Reader Questions Answered

Return to homepage

Why was Saul told to kill even infants, who was saved before Jesus came, and what is the outcome of infant death (saved or not saved)?

1. Why was Saul told to kill the Amalekites, even the infants?
2. Can people who died before Jesusí death and resurrection be saved?
3. What happens to infants who die?

My boss and I have a two-part question. First, why was Saul told to kill even the infants? Was it just a test to see if Saul would do as told? Second, what is the outcome of infant death? If infants have no sin but original sin and no way to be cleansed of that sin except by either OT law/sacrifice or the subsequent NT Jesus, who was not available at the time, were the infant Amalekites doomed to hell, or did the infants have the opportunity to be ďsavedĒ?) (5/15/2009)

"Go and attack the Amalekites! Destroy them and all their possessions. Don't have any pity. Kill their men, women, children, and even their babies. Slaughter their cattle, sheep, camels, and donkeys." (1 Samuel 15:3, Contemporary English Version, courtesy of the American Bible Society)

Wow! Three of the very hardest questions about the Bible are (1) Why did God tell the Israelites to kill all of the XX-ites?; (2) Can people who died before Jesusí death and resurrection be saved?; and (3) What happens to infants who die? And here are all three of them in the same question, raised by a single verse.

Let me say this right up front: I donít know the answers to #2 and #3 for sure. Nobody knows for sure. Thatís why these are hard questions - if the Bible clearly said one way or the other, we would know the answer, and the question would be an easy question, not a hard question! Iíve said before, and I will say again now, that if the Bible is not clear on some point, that point is not important to Godís plan of salvation. We donít need to know. Curiosity is not the same as need to know. But Iíll try to answer the question.

The Bible does give the answer to question #1; we just donít like it very much. So we ignore the answer, pretend the Bible doesnít say, and define this as a hard question. It is actually the easiest question of the three; itís the answer thatís hard.

1. Why was Saul (or the Israelites) told to kill the Amalekites (or any other -ites), even the infants? Was it just a test to see if Saul would do as told?

I think we can discount the idea that this situation was set up in order to test Saul. True, Saul failed to do as he was told, and he was punished for it. But we have it on very good authority that God does not operate that way: ďLet no-one who is peirazo tempted say ĎI am peirazo tempted by God,í because God is untempted by badness, and he peirazo tempts no-oneĒ (James 1:13). Now, the word peirazo means test, assay, examine, or prove just as much as tempt. Most of your translations say ďtempt,Ē but thatís mostly because most English translations follow the King James Version when thereís no single best English word.

By the way, peirazo is the word the Septuagint uses in Genesis 22:1. There itís absolutely clear that Abraham is being tested, not tempted, and the KJV still uses tempted. God had no intention of letting Isaac die (Genesis 22:12), however, so the situation is not parallel to sending Saul out to slay the Amalekites.

So why? Why did God tell Joshua to kill the people of Canaan and Saul to kill the people of Amalek? I have been asked this question so many times over the years, and my students were clearly so dissatisfied with the answers I gave, that I finally spent several weeks writing a 6-page paper, full of references and scriptural citations. Iíll give you a shorter version here.

The answer is clear in the scripture:
Iím sorry to tell you this, but these were wicked people. They practiced the most loathsome religion that I have ever heard of outside of fiction novels, characterized by the sacrifice of children by burning them alive, male and female cult prostitution, mutilation, homosexuality and bestiality, and orgiastic worship services. These were their religious practices, folks! These practices are documented not only in the Bible but also in some cases in archeological records. Over and over again, God explains that these nations are being wiped out because they are wicked and because they will draw the Israelites into wickedness (e.g., Numbers 33:51-56, Deuteronomy 7:1-6, and Deuteronomy 9:3-5). Now, as a matter of fact, the Israelites did not kill them all and did adopt most of the Canaanite religious practices at one time or another, thus setting back Godís plan for the salvation of the universe by a couple thousand years.

Amalek and the Amalekites are mentioned 49 times in the Bible, although many of these mentions are either genealogical or are in connection with one of three battles, led by Moses (Exodus 17), Saul (1 Samuel 15), and David (1 Samuel 30). In none of verses are they said to be as wicked as the other pagan nations of Canaan. Nevertheless, if nations, like individuals, can be judged by the company they keep, the Amalekites probably werenít much better than the rest. Amalek was the grandson of Esau (Jacobís older brother) and Adah, one of Esauís Hittite wives (Genesis 36:2). They attacked the Israelites on at least six occasions, either by themselves or allied with Moab and Ammon (Judges 3), the Canaanites (Numbers 14), the Midianites (Judges 6-7), the Zidonians and Maonites (Judges 10). Amalek is also lumped with the Canaanite nations in 2 Samuel 8:12, 1 Chronicles 18:11 and Psalms 83:7.

We all know that God used various Canaanite tribes, the Philistines, the Assyrians, and the Babylonians, among others, to punish the Israelites for their sins. Not once did the Biblical writers complain that this was undeserved, even when very high percentages of the nationís people were killed in the process. Only we moderns get so full of angst about punishment that we would almost rather have corruption. The best insight I ever got into what was happening between the Israelites and the other nations comes from a fantasy book, in which the good guy has had to wreck death and destruction on the bad guys, and heís worried about the harmful repercussions of what he has done. His devout Catholic friend says to him:
God sometimes had to use the Israelites to punish other nations for their wickedness. For the Amalekites and the other Canaanites, the Israelites were whatís coming around.

2. Can people who died before Jesusí death and resurrection be saved?

As I said above, there doesnít seem to be any really clear scripture on this, so bear in mind that what you are getting is my opinion, along with the scripture that I rely on as the basis for my opinion.

I think the answer is ďYes, of course.Ē

Does anybody think Abraham hasnít been saved? Letís look at what Jesus said in a debate with the Sadducees (Matthew 22:31-32):
Now, Jesus and the Sadducees were arguing about resurrection, which the Sadducees did not believe in. So the main point Jesus was making in quoting Exodus 3:6 is that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are alive and not dead. However, think about what Jesus said in relation to our question today. Last time I checked, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all died well before the death and resurrection of Jesus, but Jesus himself says that they are alive and that God is their God. That sounds to me like the same salvation that I have. By extension, any descendant of Abraham who accepted God as his God must also have had the same salvation.

What about those who died before Abraham or who were not descendants of Abraham? The Bible also has a few things to say about them. Both the Old and New Testaments say that the Gentiles (i.e., non-Christian non-Jews) can look around and learn about God from nature (Contemporary English Version, courtesy of the American Bible Society):

It seems to me that the clear implication of these passages is that a pagan can look around and notice that the glory of God revealed in nature implies a single creator God, and the existence of God implies some sort of baseline morality thatís at least as good as that of nature. Typical birds or mammals usually refrain from burning their children alive, for example. If, after noticing this, the pagan decides to be at least as moral as a typical bird or mammal, then I think God is willing to work something out with that person.

I also think that this option is not available to any person who has been exposed to the Law of Moses or to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Such a person, having been given a much greater opportunity, is held to a higher standard. As a rule, most of the Canaanites - and certainly the Amalekites, who were distant relative of the Israelites - had some exposure to the Law of Moses. So their situation is a little problematical.

3. What happens to infants who die?

Those of us who have been reading together for a while may remember my previous tome on the subject of infants who die without having been baptized. I sent this along separately to the reader who asked todayís question; if anyone else wants it, let me know. The bottom line of that study is that the various Christian denominations do not agree about the fate of such infants, but the United Methodists and many Baptists, at least, believe that they go straight to Heaven. However, that study really only applied to the unbaptized infants of Christian parents, so it doesnít tell us what happened to the infant Amalekites.

I know of only three scriptures that reveal Godís attitude toward babies specifically. The first is in the book of Jonah and explicitly addresses pagan babies (Jewish Publication Society Bible, courtesy of the Jewish Publication Society):
The 120,000 persons who canít tell their right hand from their left hand are typically (although of course not universally) taken by scholars to be children. I accidentally discovered the other day that my youngest granddaughter, who will be 6 years old in 2 months and who is very bright and well-read, cannot yet tell her left hand from her right. The Hebrew word khoos means pity or spare and is translated pheisomai will spare in the Greek Old Testament. So we see that God has pity on or spares the entire pagan city of Nineveh because of the innocent pagan children - certainly all the ones younger than six - who live there, plus cattle.

The other two passages are Jesusí comments on children:
These three scriptures imply to me that little children are automatically citizens of heaven. So I think the Amalekite babies (certainly up to the age of six) were okay.

Copyright 2009, 2011 by Regina L. Hunter. All rights reserved. This page has been prepared for the web site by Deanna Rains.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

Our Sponsors:

St. John's United Methodist Church, "Transforming Lives Through Christ."
2626 Arizona NE, Albuquerque, New Mexico 87110

St. John's Music Ministries now has a YouTube channel, bringing you free concerts and choral music. Check it out!

Traditional worship services are held Sundays at 8:15 and 11:00 a.m. in the sanctuary.  Casual worship services are held Sundays at 9:30 a.m. in the Family Life Center.  Jazz Vespers are held monthly on the second Saturday at 5:00 p.m. in the sanctuary. St. John's feels especially called to the worship of God and to the service of our neighbors through our music program.

Storm Dragon SoftwareTM

Ducks in a Row, Inc.

This website is supported in part by the generosity of Mrs. J. Jordan.