“[King Saul] took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and all his people he totally destroyed with the sword” (1 Samuel 15:8).
“Now David and his men went up and raided the Geshurites, the Girzites and the Amalekites …” (1 Samuel 27:8).
These verses in 1 Samuel are sometimes cited as showing a serious contradiction in the Old Testament. 1 Samuel 15 certainly gives a detailed description of how King Saul attacked the neighboring Amalekites, and the chapter reiterates several times that those people were “totally destroyed.” On the other hand, 1 Samuel 27 is just as clear that later on David attacked the (seemingly now non-existent) Amalekites.
The answer to this apparent contradiction is found in the nature of ancient Near Eastern literature itself. The historical annals and records of the kings of the Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians and other cultures of the ancient biblical world are full of examples of kings who “totally destroyed” their enemies, while other records show just as clearly that those enemies still existed much later. A good example may be found on page 27 of the book Peoples of the Sea by archaeologists Moshe and Trude Dothan who cite an inscription of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses III:
“I slew the Denyon in their islands, while the Tjekker and Philistines were made ashes. The Sherden and the Washesh of the sea were made non-existent, captured all together and brought in captivity to Egypt like the sands of the shore.”
The expression “made non-existent” used by Ramesses in this boast is clearly hyperbole. It is an exaggeration for effect no different from the way that we might say today that our favorite sports team “annihilated” or “totally destroyed” the opposing team. This Ramesses III text is also illuminating in that it shows within the text itself that “made non-existent” is a figure of speech, because it is immediately followed by the statement that a great many of these people were captured and brought back to Egypt as captives!
So, it should not surprise us at all that the descriptions of battles found in the Bible often use exactly the kind of language and figurative expressions that were commonly used of victories and defeats by the peoples of the ancient world, and that we still use today of defeated sports teams – even when we know they will be playing again in another week!
* See also our article on “Was Genocide Commanded in the Bible?”