Good question...shouldn't the butchering of the Amalekite children be considered war crimes?

[Modified: Oct/2000; May 2001; added a tiny comment on 'euthanasia by humans' May 2002]


I received a thoughtful and impassioned response to my piece on "How could a God of love order the annihilation of the Canaanites"...It went into more detail in one of the more emotionally difficult areas of that piece--the consequences on the Amalekite children--and deserved to be considered carefully. This issue is and should be a stomach-churning one for all sensitive hearts (especially Christians), and this piece will have to proceed soberly and humbly through the many complexities involved herein.


Unfortunately, the person who sent the response in was NOT in fact the author, but had simply forwarded SOMEONE ELSE’s piece to me! When the actual author found out about it, he requested me to remove his material from my web site. It has taken me this long to rewrite and reorganize the material to honor his request.


With that in mind, let's look at the statements and questions:




Does the bible actually portray God as “infinitely merciful and just” and at the same time as a genocidal deity, contradicting itself at a deep, moral level?


Although this is not the heart of the writer's argument, let me note first:


1. The portrayal of the biblical god is not actually 'infinitely merciful and just deity' as if these were axes on a graph, but rather that God delights more in mercy than in judgment. His basic preferences are away from judgment (e.g., "Say to them, ‘As I live!’ declares the Lord God, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?’" Ex 33.11). His responses are asymmetrical: His compassion is to "a thousand generations", but his moral outrage extends only to the immediate household ("to the third generation"). Judgment is called His "strange, alien work" in Isaiah 28.21; His 'familiar' work is providing 'regular' environments for community life and experience, without massive divine interventions. We are supposed to develop our selves and characters by internal decisions to choose the good and to honor one another and to play our part in the development of others. His normal operating procedure is to build reward/loss consequences into our consciousness and into the workings of basic interpersonal relationships (from which we construct second-order social roles), and then let us get on with living. Even when relationships get bad, He normally allows the 'system' to try and correct it (e.g., peer pressure, legal systems, internal emotional pushbacks). Even in biblical history surrounding Israel (God's most overt/visible historical actions), the amount of judgmental intervention is tiny compared to what perhaps might have been expected on the Assyrians, for example, and the biblical record is filled with cries of the innocent asking "why don't you do something about these malicious oppressors, God?!" It was part of the task of the previous piece to demonstrate that the invention in THIS case was not unjustified, although quite unique.


2. And, as for God being a 'genocidal deity', the biblical events described do not seem to match what we think of by that term today. Even in the little section on the Amalekites, the description of the situation doesn't even come close to what we consider 'genocide' today. Most (but not all) things considered genocide today involve groups internal to the country in question, and they were either killed outright by their own government (sometimes slowly through torture and abuse) or deported to a place of sure-to-kill-them environment. Academic definitions of genocide exclude combat deaths and noncombatants that die as a by-product of military action. It generally denotes the deliberate killing of someone solely because of their indelible group membership (indelible is the term used for race, ethnicity, nationality etc.--that characteristics that are 'indelible'). [For one of the major authorities on this subject, see the work of R.J. Rummel at]


Consider some of the better-known cases:

1.        The government of the Ottoman Empire deported two-thirds or more of its estimated 1-1.8M Armenian citizens during WWI. They were forced into the deserts of present-day Syria, and most died due slowly to starvation and dehydration. This was an internal group that was forced out of the country into the desert to die.

2.        The Nazi genocidal actions against the Jews, the Roma, etc. were also initially targeted at internal people.

3.        During WW2, the government of Croatia killed an estimated 200-350K of its internal Serbian citizens.

4.        Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia killed 31% of its own population, apprx 2 million people (although some of this would be considered 'democide' and based on 'delible' characteristics such as political alignment, instead of 'genocide' proper).

5.        In Rwanda, between 500k-1M of the Tutsi ethnic group (all internal) were killed by the Hutu ethnic group (fighting had been going on between them for some time).


Notice how extremely different these are from the case of the Amalekites:

1.        They are NOT an internal group

2.        They are NOT a minority group

3.        Amalekites are NOT targeted because of their Amalekite-ness (since they were welcome as immigrants in Israel)

4.        They are never under the government control of Israel.

5.        They are not pursed and hunted in other countries for extermination.


Some scholars identify 4 types of genocide (Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, cited by Helen Fein, in Encarta s.v. "Genocide"):

1.        Ideological--where social homogeneity is sought, through 'ethnic cleansing' of internal 'pollutants'. This would include examples of the Nazi Holocaust, Armenian massacres, and the Cambodian purges. The Amalekite battle has no similarities to this, since these people were not internal 'dirt' that needed cleaning from within Israel. [In fact, the internal Amalekites were not affected at all, apparently. They are certainly not mentioned/singled out, like a genocidal propagandistic document would do.]

2.        Retributive--is "undertaken to eliminate a real or potential threat", but again, these are "most likely to occur when one group dominates another group and fears its rebellion or when the other group actually rebels." The example given is that of the Hutu/Tutsi conflict in Rwanda. Again, this would not fit our case, since the Amalekites are NOT a part of Israel, or even under its control--for a 'rebellion' to be feared. The Amalekites had always been the aggressors against Israel, and Israel finally responded to this history.

3.        Developmental is where genocide is undertaken for economic gain. The case in Paraguay in the 60's-70's where they deported/killed an estimated half of the native Indian population, to allow for the expansion of logging and cattle-raising enterprises in the nation's interior, would be an example. This doesn't fit our case either--the desert was not a lucrative resource at all, the puny belongings of the nomadic Amalekites (apart from their plunder of other peoples, of course) would not justify such a military action, and the Israelites were forbidden to prosper off the 'booty' anyway!

4.        Despotic-- is intended to "spread terror among real or potential enemies". Examples of this are Ugandan presidents Idi Amin and Milton Obote, who killed hundreds of thousands of (internal) Ugandans who opposed their power. Again, this is internal power abuse, and not at all similar to our case.


What this means--although it would not bear on the main ethical sensitivity here--is that it is historically inaccurate to label this military action as 'genocidal'. (This is still the case, EVEN IF one ONLY is talking about the killing of the families of the warriors. There are none of the defining elements of genocide--as the term is used by experts--present in the accounts of this initiative.) Let's be clear on this--I am not exploring how to "justify a genocide", because in the first place, it is NOT genocide. [Interestingly, the only case we have in the bible of something approaching genocide is in the book of Esther. Haman, a prominent official, develops a plot in which the internal people will be allowed to attack, kill, and plunder the internal Jews in the nation. This is very close to genocide, and it is quite ironic that Haman is called an Agagite, and said to be an Amalekite by Josephus in Ant. 11.209.]



3. Philosophically speaking, we would not actually be able to get all the way to "contradiction" with this line of argument anyway. If we succeeded in the argument, we might get to "manic-depressive" or "schizoid" or "insane" or "fickle", but "contradictory" doesn't fit well into discussions of personal characteristics. My mother was angry at me, compassionate toward me, intimidated by me, amused at me--all at the same time on MANY occasions in my adolescent years, but her existence is not 'contradictory' at all. The argument/discussion below develops a moral judgment on God's behavior as perceived negatively. This might render God immoral, and therefore inconsistent with His portrayed character, but it would not yield non-existence in that process very easily.


To actually create a logical contradiction here, we would have to prove that God (1) clearly did something clearly unjust in this action, and as a consequence, (2) we could never find a reason no matter how long we thought about it, that would provide some justification for this action.


Just saying that it seems "always unjust to kill a child" is not enough—we would have to show that even the cases in normal human experience in which someone has to do this (e.g. the horrible, but all too frequent, situation in which a father is forced to decide in the labor room of a hospital between the life of his child OR the life of his wife...many/most bio-medical ethics experts will side with killing the child, to save the life of the mother/wife) the actions of the father would be "unjust" as well. For, if we even allow ONE EXCEPTION to this "always unjust" statement, we open up the possibility that whatever ethical principle allowed that exception MIGHT ALSO BE operative in other/this case, and we also open up the possibility that there may be other principles that would allow such an action (e.g. mercy killing--refugees that kill their own small children to keep them from being tortured, enslaved, mutilated, and/or then killed horribly by their tormentors).


What this means is that an individual’s personal moral intuitions, if they run counter to moral intuitions of other experts and peers, may need further analysis and qualification, before they could function plausibly in constructing a logical argument of God's non-existence.


In other words, the argument that I THINK someone might make about this might look like the following:


1.        The biblical God CANNOT commit any unjust act (Authority: theological tradition)

2.        God ordered the killing of children (Authority: biblical text)

3.        The killing of children can never be a 'just' act, regardless of competing ethical demands in a given situation. (Authority: someone’s personal moral intuition)

4.        God, therefore , ordered an 'unjust act'. (authority: substitution of terms)

5.        The ordering of an 'unjust act' is itself an 'unjust act' (authority: not sure--this is somewhat controversial in ethical theory, but I will grant it here for the purposes of illustration)

6.        The biblical God, therefore, committed an unjust act. (authority: substitution of terms)

7.        Therefore, the biblical God CAN commit an unjust act. (authority: from the actual to the possible)


And at this point we would have a clear logical contradiction between statement #1 and #7, and presumably could conclude that that God could not exist (since our concept of this God contained a 'hard contradiction').


But notice the problem--the whole thing stands or falls on the accuracy of the personal moral intuition in Step 3. It there is no reason to believe it applies WITHOUT EXCEPTION, then our attempt at constructing a hard contradiction this way fails. I have already mentioned one case in which exceptional circumstances are generally considered by experts to apply (i.e., the labor room), and one other case that has a high degree of probability for being another (i.e., the refugee camp), and there might be more that could be advanced (some of which I will offer below). This, of course, puts the ball back in the individual’s  court to do one of two things: (1) show that these exceptions do NOT hold--and that the father who chooses to terminate the baby's life, so that his wife doesn't die has committed a horrible, unjustified, and culpable crime at the level of deliberate murder; or (2) show that although there ARE legitimate exceptions, there could not be any valid exceptions that would be operative in our biblical case.


But in any event, someone would still have much, much work to do, to be able to even offer the 'it is a contradiction' position as an argument. Without such work, this objection is simple assertion, unsubstantiated opinion (e.g, 'hunch'?), or emotional statement.


Now, let me hasten to add that I am NOT trying to get us to abandon that moral intuition at all!! Our moral intuitions are very, very important (IMO) for our personal and community life. Our moral intuitions form the basis of personal conscience and the basis for intersubjectively "agreed on" community ethics (and consequent legal codes and social mores). And, I am not suggesting that this particular moral intuition is "wrong" or inaccurate at all. Most of our moral intuitions are "statistically reliable guides." In other words, they apply in most 'normal' situations. And, I might add, this also applied to the biblical testament world: God was outraged at Egypt's infanticide, at Canaanite and Israelite child sacrifice, and at the abandonment of unwanted newborns in the desert by wandering nomadic tribes (cf. Ezek 16). This is a legitimate rule, and it is that fact that creates the tension for morally sensitive people in this passage.



What I AM SUGGESTING, however, is that it is not the only moral rule or moral consideration that applies here (and/or in the cases I mentioned above), and that before applying it so absolutely to this biblical case, someone may need to apply the same level of skepticism they have about historical documents to their own moral beliefs first. Further refinement of the implications of the moral insight and real analysis of the situation (actual or hypothetical)  needs to be undertaken to see to what extent it applies to this specific case.



But let's get into the meat of the issue…



What was the timing of the events surrounding the judgment of the Amalekites?



Here are the timing elements:




"The Amalekites lived in the desert, south of Canaan around Kadesh (Gen 14:7), otherwise known as the northern part of the Negev (Num 13:29; 14:25, 43). Amalek was the son of Eliphaz (Esau's eldest boy) by a concubine named Timna (Gen 36:12) and became a "clan" or "chief" in the tribe of Esau (Gen 36:15). Thus the Amalekites were distant cousins to the Israelites. There is every possibility that they had known about the promise of the land of Canaan that had been given to Esau's twin brother, Jacob; therefore, they should not have felt any threat to their interests in the Negev had this promise been remembered and taken seriously. After all, the promise was to be a means of blessing Amalek along with all the other nations (Gen 12:3) if only they, like Abraham, would have believed. Instead they "came" (wayyabo') and attacked Israel at Rephidim--some distance south of the north-central district of the Sinai where they lived. [EBCOT, Ex 17]


Indeed, given the travel path of Israel, there would have been no reason to even suspect that Israel would have tried to invade Palestine--this attack was altogether an act of aggression and attempted violation.










Then Samuel said, “Bring me Agag king of the Amalekites.” Agag came to him confidently, thinking, “Surely the bitterness of death is past.”

33 But Samuel said,

As your sword has made women childless, so will your mother be childless among women.”


  And Samuel put Agag to death before the LORD at Gilgal.




Do we have any reason to believe that this “Israelite-version” of the history is reliable, and not just the ‘song of the conquering victors’, who have violently stolen the land from the innocent Amalekites and naturally leave such ‘crimes’ out of their literature?


Basically, “yes”:


1. The biblical texts never even estimate the number of Amalekites, but they do point out that they don't actually "have lands" that they\ Israelites traveled ("trespassed") through. The Amalekites were not PART of Canaan (which would have had a million plus folks)--they were a nomadic tribe of marauding bands, living in the southern Negev (desert region). The archeological data we have of sites in the Negev around the time of this event indicates a very sporadic population--although mostly in the mid-central Negev-- although widely spread out. We have evidence of about 50 'fortresses' at this time, ranging in diameter from 25-70 meters. Isolated houses were scattered between the settlements, but we would be hard pressed to get a total population above 10,000 people. The large numbers of troops Saul mustered would have been due to (1) political needs to have all the tribes represented (a theme that pops up in other places in the OT); and (2) needs to cover the wide geographical area described, even though sparsely populated. The 'city of Amalek' was likely a cult center, not a population center per se. David had combat with them with only 600 men later.


2. As for the Israelite's "naturally leaving criminal acts out of their own writings", anyone that reads the Old Testament history and prophetic writings attentively could see this didn't apply to them! The OT record is literally filled with their evil, esp. of the elites and religious authorities!  And, they never seem to have a problem describing how frequently they get defeated in battle, for the text is filled with those events too. And the biblical writers don't have the slightest problem describing situations in which they doubted God, accused God of various un-god-like actions (e.g. Habakkuk on how God could use the evil Assyrians; the Psalmist on how God could avoid rescuing the innocent; how God could let evil exploiters prosper so long), and even of leaving bad-looking-things completely unexplained (e.g. the numbering of David's census, the breach against Uzzah). On the basis of the surface features of the text, we have NO warrant for believing that the text 'sugar coated' the story, or functioned as propaganda or justification (in comparison to other ANE documents of the time, especially).


3. Our every record of Amalekites in other, incidental passages (i.e., focused on other items or characters), support the view of their vicious culture:


·         They attacked the stragglers when Israel first came out of Egypt (As we pointed out in the other piece, they had to LEAVE HOME and travel a great distance to do this.)


·         They later attacked Israel AGAIN without provocation (Ex 17, coming all the way to the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula at Rephidim!), but were defeated. [We would think a smart group of people would do what the Canaanites did and migrate, but they didn't.]


·         They partnered with Eglon and attacked Israel during the time of the Judges (3.13)


·         They participated in a 'scorched earth' policy toward Israel ["Whenever the Israelites planted their crops, the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples invaded the country. 4 They camped on the land and ruined the crops all the way to Gaza and did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys .5 They came up with their livestock and their tents like swarms of locusts. It was impossible to count the men and their camels; they invaded the land to ravage it(Jud 6.3)]


·         This plundering is referred to in Saul's time: "He (Saul) fought valiantly and defeated the Amalekites, delivering Israel from the hands of those who had plundered them." (1 Sam 14.48) 


·         Saul obviously DID NOT exterminate the entire tribal group (which probably ranged far south into the Sinai area [REF:ABD, "Negev (Iron Age)]), for they lived to continue raiding and hauling families off for the slave trade ["David and his men reached Ziklag on the third day. Now the Amalekites had raided (lit. "stripped") the Negev and Ziklag. They had attacked Ziklag and burned it, 2 and had taken captive the women and all who were in it, both young and old. They killed none of them, but carried them off [lit. "drove them", as the cattle in v.20] as they went on their way. 3 When David and his men came to Ziklag, they found it destroyed by fire and their wives and sons and daughters taken captive. 4 So David and his men wept aloud until they had no strength left to weep. (I Sam 30.1)]


·         Even their treatment of their slaves looks bad : [1 Sam 30.11: "They found an Egyptian in a field and brought him to David. They gave him water to drink and food to eat—12 part of a cake of pressed figs and two cakes of raisins. He ate and was revived, for he had not eaten any food or drunk any water for three days and three nights. 13 David asked him, “To whom do you belong, and where do you come from?” He said, “I am an Egyptian, the slave of an AmalekiteMy master abandoned me when I became ill three days ago.]



4. Although we have no extrabiblical records of these people at all, this 'cultural profile' of marauding bands and slave-traders is common in the ANE. Nomadic and marauding bands were sources of constant terror to peoples in the ANE (indeed even up to modern times!) and the wider Asian geography. Look at some of the non-biblical mentions and descriptions of the nomadic terror:


From ancient sources:


·         "[Gutians] not classed among people, not reckoned as part of the land...people who know no inhibitions...with human instinct but canine intelligence..." (The Curse of Agade) cited at [OT:DLAM:113]


·         "[Amorite] a tent dweller...who eats raw meat...who has no house during the days of his life, and is not buried on the day of his death" (Myth of the Wedding of Amurru, cited at [OT:DLAM:113])


·         "Since that time the Amorites, a ravaging people, with the instincts of a beast... like wolves; a people which does not know grain" (Inscription of Shu-Sin, cited at [OT:DLAM:114])


And scholars point out that these groups (and some of their near-modern descendants) LIVED by violent exploitation of the sedentary population:


·         "Their "campsites were regarded as threats" [OT:DLAM:113]


·         "An age-old antagonism exists between the settled peoples, al- hadar, and the nomadic or pastoral tribes, known as Bedouin (al-badiyah), but many settled tribes also have nomadic branches. In Yemen, the fertile southwestern corner of Arabia containing more than one-third of its total population, the same antagonistic feelings exist between city dwellers and qabilis, arms-bearing tribes mostly settled in villages. Until after World War I the Bedouin of the northern deserts were able to keep the settled people in constant apprehension of their raiding; the tribes would even attack and plunder the pilgrim hajj caravans to the Holy Cities unless they were bought off or restrained by force. But modern weapons and airplanes, which can be used to search out tribesmen in their desert or mountain fastnesses, have altered the situation.  (Britannica, s.v. "Arabia")


·         "Raiding was the traditional means of supplementing the deficiencies of life in the arid zone. The Bedouin took by force from the farmers what they lacked in foodstuffs, material goods, and even women and children. Successful leadership in raids could be a most effective means of developing reputation and power, a practice that to this day has not been completely curtailed.  (Britannica, s.v. "Asian Peoples and Cultures, Traditional Culture Patterns, Bedouin". Notice that they were even PROUD of  "treachery leadership"!)


·         "At its highest degree of development, Central Asian nomad society constituted a very sophisticated and highly specialized social and economic structure, advanced but also highly vulnerable because of its specialization and the lack of diversification of its economy. Geared almost entirely to the production of war matériel--i.e., the horse--when not engaged in warfare, it was unable to provide the people with anything but the barest necessities of life. To ensure their very existence, Central Asian empires had to wage war and obtain through raids or tribute the commodities they could not produce. When, owing to circumstances such as severe weather decimating the horse herds or inept leadership, raids against other peoples became impossible, the typical Central Asian nomad state had to disintegrate to allow its population to fend for itself and secure the necessities for a subsistence. Hunting and pastoral nomadism both needed vast expanses to support a thinly scattered population that did not naturally lend itself to strong, centralized political control. The skill of a Central Asian leader consisted precisely in the gathering of such dispersed populations and in providing for them on a level higher than they had been accustomed to. There was but  one way to achieve this: successful raids on other, preferably richer, peoples. The military machinery was dependent on numbers, which then precluded self-sufficiency. In case of prolonged military reverses, the nomadic aggregation of warriors had to disband because it was only in dispersion that they could be economically autonomous without recourse to war.  (Britannica, s.v. Central Asia)


The nomadic groups in antiquity were known for their violence and war-making power, even affecting the military "heroes" of the past:


"The second of the human factors was the nomads who inhabited the immense territories beyond the northern frontiers. They fought constantly with the settled populations, but could nevertheless occasionally ally with them in the face of necessity. When Alexander arrived on the banks of the Jaxartes River, it marked the limit of the "civilized" world; beyond stretched the Eurasian wilderness. The Roman historian Quintus Curtius recounts Alexander's meeting with a delegation of Scythians who gave him a warning. They told him,


Just cross the Tanais [properly the Jaxartes] and you will see how far Scythia stretches. You will never conquer the Scythians. Our poverty makes us quicker than your army, which bears plunder from so many nations. Just when you think we are far away, then will you see us in your camp. We know how to pursue and how to flee with the same swiftness...We seek out those deserts totally devoid of human culture rather than the cities and the rich countryside.


"These words sum up what the nomad world represented to an empire that stretched several thousand miles from east to west. The non-nomad population knew the threat only too well. Alexander was not the first to cross swords with the nomads. Cyrus, founder of the Achaemenid Empire, had paid with his life while fighting them; and Darius, believing he could take them from behind through southern Russia, suffered a crushing defeat in his campaign against the Scythians along the shores of the Black Sea. (Britannica, s.v. Iran)






5. And the trend line of data points on 'accurate portrayal' of biblical characters is very positive: 


·         When the OT tells us that the Canaanites practiced child sacrifice, we have archeological data to support that (i.e., this wasn't just Israel misrepresenting the Canaanites).


·         When the OT speaks of the anti-Asiatic attitudes of Egyptians in antiquity, we have extra-biblical literary data to support that (i.e., this wasn't just Israel misrepresenting the ancient Egyptians).


·         When the OT speaks of the arrogance of the Assyrian war-lords, we have several types of historical data to support that (i.e., this wasn't just Israel misrepresenting the ancient Assyrians).


Thus, the "control data", the non-biblical data that we do have (in related situations)supports the reliability of the Israelite portrayal of these people.



6. And finally, Israel never actually trespassed on Amalekite territory at all. It was not in the original land-grant at all, and even the path that Israel took on the east side of the Jordan would not have brought them into contact with Amalek at all.  


In summary, the only data we have--scattered throughout the biblical record and in many cases in incidental mentions--supports the view of the Amalekites as being a malicious and persistent oppressor and menace to Israel. And we don't have the traditional earmarks of a self-glorification or political-justification document (like many of the stelae of ancient rulers).




But doesn’t this event fit the anti-biblical pattern of “punishing the children for the sins of the parents”?



Criminal actions by parents always affect the lives of their children, but in modern cultures we can shield the children from some of the consequence. For example, in the modern world, the families of prisoners do not go to prison with the man (or woman), because we have social institutions that can provide base level care for them--totally unlike the ancient world. Even in exceptionally socially-conscious civilizations (e.g. ancient Israel), the plight of the "widow and fatherless" was precarious enough; but in extreme conditions (e.g. migration, warfare, famine, captivity), it was impossible. But even in our world, the principle of "the families of the criminal suffer too" is very, very obvious. There are ministries and social outreach services that specifically target the tormented world of the child of the convict. They live on, but the consequences of the father's (or mother's) destructive behavior takes its toll...


There are two important points that need to be made clear here: (1) the relationship between "sins of the father" and the "sins of the children"; and (2) the relationship between the sin of a ruler/king/leader and the sins of the people/followers.


Point 1: The "sins of the fathers" and the "sins of the children":


In the OT, when a descendant is punished for "the sins of their fathers", it is normally referring to "sinning in the same way and character as their fathers"--NOT punishment for the actual acts of the fathers. 


The biblical expression for this is "walking in the sins (or ways)of their fathers". A couple of passages will show this:


Now in the eighteenth year of King Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, Abijam became king over Judah. 2 He reigned three years in Jerusalem; and his mother’s name was Maacah the daughter of Abishalom. 3 And he walked in all the sins of his father which he had committed before him; and his heart was not wholly devoted to the Lord his God, like the heart of his father David. (I Kings 15)


Now Nadab the son of Jeroboam became king over Israel in the second year of Asa king of Judah, and he reigned over Israel two years. 26 And he did evil in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the way of his father and in his sin which he made Israel sin.(I Kings 15.25)


In the third year of Asa king of Judah, Baasha the son of Ahijah became king over all Israel at Tirzah, and reigned twenty-four years. 34 And he did evil in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the way of Jeroboam and in his sin which he made Israel sin. (I Kings 15.33)


Now the word of the Lord came to Jehu the son of Hanani against Baasha, saying, 2 “Inasmuch as I exalted you from the dust and made you leader over My people Israel, and you have walked in the way of Jeroboam and have made My people Israel sin, provoking Me to anger with their sins(I Kings 16.1f)


Then Omri and all Israel with him went up from Gibbethon, and they besieged Tirzah. 18 And it came about, when Zimri saw that the city was taken, that he went into the citadel of the king’s house and burned the king’s house over him with fire, and died, 19 because of his sins which he sinned, doing evil in the sight of the Lord, walking in the way of Jeroboam, and in his sin which he did, making Israel sin. (I Kings 16.17)


And Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord, and acted more wickedly than all who were before him. 26 For he walked in all the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat and in his sins which he made Israel sin, provoking the Lord God of Israel with their idols. (I kigs 16.25)


And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him. 31 And it came about, as though it had been a trivial thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, (I Kings 16.30)


Ahaziah the son of Ahab became king over Israel in Samaria in the seventeenth year of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, and he reigned two years over Israel. 52 And he did evil in the sight of the Lord and walked in the way of his father and in the way of his mother and in the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who caused Israel to sin. 53 So he served Baal and worshiped him and provoked the Lord God of Israel to anger according to all that his father had done. (I Kings 22.51ff)


What this principle shows is that a phrase "the sins of X" would generally mean--when applied to a descendant of X--"sins just like X did". 



Point 2: the relationship between the sin of a ruler/king and the sins of the people/followers


Closely related to the above, is the principle of a nation 'following in the sins of their king'. Again, these would be sins "like X" or even "caused/influenced/provoked by" X.


And the Lord gave Israel a deliverer, so that they escaped from under the hand of the Arameans; and the sons of Israel lived in their tents as formerly. 6 Nevertheless they did not turn away from the sins of the house of Jeroboam, with which he made Israel sin, but walked in them; and the Asherah also remained standing in Samaria. (2 Kings 13.5)


In the twenty-third year of Joash the son of Ahaziah, king of Judah, Jehoahaz the son of Jehu became king over Israel at Samaria, and he reigned seventeen years. 2 And he did evil in the sight of the Lord, and followed the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, with which he made Israel sin; he did not turn from them. 3 So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, (2 Kings 13)


And the sons of Israel walked in all the sins of Jeroboam which he did; they did not depart from them, 23 until the Lord removed Israel from His sight, as He spoke through all His servants the prophets. (2 Kings 17.22)


This would mean that judgment ascribed to the "sins of king X" could easily mean "sins LIKE king X" or "sins by the people instigated by king X".


A very detailed case of the interaction between the ruler/father and follower/descendants can be seen in the final judgment on Judah. The biblical texts sometimes ascribe the judgment to "the (specific) sins of Manasseh" and sometimes to "the sins of Judah" and sometimes both. In all cases, though, the character of the sins are identical (e.g. idolatrous religious practices including shedding of innocent blood through child sacrifice)--the "like X" principle. The principles above show how this makes sense, in such a culture.



2 Kings 21:


Manasseh was twelve years old when he became king, and he reigned fifty-five years in Jerusalem; and his mother’s name was Hephzibah. 2 And he did evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the abominations of the nations whom the Lord dispossessed before the sons of Israel. 3 For he rebuilt the high places which Hezekiah his father had destroyed; and he erected altars for Baal and made an Asherah, as Ahab king of Israel had done, and worshiped all the host of heaven and served them. 4 And he built altars in the house of the Lord, of which the Lord had said, “In Jerusalem I will put My name.” 5 For he built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the Lord. 6 And he made his son pass through the fire, practiced witchcraft and used divination, and dealt with mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the sight of the Lord provoking Him to anger. 7 Then he set the carved image of Asherah that he had made, in the house of which the Lord said to David and to his son Solomon, “In this house and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen from all the tribes of Israel, I will put My name forever. 8 “And I will not make the feet of Israel wander anymore from the land which I gave their fathers, if only they will observe to do according to all that I have commanded them, and according to all the law that My servant Moses commanded them.” 9 But they did not listen, and Manasseh seduced them to do evil more than the nations whom the Lord destroyed before the sons of Israel.


10 Now the Lord spoke through His servants the prophets, saying, 11 “Because Manasseh king of Judah has done these abominations, having done wickedly more than all the Amorites did who were before him, and has also made Judah sin with his idols; 12 therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Behold, I am bringing such calamity on Jerusalem and Judah, that whoever hears of it, both his ears shall tingle. 13 ‘And I will stretch over Jerusalem the line of Samaria and the plummet of the house of Ahab, and I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. 14 ‘And I will abandon the remnant of My inheritance and deliver them into the hand of their enemies, and they shall become as plunder and spoil to all their enemies; 15 because they have done evil in My sight, and have been provoking Me to anger, since the day their fathers came from Egypt, even to this day.’” 16 Moreover, Manasseh shed very much innocent blood until he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another; besides his sin with which he made Judah sin, in doing evil in the sight of the Lord. 17 Now the rest of the acts of Manasseh and all that he did and his sin which he committed, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah? 18 And Manasseh slept with his fathers and was buried in the garden of his own house, in the garden of Uzza, and Amon his son became king in his place.

19 Amon was twenty-two years old when he became king, and he reigned two years in Jerusalem; and his mother’s name was Meshullemeth the daughter of Haruz of Jotbah. 20 And he did evil in the sight of the Lord, as Manasseh his father had done. 21 For he walked in all the way that his father had walked, and served the idols that his father had served and worshiped them. 22 So he forsook the Lord, the God of his fathers, and did not walk in the way of the Lord. 


2 Kings 23.26f:


However, the Lord did not turn from the fierceness of His great wrath with which His anger burned against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked Him. 27 And the Lord said, “I will remove Judah also from My sight, as I have removed Israel. And I will cast off Jerusalem, this city which I have chosen, and the temple of which I said, ‘My name shall be there.’”


2 Kings 24:

In his days Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came up, and Jehoiakim became his servant for three years; then he turned and rebelled against him. 2 And the Lord sent against him bands of Chaldeans, bands of Arameans, bands of Moabites, and bands of Ammonites. So He sent them against Judah to destroy it, according to the word of the Lord, which He had spoken through His servants the prophets. 3 Surely at the command of the Lord it came upon Judah, to remove them from His sight because of the sins of Manasseh, according to all that he had done, 4 and also for the innocent blood which he shed, for he filled Jerusalem with innocent blood; and the Lord would not forgive. 


2 Chron 33:

Thus Manasseh misled Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to do more evil than the nations whom the Lord destroyed before the sons of Israel. 10 And the Lord spoke to Manasseh and his people, but they paid no attention. 


Jer 15

Then the Lord said to me, “Even though Moses and Samuel were to stand before Me, My heart would not be with this people; send them away from My presence and let them go! ... “And I shall make them an object of horror among all the kingdoms of the earth because of Manasseh, the son of Hezekiah, the king of Judah, for what he did in Jerusalem...“Indeed, who will have pity on you, O Jerusalem, Or who will mourn for you, Or who will turn aside to ask about your welfare? 6 “You who have forsaken Me,” declares the Lord, “You keep going backward. So I will stretch out My hand against you and destroy you; I am tired of relenting! 7 “And I will winnow them with a winnowing fork At the gates of the land; I will bereave them of children, I will destroy My people; They did not repent of their ways.


Now, when we apply this understanding to the Amalekites, a similar theme can be detected in the biblical text. Some of the judgment passages focus on the initial (specific) cruelties of the original Amalekites, and some focus on the present day recapitulations of those cruelties--the "like X" principle.



Deut 25.17:Remember what Amalek did to you along the way when you came out from Egypt, 18 how he met you along the way and attacked among you all the stragglers at your rear when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God. 19 “Therefore it shall come about when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your surrounding enemies, in the land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you must not forget.



Also when the Sidonians, the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed you, you cried out to Me, and I delivered you from their hands. (Judg 10.10)

And he (Saul) acted valiantly and defeated the Amalekites, and delivered Israel from the hands of those who plundered them(I Sam 14.48)

Then Samuel said to Saul, “The Lord sent me to anoint you as king over His people, over Israel; now therefore, listen to the words of the Lord. 2 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he set himself against him on the way while he was coming up from Egypt. (I Sam 15.1-2) [Notice: this is a 'posture' statement, as opposed to just an 'event' statement--this "being set against Israel" was ruthlessly maintained from generation to generation of Amalekite]

And he sent you on a mission, saying, ‘Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites (1 Sam 17.15) [emphasis on current wickedness, not past.]



What emerges from this analysis is that any current culpability of warrior Amalekites at the time of Saul was more an issue of "walking in the sins of their founders/fathers" than merely of some ancient event. [The fact that Amalekites could be assimilated into Israel without execution(!) points out that it is the actual character/actions of an individual that made the difference back then. In other words, if the original cruel act of Amalek was the only criteria, then immigrants would be killed, not accepted! ] This general principle is the focus of Ezek 18, of course, and makes this explicit (even though Israel complains against God about this!):


"Yet you (Israel) say, ‘Why should the son not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity?’ When the son has practiced justice and righteousness, and has observed all My statutes and done them, he shall surely live. 20 “The person who sins will dieThe son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself. 21 But if the wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed and observes all My statutes and practices justice and righteousness, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 22 “All his transgressions which he has committed will not be remembered against him; because of his righteousness which he has practiced, he will live. 23 “Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,” declares the Lord God, “rather than that he should turn from his ways and live?




But aren’t individuals supposed to be punished for their OWN misdeeds ONLY, and not the misdeeds of others? (Deut 24:16, 2 Kings 14:1)



Absolutely, but we need to not make the assumption that the killing of the dependents was a punishment on them, as opposed toconsequence of the punishment on the fathers.  Morally, there is a huge difference.


To illustrate how this works, consider the case of Rahab in Jericho. Everybody in the city knows to flee--they have known this a long time, and only the unreasonable remain to fight (or the unable--the king may have forced some to remain in the city against their will, perhaps even Rahab). But the passage about Rahab's deliverance shows how the family connectedness worked for good or ill:


"Now before they lay down, she came up to them on the roof, 9 and said to the men, “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the terror of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land have melted away before you. 10 “For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. 11 “And when we heard it, our hearts melted and no courage remained in any man any longer because of you; for the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath. 12 “Now therefore, please swear to me by the Lord, since I have dealt kindly with you, that you also will deal kindly with my father’s household, and give me a pledge of truth, 13 and spare my father and my mother and my brothers and my sisters, with all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” 14 So the men said to her, “Our life for yours if you do not tell this business of ours; and it shall come about when the Lord gives us the land that we will deal kindly and faithfully with you.”


"15 Then she let them down by a rope through the window, for her house was on the city wall, so that she was living on the wall. 16 And she said to them, “Go to the hill country, lest the pursuers happen upon you, and hide yourselves there for three days, until the pursuers return. Then afterward you may go on your way.” 17 And the men said to her, “We shall be free from this oath to you which you have made us swear, 18 unless, when we come into the land, you tie this cord of scarlet thread in the window through which you let us down, and gather to yourself into the house your father and your mother and your brothers and all your father’s household. 19 “And it shall come about that anyone who goes out of the doors of your house into the street, his blood shall be on his own head, and we shall be free; but anyone who is with you in the house, his blood shall be on our head, if a hand is laid on him. 20 “But if you tell this business of ours, then we shall be free from the oath which you have made us swear.” 21 And she said, “According to your words, so be it.” So she sent them away, and they departed; and she tied the scarlet cord in the window.


In this case, the sparing of the lives of the family of Rahab had nothing to do with their innocence. If they stayed in the house, their lives would be spared as a consequence of the (reverse) judgment on Rahab, not as a (reverse) judgment on themselves. In this case, their being spared was ONLY a consequence of being related to another (Rahab) and being in close enough relationship to her to listen to her pleas to stay inside.


This notion of 'blood' as responsibility for someone's death leads us in an important direction:


·         Execution of a criminal was "legally" self-caused:


"Then David said to him, “How is it you were not afraid to stretch out your hand to destroy the Lordanointed?” 15 And David called one of the young men and said, “Go, cut him down.” So he struck him and he died. 16 And David said to him, “Your blood is on your head, for your mouth has testified against you, saying, ‘I have killed the Lordanointed.’” (2 Sam 1.14ff)


In this situation, we have David (the new king) telling a "young man" to execute the slayer of Saul. But the responsibility for the death of the slayer is on himself--NOT on David, nor on the executor. In an accountability sense, the slayer is responsible for his own death--He "killed himself". [If this principle is applied to the Amalekites, then they are responsible for their own deaths--even at the hands of Israelite soldiers.]



·         The "blood" principle also had a visible component--the social recognition of responsibility for a crime. In the wanton killing of a military general, for example, we see that this can apply to descendants:


"And the king said to him, “Do as he has spoken and fall upon him and bury him, that you may remove from me and from my father’s house the blood which Joab shed without cause. 32 “And the Lord will return his blood on his own head, because he fell upon two men more righteous and better than he and killed them with the sword, while my father David did not know it: Abner the son of Ner, commander of the army of Israel, and Amasa the son of Jether, commander of the army of Judah. 33 “So shall their blood return on the head of Joab and on the head of his descendants forever; but to David and his descendants and his house and his throne, may there be peace from the Lord forever.” 34 Then Benaiah the son of Jehoiada went up and fell upon him and put him to death, and he was buried at his own house in the wilderness.(I Kings 2.31ff)


Notice that only Joab was executed; his family only had to deal with the shame and disgrace of Joab's crime. They were not guilty per se, but they were recipients of the consequences of Joab's guilt.


·         We have this even in a "pre-agreed upon" condition of execution:


"Now the king sent and called for Shimei and said to him, “Build for yourself a house in Jerusalem and live there, and do not go out from there to any place. 37 “For it will happen on the day you go out and cross over the brook Kidron, you will know for certain that you shall surely die; your blood shall be on your own head.” 38 Shimei then said to the king, “The word is good. As my lord the king has said, so your servant will do.” So Shimei lived in Jerusalem many days. (I Kings 2.36)


In this case we have Solomon pre-announcing the conditions under which Shimei would be executed, and Shimei agreed. In this case, failure to keep the agreement with the authorities was accepted by both parties as a legitimate reason for execution. Shimei agreed that "his blood" would be upon his head, not Solomon's or the executioner. Again, he legally 'killed himself' by going back on his agreement (itself a gracious concession by the royal family, by the way!).


·         Again, death as execution is NOT the responsibility of the judge or executioner--it is that of the criminal:


"Then he may have a violent son who sheds blood, and who does any of these things to a brother 11 (though he himself did not do any of these things), that is, he even eats at the mountain shrines, and defiles his neighbor’s wife, 12 oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore a pledge, but lifts up his eyes to the idols, and commits abomination, 13 he lends money on interest and takes increase; will he live? He will not live! He has committed all these abominations, he will surely be put to death; his blood will be on his own head. (Ezek 18.10)


In the above case, the person who oppresses others will be put to death, but "his blood" will be upon his own head. In other words, the death is NOT the responsibility of the judge or executioner. 


·         This blood responsibility also shows up in non-family relations, in which one person could (probably) prevent the death of another:


"The word of the LORD came to me:2 “Son of man, speak to your countrymen and say to them: ‘When I bring the sword against a land, and the people of the land choose one of their men and make him their watchman,3 and he sees the sword coming against the land and blows the trumpet to warn the people,4 then if anyone hears the trumpet but does not take warning and the sword comes and takes his life, his blood will be on his own head.5 Since he heard the sound of the trumpet but did not take warning, his blood will be on his own head. If he had taken warning, he would have saved himself.6 But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes the life of one of them, that man will be taken away because of his sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for his blood.’ (Ezek 33.1ff)


Notice how this would implicate the father in the death of his family. If he knew to flee (perhaps from other encounters with Israel, or just in general from their reputation at the time), then his failure to do so would have brought the blood of his family down upon himself. It would have been HE who killed his family and himself, regardless of who was the actual executioner.


What this basically means is that the father would have been actually responsible for the death of his family, by his continued hostile actions towards the Israelites. The children were not punished FOR the crimes of the father; rather, they were victims OF the crimes of the father.


A striking illustration of this--and an additional indication that 'genocide' is not the issue here--comes from incidental data in the passage from 2 Samuel 1 we noted above:


"Then David took hold of his clothes and tore them, and so also did all the men who were with him. 12 And they mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and his son Jonathan and for the people of the Lord and the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword. 13 And David said to the young man who told him, “Where are you from?” And he answered, “I am the son of an alien, an Amalekite.” 14 Then David said to him, “How is it you were not afraid to stretch out your hand to destroy the Lords anointed?” 15 And David called one of the young men and said, “Go, cut him down.” So he struck him and he died. 16 And David said to him, “Your blood is on your head, for your mouth has testified against you, saying, ‘I have killed the Lordanointed.’”


Think about the implications of this passage for a second:


  1. The young man here is a child of an Amalekite immigrant to Israel ("an alien")
  2. Israel allowed Amalekites to become part of the community, in the category of resident-alien
  3. This child of an Amalekite was likely a full-blooded Amalekite.
  4. This Amalekite was trusted enough to serve in the army of Saul.
  5. Aliens were culturally integrated well enough in Israel to be expected to know the rules about killing those anointed of Yahweh
  6. This man was executed by David, not for being an Amalekite, but just as another Israelite would have been in the same way, for the same offense.
  7. Any other family members of the young man's father (and extended family, probably) would not have suffered any harm in the attack on Amalek--because their father had the good sense to emigrate to Israel.
  8. David does not seem shocked to find an Amalekite among the troops or resident in Israel, and this would likely imply that others had emigrated as well. [The "window" for Amalekites to migrate to Israel would have lasted approximately 200-400 years after the pronunciation of the "destroy them" edict in Ex 17!]



Here is a family where the father's wisdom saved the lives of his descendents--the offspring were spared from the destruction not because of their "innocence" or their "guilt", but solely as a consequence of the father's action. 


To net this out: the family members were not being punished for the sins of the father, but rather, suffered the consequences of the father's actions--for good or ill. 


[This, of course, is no different in principle today. The children of substance abusers don't often experience the material benefits of others (the material benefits are spent on alcohol or drugs). The children of physically abusive parents suffer bodily and psychological harm. The children of violent criminals often end up fatherless. They suffer the consequences of the parent's sin, and they are the victims solely of the parents.]

Pushback: "Glenn, it seems to me you may have overstated the case for Amalekites being accepted as emigrants into Israel.  I find the young man in 2 Samuel 1 as the only example, and it doesn’t seem clear whether he was a soldier under Saul, a POW set free accidentally in the confusion of battle, or what.  We do have the examples of Rahab and Ruth, but of course they were not Amalekites.  Do you have any further example or clarification at this point?" ... See discussion of this point at porous.html .



But why couldn’t the Israelites just ‘ignore’ the Amalekites?



Because the Amalekites wouldn’t ‘ignore’ Israel…and responsible Israelite parents would need to do something to protect their lives…


The Amalekites were a cruel, active, and hostile force, on Israel's immediate border. Israel was forbidden to attack other border kingdoms (by the biblical God), but Amalek had been actively oppressing Israel for at least 200+ years (without provocation), beginning with their first week of freedom from Egypt, to the more recent slave-capture, pillage, and scorched-earth aggressions in the book of Judges. The only active suffering up to this point was BY Amalek ON Israel.


In spite of all reason, Amalek continued to destroy land, people, crops, cattle, and to haul off people for sale as slaves in foreign markets--people who had only now gotten their first taste of freedom. This is not your normal 'angry neighbor'--these are terrorists, these are slave-traders, these are vandals, these are unreasonable aggressors (unlike the Canaanites, who mostly migrated away; or the Jebusites, who resorted to deception).For Israel EVER to enjoy a moment's peace in the land of promise, Amalek must be rendered non-hostile. Without some kind of self-defense action on the part of Israel, Amalek would simply continue inflicting 'active suffering' on Israel's families, their food, their freedom. Something had to be done--somehow Amalek must be stopped.


How could this be done? These were nomadic, desert peoples. If they had been a settled people like the Canaanites, you could simply drive them from their country and then occupy their cities, defending them if and when they tried to re-take the cities. But a nomadic people only built cities for religious shrine reasons, and were not there very frequently or very long. This tactic would simply not work.


With nomadic tribes, you either (1) destroyed their leadership and warriors, or (2) you drove them out of the territory and built fortifications around the edges of the land (keeping a military force along the barrier). If you were a fledgling nation yourself (i.e., pre-monarchy or nascent-monarchy Israel), you would not remotely have had adequate resources to build fortifications and provide a military force to guard some desert-line fortifications, around a territory that was not even given to you in the land-grant by God. [This, historically, has rarely been an option for smaller states, in territories without natural borders such as mountains, difficult rivers, etc..]


In the face of unreasonable, consistent, and oppressive violence against your family and your kin, you are stuck with the imperative and responsibility for serious war. It is naive at best, and morally irresponsible at worst, to deny this. To defend one's family against unprovoked and destructive violence is a fundamental moral obligation.


I hope it is clear by now this was not some simple 'act of territorial aggression' on the part of Ancient Israel! This was a defensive (and exceptional) military campaign. There just were not many practical options as to how to do this...



So, if the Amalekite aggression virtually required the elimination of the warrior-class, what practical options for survival remained for the women/kids?



Well, if this analysis is correct so far, we are faced clearly with the problem I pointed out earlier--the widows and fatherless kids, in the desert. This is, as pointed out above, a situation that the Amalekite warriors put their families in--NOT the Israelites per se.


So, what options might Israel have had concerning the fatherless Amalekite family, once the warriors had been eliminated in battle? 

There are ONLY four options to consider:


1. Take them back as slaves (or to be sold as slaves)

2. Take them back and turn them over to social relief programs/processes in Israel.

3. Leave them there in the desert to their fate

4. Kill them there in the desert


Option 1: Take them back as slaves (or to be sold as slaves).


This was, of course, what some other nations would have done. In fact, this is what many nations would have initiated the conflict for (see my discussion on OT Slavery for more documentation and discussion of this, and especially the horrors of being a foreign/POW female slave). The Amalekites alone would be an example of raids to produce slaves for re-sale in the slave trade:


"On of the most valuable spoils of battle was the people. In the UR III period some tablets recorded long lists of women and children...Sometimes women and children were included as part of the general massacre, but usually they became slaves." [OT:DLAM:236-7]



This was (1) against God's strong anti-slavery theme for Israel, who forbade them to make slaves, engage in slave-trade, or turn over runaways, etc. But more importantly, (2) it was practically impossible at the time--the country/people did not have resources to assimilate this many new people, ALL of whom would have needed to be fed and clothed at a difficult period of Israel's history (still at the height of Philistine warfare and Transjordanian aggression). At a practical level--as actual ancient "slave societies" have taught us-- adult slaves generated by foreign wars often harbor revenge, and wait for that night in which they can kill you in your sleep. The effects on societies of these types of internal hostile elements are well-known. [Indeed, to some historians, this is why the Pharaoh suppressed the Israelites so abusively in Egypt at the end. There were major external threats at the time, and if a significant block of "unhappy insiders" sided with the outsiders, then the nation would easily fall.] This is a purely-practical consideration, but one that has to be considered in understanding why this option was not open to the Israelite nation.


In an earlier time, when Israel was united, strong, and before the population decimation/fragmentation under the Judges, we do have a situation in which all  (32,000) female children were spared and brought into Israel. In the conflict with Midian/Moab, all unmarried female children were spared, brought into the nation, and distributed throughout Israel. Since the normal age for marrying (and therefore, losing one's virginity) in the ancient world was around twelve, this would have given an average age of 5-6 years for these girls. This would have made this group neither useful for concubinage (or illicit sexual activity, as is often vulgarly suggested, and contraindicated by the practice of the normal Israelite family), nor generally even for 'servant work'. They would be only consumers of resources, parenting, and care for years and years, but since there were 24,000 adult Israelite males who died in the event, the resource consumption would have balanced out. And remember, the miracles of the wilderness stopped abruptly in a matter of weeks/months.


I might also point out that God very, very rarely uses the miraculous, never to solve systematic, long-term infrastructure problems like welfare. There was plenty of want, hunger, thirst, disease during the period of the Judges, but God didn't do any miracles for His own people. There were many such situations during the Monarchy, and during the life of the Patriarchs as well--but no miracles. When Jesus walked on earth and performed His selective miracles, there were multitudes of people who were NOT healed, who died "prematurely" (if this is a meaningful concept), who were abused/exploited by the Romans. The ONLY large-scale or population-wide miracles I can think of were those forty years during the Wilderness Wanderings--a mere blip in biblical history--and they were never foreshadowed during the famines of the Patriarchs nor repeated during the droughts and famines of Israel. Based on this pattern, it would be unwarranted to assume that God would have 'made manna appear' for these people IF HE REALLY CARED ABOUT THEM. The whole position of "If God really cared, He would intervene miraculously to stop a crime, keep Paul from being martyred, reduce cheating on tax forms, or  raise everybody from the dead whenever they were killed" is highly problematic, and is subject to a number of systemic flaws, not the least of which are related to the Problem of Evil [I have a number of discussions about this issue on the Tank]. What this means for us is that 'appeal to miracle' as a reason to keep this 'option 1' viable cannot be depended on. We are still stuck in the ordinary world, as God created it.


Unfortunately, this was simply not an option in the historical situation of the time. [In today's world, it sometimes is—as in refugee work--but it is unreasonable to expect them back then to be able to do something that absolutely could not be supported by the limited infrastructure of the ancient and formative societies.]



Option 2: Take them back and turn them over to social relief programs/processes in Israel (or anywhere else, for that matter):


Similar problem here: there were no social relief programs/processes adequate to take care of this many dependent people. [Remember, most of these people would have been nomadic dependents (without agricultural or industrial skills) or minor children (consumers without the ability to contribute to their upkeep), at a time before the agricultural surpluses of Israel could support such a large group of resident aliens. As marauders, the Amalekites did amass some gold (1 Chr 18.11) and livestock, but God forbade the Israelite soldiers to take this with them as spoils of war (probably so Israel would not get a 'taste' of raiding other nations for booty, and become like the Amalekites).


There were no social relief, welfare, or benevolent resources ANYWHERE in the ANE, even in the "wealthiest" of nations. Even elderly care was a major issue, but not addressed by the public sector. There simply was not enough resource surplus or infrastructure available to do this:


·         "In spite of the government's propaganda concern for widows and orphans, there was no systematic welfare system. The institution that dealt with the problem of young families bereft of a father and husband is called the a-r u-a, meaning 'dedicated.' Women and children were 'dedicated' by relatives who could no longer support them or by themselves, and they were employed especially in weaving and processing wool. Because we have several detailed records of such persons, we know that they usually did not live long after they had been dedicated, probably owing to the wretched conditions in which they lived and worked. ...Women weavers were exploited extensively at Lagas; their children no doubt died at a high rate: one group of 679 women had only 103 children, though other groups had more. " [OT:LIANE:35]


·         "Ancient society has fewer elderly, it is true, but they existed nonetheless, and had to be supported along with many children, most of whom would not survive to adulthood." [OT:CEANE:2]


·         "While it is true, as Van Driel points out, that life in the ancient Near East was in general much shorter and death much quicker, even the few that survived into old age, or lingered on in a slow decline of physical and mental powers, would have placed a huge burden on an economy that knew more scarcity than surplus." [OT:CEANE:241]


·         "Care of the aged does not form a separate category in the law codes; indeed, there is not a single law that deals with the subject directly." [OT:CEANE:241]


·         "Nonetheless, all the contributors stress that the role of the public sector was limited." [OT:CEANE:244)


Let's be VERY clear about this. We take these for granted and they simply did NOT exist in the ancient world. This was NOT in any sense an option for this situation.




Option 3: Leave them there in the desert to their fate


This, of course, is simply another form of the death sentence: a slower death through exposure, predatory animals (and possibly slave-traders), and dehydration.


To escape from a military victor was the same as escaping to a prolonged and agonizing death, in the ANE:


·         "Battle casualties were the major cause of death among adult males. Those captured on military campaigns most probably died of exhaustion and maltreatment. Those who managed to escape from their victors died of exposure, hunger, and thirst."  [OT:DLAM:146]


·         "Those who were able to flee from their conquerors often died of exposure, starvation, or thirst."  [OT:DLAM:237]


[You might remember that being left in the desert to die this way was the form of execution used in the Ottoman Empire genocide mentioned above: "They were forced into the deserts of present-day Syria, and most died due slowly to starvation and dehydration."]



This situation is illustrated in the early story of Hagar and Ishmael. They are sent away into the desert by Sarah/Abraham, and death was expected:


She [Hagar] went on her way and wandered in the desert of Beersheba. 15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes.16 Then she went off and sat down nearby, about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there nearby, she began to sob. (Gen 21.14ff)


Whether this form of death (generally taking a week or less) is any less horrible than death from a sword (with its terror, but over in minutes) will have to be left up to the reader. It is certainly not obvious to me that watching your loved ones die slowly and agonizingly is preferable to seeing them die almost instantly. 


And, the possibility of staying alive but being captured by slave traders is not much more attractive (if any). Frequently in antiquity, people would commit suicide rather than become foreign slaves (whose lot was quite different from home-born servants). Whole groups of peoples would kill themselves when captured, to avoid this horrible fate. Bradley mentions some of the more vivid instances [HI:SASR:44f]


·         Most of the Spanish tribe of the Cantabri (22 BC) killed themselves when enslaved by Rome, cutting their own throats, drinking poison, or setting fire to their huts and dying in the flames

·         The inhabitants of Xanthus (in Lycia) undertook mass suicide three times! (after being captured by Cyrus the Great, Alexander the Great, and M. Brutus)

·         400 Roman soldiers killed themselves at the point of capture by the Frisii (28 AD)

·         The Dacians killed themselves in preference to being enslaved by Trajan.



In these cases, people obviously preferred a rapid death rather than even life-in-slavery (much less slow-death-in-the-desert). Why would we assume the Amalekite women and children would feel differently--especially in a culture that dealt in slave trading and apparently abused its slaves as well [above].


Again, this is not obviously preferable to a quick death, and indeed, the data from suicide seems to indicate quite the opposite.



Option 4: Kill them there in the desert



"Men condemned to participate in amphitheater events [in the Roman empire] realized that their deaths would be agonizing and painful. Some chose to commit suicide, and...spare themselves the torment..." [HI:ATRD:349]


To this, we might add the suicide of Saul in 1 Samuel 31, in which he desires to die rather than be tortured ("abused"--cf. Jdgs 19.25).




Biblical examples include Samson (instead of on-going slavery and abuse by the Philistines), Abimelech (instead of dying in disgrace), Ahithophel (instead of living on with a lower status), and Zimri (instead of facing political reprisal at the hands of his rival).


Extrabiblical data supports this as well:


·         The Greeks and Romans practiced suicide for a number of reasons, and Stoicism was famous for its "endorsement" of the issue.


·         From Philo: "In Jewish literature of the Hellenistic and Roman periods pious Jews are often portrayed as taking their lives voluntarily rather than betray their religious beliefs. For example, when in 39 or 40 A.D. the emperor Gaius announced plans to have a statue of himself erected in the Jerusalem temple, the Jews solemnly warned the Roman governor Petronius that, if this were carried out, they would first slaughter their women and children and then kill themselves “in contempt of a life which is not a life”" (Philo Gaium 236). [REF:ABD, s.v. "suicide"]


·         From Josephus: "Although Josephus himself delivered a lengthy speech on the iniquity of suicide in the Jewish War (3 §362–82; but his own neck was on the line), in the same work he also praised the heroism of the Jews at Masada who mutually slaughtered themselves rather than fall into the hands of the Romans (7 §320–88)." [REF:ABD, s.v. "suicide"] (note: Masada was occupied by a force of less than 1,000 Jews, including women and children, and only two women and five children chose to hide rather than kill themselves in a quick death.]


·         From later Rabbinic writers: "In later rabbinic literature there are numerous stories of suicide, and this despite the usual claim by scholars that the rabbis opposed the practice. The Mishnah and Talmud contain accounts of suicide and martyrdom as well as discussions relating to the rules and regulations governing both. For example, b. Ketub. 103b relates that when rabbi Judah the Prince died a “voice from heaven” (bat qôl) proclaimed that all those present at his death would enjoy the life of the world to come. When a fuller, who had the misfortune of not calling on the rabbi that day, learned of this, he killed himself. Immediately, a bat qôl announced that he too would live in the world to come...A similar story in the Mishnah 'Abot Zar(18a) concerns the martyrdom of Rabbi Hanina ben Teradion during the emperor Hadrian’s reign. The rabbi was wrapped in a Torah scroll and set on fire; but to ensure that he would suffer, water-soaked tufts of wool were placed upon his heart. His disciples therefore begged him to breathe in the fire in order to hasten an otherwise gruesome death. The rabbi, however, refused, in words faintly reminiscent of the Phaedo: “Let him who gave [my soul] take it away, but no one should destroy himself.” The executioner then asked whether he would enter the world to come if he helped the rabbi die sooner. When he received an affirmative response, the executioner removed the tufts of wool and the rabbi died. The executioner then threw himself upon the fire. Suddenly a bat qôl proclaimed that both the rabbi and the executioner had been admitted to the world to come."[REF:ABD, s.v. "suicide"]


So, if we except the reality of the lack of social infrastructure necessary to support such a group, this final alternative looks like the "least painful and least dehumanizing" (judging from the data concerning suicide in the ancient world). There is nothing laudatory about it, to be sure, but the moral difficulty was forced on the Israelites by the Amalekite warrior aggression. The fact that the destruction of the Amalekite warrior group was required to end the continual anti-Israelite savagery, forced the Israelites into this situation.


What this means is that the ancients disagree with moderns over what is “morally acceptable euthanasia”. The ancients--from the evidence of suicides--clearly believed that a sudden death was preferable to an anticipated life of future suffering (e.g., slavery), an anticipated death by starvation/thirst/exposure, or of torture (e.g., capture by rival rulers). Accordingly, this means that our modern intuitions about the morality of various types and ranges of euthanasia may need further analysis, and that although most forms of ancient euthanasia/suicide would have been painful/violent (generally involving swords, not Socratic type poison!), they would not have been considered morally wrong. And since, there is no explicit censure given in the bible for the suicides mentioned, it would be premature to decide that ancient criteria for acceptable euthanasia were ‘less moral than’ modern criteria. Even the case of 'anticipated' sufferings are sometimes allowed in the modern world, especially in wartime situations. POW's, for example, have been known to request death from other soldiers, to avoid a future of anticipated torture and death. 


I remember vividly the first time I was confronted with this concept. It was back in high-school, pre-Christian period, as I glanced at a scene on TV. I wasn't watching the show at all, but was struck by the image of two heads sticking up out of  level ground. As I tuned in to the situation, I saw something that deeply disturbed my thinking. The movie was an old black-and-white Western, and the hero cowboy had ridden up with his friend, on horseback, to this spot of level ground. What showed sticking up out of the ground were the backs of two human heads, one an Indian squaw, and the other a  "paleface" man. They had been buried up to their necks in the dirt (rendering them immovable), next to a fire-ant mound. The hero read the Indian sign nearby and explained to his fellow they these two had been caught in some sexual impropriety some days back, and they were sentenced to die slowly and painfully by fire-ant. The heads were still recognizable, but not moving or speaking, and fortunately the camera did not show their faces (back then, but they might nowadays!). The hero took out his gun and shot the two people, ending an agony that I still cannot think of without squirming. I remember thinking -- 'was that really murder?'. It was deliberate, it was unprovoked, it was violent--but it was merciful.


I think now about that situation, from a anticipatory perspective. Had I been the cowboy and saw them at a distance as they were burying the poor souls, and watched as the group of executioners stood watch for a long time, would I have used my rifle and shot them earlier, from a distance? [Assuming there was no real chance I could overcome the group myself, nor outwait the group, or other options.] What would be the morally correct answer? These are complex issues, and ones that cannot be decided on with simple words like  'never' and 'always'.


Now, before I move to the next point, we need to be clear on the above--THERE ARE NO OTHER OPTIONS. There are no 'other ways out'. There are no 'softer choices'. To say "there must be some other way" is avoidance, given everything we know about ancient history and the situation. For the husband who has to decide to end the life of the baby, to save the life of his wife, "there must be another way" is a bitter fantasy world. For the father who has to pull the plug on his brain-dead child, "there must be another way" is a bitter fantasy world. For the daughter, who has to administer the lethal medicine to her at-death-point mom after a long, long time of suffering and pain, "there must be another way" is a bitter fantasy world. Sometimes there simply aren't morally 'neat, tidy, and comfortable' endings.


And, very importantly, there is NO WAY TO AVOID THE CHOICE. If you were Israel's leadership, and you HAD to destroy the warrior class of males for all the reasons already discussed, then you would inexorably be faced with this decision. And in our case, it was God who said 'do it this way'--the God who makes the difficult decision about the day and manner of our own deaths, for each of us, and it was the God who takes no delight in death (indeed, who intends to destroy it) who decided that this was 'least painful of all choices'.



Inconclusive unethical intrascript: "This makes me nervous--wouldn't this be a carte blanche approval of human euthanasia or 'mercy killing'? Wouldn't that be a direct implication of this event (or at least of your approach)?


Actually, this event would not bear on the subject directly, simply because the decider is God. God, of course, is the only agent who bears last-say authority over death. God bears some kind of governance responsibility for every moment of death. And, we know that God sometimes operates in an euthanasia fashion, for His word says so:


The righteous perish, and no one ponders it in his heart;

devout men are taken away, and no one understands

that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil.

Those who walk uprightly enter into peace;

they find rest as they lie in death.  [Is 57.1-2]


We even speak of this in some cases of terminal illness of loved ones, speaking of "God ending their suffering".


But Scripture generally warrants that this is a choice and decision to made by the "only wise God", a choice that can only be safely trusted to His goodness, wisdom, and authority.


There is no clear logical warrant to move from "God has the non-derived authority to decide on the moment and circumstances of the death of another" to "a human has the non-derived authority to decide on the moment and circumstances of the death of another". Humans are thought to have 'derived' authority for such, in selected areas: certain forms of capital punishment, some situations of family and self defense, and  certain extreme governance situations (see the 'lifeboat ethics' discussion below).


There are also decisions that have direct consequences in the life/death arena, but that are not in themselves life/death decisions--many of the difficult scenarios discussed in bio-medical ethics fall into this category (e.g., the one mentioned at the beginning of this article).


Our passage, though, is one in which the decision is taken out of the hands of the Israelites and made explicitly by God. Our analysis of this decision here might reveal the euthanasia-like features of His choice, but one could not draw the implication from these that humans should invariably do the same. That would be a non sequitur.


(There are, of course, arguments that could be made on the basis of God as moral exemplar, but since our passage is explicitly about God as governance agent, one would have to appeal to other passages, data, sources of authority to warrant using our text for that. The differences between the moral strictures upon God in governance and upon us as 'images of God' in individual behavior are very significant, but something far beyond the scope of this article. )


The issue of human-decided euthanasia is a very, very complex one, in my opinion, but is also one that our passage does not speak to in the least.


So, not only would this NOT be a carte blanche approval of human-decided euthanasia, but also this would bear only obliquely upon the subject, if at all






But if we visualize the horror of the scene—mothers watching children be killed, and children watching their mother be cut down—surely this cannot be ‘right’?!


Of course this scene is horrible(!), but to see this in perspective we would need to  (1 )put this side by side with equally vivid and emotionally stirring stories about:


1. the elderly Israelite couple, who after suffering under harsh slavery for 60 years in Egypt finally escape miraculously with their grandchild. They gather the first material possessions they have ever owned--given to them by the Egyptians on the night they left--and are following the main body of Israelites. They are overjoyed by their first experience of freedom and hope for a more 'normal' life for their granddaughter. But they are old, and the decades of physical abuse have left them weak. And so they fall behind the main group of Israelites, and they must rest more frequently and longer. And, as the gap widens, they see a dust cloud behind them, chasing them. They fear that maybe the Egyptians are trying again to enslave them, so they jump up in fatigue and anxiety and begin racing toward the Israelites. But they are no match for the marauding Amalekites, who quickly capture them. They watch in horror as their granddaughter is stripped and evaluated for what price she might fetch at the eastern slave market, with crude suggestions as to what 'use' she might be to the plantation slave bosses. They see her bound and tied to the back of the horses, where she will have to walk behind their caravan until exhausted and then thrown into a slave-cart. They are next: the Amalekites strip them of their clothes, take their few belongings, and then cut them down with the sword. Their last images are of their granddaughter screaming for help as she is driven at spearpoint...


2. the impoverished and undernourished young Israelite family has been able to hide their small crop so far this growing season. Each previous year, the marauding Amalekites have burned their small crop and killed the few livestock they used for clothes and cheese, and the family has eaten what little the wild land could provide. They sleep under a rock cropping, in fear of detection, and take turns at night watching for predatory animals, slave-trading bands, and the Amalekites and their allies. Harvest is almost here, and they have actually gathered a few items already (and consumed them hungrily). They suffer from various forms of malnutrition and exposure, and the youngest--Abigail the three-year old little girl--cannot get up due to some unknown sickness. But hope has arisen for the first time in years, and the parents are eager to feed their little ones the food they desperately need. As they are gathering the first pick, with ears always alert, they hear the familiar sound of hooves...And though they run, they are overtaken by the Amalekite raiding party. They watch as their crop is burned to ashes (the raiders only laugh at the sight--they don't take any of the food at all), along with the feeble hope that grew there too. But they have bigger problems now, because they did not reach the hiding place in time. The raiders size up the family and recognize that such youth will fetch a pretty shekel in the slave markets of Damascus. The young wife and two of the healthier children are stripped and tied together with other captured Israelites, to be marched off to be sold to different owners in different parts of the world. One smaller child is simply cut down--screaming in terror-- with the sword in the eyes of both parents. Abigail begins to cry in fear from her cot under the rock, alerting the Amalekites for the first time of her presence. The father tries vainly to defend his family as they plead for mercy, but he is rewarded only with the anti-Israelite taunts of hate and the slash of a sword. The last thing he hears are Amalekite words of the leader, to leave the sick Abigail as food for the wolves, rats, and ants--since she wouldn't have any value in the slave trade.



And we would need to (2) situate this in the historical "landscape" of the day, in which the "size" of objects in the landscape can be seen in relation to one another.

In this case, we would note:


1. The Amalekite scene examples would have occurred all in one day, and involving a maximum of one to two thousand families.


2. The above example #1 would have occurred over the space of probably an entire year, and involved a couple of thousand people minimum (on a exodus party of 1.5 million people)


3. The above example #2 would have occurred seasonally for over two hundred years (perhaps as long as for 400 years), and involved easily tens of thousands of families.



So, from a perspective standpoint, the actions of the Israelites are of significantly less magnitude and scale than the anti-Israelite actions of the Amalekites--from the standpoint of perspective. If perspective is useful at all, then it is decidedly in the 'favor' of the Israelite response to Amalek.



But doesn’t the “justice of the biblical god” in this situation look more like the most horrific of war crimes?


Let me see if I can clarify my response here somewhat.


1. The "justice of the biblical god" is not the sole cause of the military action against the Amalekite warrior class in this case--it clearly includes the making of a final defense for Israel (and, actually, for other victim nations and groups of the surrounding land—Israel would not have been the only source of slaves and raided goods) against an unusually malevolent and violent aggressor group. As I pointed out above from the biblical text, the cause was broader than the single verse in 1 Sam 15.2, but included the factors in the other passages I mentioned above. In fact, if we want to question something about God's character, we would be closer to the truth if we accused Him of "reprehensible leniency"--for He allowed this group to terrorize Israel for 200-400 years before He dealt decisively with the issue, and He allowed individual Amalekites to migrate into Israelite culture without penalty! This is "patience to a fault" almost...His heart resists judgment and acts of punitive finality, and He waits as long as He can before executing these types of actions...


2. The killing of the innocents is not the target of  "justice" per se (just as damage to tents, clothes, or animals would not be).  His "justice" actions were specifically directed against the warrior class and leadership--explicitly those that actually performed the acts of violence against Israel.    Even in the main passage in 1 Samuel 15, the leadership seems to be the main focus, as the phrase "and destroy all he has" would indicate. Following this is a list of what is included, and it is a general list including people and animals. It is difficult to make this order implicate the oxen as being 'guilty of atrocity' against Israel (just as the women and children would not have actually participated in the initial raid against Israel, typically), and probably the women/children/animals were considered by the nomadic Amalekites as property (since these were routinely captured, sold, and traded).


3. As indicated above, the killing of the innocents would be an issue of mercy-killing (given the desert environment and situation we discussed above), and it is the least painful and least dehumanizing of possible outcomes--indeed, it is the course of action many people took themselves when confronted with similar alternative futures. The innocents were victims of the warrior class' choices, not victims of the biblical god and some evil Israelite exploitation initiative.


4. I think think label of 'war crimes' might be appropriate to this situation if it were done today with our modern resources and infrastructure. The 'justification' of the act in the biblical case derives from it being the more merciful/least painful of all available alternatives. In today's world, it would likely not be this. In today's world, a combat mission could easily leave homes, infrastructure, inventories of food/drink supplies , skilled civilian labor and civil leadership intact--destroying only the military sector of the culture. This might have dire economic consequences, but it certainly wouldn't be life threatening in any meaningful sense. In addition, in the modern world there are international and regional relief organizations to help with refugees and survivors. But in the case of the ANE and these nomadic plundering groups, ALL of the males are part of the military sector, there is no infrastructure whatsoever, there are no inventories of ANYTHING, even the subsistence skills are in the hands of the males (remember, they had to raid to get even the basic necessities of life for the group), most of the transportation (e.g., camels) would have fled during the conflict, there are no relief resources whatsoever, and they are in the middle of the desert. (Of course, this is the reason that the quotes given earlier point out that those who escape from battle die from starvation, thirst, exposure, etc.) It is simply incorrect to place this on a par with war crimes motivated by hate and containing malicious and unnecessary violation of innocents (when alternative actions were clearly available). [There are war crimes in the ANE, to be sure, ranging from cruel POW torture, to civilian mutilation/torture and then execution, to gruesome displays of previous victims.]





But if the biblical god was indeed omnipotent, then it would seem he could have done many things rather than slaughter so many people. And if he couldn't have done anything else, wouldn’t this show then that He is NOT omnipotent? (aren’t we back to “God is either good OR omnipotent—but not BOTH” kind of arguments?)


The  major problem with this is theological, concerning the omnipotence of God.


The omnipotence argument can be sketched out like this:


a. God can do all things

b. Accordingly, God could have resolved the issue by some other means that extermination of the group.

c. God DIDN'T use a different method than the one involving extermination.


Therefore either:

d. God is omnipotent, but cruel (because He chose extermination rather than other presumably less-violent paths)



e. God is not necessarily cruel, but He is NOT omnipotent either(because He couldn't come up with non-cruel alternatives)


This type of reasoning is generally irrelevant, because omnipotence normally doesn't 'play' in historical settings. God very, very, very rarely overrides normal historical causation in macro-level events. He normally works (when He intervenes and overrides at all) from the basis of divine-heart (personal) characteristics rather than divine-power (more metaphysical) characteristics. Another way of saying this, perhaps, was that He generally works in history, not on history. In this case, He:


1. He tried to convince the people, for a long time, of the dangerous consequences of combating Israel.

2. He waited patiently for centuries for them to change their minds about their violent anti-Israelite terrorism.

3. He apparently "convinced" some of them to emigrate to Israel and enjoy the blessings of His people.

4. He apparently waited until some Amalekites were away from the main body of the group (since they show up later in the biblical record, implying some survivors who were not involved in that battle)


He normally upholds the law of cause/effect and consequences. [We have discussed this many times on the Tank, so I won't gather all the arguments again here.] It is not a lack of omnipotence that is at work here, but rather the principle of God holding up the law of moral consequences (within social and cultural contexts of connections and community). He tries to make the moral universe 'navigable' for those who try to make right and constructive choices, by allowing us to see in history (in our own lives, or the lives of others) the consequences of moral choice and character-based behavior.


God binds Himself within His choices as well. He plays within the community rules He sets for others. Once the historical situation eventuates, He almost always works within the confines of that situation. These are self-imposed 'limitations', in a manner of speaking, that govern God's behavior as a member of and participant in historical community. God's normal and preferred way of working in history is as a personal influence (through His closest friends), although on occasion He will act as a judicial power (e.g., in judging the Pharaoh, David, Amalek, or Israel). 


To discuss these issues in the context of 'omnipotence' may be close to being a category mistake (like talking about 'green ideas').






But isn’t this using a “you gotta see the Big Picture” approach, to avoid accepting responsibility for clear ethical atrocities in the lives of specific individuals?



We all know of historical situations in which larger-scale perspectives have been abused, but at the same time, they are essential for most large-scale governance issues. In situations involving conflicting ethical demands, sometimes the deadlock can only be broken by big-picture thinking, or ethical framework perspectives. In the case of the innocents here, we are facing a moral dilemma that essentially consists of "do we kill them swiftly?" or "do we let them die, slowly, painfully, and agonizingly?"--which is more merciful, given no other alternatives exist? This situation is where there are two undesirable outcomes, and one has to make a choice (in this case it was God) as to what is the most humane choice? [This is similar to the case of unconscious loved ones, writing in pain untouchable by morphine, under some terminal illness, with no hope of regaining consciousness...but still suffering horribly. In our case, however, the suffering of thirst and starvation and disease will be all conscious until towards the end, and therefore accompanied by despair and the pains of a dying heart.]


To try to see the complexity of the governance issue let's construct a hypothetical situation. In philosophical ethics, one of the major hypothetical scenarios one discusses is "lifeboat" ethics. The instructor paints the "lifeboat" scenario:


You are captain of a passenger boat, responsible for the lives of your passengers, which has an accident in the middle of shark-infested waters. No messages of help were sent before the crash, so rescue is not expected or likely. The 30 passengers and crew all cram into the lifeboat (capacity 29), which is immediately encircled by sharks. There are no weapons upon the lifeboat, and the raft is beginning to sink due to the overload. The nearest island (deserted, of course) can be seen, but you cannot reach it without at least one passenger jumping out of the lifeboat to certain death by being fought over and eaten by sharks. You, as captain, cannot be the martyr yourself, since only you have the requisite skills to help the 29 people survive once you get to shore, etc.


The probability of the boat sinking with 30 people is 100%, the probability of being fought over and eaten by sharks (once in the water) is 100%, and the probability of outside intervention (e.g., rescue) is 0%.


You ask for a volunteer, to give their life to save the group. If only one person decides to give his/her life for the other 29, then the 29 have a decent chance of making it to shore. 


No one volunteers, after repeated requests. You are now forced with killing (against someone's will) one innocent person, or letting 30 (innocent) people die in the jaws of the sharks.


What do you do? 



In the classroom, this discussion proceeds then to what criteria one "should" use to decide which passenger or crew member is to die--to save the many. It cannot be you--no matter how badly you want to avoid the knowledge that you had to kill someone against their will--since your death would be the one most likely to result in the death of the others (and your death would have been in vain). I repeat, the "I will be the martyr" answer is unacceptable--for in your death, you will likely have 'killed' the others. You, as captain, will be forced to live with your choices, which will not be easy, but will be important to the lives of 28 other people.


Is it the one who has already enjoyed the longest life? Is it the one who has made the least contribution to life (so far)? Is it the one who has the least probability of surviving on the island once you arrive? Is it the one that is likeliest to be a divisive element once at shore (when unity will be essential to the survival of the group)? Is it the most 'morally questionable' one (involving ethical judgment)? Is it one selected by random processes (e.g., short straws)? Do you take a vote? Do you have a 'last man standing' fight, with the people fighting to throw each other off the boat, so that only the strongest people stay on the boat? Do you pick those with the least number of dependents back in the real world? And so on...


Some students will try to avoid the issue altogether, by talking about 'taking their chances' on the boat, on the sharks, or on the rate of travel toward the island. But the scenario is not constructed that way--the 'there must be some other way' fantasy options don't exist...just as in real life tough decisions...just like decisions public leaders in governance have to make some time...If you the captain take a chance (especially given the odds stated above!) and lose all 30, when you could have saved some/most, this is generally considered unacceptable (assuming you value human life, of course).


The death of the person chosen (in most ethical systems) is morally required--but it is only the "big picture" that justifies this violation of their will. Examining the morally of killing them--without placing it in the context of the alternative of killing 30 people--will not lead one to the ethically correct and overall more humane choice. [In fact, in traditional ethical systems, the killing of the individual in this context is not considered 'legal murder', but falls into 'justifiable homicide'.]


This principle can be abused, of course, as we all know from countless examples in history and in the modern world, but this does not invalidate the principle itself--it only highlights the misuse of it. [This principle was reportedly used by Caiaphas against Jesus in John 11:49-50!]


If you—as leader—make a moral judgment to decide NOT to make a choice, then this implies that you would not kill the one to save the 29, and consequently, your moral judgment would kill the 30.


This moral trade-off or dilemma situation actually can be extended in the lifeboat example to an additional (and possibly relevant) sub-scenario:


Once you have decided who to kill (to save the group), how do you kill them? 


a. Do you literally throw them off the raft screaming, with them frantically trying to climb back in (threatening to capsize the boat, feeding everyone to the sharks) or trying to pull someone else out so they can get back in, before the sharks seize them in their jaws and drag them underwater?


b. Do you tie them up, so they cannot jeopardize the boat, and then throw them to the sharks to be fought over and eaten alive as they try to hold their breath while sinking in the ocean?


c. Do you knock them unconscious, and then throw them in, so that they only experience the jaws of the sharks for the brief moments the pain brings them up to terrorized consciousness?


d. Do you kill them in the boat (while they are screaming and pleading for mercy), by gunshot to the head, snapping the neck, or strangulation/suffocation, and then throw them to the sharks, so that their suffering is absolutely minimized?


Are ANY of these "pleasant" alternatives?-- Of course not!--they are stomach-churching, gut-wrenching, heart-hollowing alternatives. The very exercise of thinking through this should deeply disturb any compassionate person! My  attempts at the Lifeboat scenario over the last couple of years still bring tears and anxiety and feelings of hopelessness to my heart...But when there is no other "way out"--the toughest choices of one's life have to be made...and these choices (and consequences--however important and good) haunt one for the rest of their question about it...But a troubled memory and haunted conscience may be a small price to pay for saving 29 lives...


But are some of these alternatives in the lifeboat more humane than others?--absolutely. [Normally, one selects the method that would minimize pain and minimize negative effects on the survival chances of the rest of the group. In this case it would be the swift death in the boat, than the much more terrifying and painful death by sharks. The implication for our case should be obvious: a swift death for the innocents would be morally preferable to the greater-suffering death in the desert (of course, we already saw from the ANE literature that people tended to choose this swifter option for themselves as well).]


Now, some might propose that all must die.  Some might say that you the captain discuss the matter with the group and get agreement that all thirty sink and be eaten deliberately, rather than sacrificing someone else, so that the 30 can die with a 'clean conscience' of not having murdered someone (although it is quite questionable whether they would have shared your responsibility for killing the individual--they might have simply trusted you to come up with the tough decisions and accountability for the choices). Of course, your moral responsibilities as captain are rather different: to bring back as many alive to their families as possible, regardless of what emotional state they are in. A group suicide of this type is certainly not out of the ethical question, but if ANY ONE of the 29 do not AGREE/WANT TO DIE this way, then you have done the exact same "against their will" killing as in the traditional 'sacrifice' PLUS you have killed more people in the meantime. [A variant of this would be to not tell the 30 that the boat will sink, until it is too late, forcing them to die "with a clean conscience" without their consent, but this seems less 'virtuous' than the other alternatives.]



This is a vivid textbook illustration, but it shows clearly that specific moral choices must be evaluated alongside the moral consequences of the alternative choices (and even non-choice is a choice, of course). To not choose to do something in this case, invariably results in the death of everyone. In other words--the "big picture".


And, by the way, this lifeboat ethics scenario is lived out in the real world constantly. I remember engaging this puzzle as a student/reader earlier in life, and thinking through it in abstract terms. But the "blood" in it finally registered itself with me the first time--as a business executive in a firm about to go under, putting literally thousands of people suddenly into the jobless category--I had to decide which of my workers I had to fire, in order to keep the other workers with a paycheck for their family...The decision on who "to throw off the lifeboat" so the others could continue to have paychecks is one of the more painful and distressing ones senior executives (at least the "human" ones) have to make...


W really need to see the reality of the trade-offs in complex moral situations. It is not simply the horror of one set of  examples versus the horrors of another set of examples--it really is the 'bigger picture' of trying to maximize value and minimize destruction. It's just not as easy as decrying the death of innocents, no matter how heart wrenching that may be to us or to God.


One modern illustration, to show how complex tough situations can be:


I have in front of me as I write this, an article from the U.S. News and World Report of May 3, 1999 (p.41). The article's title is: "Paying for Freedom: When Christian groups buy slaves in Sudan, do they help keep the practice alive?"


The first paragraphs might easily have been written about the Amalekites:


"Arab mercenaries, riding fast horses and firing Kalashnikov rifles, swept down from the north. For two weeks, they terrorized this settlement [Nyamlell, Sudan] of 10,000 black farmers, burning stocks of seeds, slaughtering cattle, torching huts. Then they rounded up 400 Kinka tribespeople and marched them away as slaves...Over the past decades, such raids have occurred hundreds of times in a civil war between Sudan's Arab north, ruled by an Islamic government, and the mainly black south, whose people practice Christianity and traditional African religions."


Into this scene comes an organization called Christian Solidarity International, who buys these slaves from Arab middlemen and returns them to their families and loved ones in Nyamlell for free. Is the civic leadership of Nyamlell thankful for these efforts to end the suffering and captivity of their sons and daughters?--No. The civilian commissioner of the country condemns the purchasing/freeing action: "The program is empowering some of these Arabs to continue with their acts...It may seem cruel to block the redemption of our children, but it's necessary in order to halt the trade in the long term."


Now, who's right here? Has the leadership of the country made a bad choice--using "big picture" words like "in the long term"? Or is the relief of immediate suffering of the captives created by the Christian group the right choice, even though it incidentally provides economic incentive for further slave raids?


This is quite complex and simply painting a picture of the immediate suffering of an existing captive is NOT a complete enough way to approach the issue; one MUST consider the future sufferings of future captives as well. 


In the same way, one cannot avoid 'bigger picture' thinking in difficult moral scenarios like we have with the oppressive Amalekites and young Israel in the land. To ignore this aspect of moral thinking would result in immature judgments and less-than-best-case results.



Summary statements:


  1. The case of Amalek does not conform to known patterns of genocide, and therefore cannot legitimately be so called.
  2. Constructing a logical contradiction (disproving God's existence) in this case would be exceptionally difficult (at best).
  3. We have real-life trade-off decisions involving human life that create a presumption against the unilateral application of the "to kill a child is always unjust" without qualification or situational variance.
  4. The Amalekites had a long and violent history of aggression against early Israel (and other nations as well), raiding, plundering, and kidnapping them for slave trade.
  5. The biblical descriptions and accounts about the Amalekite situation have earmarks of authenticity in themselves (e.g. verisimilitude) and control data from the ANE increase the overall credibility of these foreign-descriptions considerably beyond initial 'historical skepticism'.
  6. Nomadic groups such as the Amalekites were violent and terrifying problems all over the ancient world.
  7. The innocents were not guilty of their fathers' sins, and anything that happened to them as a consequence of military action against the warrior class could not be construed as a punishment on the innocents.
  8. There was a solid line of anti-Semitic and misanthropic treachery/behavior by successive generations of Amalekites.
  9. The fate of the innocents was a direct result of the horrible actions of their leaders--the warrior class.
  10. Amalek's acceptance into Israelite society is a clear indication of a non-genocidal military action against a specific location of Amalek.
  11. The military action was designed to completely eliminate the Amalekite presence in the desert, and the only option was wholesale destruction of the warrior/military population.
  12. There were only a couple of options as to what should be the fate of the Amalekite dependents.
  13. There were no options to absorb the people into Israel, and there were no options for welfare, or relief programs in the ANE.
  14. The only two choices were leave them to die slowly/agonizingly or kill them quickly/violently.
  15. People themselves normally chose to die quickly (i.e., in cases of individual suicide or group suicide) rather than go into foreign slavery or lingering torturous death (at the hands of others or at the mercy of the harsh environment and times).
  16. God chose for them to die quickly, rather than the prolonged suffering scenarios of dehydration, starvation, exposure.
  17. The ancients considered suicide/euthanasia for anticipated (but only for certain-to-occur) extreme and terminal sufferings to be morally acceptable.
  18. The amount of atrocity and terror and violence done by the Amalekites to the Israel over those centuries would VASTLY DWARF the actions of Israel in that one final battle.
  19. In modern situations and times, this action against the innocents could likely be considered "war crimes", but in the radically different ANE/desert situation, the label of 'war crimes' would not make sense. [It was much more of a euthanasia-type of action.]
  20. To expect God to do a random miraculous events on a frequent basis in cases like this is unwarranted by the biblical portrayal of God.
  21. The Lifeboat Ethics problem demonstrates the complexity (and emotional difficulty) of big-picture and large-scale governance issues.
  22. The Lifeboat Ethics problem also demonstrates that some types of killing are more humane that others (with application to our case).



So, as in the emotionally-churning alternatives of the Lifeboat, I am forced to say (with heavy heart, but probably not nearly as heavy as God's was that day--judgment has always grieved God--He knows all about the sorrow of governance, believe me) that the swift death of the innocents, in the context of a certain and much-more-suffering death in the desert, was the most merciful and least tragic course of action...



The Christian ThinkTank... [] (Reference Abbreviations)