Chas Licciardello who hosts the PEP podcast – an offshoot of the ABC’s Planet America TV show, discussed the Bible story of the Amalekites with Dr David Smith of the University of Sydney US Studies Centre.
Licciardello recounts the charges against Israel cited by the South Africans at the International Court of Justice – “On the 20th of October, 2023, as Israeli forces prepared their land invasion of Gaza, the Prime Minister invoked the biblical story of the total destruction of Amalek.”
Smith “There has been a lot written about this.”
Licciardello: “Yes, by the Israelites stating, ‘you must remember what Amalek has done to you says our Holy Bible.’ And we do remember the Prime Minister referred again to Amalek in the letter sent on 3rd of November, 2023 to Israel soldiers and officers, the relevant biblical passage reads as follows, ‘now go attack Amalek and prescribe all that belongs to him. Spare no one but killer like men and women, infants and sucklings, ox and sheep, camels, and asses.’ …
“Israel interestingly said that ‘there is no need here for a theological discussion on the meaning of Amalek and Judaism, which was indeed not understood by the applicant.’ That’s what they said in the case. They went on to say that there were bits from the speech that were missed out by South Africa. But I’m interested in having the theological discussion because it seems to me, at least according to some pieces I’ve read that they got the wrong passage from the Bible.”
Smith: “Oh, right.”
Licciardello: “The quote they have is from Deuteronomy 25:17–18, which refers to an enemy clan that pursued and murdered the Israelites. ‘Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey after you left Egypt? How undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march when you were famished and weary and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.’ [The Jewish Publication Society 1985 translation] The Bible then asked the Israelites to blot out the memory of Amalek.”
The Jewish translation of Deuteronomy 25 cited by Licciardello continues, “Therefore, when the LORD your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”
Smith: “That’s the key bit. Yes. ‘Blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.’ Yes. Yes. “
Licciardello: “Okay. All right, so that is different to the one from Samuel, which is about killing men, women, camels, oxen, all that stuff. Yes. That’s from Samuel. That’s a different Bible passage. Yes. Okay, so now just to be clear, and that’s not a lame excuse [using] Deuteronomy. No, because, apparently, it’s quite a famous phrase In Jewish culture; they use it a lot. In fact, Israel’s a Holocaust memorial refers to as well the Hague’s Holocaust memorial is actually called the Amalek Monument.”
Smith responds by discussing the blotting out of memory, in the book Religious Intolerance America and the World, A history of Forgetting and Remembering by John Corrigan. Corrigan makes the point that to be told to blot something out violently probably will mean you remember it. “Corrigan talks about how Amalek was one of the most widely cited things in American sermons in the 19th century. And for him, the key thing is actually the blotting out. It’s not just that you want to eliminate them, it’s you want to eliminate them from memory. And his argument is, though, that when you commit acts of violence like that, you never eliminate it from memory. The memory lives on and your attempts to blot out the memory actually then manifest themselves in all kinds of ways, including your own persecution complex.”
However for Christians the emphasis on blotting out memory can not be our sole focus. The Deuteronomy 25 and 1 Samuel 15 passages are linked.
Amalek, the Amalekites founder is the son of Esau, Abraham’s grandson. The 1 Samuel passage tells the downfall of King Saul. God tells Saul to punish the Amalekites for attacking the Children of Israel on their journey to the promised land, recorded in Deuteronomy 15. “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’” (1 Samuel 15:2–3 NIV).
But we read later in verse 8 and 9 “He took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and all his people he totally destroyed with the sword. But Saul and the army spared Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs—everything that was good.”
Samuel rebukes Saul for not following the instructions, and Samuel tells Agag. “As your sword has made women childless, so will your mother be childless among women,” and kills him.
The Israeli argument to the International court of Justice was that to blot out the Amalekites was an instruction not to remember them.
But many Christians will agree with the South Africans in linking both parts of the story, the physical wiping out of Amalekites that took place place under Samuel, as fulfilling the instruction in Deuteronomy 25 to blot them out from memory.
For those of us who regard the Bible as authoritative, agreeing with the South Africans or not about Netanyahu’s quote, the story of the destruction of the Amalekites is something we wrestle with.
“The story … undoubtably presents a serious moral moral problem to the moral reader , although non will dispute that Amalek deserved signal punishment’ is how The New Bible Commentary puts it. “It is their ‘utter destruction’ (v.3) that is the difficulty. However, the very phrase, in Hebrew means ‘to devote to Yahweh’; i.e their deaths were not regarded as an execution but as being in some sense sacrificial.
This makes some sense of the footnote in the NIV. “The Hebrew term refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the Lord, often by totally destroying them;”
Instead of the NIV “totally destroy” the ESV reads “devote to destruction’ with a footnote in the study Bible “this practice , known as ‘imposing the ban’ denotes setting aside something as the lord’s share. usually this meant that all living things – men women and children and livestock were to be killed.
The Hebrew word ‘ ‘herem,’ the ban, involves some of the Bible’s most perplexing verses. In an article “Understanding the Herem” in the academic journal Tyndall Bulletin, author JPU Lilley points out the Amelekites were a special case, subject to greater punishment than Saul’s other opponents, possibly because they were raiders. Lilley makes the case that the invasion of Canaan was God’s punishment in a Gospel Coalition article. article.
Australian apologist Dan Paterson bravely tackles the moral dilemma in a piece “Did God command genocide?” He posts four statements “which cannot all be true.”
- God is good
- The Bible is True
- Genocide is evil
- According to the Bible, God commands genocide.
Tackling number three, Paterson writes “They argue that while it is wrong for human rulers to play God, as it turns out, God is God. As the author of life, as the judge of all humanity, and as the only one who possess perfect foreknowledge and wisdom to know when and how to intervene as the best possible course of action, God has the unique right, indeed the responsibility, to execute judgment. These scholars typically point to the depravity of the Canaanite culture, who were known to ritually sacrifice their own children to pagan gods, as justification for God’s judgment, highlighting God’s patience with the Canaanites where for 450 years he was warning them to repent.
While for number 4 he writes “There is a growing body of Christian scholars who argue that God’s commands to Israel are better interpreted as a charter to exile the Canaanites for their evil, not exterminate them.” The Amalekites are a hard case for 4.
Paterson’s piece is worth reading in full as someone who is wrestling with this topic.
In an Undeceptions podcast, John Dickson argues against using the term genocide for what happened in ancient Canaan as the Israelites invaded, on the basis that people like Rahab were saved. The Podcast feature notes “In the book of Deuteronomy, a full rationale for why the Canaanites were to be removed from the land is given. And it’s not because of the sanctity of Israel — God makes clear that Israel is unworthy of what they are to receive.
“Canaan is wicked. Israel is unworthy.
“’It is unusual in the extreme for a “holy war” story to say (repeatedly) that the ‘heroes’ of the story were themselves unworthy of the victory!’”’ Dickson comments in the undeceptions article.
“Other nations at the time were described as wicked in the Old Testament, including Egypt, Syria and Babylon. But God did not command their destruction. There was a particular reason for Canaan.
“’It was a unique act of judgement on a particular people at a particular time, and never practiced again in [Israel’s] long history.
“’Even at the height of [Israel’s] settled power in the 10th-8th centuries BC, three or four hundred years after the conquest of Canaan, the Israelites were not instructed to go out conquering other territories to expand the borders of Israel.
“’However much we may detest what Joshua and his armies did in Canaan during their 20-year campaign twelve or thirteen centuries before Christ, the inner logic of that campaign ran counter to genocide, tribalism, and any ongoing military expansionism.”
Making the case regarding genocide, considering the case of the Amalekites on their own, which occurred after that Joshua-led invasion that Dickson is talking about, is more difficult.
The Biblical accounts of the Israelites’ battle with the Amalekites are important for Christians to wrestle with. This applies which ever side one takes on whether the Bible was used well by PM Netanyahu or by the South Africans in the International Court of Justice by South Africa.
PM Netanyahu’s argument that in citing Amalek he is only referring to blotting the out of memory might be accurate as far as the Jewish tradition’s use of the term (or not).
But for Christians, wrestling with the issue of what happened to the Amalekites in the Bible, is something we can’t avoid.
Image: Map by biblemapper.com