Problem: God forbids and commands murder
Verses: Exodus 20:13, 1 Samuel 15:1-3; Status: Serious

The Sixth Commandment, found in Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17 is variously rendered as "You shall not murder" or "You shall not kill".

Yet there are various places in the Bible where God commands or seems to approve of murder. Not all killing is murder, of course, but in some cases it can be described as little else. Here's 1 Samuel 15:1-3:

And Samuel said to Saul, "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.'" (ESV)

Not only does this instruction to slaughter women and children seem to contradict the Sixth Commandment, it also seems totally repellent in its own right, and at odds with the idea of a benevolent God.

Not the word of God?

These words are actually spoken by Samuel. Is it possible to argue that they are not really coming from God? I do not think so. The blogger Free Northerner puts it well:

To argue that a prophet of the Lord when saying he is proclaiming the will of the Lord is not proclaiming the will of the Lord, ruins any ability to take anything from the Bible. If we cannot trust a God-anointed prophet of the Lord to be proclaiming the will of the Lord while saying he is proclaiming the will of the Lord, how can we trust the words of any of the other prophets or teachers?

Well, quite. Regardless of whether the book of Samuel has a divine or purely man-made origin, the author of the text certainly intends you to understand that those really were the words of God.

They deserved it?

A lot of apologists make much of the fact that the Amalekites were chronically at war with the Israelites for hundreds of years, quite probably inflicting similar horrors on them. But the children would clearly be blameless in that matter, and the women mostly so; and obviously nobody is responsible for events that occurred before their birth.

No other options?

The strongest inerrantist argument I'm aware of is roughly as follows:

  1. The Amalekites were a persistent problem and had to be dealt with
  2. Upon killing the males, it would be impossible (in those days) to care for the captive women and children...
  3. ...unless God himself intervened to miraculously solve that problem, but God doesn't do large-scale miracles very often
  4. And so killing them quickly was the most merciful course of action possible.

My problem is, an omnipotent, omniscient God always has other options. Instead of these murders, I suggest that an omnipotent, omniscient God could come up with subtle solutions to "the Amalekite problem" involving neither gross manifestations of divine power, nor evil atrocities - and being benevolent, he would prefer such a solution.

Wouldn't he?

Divine Command Theory?

Morality, it is often said, comes from God, and so whatever he commands is good, and what he prohibits is evil, and this is simply what the words mean. This is sometimes called the Divine Command Theory of morality. Problems for this view have existed since Plato.

A lot could be said about this, but (as I see it) the core problem is that the Divine Command Theory removes most of the meaning from the words good and evil. For example:

Such definitions of good and evil rob the terms of any moral force.

Killing children is saving them?

Under a certain view, children who die young automatically go to Heaven. In that case, the Israelites were not really harming them, all things considered. Indeed, they were saving them from the chance of Hell. I suppose one could hold this view, but it seems to prove too much... At birth, everyone has a strong chance of going to Hell (assuming it really exists) so killing a child is always good for that child, on this view. I would discourage you from thinking along these lines, to put it mildly.

Instead, I will continue to take the view that killing children is bad for the children. In any case, this doesn't deal with the killing of women in 1 Samuel, and I've even heard unconfirmed rumours that men are people too. The Amalekite men could hardly all be guilty of war crimes.

Updated: 2014-09-15

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Appendix: other verses

Other verses that involve the killing of innocents (apparently with God's approval) include Numbers 31:17-18, Deuteronomy 2:33-34, Joshua 6:21, Psalm 137:9, and many more. There are lists on the internet for those so inclined. In most cases God's approval is only implied (for example, Joshua 6:27 suggests God endorses the earlier massacre, and Psalm 137 is more of a prophecy than an actual event) but in 1 Samuel 15 the killings are explicitly ordered by God, making it the strongest example.