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
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.