Coming across the unprovoked war the Israelites had with Amalek, the Torah relates: “And the Lord said to Moses: ‘write this as a memorial in The Book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven” (Exo. 17:14). Later on in history, we see this divine oath come to fruition. God instructs Saul to “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” (1 Samuel 15:3).
Imagine the moral dilemma anyone with a soul would face: how can I possibly smite women, children, nay, even infants; ones that are totally innocent of any wrongdoing? Could God really expect me to kill the innocent? Some make the claim that these women and children will breed future enemies. This cannot be the case, as God never places his oath to destroy the *seed* of Amalek, but rather the *memory* of Amalek. In other words, those that carry the ruthlessness, brutality, and heartlessness of Amalek are subject to this oath of destruction. It is not a specific race that is deemed evil by God, but rather, anyone who resembles the archetype of Amalek. This view is correctly stated first by the revered Turkish sage, R. Isaac Abulafia (1824-1910), in his work, Pene Yitzḥaq. This is unlike the view of Maimonides, who clearly states that “we are commanded to wipe out from among all the descendants of Esav- the descendants of Amalek- male and female, young and old. The source of this commandment is the statement of the Holy One, blessed be He: “wipe out the memory of Amalek.”
The verse (ibid v. 8) says Saul killed the entire Amalekite “nation” (‘am in Hebrew), with the exception of the King and his spoils. This is unlike the instruction from God to kill the kids and women (ibid v. 2). Why one might erroneously assume that Saul, the Anointed One of YHWH, would disobey his instruction, is due to the ambiguity of one term. In biblical Hebrew, the word “‘am” refers specifically to *adult men*. Consider Genesis 14:16, which reports how Abraham and his men recovered captives taken in war: “He also brought back his kinsman Lot and his possessions, and the women and the ‘am.” Whatever is meant here by “‘am”, it certainly does not include women! Later, we read of Pharaoh setting off to overtake the escaping Israelites: “he ordered his chariot and took his ‘am with him.” (Exo. 14:6).
Now, Pharaoh presumably did not muster Egypt’s women and children to battle; therefore, the word “‘am” most likely refers to his picked chariots, along with the officers in all of them mentioned in the next verse. As soon as one starts looking for such instances, it becomes clear that Scripture is full of verses in which the word ‘am refers to a military force. in line with this analysis, the JPS version consistently translates ‘am as “troops” (i.e., Saul’s troops). in fact, Saul is blamed only for submitting to the will of his troops who kept the spoils of King Aggag: “and what is this sound of sheep in my ears, and the sound of cattle that i hear?” (1 Samuel 15:8). Appropriately, Samuel chides him further by saying: ‘You may look small to yourself, but you are the head of the tribes of Israel’ (Ibid v. 17).
When God orders a king to commit genocide, He evidently respects the monarch’s prerogative to refuse. God thus has no complaint about Saul’s unwillingness to kill women and children. This perhaps demonstrates a sensitivity to the moral predicament of a human being who is asked to play God. What God will not condone is a weak King who simply yields to his troops’ desire. Perhaps it is from this incident that Niccolò Machiavelli (1469 -1527) deviates from his normal trend of advice for the new Prince of a people. Machiavelli normally advises his rulers to live with moral corruption, and to occasionally exercise brute force, that is, the ‘might is right’ principle, even executing entire noble families at times, lest they challenge the Prince’s authority. However, he advises a more lenient approach for the new Prince, in order to stabilize his nation and political stature. I guess we all learn from the mistakes of other, one way or another.