“Thus saith the Lord of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass." 1 Samuel 15:2-3
God ordered similar things when the Israelites were invading the promised land (Deuteronomy 2:34; 3:6; 20:16-18).
This is a difficult issue. We do not fully understand why God would command such a thing, but we trust God that He is just – and we recognize that we are incapable of fully understanding a sovereign, infinite, and eternal God. As we look at difficult issues such as this one, we must remember that God’s ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9; Romans 11:33-36). We have to be willing to trust God and have faith in Him even when we do not understand His ways.
Unlike us, God knows the future. God knew what the results would be if Israel did not completely eradicate the Amalekites. If Israel did not carry out God’s orders, the Amalekites would come back to trouble the Israelites in the future. Saul claimed to have killed everyone but the Amalekite king Agag (1 Samuel 15:20). Saul was lying—just a couple of decades later, there were enough Amalekites to take David and his men’s families captive (1 Samuel 30:1-2). After David and his men attacked the Amalekites and rescued their families, 400 Amalekites escaped. If Saul had fulfilled what God had commanded him, this never would have occurred. Several hundred years later, a descendant of Agag, Haman, tried to have the entire Jewish people exterminated (see the book of Esther). So, Saul’s incomplete obedience almost resulted in Israel’s destruction. God knew this would occur, so He ordered the extermination of the Amalekites ahead of time.
In regard to the Canaanites, God commanded.. “But of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee: That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the Lord your God.” Deuteronomy 20:16-18
The Israelites failed in this mission as well, and exactly what God said would happen occurred (Judges 2:1-3; 1 Kings 11:5; 14:24; 2 Kings 16:3-4). God did not order the extermination of these people to be cruel, but to prevent even greater evil from occurring in the future.
“Yet the children of Manasseh could not drive out the inhabitants of those cities; but the Canaanites would dwell in that land. Yet it came to pass, when the children of Israel were waxen strong, that they put the Canaanites to tribute, but did not utterly drive them out.”Joshua 17:12–13
Why didn’t the Israelites completely destroy the Canaanites as God had commanded? Judges 1:27–33 also describes the failure of the Israelites to complete the conquest of the land through removing the Canaanites. “Neither did Manasseh drive out the inhabitants of Bethshean and her towns, nor Taanach and her towns, nor the inhabitants of Dor and her towns, nor the inhabitants of Ibleam and her towns, nor the inhabitants of Megiddo and her towns: but the Canaanites would dwell in that land. And it came to pass, when Israel was strong, that they put the Canaanites to tribute, and did not utterly drive them out.” Judges 1: 27–28
At the height of their power during this time, the Israelites made the Canaanites slaves rather than wiping them out. Perhaps the Israelites believed putting these people into forced labor was more beneficial than destroying them, though the text does not directly mention a reason. However, it is clear from Judges 2 that this decision was part of Israel’s disobedience that led to additional problems.
In Judges 2:1–3 the angel of the Lord delivers a message to Israel: “And an angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said, I made you to go up out of Egypt, and have brought you unto the land which I sware unto your fathers; and I said, I will never break my covenant with you. And ye shall make no league with the inhabitants of this land; ye shall throw down their altars: but ye have not obeyed my voice: why have ye done this? Wherefore I also said, I will not drive them out from before you; but they shall be as thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare unto you.”
These Canaanites would remain in the land and serve as enemies to the Israelites, a thorn in their side for years to come. The struggles recounted in the Book of Judges are the result of the incomplete obedience in the Book of Joshua.
The most difficult part of these commands from God is that God ordered the death of children and infants as well. We may not understand why God would order the death of children, but there are a few considerations that may apply to this edict (1) Children are not innocent (Psalm 51:5; 58:3). (2) These children would have grown up as adherents to the evil religions and practices of their parents. (3) These children would naturally have grown up resentful of the Israelites and later sought to avenge the “unjust” treatment of their parents, as was the case with the Amalekites.
God chose Israel as His people not because they were the most faithful but because of His love for them (Deuteronomy 7:7–8). God chose to fulfill His covenant with Abraham and his descendants, bringing the children of Israel into their land despite their many failures.
While it is easy to look back and note the weaknesses of the ancient Israelites, their example illustrates our need for God as well. Despite God’s many blessings, we fail Him, too. For this reason God sent His son. (John 3:16; Ephesians 2:8–9).