God of War(ning) and Waiting

Anthony Weber —  July 19, 2012 — 10 Comments

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).



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
However, several hurdles remain. In the carrying out of this warfare, what actually happened?  If God ordered atrocities, his reasons and his patience would seem to be irrelevant.  After all, waiting four hundred years and giving multiple, clear warnings hardly justifies genocide.
In the next two posts, I will discuss what actually happened, particularly the boundaries of the war (lex talionis) and the actual toll on human life.


Anthony Weber


Anthony graduated from Cedarville University in 1995 with a degree in English Education, and from Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Indiana in 2004 with a Master's Degree in Theology and Philosophy. Anthony is a husband and father of three, an author ("Learning to Jump Again"), high school and college teacher, pastor, blogger (tcapologetics.org, empiresandmangers.blogspot.com), and co-founder of etcetera, a "street-level philosophy group" in Traverse City, Michigan.

10 responses to God of War(ning) and Waiting

  1. I think there’s a discontinuity in your argument. Early on, you describe the relationship ANE peoples had with their gods:

    “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. ”

    The Amalekites survived for at least 400 years, and therefore had 400 years of evidence (in ANE terms) that their gods liked what they were doing. 

    Later in your argument, you point out that YHWH sent various prophets around to make prophecies, and that the Israelites and Amalekites (et al.) had a history of peaceful interaction such that the Amalekites would have been aware of the Israelites religious claims. You also claim that miracles of YHWH were well known and frightening among the neighboring nations. 

    But why would the Amalekites and other Caananites care about what some foreign god was complaining or warning about, so long as their own gods were happy? And even if they thought their own gods were unhappy with them, why would they suddenly start regarding the commands of the foreign god YHWH? Would you say that when the Israelites thought that they had angered their god, they should have started to instead follow the commands of some other god? I doubt it! And if it wouldn’t make sense for the Israelites to do that, it wouldn’t make sense for the Amalekites to do it either. So the “clear, fair notice of intent” that you think YHWH gave to the Amalekites would have had very little relevance to them, in their cultural context. So what relevance does it have in justifying YHWH’s actions here? (Keep in mind that YHWH had an infinite number of ways to deal with the Amalekites other than sending his volk to wipe them out; he is omnipotent, after all – right?)

    •    Steve, I’m not sure how there is discontinuity.  First, I’m not so sure that’s true concerning Amalekite culture.  They were at times nomads and “plunderers” (as Egyptian history refers to them).  Yes, they had been around for a while.  I don’t think that’s reason to conclude they thought their gods liked them or were the best.  The pantheons of ANE were very fluid – in fact, some of the Amalekites later acquisitions appear to be the ones that caused their “iniquity” to “fill up.”
           People are free to respond to circumstances however the see fit.  When the Israelites left Egypt, quite a few Egyptians went with them – convinced, apparently, in the god of the Israelites.  On the other hand, even more stayed back – convinced, apparently, that the problem was theirs, not their gods’.   When the Philistines suffered severe penalty for harboring the ark of the covenant, they clearly note that God was punishing them and their god Dagon (1 samuel 5). The Bible does not say if any Philistines decided to follow Israel’s God, but they clearly got the message.  At that point, they are free to do with it what they want.   Same situation here, as far as I can see. 

      • Let’s assume that you’re correct about the Amalekites sacrificing their children to their gods. That would seem to me to be prima facie evidence that their belief in the existence and efficacy of their gods was very strong; such belief seems like the most plausible explanation, at any rate. So: we have the Amalekites killing their children because they think their gods want them to do that, vs. Israelites killing children (or so the Israelites claim) because they think that their god wants them to do that. It’s not clear to me why one of those things should be considered more moral than the other. 

        It also remains unclear to me why you think it’s reasonable and responsible for non-Israelites to give up their gods and follow YHWH when things go badly for the non-Israelites, but not reasonable and responsible for Israelites to give up on YHWH when things go badly for the Israelites. I suspect that in fact you think it is to the Israelites’ credit that they clung to their faith, even after their nation was overthrown and their temple destroyed. So how can you say it is to other nations dis-credit that they kept faith with their own gods even when there were signs that some other god might be more powerful? Do you not think that keeping faith is a virtue?

        • Steve, my claim in the next post (which I believe you have read) is that the language of war is traditional Semitic hyperbolic war text. Israelites did not kill children in these battles. Read on in the Old Testament; when the Israelites eventually adapt Amalekite religious rituals and take up the same detestable practice of burning their children, God punishes them severely too. You’re right, it would be inconsistent – if God were ordering them to slaughter children in war. My argument, of course, is that he did not.

          A key distinction between Amalekites clinging to their gods when thing go badly vs. Israelites clinging to theirs is that the Israelite God told them very precisely what was happening:  “Because of this, I am doing this.”  They were a covenantal people (topic for another time), and they had, in essence, a theocratic treaty. It could be broken or kept, and punishments or rewards followed. It was the way kings and people in the ANE did business with what was called a suzerain treaty, or covenant.  
                So they always had a context for the events happening to and around them. I don’t know if other nations claimed that kind of communication from their gods or not. My impression is that a lot of guesswork was involved (but I could be wrong here….)

  2. I think it’s important to note that YHWH’s efforts to make his existence and power known to the other ANE nations are quite entirely pathetic when compared to what he might have done if he actually cared about convincing them.

    For example, he frequently sends prophets to convey his words. If he actually wanted people to hear his words, he could have just as easily spoken to each person individually. In one night, he could have appeared to each man, woman, and child in the whole ANE and provided them each with the arguments and evidence necessary to convince them – of their own free will – that he was the One True God, as well as miraculously providing them each with the ability to read and an indestructible written copy of his Law. If any individuals simply refused to be convinced, he could have immediately dispatched them to whatever fate awaits unbelievers, so that they would not annoy the remaining people who now understood and accepted his Law. 

    That is the kind of thing I would expect from a powerful god who actually cared about ensuring that everyone knew him and followed his rules. What we actually have is an account of a god who speaks in secret to a few chosen prophets who then go out and quite frequently advise kings and warlords to – amazingly enough – do the kinds of things that kings and warlords like to do. The prophets also say a bunch of other stuff, some of which is advice which improves the lot of the people, some of which is utterly mad, and most of which is a bunch of arbitrary rules about clothing, food, rituals, and just about everything else in life. Oh, and they tell stories about miraculous events that happened back in the good old days, five or ten or twenty generations ago.

    In other words, what we have is exactly like what we’d expect to have if it all the words of YHWH had been made up by pretenders and madmen, and not at all like what we’d expect to see if there actually was a god who wanted everyone to know what he wanted. It’s no wonder the Caananites blew him off.

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