©1987 The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York (M.638, F.24V.)

Saul smites the Amalekites. This double scene, from an illuminated manuscript probably painted in 13th-century Paris, depicts the battle, left, and its aftermath, right. In the battle, Saul gallops into the picture and, with his lance, wounds the Amalek king, Agag, while soldiers from both sides, distinguished by their helmets, fight in the background. In the aftermath, Saul rides out of the picture at the head of his victorious forces, driving three oxen and two sheep before him. Five of his men surround the captured and bound King Agag, right center. Three other prisoners, bound and tethered, lower right, are being led away.

Biblical passages of divinely ordered or approved slaughter, such as the Lord’s command to “utterly destroy” the Amalekites, men, women and children alike (1 Samuel 15:3), often perplex modern readers. How can such passages be reconciled with our conception of a moral and compassionate God? The author offers a solution.