A Courteous Contrararian

Religion of Peace?

Written By: Jon Jaroszewski - Apr• 22•15

You might think I refer here to Islam, but no. Islam is caught up in a hopelessly anachronistic attempt to revive its fortunes by the classic power move. Its leaders blame its failures on its adherents. If only they were purer, better, like those seventh and eighth century followers, Islam could return to its former glory.

No, I refer to the other Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Judaism. One thing unbelievers of one sort or another often bring up to criticize Christianity in our violent heritage. I’d like to discount various atrocities committed by believers on the grounds that they were really committed by human beings, just like every other atrocity.

Instead, I’d like to think about an atrocity instigated by God. Against the Amalekites. You might be familiar with the Old Testament story. Christian apologists certainly are, as they have to defend it. It is, of course, famous among critics of religion.

We don’t have to look at a long passage. One verse will do. The LORD Almighty is speaking. 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 [1Samuel 15:3 NIV]. The question that crosses the mind is: why kill the donkeys? Right?

Why would God suggest what he does in this verse? To the civilized human mind, with our God-given sense of justice, God’s command doesn’t make sense. How could he order children and infants be slaughtered, what could they possibly have done to deserve such a fate?  An early church leader named Marcion was so disturbed by this passage and others like it that he thought and then taught that surely the God of the OT couldn’t be the same as the God of the New. Marcion was branded a heretic but the critics have never gone away.

Apologists for the faith have done their best to defend God. We’ll look at their reasons in a moment. First, let’s let God give his own reason. 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 [1 Samuel 15:2 NIV]. Genocide as revenge. Not the act of a gracious and loving God. At least that’s what we would think.

So the apologists try to make it more palatable. There was a gap of hundreds of years between the Amalekite aggression against Moses and the people and their eventual slaughter, for slaughter them Saul did. He took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and all his people he totally destroyed with the sword [1 Samuel 15:8 NIV]. Luckily, all almost never means all, especially in the OT. Various Amalekites play parts in events at later dates. Oops, sorry for the digression. it is a bad habit.

There is a related verse in which God said the long gap was due to him waiting for the full measure of evil of the Amalekites to come in, and so the apologists use this verse to explain the order for destruction. The Amalekites were irredeemable.

The thinking goes: God is so holy and the Amalekites were so permeated by evil that even the children and infants had to die so they wouldn’t somehow “contaminate” the Israelites or impinge on God’s holiness. He did after all, dwell in the ark among the people.

This explanation, surprisingly, satisfies a lot of Christians. I can’t get past the injustice; or at least I couldn’t until I started to think about it in a different way. Now it makes sense to me, and it helps explain a lot of otherwise unexplainable things about the Bible, including giving us a reasonable explanation for the apparent differences in God from the OT to the NT. If only Marcion had thought of it. (Actually, he would have probably still been found a heretic on other grounds.)

A better way to think about the slaughter only dawned on me when I stopped believing the apologists and starting believing God. The reason for the atrocity had nothing to do with holiness and full measures of evil (not that “the full measure coming in” is not a solid biblical principle). The reason God gives is that they attacked the Israelites at the beginning of the Exodus. They would trail the nation on its sojourn and attack the rear, terrorizing the old and the sick – anybody that couldn’t quite keep up. They were a frequent thorn in Israel’s side.

As the Israelites drove the inhabitants from the promised land, the Amalekites were never defeated. They were a spectre, a goliath before Goliath, and a constant reminder – as if tribal memories didn’t go back far enough on their own – that God’s promises had not quite been fulfilled.

The reason God ordered the destruction of a people was to prove to his Chosen people that he was stronger than the Amalekites; stronger than their gods, who had given them the land, stronger than the gods of the valleys and of the hilltops, stronger than the gods that had held the Israelites in abeyance for so many years. Strange as it seems to the modern mind, God did it to encourage them. Because he loved them.

People were different than we are now. They thought differently and so they acted differently. Violence was much more a way of life. Life was not valued as it is today. It is estimated that in Jesus’ day, possibly a third of all people died a violent death. Murder rates today are 10 or 11 per 100,000 people. Quite a difference. A fall in violence is pretty indicative of an advance in civilization. The two concepts correlate through history. By the Dark Ages, for example, we think homicides had declined to about 400 per 100,000. In fourteenth century Germany, at the end of the Middle Ages I think, the murder rate had dropped to about 70 per 100,000.

So if the murder rate was so high when Jesus introduced us to agape love, think how high it might have been 1000 years earlier. Life was cheap.

Would you prefer biblical proof? Let’s stay within the same time period, maybe 20 or 30 years after Saul slew the Amalekites. David and his mighty men fought to survive in the wilderness where they stayed to elude that very same Saul.

Now David and his men went up and raided the Geshurites, the Girzites and the Amalekites. (From ancient times these peoples had lived in the land extending to Shur and Egypt.) (See, I told you the Amalekites were still around.) Whenever David attacked an area, he did not leave a man or woman alive, but took sheep and cattle, donkeys and camels, and clothes. Then he returned to Achish [1 Samuel 27:8-9 NIV].

Whenever David attacked makes it sound like a commonplace practice. Was David some kind of a monster? Yes, to 21st century eyes. It gets worse. Why did he slaughter everyone he attacked? To get rid of possible witnesses.

He did not leave a man or woman alive to be brought to Gath, for he thought, “They might inform on us and say, ‘This is what David did.’ ” And such was his practice as long as he lived in Philistine territory. Achish trusted David and said to himself, “He has become so obnoxious to his people, the Israelites, that he will be my servant for life.” [1 Samuel 27:11-12 NIV]. David sounds pretty obnoxious to me just now, too. What do we think about Mafioso or gangbangers killing potential witnesses? David was among the earliest and most ruthless gangbangers.

Oops. Sorry the post has gotten so long. The rest (I hope) next time.

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