In the previous post, I noted that the war texts show how God implemented justice on a particular Canaanite people group that was outstandingly evil. (William F. Albright, famed archeologist, described the Amalekite religion as “perhaps the most depraved religion known to man.”)
We may not like that war was involved, but we must enter into the world as it was to to fully understand the big picture. This was a world in which every people group gauged their god’s authority and power by the quality of their own lives. If they were rich and strong, they believed their gods liked what they were doing. If they failed to flourish or were conquered, apparently their god was unhappy or another god was stronger (think of the Ark of the Covenant vs. Dagon in 1 Samuel 5, or the clash between Moses and Pharoah). You may find this to be simply a lot of superstition, but in the context at that time, the God of the Israelites was challenging the God of the Amalekites in a manner that was understood by both cultures.
However, a key question still remain: Even if the judgement was justified and the actions were understood, is their punishment defensible? I am going to argue in the following posts that a clear reading of the Old Testament mitigates agains a God of cruelty and genocide by highlighting four key factors that contextualize and clarify what was actually happening:
- God waited and warned the people groups involved;
- He commanded the Israelites to accept and assimilate any immigrants from these nations, clearly showing God was not interested in genocide;
- He sought not to destroy individual people, but to destroy the religious and cultural centers that promoted their particular evil;
- He exercised lex talionis (a principle which says that punishment cannot exceed the crime).
WAITING, WARNING, AND ASSIMILATING
The Bible records how God often sent prophets to give advance notice to cultures under judgement so they could repent. For example, God sent Jonah to the people of Ninevah to tell them that God was going to destroy them. They repented, and God did not destroy them. God was not eager to bring about this type of justice. Though the Amalekites distinguished themselves by repeatedly oppressing, terrorizing, and vandalizing Israel (and other nations) for up to 400 years after the Israelites left Egypt, God waited and gave plenty of warning before the judgment, even at a cost to his own people.
Then the LORD said to him (Abraham), “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions… In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites [sometimes used interchangeably with ‘Amalekites’] has not yet reached its full measure.” (Genesis 15.13-16)
It is not unreasonable to believe that the Canaanite tribes in general (including the Amalekites) had plenty of notice of what would happen if they continued to commit such evil. There would have been numerous points of contact with Israelites in generally friendly settings. The cultures were not inherently antagonistic; Abraham had close relationships with both Amorites (e.g. Gen 14.7,13) and Hittites (e.g. Genesis 23). Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived among these groups trying to peacefully resolve issues of water and land rights (Genesis 21; 26; 36). God even told Israel to freely accept immigrants from these nations during this period. Many of them were, after all, distant relatives (The Amorites and Amalekites have a convergent history through Esau’s grandson Amalek and Noah’s son Ham). These cross-cultural relationships and the 400 year time frame were ways of making sure that the Caanaanites (including Amalekites) knew that even though violence was not preferred, a time was coming when God would say, “Enough.”
In a world that put a lot of stock in the interaction between cultures and the gods they served, it was also significant that Balaam specifically prophesied to the King of Moab that Amalek would be destroyed (Numbers 24:20). Moab and Midian were closes allies of Amalek, and this prophesy would surely have been taken seriously and passed on.
In addition to the prophecies, the shared family history, and the cultural crossover, God orchestrated very clear warnings for the people in the broader Canaanite culture:
“I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run. I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way…” (Exodus 23:27 ff)
“Now when all the Amorite kings west of the Jordan and all the Canaanite kings along the coast heard how the LORD had dried up the Jordan before the Israelites until we had crossed over, their hearts melted and they no longer had the courage to face the Israelites.” (Joshua 5)
We read in the book of Joshua that Rahab, who lived in Jericho, was well aware of what awaited the city:
“Before the spies lay down for the night, she went up on the roof and said to them, ‘I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below. (Joshua 28:11)
Everybody appears to have known what was coming. Remember, at that point in world history God was revealing himself clearly in a way that all people expected and understood. If my observations so far are correct, at least three key points ought to be consider:
- There were justifiable reasons for the Amalekite culture to be judged;
- God gave a clear, fair notice of intent;
- God’s purpose and intent were widely known;
- God ordered his people to assimilate those who came to Israel