The Amalekites and Options for Apologists

I have been having a very interesting discussion with a Christian correspondent who calls himself “Veritas.” Discussions of this sort all too often generate far more heat than light, so let me first note that in our interactions the contributions by Veritas have been consistently intelligent, courteous, and candid. The focus of our conversation has been a particular scriptural passage, I Samuel 15: 1-3. For convenience, let me quote these verses:

“Samuel said to Saul, “The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel. Now listen to the voice of the Lord. This is the very word of the Lord of Hosts: ‘I am resolved to punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel, how they attacked them on their way up from Egypt.’ Go now and fall upon the Amalekites and destroy them, and put their property under ban. Spare no one; put them all to death, men, women, children, and babes in arms, herds and flocks, camels and asses.”

The problem raised by this passage is obvious. God, speaking through his prophet Samuel, apparently orders the slaughter of an entire community of people, of both sexes and of all ages, and the destruction of all they possess. Veritas, with admirable frankness, admits that the passage says precisely what it appears to say. God does indeed order the extirpation of an entire community. Of course, this is not the only passage in scripture where actions of a sort normally considered heinous are ordered or endorsed by God. One other that comes to mind right away is in II Kings, Chapter 2 where the prophet Elisha curses some children that had taunted him, and God sends two she-bears that maul forty two of the children. With a bit of diligence, many such passages can be discovered.

Perhaps Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason was exaggerating when he spoke of the “unrelenting vindictiveness” which he says fills more than half the Bible. Unquestionably, though, there are many passages that present a problem for the apologist. Taken straightforwardly as saying what they appear to say, they invite the judgment that God has commanded something morally reprehensible, and the apologist has the burden of showing that the appearance is deceiving and that the command of God was just and righteous in this instance.

Let’s focus just on the passage from I Samuel. A preliminary question is one of semantics, what do we call the extermination of the Amalekites? Do we call it “genocide?” Veritas objects to this terminology because God is not ordering the deaths of all Amalekites everywhere, only those within the land of Israel. God’s order to Saul is not a call for the elimination of a particular nation, race, or ethnicity, but only their elimination from a certain locale. I am not sure that this argument holds. If Hitler had declared that he only sought the destruction of Jews of Europe, while being unconcerned with those in, say, Argentina or Australia, would the destruction of European Jewry no longer rightly be called a “genocide?” Perhaps the reply would be that the Nazis murdered Jews on the basis of a notion of “race,” a modern concept unknown to the OT. Still, the Amalekites in Israel were identified as a particular people, nation, or tribal group that Saul was ordered to destroy utterly (I Samuel: 15:18). The action, in fact, looks disturbingly similar to the “ethnic cleansing” made notorious in the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

The stark reality is that an entire community was slaughtered, and we need to remember what that meant in the context of ancient warfare. Modern warfare has made massacre a much more efficient process. Now the push of a button can kill enormous numbers instantly many miles away. In those days it was messier. To kill an entire community you had to do it one-by-one, unless, perhaps, you could herd them into a building which you set on fire. Those killed individually were impaled by arrows or spears, or hacked with swords. Those fleeing had to be chased down and those hiding rooted out. Husbands were cut down in front of wives, and parents in front of children. The sick and dying had to be pulled from beds, and infants torn from mothers. When those who perpetrated the butchery had finished, they would have been sodden with gore and the screams would still be ringing in their ears.

Now, I have offered this lurid description not to inject emotion into what should be a rational discussion. I simply insist that, whatever name we give to the actions committed by the Israelites against the Amalekites, the true horror of its nature not be obscured.

Now, for the apologist who, like Veritas, takes the passage straightforwardly as ordering a general massacre of the Amalekite community, what are the options for justification? First, we must ask, justified for whom? Is it sufficient for the apologist to justify the passage (i.e. to show that God’s order to Saul was righteous and just) only for those who share his particular Christian worldview? On the other hand, does the apologist have the harder task of justifying it to those of us who do not have that view? Traditionally, the field of apologetics has sought to defend faith by an appeal to generally rational considerations, not just tenets accepted only by Christians. Apologetics is traditionally a kind or rational evangelism; you proselytize by appealing to the minds of unbelievers. Conceived as such, apologetics is not a purely defensive procedure, but attempts to justify Christian claims by principles, beliefs, and intuitions endorsed by the unbeliever.

The point here may be clarified by recalling a distinction made by Alvin Plantinga. In dealing with the general problem of evil, and not just the apparent evil of certain scriptural passages, Plantinga says that Christians can offer either a “defense” or a “theodicy.” A defense has the modest aim of showing that theistic belief is rational even given the occurrence of certain horrendous evils. The one offering a defense does not claim to explain why God permits evils; Plantinga candidly admits that he has no idea why God permits some evils. However, the defender argues that the theist can rationally believe that God does have a morally sufficient reason for permitting evils without having any idea what that reason might be. To support such a defense, only tenets internal to theistic belief need to be adduced. If the believer’s reasons do not move the unbeliever, the theist need not care.

A theodicy, on the other hand, is more ambitious. It attempts to explain the ways of God to humans, i.e. to appeal to broadly shared ethical intuitions and principles to show that God’s permission of evil is in fact a good thing. For a theodicy to work, the theist has to appeal to broader principles, intuitions, and beliefs, not merely those internal to a Christian worldview. For instance, Richard Swinburne says that God permits moral evil in order to give humans responsibility for themselves and make them co-creators of their own destiny. Being responsible for yourself and making your own destiny sound like good things to many people, not just Christians.

So, in the attempt to justify I Samuel 15: 1-3, should the apologist offer a “defense” that shows that those who share his Christian worldview can reasonably accept God’s order to Saul as righteous and just? On the other hand, should he offer a “theodicy” that shows to the rest of us that, despite its horrific appearance, the massacre of the Amalekites was really righteous and just? There are advantages and disadvantages of each approach.

The advantage of taking the “defense” approach is that it is dead easy to do. It would go like this:

1) God is perfectly holy, righteous, and just.

2) Therefore, whatever God orders is holy, righteous, and just.

3) God ordered Saul to exterminate the Amalekites.

4) Therefore, the extermination of the Amalekites is holy, righteous and just.

The apologist and those who share his worldview are wholly convinced of the holiness, righteousness, and justice of God. They may not know just why God ordered the destruction of the Amalekites, but they are quite sure that it was for a good reason.

The unbeliever may be nonplussed by such an argument, but why should Christians care about that? The skeptic may demand that the believer explain his confidence in God’s goodness, given precisely the challenge of verses like the one in question. The Christian can answer with the philosophical equivalent of “I just know. Nyah Nyah.” (Actually, I consider some of Plantinga’s arguments to be philosophically sophisticated equivalents of thumbing his nose and blowing a raspberry). Christians could say that they have encountered a God of perfect, loving goodness and that such experience trumps any appearances to the contrary. The skeptic may gnash his teeth over such a response; to him it sounds like the bumper sticker “God said it. I believe it. And that settles it.” However, the believers can repose in the confidence that they have made themselves invincible to counterargument.

Such invincibility is also the weakness of such an approach. It is always possible to hermetically seal yourself into your own worldview and defy anyone to do anything about it. As Quine showed with his metaphor of the “web of belief,” anyone determined at all costs to hold onto a conviction can always do so. Counterargument and contrary evidence can always be managed by adjusting other strands of your belief-web, while leaving the protected beliefs in place. The problem is that such intellectual insulation is marginalizing and Balkanizing. True, nobody can refute you, but they will not believe you either, or even take you seriously. To skeptics, you will appear to be the victim of a sad delusion that has deranged your moral sensibilities to the point that you feel compelled to accept the manifestly unacceptable, e.g. mass murder. The unbeliever will not be able to refute you. Instead, he will just write you off. Some Christians may be quite happy to live in such a state of mutual disdain and dismissal with unbelievers. So be it.

Again, though, Christianity has traditionally been committed to stating its case to unbelievers, using unbelievers’ own canons of rationality and morality to support the truth of the Christian revelation. From Paul on the Athenian Areopagus to Thomas Aquinas to Richard Swinburne and William Lane Craig, Christian intellectuals have sought out the skeptic in his own abode and argued that by even secular standards of rationality and morality, Christianity is the most reasonable and moral position. C.S. Lewis spent his career as an apologist trying to take the argument to the infidel, and to argue on the infidel’s terms. To argue with the unbeliever, you have to open your hermeneutical circle to him; you have to be willing to argue on his terms, not just your own.

The obvious downside of arguing on the unbeliever’s terms is that you might lose the argument. It is not a sure thing like arguing only on your own terms. For instance, how would you justify I Samuel 15: 1-3 to an unbeliever, one to whom the passage plainly seems to mean that God ordered mass murder? How do you argue that, yes, it was a mass killing, but not mass murder? It was a terrible thing, true, like the bombing of cities in World War II. However, like that bombing, it was something that had to be done to serve a higher purpose.

The most likely way of attempting this with respect to the verses in question is to claim that the Amalekites were intransigently, irredeemably, and egregiously evil. Their presence within the confines of Israel was a cancer that had to be cut out in its entirety. No half-measure would do. Maybe the Amalekites were like the legendary 16th Century Scottish cannibal Sawney Bean, who supposedly headed an incestuous clan of cannibals. They would waylay travelers, murder them, and cannibalize them. When the authorities discovered their hideout, they were apprehended and expeditiously and without trial executed—men, women, and children—by the disgusting means of capital punishment of the day. Maybe it will be argued that the Amalekites were that bad and deserved a similar summary extermination.

The problem with such an argument is that there just is no evidence to justify such a judgment. True, the Amalekites were a fierce desert tribe. They were probably very much like other desert tribes then and later. In The Blue Nile, Alan Moorhead described the Bedouins of Egypt who harassed Napoleon’s armies. The Bedouins were quite happy to attack any strangers who were passing by. Living in harsh conditions made them hard and pitiless towards outsiders, whom they were happy to ambush given the opportunity. Another comparison would be with the Mongols of the 13th Century, whose fierceness was exploited by Temujin in uniting them to form his invincible army.

Yes, the Amalekites were pretty rough customers, but admitting this falls far short of justifying their total extermination or of viewing them as demonically evil. A more telling comparison would be between the Amalekites and fierce Native American tribes like the Apaches or Comanches. The Comanches were badasses; their ferocity is still legendary here in Texas. There is no question that you would not have wanted to be a settler who was on the receiving end of a Comanche raid. Yet, the treatment of Native Americans like the Apaches and Comanches remains one of the darkest blots on American history. Often, as with the Amalekites, whole communities were destroyed. How can the defender of I Samuel 15 expect to justify the Israelite’s actions to those who are appalled at the similar treatment of Native Americans?

In my discussions with Veritas, I gathered that the most objectionable transgression of the Amalekites was not their rapacity but their idolatry. They persisted in worshipping “false gods” in the very land that God had promised to Israel. It was this culture of persistent and unrepentant idolatry that made the Amalekites so very offensive to God, prompting his extermination order. The Promised Land was to be a pure and holy precinct where only The Lord was to be worshipped. All other worship was an abomination to be wiped out.

This argument is even less persuasive to skeptics than the previous one. As the skeptic reads the Bible, here is the scenario: God leads the Children of Israel from bondage in Egypt. He promises them a homeland of their own, and, after a forty year peregrination in the desert, he locates them in the only part of the Middle East with no oil (sorry). Seriously, the “Land of Milk and Honey” is given to the Israelites as part of their covenant with the Lord. He will guard and protect them if they will keep his ways. There is only one slight complication: Indigenous people already live in the land promised to Israel. They do not worship The Lord and have their own gods and customs. According to the Bible, these supernumeraries are to be given three choices: (a) be evicted from your ancestral home, (b) give up your gods and customs and convert to the True Religion, (c) be exterminated.

To the skeptic, this scenario does not sound too good. The Israelites moved in, took over, and killed the people already there if they did not leave or convert. Of course, the Israelites claim that they are authorized to do so because that land they are given is to be a pure and sacred land, devoted exclusively to the worship of The Lord. To the skeptic this sounds very much like what Al Qaida and such other radical Islamists say about the outrage of infidels being present in Muslim lands. The Radical Islamist could agree wholeheartedly with the principle expressed in I Samuel 15: 1-3, that is, that no infidels are to be allowed in the lands set aside for the faithful. The Islamists would only disagree as to the identity of the deity that rightly issues such an order—Allah not Yahweh.

Judging by Veritas’ response, he would say that, yes, Muslims can make the same claim, but they are wrong, and the Israelites were right. Israel worshipped the True God and the Muslims do not. OK, you can take that line, but it obviously vastly increases your burden of proof. The justification for the passages in question now depends upon a whole, massive program of apologetic to prove that the Judeo-Christian God is in fact the true one. Only by proving this can you avoid the charge that you are engaging in special pleading, justifying actions for some (the true believers) that are not justified when committed by others. The ball is therefore in the apologist’s court, and the ball weighs a million tons.

So, I Samuel, chapter 15 presents the apologist with a number of options. None of them sounds very good.