If you have engaged in serious discussions with skeptics about God and the Old Testament, you know it won’t be long before someone will play the Amalekite card – and let’s be honest, it’s a game-changing card (read the war texts in my previous post). There’s a temptation to fold at this point and hope that the next hand deals something better (“Hey, I know! Let’s talk about love!”). However, there is far more to the story (I should note here I am indebted to the writing of Christian apologists such as Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan and organizations such as the Christian Think Tank).
As a teacher, I often have parents call me because their child came home with a tale of woe featuring my ineptitude as a teacher and my complete failure as a human being. How else to explain that “D”? I offer a perspective they did not hear from little Johnny. More often than not (I’m not perfect) we resolve the situation pretty quickly. It turns out there was more to the story than they initially heard.
We have a tendency to judge the actions of others before we fully appreciate the complexity or depth of the situation. That even applies when the ‘other’ is God and the ‘full story’ is actual world history. As this series unfolds, I will attempt to reveal the context and complexity more clearly. Let’s start with some observations about the Amalekite culture.
Historians agree with biblical history that the Amalekites were apparently outstandingly bad by any standard of that time. According to the biblical text, they had quite a track record:
“…in worshipping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.” (Deuteronomy 12.31)
Note the issue was not merely that they worshipped their gods; all the nations around Israel served other gods, and they escaped judgment. Egypt’s treatment of the Israelites was not ‘evil enough’ to warrant a war. If God’s only goal was to make every nation around Israel like Israel, he would have needed to attack everybody. The gods were not in and of themselves the issue. Something unique was happening here.
In Leviticus 18, God gives a list of the things that had “defiled the land,” and for which He specifically was judging the inhabitants. There were only two categories: rampant sexual immortally (including beastiality and incest) and child sacrifice, both of which seem to be associated with temple prostitution and the worship rituals offered to their particular gods. There are, of course, terrible consequences from incest:
“…delinquency, anxiety, regressive behaviors, nightmares, withdrawal from normal activities, internalizing and externalizing disorders, cruelty and self-injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, poor self-esteem, and age-inappropriate sexual behavior. A review of forty-five studies indicated two common patterns of psychological response to incest (Williams and Finkelhor 1993). The first are those associated with posttraumatic stress symptomology. The second is an increase in sexualized behaviors…
Long-term psychological sequelae of incest include depression, anxiety, psychiatric hospitalization, drug and alcohol use, suicidality, borderline personality disorder, somatization disorder, and eroticization (Schetky 1990; Silverman, Reinherz, and Giaconia 1996). Common, too, are learning difficulties, posttraumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorders and conversion reactions, running away, prostitution, re-victimization, poor parenting, and an increased likelihood of becoming a perpetrator.”
As for child sacrifice, you can find numerous sources online that quote this description:
“Its origin (human sacrifice) must be sought, evidently, in Canaanite culture. When a disaster was threatening Carthage, the inhabitants of the town decided it was due to the anger of Kronos, to whom they had formerly sacrificed their finest children: instead, they had begun to offer sickly children, or children they had bought. Thereupon, they sacrificed two hundred children from the noblest families. There was a bronze statue of Kronos with outstretched arms, and the child was placed on its hands and rolled into the furnace….Funerary jars have been found with the bodies of young children distorted by suffocation as they struggled for life after having been buried alive as a sacrifice to Canaanite gods. Such young children have been found in the foundation pillars of Canaanite houses…”
In addition, as soon as Israel escaped Egypt–before they could even ‘catch their breath’–the Amalekites made a long journey and attacked Israel. Their first targets were the helpless: “Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and cut off all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God!” (Deuteronomy 25.17-19).
Historian Mike Woodruff notes, ” They were distant cousins of the Israelites who gained God’s ire by going out of their way to provoke him. They likely knew that the promise God had made was to bless everyone through the blessing of Israel, and they certainly heard of the way God was providing for the Jews; but the Amalekites did not fear God. Instead, they attacked the weakest of God’s people. After giving their promise not to attack, they waited for the Jewish slaves to file through their land on the way to Sinai and then attacked the stragglers—the sick, tired, and elderly. This actually became a bit of a pattern for the Amalekites. They preyed on the weak, and they never missed a chance to attack the Jews.”
The behaviors we’ve looked at were not widely shared by the other Ancient Near East cultures. This evil appears to have been specifically Canaanite/Amorite, and its recorded by both Christian and secular historians. One writer noted: “By 1400 B.C. the Canaanite civilization and religion had become one of the weakest, most decadent, and most immoral cultures of the civilized world.” Honestly, can you look at history and say these people didn’t have it coming? The Amalekites were particularly bad dudes. They preyed on the weak; they burnt their children alive; they worshipped their gods by engaging in ritualized incest and beastiality. They were in a league of their own.
I’m a fan of Lee Child’s series of books starring Jack Reacher. Reacher is a former military policeman with a strong sense of justice who could probably snap me in half. In every story, he finds himself in a situation where somebody has to do something to stop really bad guys from exploiting and using other people. Nobody else is strong enough or capable enough, so Reacher steps in. There is one book in particular in which he uncovers an organization of terrorists whose list of atrocities is disturbing to say the least. When Reacher stops that kind of evil (and he usually kills the people involved) we cheer for him not because we love violence and death, but because somebody needed to step up and put an end to that kind of evil. We cheer for both justice and mercy will prevail: justice for the perpetrators, and mercy for those who suffered.
Certainly what happens in the Old Testament occurs on a larger scale, but I think the analogy holds. The people with whom the Israelites dealt were causing far more destruction than than the villains in Lee Child’s literary world. Somebody needed to bring justice and mercy- and sometimes that means killing the perpetrators of evil to bring an end to the suffering of their victims.
Of course, if the Israelites committed atrocities of their own, that’s still a huge problem. Justice would have to fall on them as well. We will address this more fully as we continue this series with ” God of War(ning) and Waiting.”
Question: If you don’t agree with God judging this culture in this way, is there ever a case where you would be glad to know that God said, “Enough”?