Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Amalekite Genocide - Part 1

Over at Ship of Fools, there's a discussion going on entitled "Chapter and Worse - because the Good Book could be Better". I'm pretty sure that's not true, so I've been wading in on some of the discussions and trying to show the value of the verses. It seems to me that if all the passages people didn't like were omitted, the Bible would have nothing to say to us except that God loves us because we are wonderful people or something.

Anyway, one of the passages which came up (as I thought it probably would) was the so-called Amalekite genocide in 1 Samuel 15.

And Samuel said to Saul, "The LORD sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, 'I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and 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 15:1-3, ESV

People argue, with a fair bit of justification, that this looks like God is commanding genocide, and that genocide is a Very Bad Thing, so that creates some problems for our understanding of God's goodness.

I honestly think that's all true. There are various ways people have tried getting out of it, and they don't really work.

  • Some people try saying that the Bible isn't accurate in reporting this event. But that then implies that the Bible isn't an accurate record for knowing God's character, so we can't really know God at all.
  • Some people try saying that this is Samuel's command, not God's, and that Samuel is only saying that it comes from God. However, that runs into problems when you remember that 1 Samuel presents Samuel as an ideal prophet - the prophet like Moses from Deuteronomy 18 who accurately speaks from God.

It also gets worse for people who try to avoid the force of these verses. Saul doesn't obey Samuel's command - he spares the life of King Agag (probably a title for the king of the Amalekites, like Pharaoh is of the king of the Egyptians), and also of some of the animals and so on, as a result of which God gets annoyed with Saul, and rejects him as king (v10-25).

I think we have to take the full force of these verses. God commands a genocide, and yet somehow he is good and loving. What on earth (or in heaven) is going on?

Before we can get to an answer to that, we need to think about several key issues.

Who were the Amalekites?

First up, who were the Amalekites? What made them so bad?

The Amalekites were the descendents and followers of Amalek, grandson of Esau (Genesis 36:12,16), brother of Jacob also known as Israel. As such, the Amalekites weren't total foreigners to God. Esau was the one who had sold his birthright and his part in God's promise. He had been part of God's covenant people, but he valued his own apetites more. So the Edomites (Esau's descendents, including the Amalekites) were people who had opted out en masse of the covenant which defined God's people.

They weren't Canaanites. Israel was not a threat to them; Israel was not going to take their land. Their relationship to the Amalekites was like their relationship to the other Edomites when they said "Please let us pass through your country. We will not go through any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the king's highway and not turn to the right or to the left until we have passed through your territory." (Numbers 20:17)

But the Amalekites really really didn't like Israel. At the very birth of the nation of Israel, when they came out of Egypt and were at their most vulnerable, before they even got to Sinai and when they didn't even have any water, the Amalekites came and attacked them (Exodus 17:8). Israel were forced to fight their very first battle, fighting for their lives against the Amalekites, under the leadership of Moses. After God gave Moses an amazing victory, Exodus says this:

Then the LORD said to Moses, "Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven."

Moses built an altar and called it The LORD is my Banner. He said, "For hands were lifted up to the throne of the LORD. The LORD will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation."

Exodus 17:14-16, NIV

The Amalekites were the people who hated Israel, right from the start. And though Moses said that God would be at war it looks very much as if it's the Amalekites who are at war with him. Israel have a lot of wars between Moses and Saul, but they never once attack the Amalekites.

The Amalekites attack Israel though. In Numbers 14:45, they attack Israel again while they are still in the desert. In Judges 3:13 they join in with the Moabites in attacking Israel. In Judges 6:3, they invade Israel "whenever the Israelites planted their crops", and together with the Midianites "did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys." Later in Judges 6 and 7 they invade again and are fought off by Gideon. The Amalekites show that generation after generation, they are at war with Israel and with God.

Even long after Saul (and Saul's successor David) have fought against and mostly eradicated the Amalekites, we get one more Amalekite coming up. 600 years after them, the Persians are ruling the whole area, and a man called Haman, an Agagite gets a lot of power. "Agagite" probably means that he was descended from the Amalekite kings, known as Agag.

After these events, King Xerxes (of Persia) honored Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, elevating him and giving him a seat of honor higher than that of all the other nobles. All the royal officials at the king's gate knelt down and paid honor to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him. But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor.

Then the royal officials at the king's gate asked Mordecai, "Why do you disobey the king's command?" Day after day they spoke to him but he refused to comply. Therefore they told Haman about it to see whether Mordecai's behavior would be tolerated, for he had told them he was a Jew.

When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor, he was enraged. Yet having learned who Mordecai's people were, he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai's people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.

Esther 3:1-6, NIV

The Amalekites weren't just any old people. They were the nation who more than any other tried to destroy Israel. They had been trying to eradicate and plunder Israel from the very birth of Israel, 200-400 years before the command in 1 Samuel 15, and they would continue for another 600 years.

The Amalekites were vicious as well, and were noted for killing children (1 Sam 15:33).

That explains some of the background to the conflict in 1 Samuel 15. It shows that what is being commanded is an act of war in a conflict which the Israelites didn't start, and which was never going to be resolved by negotiation. But I don't think it fully explains or justifies the command - that needs us to think about the theological context as well, which can wait for another post.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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