Last week, we took a look at the rule of “Doctrinal Non-contradiction” and the role that it plays in determining what is or isn’t admitted to the Christian canon. Over the next four weeks, we’ll go in depth with this rule as we examine the apparent contradiction between God’s wrath in the Old Testament and His love in the New Testament – and why most Christians don’t see a conflict at all.
While there are plenty of Old Testament texts which clearly show God as wrathful, I’ve chosen one of the most troublesome for this article. In 1 Samuel 15:2-3 we read, “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. Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’ ”
The wholesale slaughter of any group of people should unsettle us and, for most of us it does. After all, human history is full of examples of horrific genocide – often senseless and unprovoked. The strong attack the weak and the weak lose. It grates against our sense of justice, so to see such an account given within the pages of a book which claims religious authority (especially when the God of that book is portrayed as having ordered the massacre) is appalling. And even more so when the same volume which presents such an apparently violent and wrathful God goes on to claim that the same deity, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)
So what do Christians do when we see such seeming conflict within the pages of Scripture? We begin with a look at both the context of the passage and an examination of our own presuppositions.
As far as non-Biblical history goes, our information concerning the Amalekites is pretty scarce. We know that they lived in the land of Canaan and that (like most of the locals), their social life was… well, anti-social. Temple orgies were pretty common as was child sacrifice. War was the norm, so there’s nothing here to contradict the Biblical claim that the Israelite conflict with the Amalekites was the result of an unprovoked assault against the Hebrews before they ever even entered the Promised Land. (Exodus 17:8-16 and Deuteronomy 25:17-18) We are told in Judges 6:2-5 that the Amalekites continued to harass Israel even once they were settled in the land, devastating everything they encountered as they enacted total war.
This isn’t to say that Israel was never at fault or that they never did anything to aggravate the situation (Numbers 14:44-45), but it does clarify what was going on and goes a long way towards challenging a few of our natural assumptions. To begin with, the Amalekites were not “innocent” bystanders who got in the way of the advancing Israelite army only to be obliterated. Most of us would agree that adults (in general) are capable of moral judgment and, as a result, are responsible for their own actions. Most of us would also agree that slaughtering children or engagement in unprovoked warfare against a weak people (Deuteronomy 25:18) are morally despicable acts.
But this still doesn’t fully explain why a God presented as loving in the New Testament would order such a wholesale slaughter in the old. Surely, not every Amalekite was engaged in these horrific practices! I won’t argue there. If we are to judge by what we know of our own society (rightly or wrongly), there is, indeed, a good chance that not everyone who was of Amalekite lineage was guilty of these crimes. But by that very same standard, we are forced to draw several other conclusions as well… and we will take a look at these next week as we continue our case study.