When I discuss the mass killings of the Tanakh, I normally rely upon Numbers 31 and the Midianites, because it introduces concepts that are difficult to explain.
I have, however, fallen into discussions surrounding the Amalekites of 1 Samuel 15:1-35. Thought I would plot out some ideas on the matter.
Biblical Description of Amalekites
(with some of my reflections in italics)
The first mention we have of the nation of the Amalekites, is when the Hebrews were leaving Egypt, during their sojourn through the wilderness. To give a little background: Pharaoh had decided to let the Hebrews go. They were on their way to Canaan (modern day Israel.) The simplest route, and the trade routes that existed, would be to travel along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea between Egypt and Canaan.
However, this area was controlled by the Philistines, and God felt that immediately having to battle would discourage the Hebrews, and they would return to Egypt. (Ex. 13:17) Odd hesitation, considering we are about to view them engage another enemy in battle. Therefore God sent them into the Wilderness of Zin. This is the land mass between the two fingers of the Red Sea. The Sinai Peninsula. An area of approximately 130 miles by 240 miles.
Being a desert and wilderness, and considering having 2 million people to sustain—food and water become a priority. God resolves the problem of food with manna, but they still relied upon natural sources for water. After resting at Elim (12 wells and 70 palm trees for 2 Million), they travel on to Rephidim. No one knows exactly where these locations are in Sinai. The closest we can surmise is “somewhere on the peninsula.”
It is at Rephidim that Moses strikes the rock with his staff in order to obtain water. It is also at Rephidim that we first encounter…the Amalekites! They came as aggressors to attack the Israelites. But where did they come from?
We have no archeological evidence of the Amalekites. We don’t know their language, their customs, or even what area they occupied. We don’t know their religion, their architecture, their pottery. If it was not for their mention in the Bible, we would never know they existed at all. Therefore, any knowledge we have regarding these things comes from the Tanakh. Nowhere else.
When Moses sent spies into the land, they report that the Amalekites are in “the south.” Numbers 13:29. They are roughly placed in the southern portion of Israel and northern portion of the Sinai Peninsula. Very near the land of Edom. (Amalek (who the Amalekites are presumably named after) was the grandson of Esau (who the Edomites are named after.) Thus most scholars place their locales close together.)
No reason is given for the Amalekites to attack the Hebrews. In an equivalent account (Numbers 20,) Moses requests the Edomites to pass through their land, and this is the cause for the Edomites to attack. (A good offense is the best defense.) Curiously, while the Amalekites are hated for attacking the Hebrews on their wanderings, the Edomites are forgiven for it. (Duet 23:7)
O.K.—so we have the Amalekites attacking the Hebrews at Rephidim. God tells Moses that as long as Moses holds up both arms, the Hebrews will prevail in battle. But if Moses lets his arms drop, they will begin to lose. This is exactly what happens. Eventually Aaron figured out that Moses would need some help (he is 80 after all!), so he and another fellow hold Moses’ arms up for him. (Ex. 17) (Apparently the Philistines were too smart to fall for that hand-holding stunt, and that is why God couldn’t use it on ‘em.)
The Amalekites fail. God takes this attack pretty hard, and swears enmity between the Amalekites and the Israelites from generation to generation. God vows to wipe out their memory. (Ex. 17:14-16) (And yes, we all get the humor of the fact that God says, “Write it down so we can blot out their memory.”)
Numbers records an incident regarding the Hebrews rebelling against God, and leaving camp. God uses the Amalekites to punish these miscreants by attacking and killing the Hebrews. Numbers 14:43-45.
In Deuteronomy, Moses gives his farewell speech to the people, and reminds them of how the Amalekites attacked them from the rear, and killed the stragglers. Moses tells the people to wipe out the Amalekites. Duet. 25:17-19. Oddly, although Moses is telling the people to “remember” no such incident is recorded in Exodus, Numbers or Deuteronomy. Further, Moses fails to mention the attack at Rephidim. (Yes, I know that the author of Exodus could know about Rephidim and choose to not write about the guerilla attacks, and the author of Deuteronomy could write about the guerilla attacks and not write about Rephidim, and the author of Numbers could be recording a totally different incident about Meribah—but to me, this has the marking of different stories being merged together.)
There is one other unusual incident regarding the Amalekites before we leave the wilderness. The Hebrews had destroyed the Amorites, which gave Balak, the king of the Moabites reason for grave concerns. Balak aligned with the Midianites, and sent a call out to Balaam the diviner. We know the story of Balaam; the fellow with the talking donkey!
Balak desired Balaam to curse the Hebrews, but instead Balaam keeps blessing them. After blessing them three times, Balak withholds his fee (not surprisingly) and Balaam then pronounces a curse on the Moabites, saying a star shall come out of Jacob and beat Moab. (Clearly a prophesy about David.) But out of nowhere, Balaam turns to Amalek and says it was first among the nations, but it shall perish. Numbers 24:20. We never knew the Amalekites were involved, it is uncertain as what it means by the Amalekites being the “first.” We do not hear how the Amalekites are involved after. It is as if this statement comes out of the blue!
However, there is a tie-in. When Balaam is offering the last blessing on Israel, he said, “His king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted.” Number 24:7. Israel doesn’t have a king. Won’t for another 200 to 400 years to 1400 years (depending on when one prefers to date the Exodus.) But the very first king that Israel has is ordered to slaughter the Amalekites who have a king named “Agag.” Either Balaam is an incredibly accurate prophet, or this portion of Numbers was written after the period in which Saul is claimed to be king. (I’ll let the reader decide for themselves.)
The Amalekites are not mentioned throughout Joshua’s campaign, although the land in which they would have been living was given to Judah. Joshua 15:1-12
Continuing the history between the Amalekites and the Israelites, after Joshua conquers the land, we enter the period of the Judges. We read the same cycle throughout the book of Judges:
1) Israel Sins.
2) God has an enemy attack Israel as punishment.
3) Israel repents; asking for a deliverer.
4) God provides a deliverer through a Judge.
5) Once they are delivered, Israel goes back to sinning.
In two of these cycles, the Amalekites receive a nod.
Eglon, the king of the Moabites was strengthened by YHWH to attack Israel as punishment. (Judges 3:13) So Eglon aligns with the Ammonites and the Amalekites, attacks, and prevails. The Amalekites are not mentioned again in the encounter.
Instead, it is noted that Israel must pay tribute to the Moabites. Until God raised up the left-handed Ehud who manages to sneak a knife into Eglon’s throne room, ending Eglon’s reign and the Moabite oppression.
On of the most famous judges was Gideon. Who fought primarily the Midianites. But at the very beginning of this cycle, it is indicated that the Midianites were burning the Israelites’ corps, and the Amalekites were doing so as well. It is the Midianites and the Amalekites that fall for the broken pitchers with candles in them in the famous story of Gideon. (Judges 6-7)
With that as our background, we arrive at 1 Sam. 15-- the famous genocide passage. God says he will punish the Amalekites for ambushing the Israelites during Exodus. (vs. 2) (This could be either the attack at Rephidim recorded in Exodus or the flanking attacks on stragglers from Deuteronomy. Or Both. Unclear from the brief statement.)
God tells Saul to kill every Amalekite, making specific mention that even if it is an infant, or a baby so young it is still nursing. (It is this specificity as to why skeptics raise this particular genocide, I think.)
(Unexpectedly, Saul tells the Kenites to flee, as they showed kindness to Israel during the Exodus. I can find no story about this kindness. Only that Balaam (the talking donkey fellow) gives a blessing to the Kenites at the same time he was cursing the Amalekites. A tale that is lost in antiquity. However, at times we hear the claim that “Kenites” is synonymous with “Midianites.” Having read our history so far, how persuasive is it that Saul tells Midianites to flee because of “kindness” to Israel?)
As we learn, Saul does NOT do as God ordered. He doesn’t kill all the animals. He doesn’t kill the king—Agag. He doesn’t kill all the Amalekites. Although it is recorded that he killed all the people. (vs. 8) Samuel the prophet learns of this from God, goes to Saul, and informs him that his progeny will not be kings. To demonstrate the point, Samuel lops off the head of Agag. (there are also intriguing concepts of God not relenting and God having regrets within the passage, but this is not the focus of my discussion today.)
If we stayed within the four corners of 1 Sam 15, especially vs. 8, we would believe that the act was successful. That the Amalekites were wiped out.
Yet we learn they still existed. Saul was attempting to kill David, so this caused David to seek safety by living in the Land of the Philistines. While living there, David attacked numerous neighboring people, including the Amalekites. (and the Kenites!) 1 Sam. 27:1-8. Again, it is emphasized that David killed all the men and women of the Amalekites.
While the Philistines were off killing Saul, David returns to his home at Ziklag (in Philistine country) to discover that that Amalekites had raided his home, and taken all his possessions. 1 Sam. 30:1-2 (It is specifically noted that the Amalekites did NOT kill any of the women. They treated their Hebrew captives more kindly than the Hebrews treated their own. Who is the monster in this story?)
David pursues the Amalekites, attacks them, and kills all but 400 young men who escape. 1 Sam. 30:17. As a final postscript, and an uneventful ending, the remaining Amalekites are finally killed by skirmish during the reign of Hezekiah. 1 Chron. 4:43.
Thus ends the history of the Amalekites. Skeptics raise this story, due to the uncomfortable nature of a God ordering the death of babies that are breast-feeding, for something that their great-great-great-great-great-grandparents did. There are numerous Christian responses to this act; I will address a few.
It was not a Genocide
In reviewing what Christians say about this act, I came across this Christian Think Tank article which made the rather bold claim that this was not a genocide. (This would still leave the orders to kill all the non-combatants, including babies, which, however you want to term it, is not a moral thing to do.)
The article defines “genocide” as “generally denotes the deliberate killing of someone solely because of their indelible group membership (indelible is the term used for race, ethnicity, nationality etc.--that characteristics that are 'indelible').” I am uncertain as to how the Amalekites do NOT fit this definition. Saul could clearly determine who was an Amalekite and who was not, the Kenites were also identified and deliberately removed from the midst of the Amalekites, and the Amalekite babies were killed for being…well…progeny of Amalekite parents.
It would seem, on the face, that an Amalekite was killed for being an Amalekite.
The article goes on to make four (5) distinctions between the Amalekites and other genocides:
“1. They are NOT an internal group
2. They are NOT a minority group
3. Amalekites are NOT targeted because of their Amalekite-ness (since they were welcome as immigrants in Israel)
4. They are never under the government control of Israel.
5. They are not pursed and hunted in other countries for extermination.”
As to the first, “not an internal group,” the land in which the Amalekites were living was within the area specifically scouted by Joshua’s scouts. The land was within the borders given to Judah. Whether Saul had actual control over their land may be a question, but remember, we are talking about God ordering this thing. And in God’s mind, these Amalekites appeared to be “internal” to the land God had given Judah. The same issue with not being under the “government” of Israel. In God’s eyes, they were under Israeli punishment.
Given the fact we have no numbers as to the Amalekites, and inflated numbers as to the Israelites during this period, any claim as to “minority” seems premature. And it reads as if they were killed for their Amalekite-ness. (Why, for example, were the Kenites not allowed to adopt the Amalekite babies? Why must the babies be killed because of their parents DNA?)
I agree with the fifth point, that the Amalekites were not pursued and hunted in other countries, although the author does not seem to realize this contradicts the first point of them not being an internal group. If they were not in Israel, then Saul would have had to pursue them in other countries—namely their own!
I guess I am a little surprised at the tactic of claiming this was not genocide in that it has all the markings of genocide, is not distinguishable from genocide, and it is still an atrocity, regardless of whether it fits some technical term.
God is Sovereign
This is couched in the terms that God gave life, so God can take life away. That God reigns supreme over his creation and can, in essence, do what he wants.
There are two key limitations in exercising authority within sovereignty—physical ability and legal permission. For example, the President of the United States may have legal permission to wage war, but he cannot order his generals to use the “De-Atomizer Gun” upon the enemy. There is no such gun. Even within his sovereignty, the President cannot do that which is physically impossible.
Likewise, the President could physically utter the words, “You’re Fired!” to the United States Supreme Court; however he does not have the legal permission to fire a Supreme Court Justice.
I seriously doubt, when discussing the sovereignty of God, that either the believer or the skeptic is raising the question of physical ability. It is not as if the non-believer is questioning a God’s capability to exert enough power to harm the fragile human body to the point it ceases to function. We all get that a God would have enough “whammy” up its sleeve to kill one or more humans. In the present situation, this is a bit irrelevant since God himself does not do the act, but orders other humans to do so.
It must be something else the Christian is referring to when claiming, “God can create life; God can end it.” It must be within the legal permissive end.
Which raises the colossal problem of how to determine what a God has legal permission to do, within its sovereignty. It is not as if the Christian proposes a limitless God. They, too, impose legal restrictions upon Him. If the believer claims that God is solely moral, this would limit God from performing an immoral act.
Despite the physical ability, and sovereignty of God, the moral limitation would restrict God’s complete sovereignty. If one claims God is bound by logic, this would be another legal restriction. We see claims all the time, limiting God’s sovereignty. The claims that he is bound by Truth. That he is bound by Justice. That he is bound by his covenants. Even claims that he is bound by allowing free will in the restriction of immoral acts and suffering.
Which brings us back to the question—how can we possibly know WHAT God is legally entitled to or bound to not do within his sovereignty? It creates a curious kind of being that cannot lie to humans, but can kill them at will. A being that must be Just, but can exert mercy when and where it chooses to do.
This results in the problem of assuming a conclusion in order to prove it. A circular argument, if you will.
How can we know if God can permissively do an act? Because he did it.
Why is he allowed to do it? Because he has legal permission within his sovereignty.
Simply claiming that God is sovereign provides us no new information about God. We gain nothing by way of verification as to what, if any, limitation is imposed on his sovereignty. This comes across as an excuse, by which the believer attempts to absolve God by claiming it is within God’s right, when we can all see with brilliant light that there is no way to determine how God is limited or not.
God is Moral
Another statement brought up is that God is moral, so His ordering this genocide must be moral. Besides assuming the conclusion (again) this doesn’t provide us any new information. It is God’s morality that we are questioning, here. To simply declare, by definition, that “God is moral, so what he did was moral” is completely unhelpful.
Look, assume I told you that “Bob” did something against the law. To confirm or deny my statement, you require two key pieces of information—what it was that “Bob” did, and what the law is. If I simply tell you, “That Bob killed someone” we are still left with the inability to determine whether it violated the law. What if it was self-defense? What if Bob’s job was an executioner? What if Bob was a soldier in war? Likewise, if I told you that the Law says “Do not step on the grass” but fail to inform you as to how Bob acted relative to the grass, you are still left puzzling as to how Bob infracted the law.
In this situation we see God order what is apparently genocide. From what we have observed of genocide in history, we would declare this was an immoral act. Yet the Christian is informing me God did NOT violate some law. When I ask what law it is—it cannot be verified and is assumed to be…what?
What, exactly, is the law by which God can order Genocide and God cannot? When is it acceptable? When is it not?
Those questions (and inability to answer them) is what demonstrates this is an after-the-fact defense of God’s actions. There is no predictability in this method. If God orders Genocide—it must be moral. If God does not—it may or may not be moral.
Although to a Christian talking with another Christian, the blanket statement of “Whatever God does is moral” may be met with nods and affirmation, to a skeptic, we question two things—what is it that God did, and what is the law regarding those actions. Since the Christian has no way to verify that second statement, we are left wondering: If God did something immoral—how would you know?
The Amalekites were immoral
We have also heard the claim that because of the vast and terrible sins of the Canaanites, God was justified in wiping them out. That the Canaanites performed child sacrifice, homosexuality, temple prostitution and (cover your eyes) ate BLT sandwiches.
And, of course, due to these temptations the Israelites would never be able to withstand the strip clubs, so the only way God could possible hope to even remotely reduce the amount of sinning the Hebrews would do is to kill all the strip club owners. (Oddly, as we see through Judges, God never notices how ineffective this methodology is.)
There are two problems.
First, even assuming that the various peoples residing in Canaan were this hideously evil, the group that is NOT included is the Amalekites. In two distinct passages of Deuteronomy, God orders the Hebrews to wipe out nations for fear of turning the people away from YHWH by their abominations: Deut. 7:1 and 20:17. The nations listed are the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites.
Need I mention who is conspicuous by their absence?
Imagine we have a table with an apple, an orange, a banana and a pear. They are just sitting there. Questionable as to whether you can eat one or all of the fruit. Then I say, “Do not eat the apple, the orange or the pear.” By designating which ones not to eat, implicitly I am providing permission as to which ones to eat—namely the banana.
God is aware of the Amalekites (Deut. 25:17-19) God wants to wipe them out. In fact God wants to wipe out a number of nations. God gives reasons for wiping out the various nations. And God does not list the Amalekite reason as its immorality.
Secondly, this is bolstered by the very reason God gave Saul to kill all the Amalekites—NOT because they were evil. But because of what their great-great-(and so on) grandparents did to Saul’s great-great-(and so on) grandparents, by attacking them while they wandered in the desert. God had every opportunity to declare the Amalekites as being bad influences on the Hebrews and never did. Even when listing other nations that were.
Often when discussing God’s various orders of genocide, we see the claim of how immoral, and what a bad influence these peoples were. As if the human Christians are attempting to justify, in their own minds, a reason for why this was a “punishment” for sin, and not an arbitrary order by God.
Much easier to think of a God ordering the death of murderers and rapists and pedophiles. We don’t want to consider God ordering the death of people who were just…well…people. That is distasteful.
And so the Amalekites are lumped in with all the other heathens as being “bad, bad, bad.” Yet that is distinctly the opposite of what the Bible actually says.
Which brings back a question from the previous section—when can God order Genocide? Perhaps, in some uncomfortable fashion, it can be slightly palatable when considering God ordering the deaths of horribly immoral people. But the Amalekites do not present us with that situation. They don’t give us that option.
In looking at the Amalekites, what other reason can we determine that makes genocide allowable? What did the Amalekites do? Well—they attacked the Israelites in war. Unpleasant, and not very gentlemanly, true. But how does that differentiate them from the Edomites, or the Philistines or the Moabites or the Midianites or the Amorites or the Assyrians or the Egyptians or the Perisans or…dare I say…the Israelites?
If attacking the Israelites is justification for God to order Genocide…oh…wait. That seems to be more of a 21st Century concept, doesn’t it? How many Christian Americans secretly contemplate genocide of the Arabs would be a Godly and just punishment? We hope none.
Further, God does not order the genocide of the Amalekites that attacked Israel in the desert. Nor the ones that joined the Moabites in the time of Ehud. Nor the ones who joined the Midianites in the time of Gideon.
No, God chooses to wipe out the Amalekites in the time of Saul when they weren’t attacking anybody!
In light of this, the troubling aspect is why did the babies have to die? God specifically orders the death, and makes mention of babies who are breast-feeding, emphasizing the young age. What did they do wrong, other than be born to the parents of the great-great- (oh, you get the point) grandchildren of some ancient battle?
One apologist (who will go nameless) attempted to explain the question of why even these babies must be killed by comparing it to gangrene. He pointed out that doctors have to reluctantly cut off healthy skin (i.e. babies) to eliminate the disease (i.e. the parents) in order to save the body (must be the Hebrews. Which were technically another body, but we should be charitable in our review of the analogy.)
Of course the first and most obvious problem is that if doctors had the capability to remove the gangrene and ONLY the gangrene, without damaging the healthy skin, they would. This analogy is a testament to the limitation of human ability. Is God as limited as human doctors? Would Jesus have had to sever an arm that was gangrenous?
Why is it that God can do no better than humans? Couldn’t God rehabilitate the Amalekites? Could God not “save” the healthy babies, while destroying the diseased parents?
Secondly, as pointed out above, this is not very applicable to the Amalekites, as their only disease was the actions of their ancestors.
If the Hittites and Jebusites and Canaanites would have repented of their evil ways—what would God have done? Interesting question. But not one available to the Amalekites; they could never repent for what their forefathers did.
In fact, in reviewing the history, we see remarkable forbearance and restraint on the part of the Amalekites. After Saul almost wiped them out, David was busy attacking their cities, equally killing all the men and women. Yet when the Amalekites attacked David’s city, they do not kill a single women or child. Not one.
Can you imagine your parents or grandparents all but eliminated by Saul? Your cousins and brothers and sisters are currently being killed by David. And all are claiming the mandate of a God, the blessing of the Creator to kill you, your children and all you know.
And you have an opportunity to fight back. A moment to attack the dreaded enemy. And you do NOT do to them what they did to you. Sounds like the Amalekites had pretty good handle on the Golden Rule long before Jesus came along.
To no avail. God has no mercy when your grandparents went to war…
All of which leads me to the $64,000 question—how does a skeptic tell the difference? We see people justifying their actions all the time: “The Devil made me do it,” “I was a product of a broken home,” “He hit me first!” Certainly a God is a convenient justification.
Here we have humans killing humans. For reasons that are not acceptable. Yet it is justified with the claim “God ordered me to do it.” How do I tell the difference between humans using God as an excuse to do what humans have always done, and a God that has the moral ability to order genocide? An ability in which I have no feasible way to verify or even view the law by which God is supposedly conforming?
A small story to make my point:
When I was in the early stages of deconversion, I was struck by the unsettling issue of whether we were giving the benefit of the doubt to incidents in the Tanakh, simply because they were “Christian.” How do I remove my own bias from the equation and treat the story as if it came from another religion? How would it be considered then?
One day, in Sunday School, I mentioned how I had been studying the Qur’an. And that within the Qur’an it indicated that Allah had granted the land of Palestine to the Muslims, giving them the right to kill all non-Muslim inhabitants within. Further, that the Qur’an clearly states those of us outside of Palestine are Infidels, and if we did not convert to Islam, the Muslims are entitled to kill all the males, taking the females and children as rightful plunder.
There were statements of “Tsk, tsk” and “How awful” and “Can’t they see how wrong that is?”
I then indicated that those statements were NOT actually from the Qur’an, but were taken directly from Deut. 20:10-18. That it was YHWH, not Allan. And the Hebrews, not the Muslims. After an uncomfortable silence, and a few “Harumphs” as the people openly displayed their indignation at being deceived into condemning the Bible, a person coughed out, “Well, that was a different time…let’s move on!” and the whole uncomfortable affair was left behind.
I didn’t care. My fears were realized. We DO give the benefit of the doubt, and grant the God of the Bible concessions we never would in any other religion.
If Chemosh ordered the Moabites to wipe out the Hebrews for their attacks on them in the past, would any person claim that this was a moral act? Why would we do so for YHWH?
Finally, a common trend is to sweep the Tanakh atrocities under the rug. We see people emphasizing the God of the New Testament, and basically try to ignore the God of the Tanakh. I hear focus on “Love your neighbor” and not “Kill the Amalekites.”
At times Christians act as if their Old Testament is an albatross they wish would quietly go away. Oh, the Psalms and Proverbs can stay. And those neat prophecies in Isaiah. But when it comes to the conquest of Canaan, and the killing of people for some historical event…well… that is when the fidgeting begins, and the “hurry-up-let’s-get-this-over-with” comes in.
That distinct reluctance to embrace the God of the Genocide is more telling and screams louder about the immorality of the situation than anything I can write.