Compassion Or The Cold Steel: A Case Study Of Old Testament Violence

There are a number of Old Testament passages modern readers often find disturbing.  As someone who deeply loves the bible and the Old Testament, I desperately want everyone to understand it’s message of redemption and grace.  So, let’s take a look at one  such violent episode.  The interpretive principles set forth here will I think apply to most of the passages dealing with unrestricted warfare in the bible.

Read Exodus 17:8-16.

Israel just escaped Egypt and is suddenly attacked by a nomadic desert tribe called the Amalekites.  Israel successfully wards off the assault.  In the aftermath, God says to Moses, “I will utterly blot out the memory Amalek from under the heavens.”  Pretty harsh to say the least.  And he means it.  Several hundred years later, King Saul is severely admonished for refusing to finish the job and letting the Amalek king live.

What’s going on here?  What have these people done?  What’s makes them any different from Israel?  Doesn’t this make God seem like no more than a petty, tribal deity?  How are such actions compatible with the biblical message of undying faithfulness, love, and compassion?  All valid questions.

Psalm 84:4-7 gives us some insight.  Here, the Amalekites are described as genocidal.  They partook in a conspiracy among other tribes in an attempt to annihilate the infant Israel.  The motive is not given.  But for some reason, the Amalekites resolved to kill every Israelite and ambushed the rag tag gaggle of newly freed slaves with that murderous purpose.

But there’s still more.  Read Ex. 17:1-7.  Just before the Amalekite attack, Israel is in a desperate state of health.  The people are thirsty and nearly stone Moses because of it.  The Amalekites choose this moment for their assault, when Israel was at its weakest.  Indeed, the Israelites only escaped because of God’s direct intervention.

Ok, the Amalekites were evil.  But do two wrongs make a right?  Just because they were genocidal maniacs, why is it fine for God to command Israel’s returning the favor?

What’s important here is to remember the grand narrative of the biblical story.  We have to remember Israel’s purpose.  We have to go back to Genesis 12:1-3, God’s revelation and mission to Abraham.  God tells Abraham through him all the clans of the earth will be blessed.  It’s not about one people group being better than another.  It’s not ethnocentrism.  It’s about God’s plan to redeem the world.  It’s about saving humanity from the inside out.  Israel is the vehicle for that plan.  Therefore, Amalek could not be allowed to succeed.  As long as Amalekite lungs drew air, the plan was not safe.  The salvation of the world stood on the brink.

Therefore, this episode testifies to the depth of Amalek’s sin and idolatry, rather than the capriciousness of God.  We make a crucial mistake when we think of these people as innocent bystanders.

But is that fair?  Why did God not just reveal himself to Amalek as he did Israel so they could have a chance at repentance?  He actually did just that.  Exodus 14-15 clearly indicate the purposes of God’s mighty works such as the plagues and the exodus were intended to make his name known and feared among all the nations.  As a result, we

Figures 055 The Battle Between the Israelites ...
Figures 055 The Battle Between the Israelites and Amalekites (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

learn in Joshua 2 the more distant Canaanites have heard of God’s acts.  One can only conclude the Amalekites heard as well.

So what should these people have done?  Well, in short repent of their sin and praise the true God.  In fact, in the very next chapter after the Amalekite battle, we meet a foreigner who does just that, Jethro (Exodus 18).  There is no question this is an intentional contrast on the part of the author.  The nations of the world have two choices when confronted with the awesome reality of the Lord of Hosts.  Praise him to receive redemption and mercy, or rebel and face well-deserved destruction and righteous judgement.  Its a choice we all face.

There is one more crucial point to remember.  No one, anywhere in Scripture who desires to repent and be saved from judgement is turned away.  Anyone can be forgiven.  Case and point, Rahab the prostitute.  Joshua 2 tells her story.  She is confronted by God’s truth and instead of fighting like her countrymen, she demonstrates her trust in God by assisting Israel.  The result?  Even though she belonged to an egregiously sinful city set aside by God for destruction, she is spared and incorporated into Israel due to her faith.  Who is to say there were not also “Amalekite Rahabs.”  I’m almost certain there were.




15 thoughts on “Compassion Or The Cold Steel: A Case Study Of Old Testament Violence

  1. I’m glad to see someone address this.I have always had a difficult time reading the Old Testament because of the violence and the wars…with God’s seeming blessing. Not long ago I was reading quite a few chapters in Jeremiah…and there was such violent descriptions of what happened to those who were on the losing end.

    While I realize that God’s chosen people the Israelites were the chosen people and favored by God, it is hard to balance that with the loving, merciful, forgiving first and foremost… of the New Testament. I wrote a blog when I was reading Jeremiah ‘God’s Love and God’s Justice’…so I know that God needs justice….it just seemed that children and women were to be destroyed as well as the men fighting the battles…why the children??

    It is good ..your point that everyone had a chance to be saved if they would believe in the One True God…but that not many did…. Anyway just some thoughts….Diane

    1. Thanks for your thoughts. Good observations. I agree with much of what you say. Consider a couple of things concerning the children. 1) There were probably not many children involved. Often women and children would leave an area as an opposing army advanced. Thus, when Israel laid siege it was most likely only hardened warriors left. 2) These cultures were grossly perverted, often utilizing forced prostitution and child sacrifice. If allowed to continue, they would could choked out Yahwehism and Christ’s resurrection would not have been possible. Israel’s struggles with idolatry anyway show how likely such a possibility was. 3) These people had plenty of chances to repent. God gave them over 400 years. He was patient and wanted them to live. They chose rebellion. 4) It is a mistake to think the OT and NT Gods are any different. There is much more mercy and compassion in the OT and judgment in the NT than people realize. 5) Lastly, I wouldn’t assume that not many were saved back then. There are clues in the text that much of Israel was mutli-ethnic, made up of people who decided to join them along the way.

      Don’t get me wrong. I’m not comfortable with many of these verses. I wish they weren’t there. But they are. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe it’s suppose to make us uncomfortable. Maybe it’s supposed to make us consider our own fates and our own choices.

  2. Also, as you pointed out, Israel found themselves on the business end of God’s judgement as well. He doesn’t play favorites. He used Israel to accomplish his purposes, but that doesn’t mean they were above others. If anything they were held to a higher standard of accountability. Thanks again for your thoughts.

  3. You make a good case. It makes me think of Abraham and Sodom. He bargained with God for Sodom. If there are only 100 good men etc. down to I think 5 good men and God agreed to save Sodom. I would sincerely love you to reconcile this with the Amalek’s outcome. Considering the nature of your talent I have no doubt you will do an admirable job.

      1. Yes. I understand your point about Israel being vulnerable to the Amaleks and it is right on. While Sodom was not a threat to Abraham the seed of the Israel, it still seems inconsistent that he offered mercy to Sodom.

  4. I would need to study the passage more deeply to fully process your question, but here are a couple of things that come to mind. God was responding to Abraham’s plea to save Lot who was living in Sodom at the time. Even though Lot was far from perfect, the text does attest he was a righteous man. Thus, Sodom would have had some knowledge of the God and their own injustice. Therefore, God’s offer to save them came long before his exchange with Abraham. It came as soon as they heard about God, which we know they did through Lot and even earlier through Abraham’s previous journey. But of course, God couldn’t find any righteous people there. The entire conversation is an ironic device in the text. God wanted to save them and revealed himself through his miracles and the presence of his followers to them. It’s the same with the Amalekites. They both had the same offer. All they had to do was believe and honor him as Jethro did. I hope this helps.

    1. Your comment that it is an ironic text device helps a lot. I sometimes forget to factor in the textual nature of the material. Also I had not made the connection that God had been trying to save them through Lot’s presence in Sodom. Thanks for your answer. I like so many people struggle with the part of the OT having to do with the destruction of groups of people. I guess as moderns we have a horror of it.

      1. Yea, I hope we don’t lose that horror. It is a tragedy. I think God feels the same way. It is tragic for him too, but I believe it’s in there to serve as a warning to us. It’s a situation we all face.

  5. Nice to meet you! Thanks for your thoughtful, honest, intelligent writing!

    I have always also struggled with the Old Testament horror of people groups, especially including children, being wiped out according to God’s wishes. We come into the New Testament and find that it is not His will that any should perish but that all would come to repentence. New Testament “perish” means eternally, and innocent children are not sent to a Godless eternity anyway, so we can take some comfort in the knowledge that they would have ended up in heaven. It is just a measure of comfort though. It is hard to reconcile, no matter what the reason was that it needed to happen. It is especially hard to accept God initiating these acts when, to us as Christians, we think of every individual life as precious, and in this world we have to live every day with slaughter in war, religious conflict and persecution, abortion, murder etc.

    I cannot resolve this. I have to live with that. I must accept it, in the knowledge that God is totally righteous and totally good and totally just. In the light then of that knowledge, for me to question His actions is to question his attributes. And that is my comfort, because i won’t do that!

    1. Thanks for your honesty as well. I agree. It’s tough to read. But don’t be so quick to divide the Old and New Testaments. Remember everything God did in the OT through Israel was for the whole world. Remember God in the NT is also a judge. When Jesus returns it won’t be as a humble servant again. I think what we are seeing in these episodes is a sort of preview of what will happen to us all when Jesus returns unless we repent. But it breaks God’s heart for anyone to perish, in both the Old and New Testaments. Thanks again.

      1. I believe that I am only under one Covenant now! The New fulfills the Old. There is a huge difference between something being written for us and something being written to us. Anyway, God bless.

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