Today: Sunday, August 18, 2019
 
 

'Worst' bits of the Bible - #5    (10/18/2009)

Read the passage

Some people think this is the worst verse in the Bible, in which the prophet Samuel tells King Saul that God's orders are:

"Attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”

Trying to defend this passage feels like trying to defend genocide: it can't be done. Would God really ever say or require such a thing?

Before we try to answer that we need to ask who these Amalekites were, anyway? They appear several times in the Old Testament as a nomadic tribe, distantly related to the Israelites, and a thorn in their flesh since they left slavery in Egypt and moved into Palestine. Instead of helping when it would've cost them nothing; instead of fulfilling their relationship in friendship, they had hindered, harassed and plundered their neighbours for years.

It's not difficult to see why Samuel said they had to be dealt with: this is a story about protecting your own family. If you're under attack, how far do you go to defend your own? It's a terrible dilemma, which has often been played out in history, often with tragic consequences. But there is justice in repelling invaders.

And these were different times—when attacks on other nations were often seen as religious duty; where killing wasn't a kind of execution, but a religious offering to your gods. All the surrounding nations at the time would have understood that.

They also thought in a much more community way, rather than an individualistic way. To kill children and livestock wasn't seen as we would see it today: the whole community, including animals and possessions, was guilty—and should be treated alike.

What was a political decision may have become wrapped up in religious language. In this case, Samuel would be saying, “This is the right action to take because we've got to stop their attacks, and anyway it's what God wants.” The story goes on to show that, in fact, even more than this, it was a matter of spiritual obedience . King Saul was later called to account for not completely wiping out the Amalekites as instructed.

We probably can't say much more than that in mitigation. Had we been there at the time, we, too, might have felt that this was the only way to peace. But is there any justification for such genocide today? The answer here is much clearer.

Even in Old Testament times, the Israelite people (often boxed into a corner) had to learn not to fight their way out, but to show a new acceptance and to be a light and a path to God, whose concern was for all the nations.

The Christian message takes that even further. Jesus said that he came not to destroy, but to give life. He is not a warrior, but a shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep of any and every nation.

This difficult verse is a reminder of how bad things can get when people feel their identity and safety are threatened, and when enemies are treated as vermin to be wiped out - ideas that are sadly still around today. The challenge is to take Jesus' attitude and teaching about love and sacrifice and acceptance into our own lives.



Pray: Loving God, overcome our hatred with the power of your love. Help us to know how to respond to those who hate or despise us. Help us to build a world where revenge and violence have no place, where respect and the valuing of life can grow. Teach us what it means to love our enemies. Amen.

Think about: Is there anyone, or any nation or group of people, you despise? Do you despise them so much you wouldn't be bothered if they were destroyed? Do you think this is God's opinion, too, or is there something fundamentally wrong in such thoughts? What would it take to change that attitude?

Challenge: There are radical groups around today which exist simply to oppress and even hurt or kill other groups - simply because they're different. Are you willing to peacefully support opposition to such groups? Why not take action this week, to find out more and lend your support?

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