In 1 Samuel 15:2-3, it says:
"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. 3 Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy[a] all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”
As a Catholic I have no issues with this verse, and I respect the just judgements of God.
However, I am trying to come up with an explanation of this verse that I could give to Atheist friends.
Some Atheists look at a verse like this and come out with statements like “God commanded genocide there”,or “Why would God command the killing of innocent children?”
I think it is very helpful to interpret the Bible with the mind of the Church and by comparing other passages that help enlighten us about the meaning of more difficult passages.
These verses, for example, show that God does not like violence: Eze. 33:11, 2 Pet. 3:9, Eze. 18:23, Lam. 3:33, Eze. 18:32, Wis. 1:13, Matt. 18:14
These verses tell us some of the things that God wants to teach us through the violent passages of the Bible: 1 Corinthians 10:5-11, Deuteronomy 9:4, Jeremiah 18:7-8, Leviticus 18:25-28
These verses show that it is not immoral for God to take someone’s life: Job 1:21, 1 Samuel 2:6, 2 Kings 5:7, Deuteronomy 32:39
And these verses show that the violence of the Old Testament doesn’t perfectly reflect the will of God: John 8:2-11, Jeremiah 31:28-33, Isaiah 9:5-6, Isaiah 42:1-4
One thing we can conclude from all this Scripture is that the penalties and wars in the Bible are there to teach us the consequences of sin. I don’t think the Bible wants us to see violence and death as a good thing. I think it wants us to see violence and death as a terrible consequence of sin, and sometimes God makes this clear by inflicting a swift and/or violent death on sinners. Which is something only God can morally do, because only He has absolute rights over life and death.
The Church has occasionally spoken about the violent passages of Scripture in authoritative documents. An example is the document Verbum Domini by Pope Benedict XVI. It says:
Verbum Domini 42 - “[Some] passages in the Bible [contain] violence and immorality [and can] prove obscure and difficult. Here it must be remembered first and foremost that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them.”
Verbum Domini 42 - “Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things. This can be explained by the historical context, yet it can cause the modern reader to be taken aback.”
Verbum Domini 42 - “[It] would be a mistake to neglect those passages of Scripture that strike us as problematic. Rather, we should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective which has [the Gospel] as its ultimate hermeneutical key.”
See also the Catechism:
CCC 1964 - “under the…Old Covenant [there were] people who possessed the charity and grace of the Holy Spirit…[and] there exist [wicked] men under the New Covenant [who are] still distanced from the perfection of the New Law: the fear of punishment and certain temporal promises have been necessary, even under the New Covenant, to incite them to [virtue].”
CCC 1008 - “Death is a consequence of sin. The Church’s Magisterium, as authentic interpreter of the affirmations of Scripture and Tradition, teaches that death entered the world on account of man’s sin. … Death was therefore contrary to the plans of God the Creator and entered the world as a consequence of sin.”
William Lane Craig, a renowned Christian apologist, has an excellent explanation that he gave in a debate. You can listen to his answer here (don’t worry, it’s not the whole debate, just about the Amalekites**) **
Remember, when speaking to atheists, some–not all–do not want to believe and will use passages such as this to justify themselves. They cannot be convinced because they do not want to be convinced.
Now, God is Just, Justice itself. He cannot do anything unjust. Therefore, what truth is He trying to convey to us? First, research the Amalekites. Then I think we understand that what God is doing is: He is giving this to us as a warning? St. Paul tells us that what happened to Israel in the desert is a warning to us to not do likewise. This is true here also: If we do the acts of the Amalekites, we will be destroying ourselves. God is Love; He desires that no man should perish. However, if any person should place himself outside of God, he must perish because there is no life outside of God. Justice must prevail, or there is no God. Justice is love; injustice is hatred. This is why we desire with all our hearts not to sin and to be cleansed when we do. If we love sin, we do not love God. Not only would we perish as individuals but all who do likewise would also perish; they would be our “relatives.”