Monday, January 28, 2013

Kill all Amalekites!

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Yet another post springing from a recent episode of the Unbelievable show...

The discussion on the show on Saturday 12th January (link to the show audio) concerned the "Amalekite genocide" in I Samuel 15. My summary of the main points of the Biblical story is as follows:
  1. God instructed Saul, through Samuel, to slaughter all the Amalekite people as a punishment for what they did to the Israelite people on their way out of Egypt, several centuries before. 
  2. Verse 3 is explicit: "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." - This is presented as the direct Word of God.
  3. Saul carried out an attack on the Amalekite people, but did not utterly destroy them.
  4. God, through Samuel, chastises Saul for not carrying out the total destruction, and rejects him as king over Israel. 
  5. Samuel himself kills the king of Amalek who was spared and, in a later chapter, David destroys the remaining Amalekites. These two show obedience to the command of God, which Saul did not.
The discussion on Unbelievable was between the Revd. John Allister, an Anglican vicar, and Justin Schieber, an atheist (former Christian) and host of the podcast Reasonable Doubts. I have to say that the role played by Schieber in this debate was mostly to be incredulous and point out the plain meaning of the text, which is apparent to anyone.

John Allister's defence of the Biblical story and the God portrayed therein would have been comical, had the subject in hand not been such a horrible one of slaughter and genocide. His take on the issue was basically as follows:
  1. God did issue the command, as given.
  2. But armies are slow moving things and people have plenty of time to run away, so the only people who should have fought the Israelite army were soldiers; all able bodied women, children and non-fighting men would have easily got away and would therefore not have been slaughtered.
  3. It is reasonable to assume that no children or infants were actually killed as a consequence of this command.
  4. The Amalekite people who escaped could have assimilated into other tribes - the aim of this was not to destroy individual people, but a tribal identity.
So, in summary, his defence is that God commanded it, but it never happened, even though the bible stories are true...

This is nonsense on so many different levels. But so is the response of several of the people who called or e-mailed in to Unbelievable the following week. A common theme in their responses was that the slaughter of the innocents must have been necessary, but it is morally acceptable because all innocents who died would have gone to heaven. Once again, this is the use of an unseen, but infinite, good to explain or justify a seen, but finite, evil.

Come again? It appears that a commonly held belief is that any infant or innocent child who dies goes straight to heaven. What about original sin? What about freewill? If the people who believe this actually considered the implications of their belief, they would find that the only logical conclusion - assuming that the general aim of Evangelicalism is to get lost souls to heaven - would be to kill all infants at birth, bypassing their freewill and assuring their salvation. If we let children grow up then we run the risk that they might reject God and be damned. Of course, I'm not advocating this, I'm merely pointing out how this argument - as used by William Lane Craig, I believe - is inconsistent nonsense and provides no solution to the problem inherent in this passage.

John Allister's case is no better. He believes that no children actually died. But if, as he believes, the command came from an omniscient God, then why would God give the command? If God knew that no children would die, then why command anything to do with children? No, that doesn't wash. If the command came from an omniscient God, then he knew there would be children there and he knew that they would die, and furthermore, following my reasoning above, that some of them would be going to hell.

I can't see an acceptable way to understand this passage within an Evangelical mindset. Either we have to abandon an inerrant/inspired view of the passage or we have to abandon a view of an omnibenevolent God. There is no middle ground.

So what are the available options of what happened:
  1. That the events happened as described.
    As I've noted above, this necessarily entails that God is not a God of love.

  2. That the events happened as described, that Samuel genuinely believed he had a revelation from God, but that he was misguided and God never issued such a command.
    This option gets God off the hook, but undermines any claims about the inerrancy or inspiration of scripture. It also casts doubt over any and all claims of revelation from God. I mean, if Samuel got it wrong and didn't hear from God clearly, then what hope is there for the rest of us?

  3. That the events (battles, slaughter) happened, more or less as described, but that the command of God and the human dialogue was added by a later storyteller in an attempt to explain why the events happened as they did.
    The supposition here, made by the later historian/storyteller is that the events must have happened because of a divine command, so a divine command was invented to explain an otherwise senseless slaughter. For several years I have found myself drawn to this line of reasoning when dealing with problem passages of Israelite history where God appears to command an immoral action. The assumption is that the history is basically true, but the analysis was fabricated to shift the blame for the immoral actions from the people to their God. An immoral action becomes acceptable if God commands it, right? Or it could simply be a way to insert God into a story which he really had nothing to do with. But all history is God's story, isn't it? So he must have been involved. However, I have come to realise that the only reason to hold to this line of thinking is an attempt to maintain some sort of inspiration or authority of scripture. Even though logic led me to the conclusion that the whole story couldn't be true because of the problems described above, my natural inclination was to preserve some of the authority of the bible by finding a way to ensure that some, at least, of the story was true. But if we're honest with ourselves here, that simply doesn't wash. Which brings us to the final possibility...

  4. That the events simply did not happen.
    Once you've given up on this passage as being in any way an inspired account of a historical event, you have to consider why this passage is included in the bible. Well, its there to teach us about God, isn't it? But if we've rejected the view of God which this passage paints, that is, God simply cannot be like the character described here, and we realise that the main intent of the story is to convey a message about God, not a message about history and human battles, we have to consider the option that perhaps the whole incident is simply made up. Certainly, as far as I know, there is no historical evidence (outside of the bible) for these events. This is just the same as the alleged Canaanite genocide from the days of Joshua, there we get the same arguments, but there we have a greater amount of archaeological evidence. Evidence that the biblical stories of conquest and slaughter simply did not happen. Maybe there were some minor skirmishes, and some children died, etc., but there was no genocide, commanded by God or otherwise.
So a serious consideration of the facts, the evidence and the arguments leads me to the conclusion that the story of the Amalekite genocide in the Old Testament is simply fiction. It was probably written many (tens or hundreds of) years after the time of the alleged events and reflects more the beliefs and wishes of the storyteller than anything in real history.
If that's the case here, why can't that also be the case for the rest of the old (and new) testament?
If the Bible is not true here, then where - if anywhere - is it true, and how can you distinguish the truth from the fiction? I still haven't found an acceptable answer to that question.

A couple of the responses to this Unbelievable show which were read out in subsequent weeks expressed the opinion that because God is the author and originator of life, it is therefore entirely within his rights to take it away. Everyone dies at some point, right? And presumably God determines when that point is? So whether you live or die, and how long you live for is all God's choice. He has the right to end life as he sees fit, even if this is the life of an ostensibly innocent child. Right?

No. I can't accept that. Suppose I give you a gift for Christmas. I can't reclaim it in January. That would not be right. So how can it be right for God to take away the gift of life? But even if God has the right to reclaim life at any time, claiming the life of an innocent child, before the child has had the opportunity to exercise their freewill in choosing whether or not to follow God, is still wrong. As we've seen above, the child's eternal destiny cannot be assured, so reclaiming the life of innocent children must mean consigning some of them to hell or, at least, annihilation.


Mike Blyth said...

"If the Bible is not true here, then where - if anywhere - is it true, and how can you distinguish the truth from the fiction? I still haven't found an acceptable answer to that question."

I think you're right, and it's a serious problem. I know a lot of people somehow hold to the inspiration of the Bible (not inerrancy) despite this kind of difficulty, but I don't understand how that works. There is the idea of Christocentric interpretation, seeing everything in Scripture in the light of the witness to Christ, but so far that has not clicked for me.

Ian Boys said...

The main querstion for me here is why god didn't tell all the jewish army? Why just one person?

Basically god didn't tell anyone anything - a king wanted it done and invoked god's name. That's how kings work and it entirely consistent with there being no god in the first place.

Chuck said...

This is a difficult issue, but it seems to me you have given up too easily, I would encourage you to continue to wrestle with the text.

Ricky Carvel said...


I'm still wrestling with many passages, not just this one.

But how do you resolve this issue to your own satisfaction?


Momma Bean said...

Still wrestling, came upon your blog while looking up numerous opinions. My son is choosing to be an atheist at present, and he (along with every other atheist I have ever known) considers this passage a prime example of why they cannot believe.
A lot is at stake, and I do not want to just give it a superficial glance. Let the wrestling continue.

Chuck said...

that was me not my wife