–like all other armies did in Israel’s time–the size of the army is being exaggerated and inflated.
  2. The geography of the battle. In 1 Samuel 15:7 we are told that Saul defeats the Amalekites “from Havilah as far as Shur, which is east of Egypt.” While the precise location of Havilah is unknown, many believe it to be found in Western Arabia (so Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 2, 537; Stoebe: Northeast Arabia). Therefore, “it is impossible to imagine that the battle actually traversed the enormous distance from Arabia almost to Egypt. But the narrator is given to hyperbole in this chapter,” (Ralph Klein, Word Biblical Commentary: 1 Samuel). Again, inflating not only military size, but geography was commonly employed in war-reporting in Ancient Near Eastern cultures.
  3. The city of Amalek. The Amalekites were a nomadic people who wandered in the desert. We have no historical record of them ever building a city. But the Hebrew word for “city” (ir) doesn’t necessarily always mean a city as we commonly understand it, but can also refer to a military encampments or garrisons. “The “city of Amalek” would have consisted of tents in which the nomads and their king camped within a fortified barrier,” (John MacKay, ESVEC: 1 Samuel). Thus, the “city of Amalek,” was likely a military–not civilian–encampment.
  4. The king of Amalek. The previous argument is strengthened by the presence of Agag, the king of the Amalekites (1 Sam 15:8). Kings were less of policy-makers and more of war generals. Israel’s initial desire for a king is that they may be like the other nations (1 Sam 8:5), but later when pressed they explain that their desire to have a king to be “like the other nations” means having a king that would “go out before us and fight our battles,” (1 Sam 8:20). Thus, if the king is present at the “city” of Amalek, this likely is a military gathering. In fact, Paul Copan argues that the word for “king” (melek), “was commonly used in Canaan during this time for a military leader who was responsible to a higher ruler off-site,” (Is God a Moral Monster? p. 176). Thus, Joshua Ryan Butler argues, “The picture is…attacking military strong-holds, knocking out generals, and putting their soldiers to flight; not invading cities, assassinating presidents, and slaughtering civilians,” (Skeletons in God’s Closet, p. 227).

Thus, a careful reading of the Biblical data inclines the reader to see that the “total-kill” commands given should likely be understood to by the typical hyperbole used to describe military victories in that culture, not necessarily genocide as we define it today.

**This article has been adapted and expanded from a point in this sermon 1 Samuel 15:1-3**

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