How can you worship a God who commands genocide, like he did against the Amalekites? That seems cruel and unjust and not like a God I would want to follow.
That is a fair question, and one that I think we should ask and find out. If you believe in a divine power that commands ethnic cleansing, then I think that is a very troubling view of God. And if you are a Christian who believes that God is good and God is love, then trying to affirm that God is a racist, genocidal maniac is at odds with the prior affirmation! Let’s look into this further and see what some of the assumptions are philosophically, ethically, and biblically, and see if we can make some sense of these serious matters.
First, I just want to make a general comment about judgment in the Old Testament. it is interesting to see that God is criticized for judging wickedness in the Old Testament in “harsh” ways, and yet the complaint now is that God does nothing in the face of evil. Whereas in times of strife we might cry out to God to wipe out our enemies, we would then reject God for doing that very thing in the Old Testament. Typically when we view Old Testament violence and reject it, we do so from a relatively comfortable vantage point – the idea of God having people killed seems so un-Jesus . And yet, for those who have struggled as a people (like African Americans in slavery and later in the Civil Rights era), it is these passages of a powerful God who decisively squashes injustice that gave them hope. After World War II, there was a resurgence in the “death of God” philosophy because, so the logic goes, how could God allow such terrible injustices to happen. That is a fair question, but I don’t find it particularly consistent. I understand why people would say that if God were real, He would have stopped that violent episode. Who is to say that He didn’t? And many of the same people who would criticize God for his alleged hiddenness during that time would also criticize God’s decisive judgment in the Old Testament story of, for example, the Canaanites, who sacrificed children and did other evil things for 400 years before God judged them.
Second, and related to the last point, we also have to allow that God does have the right to judge people. He knows the beginning from the end, our hearts, our thoughts, our intentions, all that we did do, are doing, could do, and will do. So, to some extent, we must admit that we do not have a proper epistemic vantage point to judge whether something God has done is morally right or wrong. It might seem odd for God to wipe out a whole people – and yet there are many who would say that they wished God had wiped out all of the Nazis. However, we have to ask the question: do we think God is good? Do we think God is just? Do we think that God may do things that are both good and just that we do not and, at least right now, cannot understand? As a child who does not understand cavities, I might find my parents quite unjust in not letting me have candy for dinner, but I am not in a position to know or understand why. My parent has the right to give or not give candy. That is a role that they have been tasked with. God has the right to judge, and as the One who created us, He even has the right to take life. The wages of sin is death, and the worker deserves his wages. God seemingly does not deal with the world as He once did now that Christ has come, but one day we will all be judged by God. And He reserves that right.
Third, without Christianity, how can we even complain about evil and suffering? Let me explain. As many have pointed out before, without God there is not much reason to believe in an objective morality, or a moral law. Morality, then, is purely subjective, derived from evolutionary beliefs (which are more concerned with survival than with truth) or society. But “morality” is necessarily arbitrary and an illusion then. A genocide is only good or bad depending on who defines it. The Jewish people would consider the holocaust evil, but Nazis would consider it good for the world. Who is correct? Whoever wins that battle would be the one to define whether it was good or bad. Many of the more consistent atheists have admitted this point. They can’t really say that Hitler was evil – he just was, a product of his genetics and environment. Nothing more, nothing less. To them, any idea of moral “progress” is an illusion, as well. And within their worldview of naturalism, this is completely logically consistent.
Now, let’s just say then that there is some moral standard that is in the world. What then compels us to follow it? Mathematics exists whether we choose to agree with it or not. Two plus two will always be four. But there is no moral obligation to follow mathematics. We can use it or not use it. So even if we say there is some sort of morality that exists, there is no oughtness attached to following that law unless there is someone or something that holds us ultimately accountable to it.
Let’s take the argument even further. Why is any of this a problem? To the naturalist, life is just full of pain and that’s all there is. Animals hurt other animals, and we are just animals. Other worldviews might say that the problem isn’t with suffering, but with desire, which leads to suffering. Or they might consider this world a bit of an illusion anyway, so suffering is not really something one needs to fix – being under the illusion that this world is reality is what needs to be fixed.
So, now, what do I mean when I say that evil, suffering, and pain are only a problem in Christianity? Because Christianity is the only worldview that states that there is a moral law, that we are held accountable to it, and that the world is supposed to be good . In the Christian worldview, when we see evil and suffering, we can truly say that it is wrong, that it shouldn’t be that way, and that it must be stopped. This is a very common understanding in the West, but it is one truly founded on Christian foundations. And so to criticize Christianity in the face of suffering is to criticize the one thing that allows you to truly and fully answer the injustice.
Now that I have gotten some of those preliminary remarks out of the way, let’s look specifically at the issue of the Amalekites. We should first understand that the Amalekites were being judged because they attacked, with no provocation, Israel as they fled slavery in Egypt (and several times after that). They were tired and relatively defenseless. God miraculously delivered them from that attack, however. Since there was no provocation – no squabble over land – this episode has been traditionally interpreted as being an attack by a particularly evil people who were more concerned with attacking Yahweh than with attacking Israel. The Amalekites were nomadic raiders known for their fierceness and harshness. Their style of warfare has been described as “barbaric, guerilla war.”
When we get a better picture of who the Amalekites were, then we begin to see that they were being judged for a particular wickedness that was used to terrorize others. When we think of the “poor Amalekites,” we should keep that in mind and compare them to contemporary examples of terrorists. This was not, then, the destruction of an ethnic people; it was not an ethnically-motivated geno cide. This was a divine judgment on a sinful, brutal regime.
With that said, we also have to understand the way in which the culture from which the Old Testament arose spoke about warfare in that time. They might say something like, “you must kill every man and woman, child, animal, etc.” but it was not meant as a literal command. This has been likened to someone who says that one football team will “totally annihilate” another; we understand that this is language, and that they will just be playing a football game. This hyperbolic consideration is extremely important for understanding these ancient texts. Another thing to consider is that the word herem , which is usually translated as “totally destroy,” may have different meanings based on current research in the literature of ancient Near Eastern peoples. As Old Testament scholar John Walton helpfully uncovered, the word can also mean something more like displacing a people or removing their culture. This would be similar to the de-Nazification that Germany underwent after the end of World War II. Another Old Testament scholar, Richard Hess, has shown that the word often refers to the “destruction” only of political leaders and their armies, but not noncombatants.
At this point you might be saying that that all sounds good, but the bible clearly states that all of the Amalekites were eventually annihilated. As a matter of fact, Saul lost favor with God for leaving some of them alive. So then, when the Amalekite king, Agag, is killed later, that should have been the last Amalekite alive because the Bible affirms that they were utterly destroyed. There are a few problems with that, though. If the bible is not just using hyperbolic language of the time, then it is hard to explain why we later see Amalekites still living! And not just one or two, but whole communities later in the biblical narrative. And this isn’t a case of a Bible contradiction between two different authors; while other biblical authors do also mention living Amalekites (who usually still hate Israel, such as in the case of Haman the Agagite, a descendent of King Agag, in the book of Esther), the Amalekites are mentioned later in the same book , in 1 Samuel 30. And in that passage, notice that it is a whole Amalekite army.
Another clue that we have in understanding that the text is using hyperbolic language and that noncombatants were most likely not in harm’s way is that the “city of Amalek” where the Amalekites were to be totally destroyed was most likely not a city like, say, Chicago. It was not full of men, women, and children. Rather, it may have been a fortified military base, and if so it probably would have been a temporary one since they were nomadic. This may also be true of other battle sites from the Bible, such as Jericho. These were the men who were attacking and terrorizing everyone they came across, not the women and children.
In the end, we see that God’s justice and wrath is always linked to His love. God’s love seeks to protect the innocent and oppressed and those He is in relationship with. If we saw someone attacking our spouse, child, parent, friend, or even a stranger, the loving response would be to stop the attacker, not stand by idly for fear of appearing wrathful. A loving response may also be to prosecute the criminal and remove the threat for other people, as well. God, our ultimate Judge, takes sin seriously. Through Christ, we are all able to be covered in mercy for the sins we committed and for which we will all face judgment. God is just, and towards sin and injustice He will be wrathful; but he is also loving and merciful and He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Instead, he beckons to us all to put down our arms and believe in Christ, who has offered his forgiveness to the whole world (1 Timothy 2:6; 1 John 2:2).
If you are interested in reading more about this issue, you might enjoy Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? and William Webb and Gordon Oeste’s Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric?: Wrestling with Troubling War Texts .
See C. S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain for a development of this understanding.
See John and J. Harvey Walton’s The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest . While I don’t agree with every interpretation in the authors, I believe the work they have done to understand the word herem is very helpful.