In the readings for Daily Mass this week we are reading from 1 Samuel 15 where Saul comes into disfavor with Samuel and God for refusing to fully obey the “Ban” imposed on the Amalekites by God through Samuel. What was the “Ban?” Most fundamentally it was an command that in taking a city or a nation that the Israelites were to destroy every man, woman and child and animal. No one was to be spared. Further, any wealth was to be given to the sacred treasury.
The Ban is one of the most disturbing aspects of the Old Testament, made even more disturbing by the fact that it is freqently God himself who seems to command it.
The practice is first seen in the Book of Deuteronomy where the Ban is commanded in certain places. As Moses and the Israelites journeyed through the Desert and came near the Promised Land they mercilessly destroyed many kingdoms. Sihon King the Amorites and all his cities and subjects were utterly destroyed and no one left alive. Next as Israel went out against Og the King of Bashan God said to Moses: “Do to him what you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon” (Deut. 3:2) Systematically the troops of Israel destroyed every city in Bashan and killed every man woman and child.
And Moses left this command for Israel as they entered the Promised Land:
When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you- and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy (Deut 7:1-3).
Hence as Joshua led the people into the Promised Land they implemented the Ban beginning with Jericho:
Joshua commanded the people, “Shout! For the LORD has given you the city! The city and all that is in it are to be devoted to the LORD. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall be spared, because she hid the spies we sent. But keep away from the devoted things, so that you will not bring about your own destruction by taking any of them. Otherwise you will make the camp of Israel liable to destruction and bring trouble on it. All the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron are sacred to the LORD and must go into his treasury.” When the trumpets sounded, the people shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys. (Joshua 6: 16-20)
In the passage above it is not clear that God commanded the Ban, but later in Joshua 8 the Lord affirms what happened to Jericho and commands the same be inflicted on the city of Ai : Take the whole army with you, and go up and attack Ai. For I have delivered into your hands the king of Ai, his people, his city and his land. You shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho, except that you may carry off their plunder and livestock for yourselves. (Jos 8:1-2). Joshua 10 then goes on to describe a whole series of Canaanite Cities that are also put under the Ban. No one is left alive. Though here there is no explicit command of God to do so that is recorded, they are clearly following the plan that Moses had set forth.
Finally, in the readings for daily Mass we see the command given by God through Samuel that the Amalekites should be put under the Ban: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ “ (1 Sam 15:1-3) But Saul does not fully comply, keeping some of the cattle for himself and his men. God therefore rejects him as King for his failure to keep the Ban wholly. (1 Sam 15:23).
The “Ban” is troubling and many explanations have been advanced to try and place its horrible dimensions in some sort of acceptable framework. Here are a few explanations:
- God said no such thing – Some commentators hold that God did not really say any such thing to Israel. Rather they simply misrepresented God or put their evil practices into God’s mouth. The Catholic Study Bible says of God’s “command” to Saul: The slaughter of the innocent has never been in conformity with God’s will. The footnote goes on to suggest that Samuel misrepresents God (Footnote on 1 Sam 15:3). The problem with such an approach is that it opens up a door that many want to walk through. Namely, whenever there is something we are troubled by or don’t like we just say, “God never said that.” The list of things God never said could grow quite long if this door is opened. Further, if God never said this to Saul how do we explain God later rejecting Saul for disobeying God. How can we disobey something God never said? Too many problems seem to issue from this approach IMHO.
- They weren’t innocent – Some commentators agree that God would never say to kill the innocent and then argue that among these ancient peoples put under the ban there were no “innocent” people in these sinful city-states. Everyone participated in abominable sexual practices and strange idolatry to include even sacrificing their children to their gods. Well, OK even if we could argue that these ancient civilizations were thoroughly disreputable, it is hard to argue that little children and infants are not innocent. The position still does not answer why God ordered even infants killed.
- God has authority – Some prefer simply to insist that God is the Lord of life and can never be accused of injustice in taking life. He decides who lives, who dies and when. He has every right to command the end of civilizations. It is no different than you or I pulling out hedges to plant roses. God ends eras, brings nations and empires to an end as he wills and we are not free to question why. Pure and simple God has authority to do this and owes us no explanations as to why he chooses one nation or people over another. Like surgeon he amputates when all hope of healing is gone. OK, it’s pretty hard to argue against God’s authority. It’s a kind of a Job-like answer. God answers Job’s questions with a rather long soliloquy on Job’s incapacity to admonish God or understand his ways. In the end, it still seems unsatisfying for it does not address why God seems to act so contrary to other commands he gives Israel to respect the resident alien, and not to murder (eg Ex 23:7; Ex 20:13).
- Emphasize the reason – God gave the reason for the Ban in Deuteronomy 7:4: for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. Hence God commands this to keep the people pure. OK, but can the end of purity justify the means of genocide?
In the end, it would all we can say about these passages is that they exist and put a kind of a tall fence around them. I personally think God did in fact order the Ban for the reason stated in the objection to Number 1 above. Of all the approaches above I suppose the argument from authority carries most weight with me. But the command was only for a brief time in a very particular circumstance for a very particular reason. Sometimes the best we can do with Scripture is to accept the history it records. Scripture is a collection of books that ultimately build upon each other and progress toward a better goal. In an early and brutal time God commanded tough solutions. Once his Law established deeper roots in a brutal world God could insist that indiscriminate killing was no longer to be permitted. Later books and surely the New Testament would never support such a “solution” as the Ban.
We must be careful here. because to say that Scripture builds and progresses toward a more enlightened moral understanding does not mean we can indiscriminately reject every moral insight of the Old Testament. Much of the early legislation such as the Ten Commandments carries forward and is affirmed by later texts. Some OT moral requirements however are explicitly abrogated (such as when Jesus rendered all foods clean). Others simply disappear from sight and are never reaffirmed by later texts or the New Testament. Such is the case with the horrifying Ban and it is well that we leave it in the distant past. Beyond this we cannot say much more. The Ban is a fact recorded in early Scripture and we have to be sophisticated enough in our understanding of Scripture to simply accept that fact. But the same sophistication demands we properly understand the development of Doctrine which God himself directs in the pages of the same Scripture.
As always, I’m interested in your thoughts and additions to this article