What are we to do with texts like 1 Samuel 15:3: Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys. How are we to understand them?
A few things seem clear. The first is that whether we are comfortable with such passages or not, they are part of the biblical witness. It is a failed strategy to pretend they don’t exist or even worse, to treat them as though they present an outdated, sub-Christian view of God. Domesticating God to fit in with our current sensibilities is a bad idea at best and idolatry at worst. It is we who are made in His image rather than He in ours. We can’t pick and choose our way through the living word of God. We must own all of it—including parts like this one.
The fact that such passages evoke strong responses from us is as it should be. We’re supposed to scratch our heads and search our hearts in wonderment over the actions of God. It wouldn’t be healthy if we simply read it and moved on. That being said, where do we begin in our attempt to understand a text like this?
The necessity of context
As with any passage of Scripture, we need to contextualize it before we can have a reasonable expectation of gaining perspective. As Satan showed, a passage taken out of context can be made to mean anything (Psalm 91:9-12/Matthew 4:5-7). The increasingly frequent objection we hear to any unpopular teaching of Scripture is that the Bible also talks about stoning people, having slaves, etc., and since no one does those things today, we can ignore any other part we don’t like. This is the equivalent of arguing that laws today forbidding theft don’t have to be obeyed because they were originally part of legislation that included laws concerning horse and buggys, outhouses, and children being dismissed from school to help with the harvest. Anyone taking context into consideration would be embarrassed by such an idea.
Establishing context is especially important when working with sections of the Bible we find disturbing. Dealing with the alarming in the abstract often leads to overreaction. For example, if we were asked if it is wrong to cause someone pain by shocking them with electricity, we would be tempted to respond immediately with an unqualified “Yes!” But if we did it would eliminate the life-saving procedure of defibrillation as well as the use of a taser by law enforcement (which can also save lives). Context gives us the ability to judge when it is a good thing and when it is not.
This is where our biblical illiteracy can bite us. Someone presents us with an isolated verse and wants to know what’s going on. If we’re unfamiliar with the context, we are left to deal with it as an abstraction. Pretty soon, we’re slipping and sliding all over the place because we have no narrative to provide us with traction. Context is critical!