Tuesday, September 16, 2014

On Wiping out the Amalekites


One of the controversial parts of the Old Testament is the Lord’s commandment to wipe out the Amalekites so that their memory is erased.

The impetus for this command is after an occasion when a group of Canaanites called Amalekites attack the part of the Israelite camp with the sick, weary, and slow.  The strictness and severity of the command to wipe out the memory of the Amalekites is often questioned because of our distance from the offense they committed, when it was essentially an atrocity against noncombatants and civilians who could not defend themselves, about on par with attacking a hospital and slaughtering all inside.

One of the puzzling things is that even though various successive generations of Israelites destroy what they claim is “all of the Amalekites,” somehow enough Amalekites manage to survive for later generations to have to wipe them out too.

Saul is commanded to destroy the Amalekites, and he does, except for their king Agag, and Samuel has to finish the job.  Yet in the Book of Esther, we run into Haman, who is labeled an Agagite, which makes us thing Agag’s posterity still survived.

David returns home from the battlefront to find the Amalekites have attacked his hometown and carried away captive everyone, and he has to go rescue them.  Earlier than that, he goes on a raid against Amalekites and wipes them all out, presumably following that ancient command of Moses.

Even more interesting, occasionally editors of papers in Israel call for people to take up arms against the Amalekites around them who threaten their families.

How can Amalekites be wiped out generation after generation and still spring up again? 

Another interesting part of that story of Saul killing the Amalekites is that before he attacks, he finds Kenites living among the Amalekites, and he warns them to get out from among them so they aren’t destroyed too.  So the Kenites leave.  How did Saul know who was Kenite and who was Amalekite then? 

For that matter, how did any Israelite know an Amalekite from any other people?  Did they inquire after their genealogy and then attack?   Or was there a characteristic that instantly identified a group as Amalekite?  

Another question that troubles us is: Why did successive generations of Amalekites deserve to die?  If they deserved it, why weren’t their crimes recorded so that future generations could be sure their deaths were merited?   We place much importance on justice being done and in order to mentally exonerate the ancient Israelites of the charge of genocide, we feel we have to put the Amalekites on trial and hear the evidence that they were worthy of death.  But since there is very little evidence in the Bible, we conclude that no such evidence existed and that the executions were unfair.

I finally came up with a theory that explains why Amalekites continued to exist and continued to require destruction.  It also explains why their crimes were not recorded after the first inciting atrocity. 

My theory is that the classification of “Amalekite” may have begun as a particular culture, but didn’t have to stay that way.  Instead, it lived on as a behavior profile and the characteristic that identified someone as an Amalekite were the same actions that got the Amalekites under holy death sentence from God in the first place—attacking the weak, the sick, and those unable to defend themselves.   This is extremely predatory behavior.  Thus, anyone who did such a thing was to be considered an Amalekite and worthy of being wiped out. 

This is why Samuel commanded Saul to kill the Amalekites.  It meant that some group of people was being called Amalekites because of the atrocities they had just committed, and their acts required a response.   For Saul to leave Agag alive was to fail to punish the instigator of those atrocities.

This is why David went on raids against the Amalekites.  We are merely told of those raids and are meant to understand and take for granted that they happened because some group of people (labeled Amalekites) had committed atrocities against the weakest citizens who were unable to defend themselves.    This is also why David, when he comes back to find the city Ziklag looted and his women and children kidnapped, has to go chasing down more Amalekites to rescue his people.

The man who claims he killed King Saul is identified as an Amalekite.  Coincidence?   No.  If you read the account, you start to see that the man was predatory and taking advantage of the weak.

Haman, by plotting the death of the entire Jewish people in such a way that they were not allowed to defend themselves, is easily identified as a predatory type.  You don’t have to look at his genealogy to see that he fits the Amalekite profile.

So what do we learn from this?  In the commandment to wipe the Amalekites from the earth, we start to see not irrational cruelty and genocide as many often suppose, but an ancient measure to moderate war before there was ever thought of such a thing as the Geneva Convention.   It also bit both ways.  It was a command to put an end to any other people who commit such atrocities as the Amalekites had once committed, and implicitly a strict command to confine military aggression to those who can actually fight back (lest one become an Amalekite oneself).

Now..  you make the call.

Can Hitler be called an Amalekite?
How about suicide bombers?
What about terrorists?