Answering Questions about the Bible, Apologetics, Case Studies, How Do Christians Determine What They Accept As Scripture

Case Study Follow Up: A God of Wrath and Love

Over the course of the last four weeks, we’ve explored a case study on doctrinal non-contradiction.  Our examination has centered upon the text of 1 Samuel 15:2-3 in which the Israelites are commanded to kill every Amalekite man, woman, and child and how that text (from a Christian point of view) fits with the loving image of God presented in New Testament passages like 2 Peter 3:9.  (To review the case, click on any of the following links: Part I,Part II,Part III,Part IV)

If you weren’t quite able to put yourself into the argument from a theological standpoint, you’re probably left with a few important and valid questions.  How do texts like this influence the way Christians approach acts of war?  Do passages like this mean that believers support acts of genocide or the killing of children?  This week, we’re going to take a look at both of those questions, but to begin with, let me take a moment to share a few of the rules of Biblical interpretation that are adhered to by mainline denominations:

  1. Just because an event happens in Scripture doesn’t mean that God intends for us to recreate the event in the modern world.  If this were the case, there would be plenty of cause for Christians to engage in everything from fratricide and incest to child sacrifice and cannibalism.  Instead, we recognize that much of the material presented in the Bible is there to inform us about historical events in such a way as to prevent us from repeating the mistakes of others and to encourage us to continue in obedience to God’s commands. (Romans 15:4)
  2.  Just because God commanded something in one situation doesn’t mean that it applies to all situations or even all similar situations.  We recognize that God’s commands are often given chronologically, i.e., that they build both upon each other and upon the fulfillment of previous prophesies.  While some commands are given to all people for all times (like the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5), others are given for a specific time and place and in order to accomplish a predetermined purpose.  Once that purpose is accomplished, that commandment becomes obsolete.  In cases like this passage, we recognize that the command was given to Israel for the purpose of providing for the people through whom God would bring His Messiah.  The command was not for all nations, nor for all times.
  3. When the application of a text is unclear, we don’t build a doctrine upon it.  There are some wonderful verses that, quite honestly, are just plain muddy and a few Biblical stories that leave us scratching our heads.  We may debate their meaning in a theological realm, but most mainline denominations refrain from turning their conclusions about them into dogma.
  4. We respect that while, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.”  (Hebrews 1:1,2)  The Holy Spirit given on the Day of Pentecost now enables believers to commune with God and know His will for themselves without requiring the interpretation of spiritual leaders, i.e., each believer may think for himself and, through the Spirit, come to correct conclusions about the meaning of God’s Word.

How do these rules apply to the questions we have concerning our 2 Samuel passage?  To begin with, they help to debunk some popular falsehoods concerning the way Christians interpret and apply such passages.

For example, just because infants were killed during the invasion doesn’t mean that Christians support the execution of children.  Nor can it be inferred that just because an entire group of Amalekites was wiped out, Christians ought not to oppose racial warfare.  We recognize that this was a command given for a specific people at a specific time.  Indeed, Scripture is quite clear that human life it to be valued (Psalm 139:13, Jeremiah 1:5) and that killing and warfare are to be approached with great gravity.

Secondly, the account of ongoing hostilities between two Biblical nations doesn’t (as some claim) imply that acts of terrorism or unprovoked warfare are acceptable.  While I won’t deny that acts of unwarranted aggression have been committed in the name of Christ, you won’t find any mainline denomination suggesting that this ought to be the case.  There is no similarity between a war conducted against a physical aggressor and “surprise” action taken against an ideological one.  Indeed, though it always seems to be the ones who don’t who make the news, many Christians today will choose to suffer rather than take physical action even against a physical oppressor!

Finally, just because an event like this took place in the Bible doesn’t mean that Christians would follow after a prophet who attempted to recreate it in the present.  Indeed, the role of prophets in the end times (at least according to Revelation 11) will not be to establish an earthly people or kingdom, but to give others an opportunity to repent and turn to Christ.  No conquest involved.

If you’ve managed to read through each of these pieces and put yourself in the shoes of a Christian, you’ll have a pretty good idea why we don’t see any doctrinal contradiction between God’s wrath and God’s love.  (And why both sides of God’s character made it into the Christian canon!)  If you aren’t quite there yet, I encourage you to reread the articles carefully and then take some time to find out what other Christians have to say about the topic.  And if you’re already a believer?  Well, I hope this helps you well on your way to sorting through a few of the Bible’s sticky passages.

Answering Questions about the Bible, Apologetics, Case Studies, How Do Christians Determine What They Accept As Scripture

God of Wrath and Love: A Case Study in Doctrinal Non-contradiction Part IV

Over the last few weeks, we’ve taken a look at the apparent doctrinal conflict between the order to kill every Amalekite man woman and child (1 Samuel 15:2-3) and the statement of 2 Peter 3:9 that God would have all to be saved.  In Part I we explored the issue of guilt and innocence and the ways in which our presuppositions influence our understanding of these passages.  In Part II, we took a look at the plight of those who weren’t “guilty” through an act of commission, i.e., who weren’t sacrificing children or engaged in warmongering and the options available to them.  And in Part III, we examined the conflict in light of God’s mercy, love, and justice.  This week, we’ll conclude our series with a close look at one of the most important questions of the passage: What about the children and animals?

Before I begin my explanation, however, I need to provide a brief lesson in anthropology (the study of mankind).  Throughout much of its early history, anthropologists engaged in what is known as “etic” anthropology, i.e., they looked at cultures from the outside and drew broad conclusions about what they saw.  While this helped to explain similarities between cultures, it didn’t usually do much to explain the differences.  And, more importantly, it didn’t explain why those similarities or differences existed.

For this reason, “emic” anthropology grew in importance.  By immersing themselves in a culture (usually as a part of that culture), anthropologists could better understand the factors which influenced the people group in question and, through that understanding, were often able to explain the reasons for the similarities and differences.

It’s important to note that one of the keys to performing successful anthropology of any kind is an ability to approach each people group with neutrality and a willingness to acknowledge that what seems different in the group’s thinking or approach to life isn’t necessarily “wrong” just because it doesn’t look like our culture or system of belief.  This can be particularly difficult to do when it comes to highly charged topics like religion or political structure, but it needs to be done if a person really does desire to understand why Christians don’t see a conflict between the passages in question.

Let’s take a quick moment to review what we’ve learned so far and see if we can’t fill out our perspective:

  1. History demonstrates that the Amalekites as a people were not morally innocent.  They were guilty of both child sacrifice and warmongering, leaving us reason to believe the Biblical account that they were the first aggressors.
  2. Even many of the Amalekites who did not participate in these practices would have been guilty, merely because they chose not to speak up or rejected the opportunity to withdraw from the society either through embracing the God of Israel or finding another place to settle.
  3. God gave the Amalekites the ability to know the truth, hundreds of years to embrace what was morally right, and foreknowledge of Israel’s advance against them.
  4. Those who remained likely fought to defend their homes regardless of whether they were male or female and, as such, were aggressors and a threat.

From a Christian point of view, the battle is morally justifiable as a defensive action against a regular aggressor… even if God, Himself, had not commanded it through His prophet.  And yes, even the killing of those too young to participate in the action can be understood as being reasonable given the circumstances:

Many of those who could not participate in combat would have been old enough to remember the lifestyle they’d seen their parents’ exhibit.  The old saying that, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” is apropos.  Those who had witnessed child sacrifice, temple orgies, and warmongering would be predisposed to engage in the same activities themselves and, as such, their deaths may be seen as an act of mercy: God preventing them from even having the opportunity to commit the sins of their parents.

And the infants?  I’ll be honest: I can’t answer this one.  Were the Israelites incapable of taking in and supporting additional children?  Was it possible that as they grew, the Amalekite children would feel a deeper connection to the surrounding nations and chose to embrace those crimes as their parents had, despite the fact that they had not witnessed them previously?  Could the complete obliteration of these people serve as an act that benefited the “greater good,” serving as a warning concerning the potential fate of the rest of the Canaanites?  Did their deaths ensure that they would ultimately reside with God for eternity – something that might not have happened had they lived?  Truth be told, as a Christian, I can only claim that I believe the God of the Bible to be just, merciful, and loving… and I trust that whatever happened to these children will prove, in the end, to be just that.

What about the slaying of the animals mentioned in the passage?  The Scripture isn’t clear about the reason for this, but a careful look at the passage reveals that the Israelites were not ordered to kill every animal, but only the oxen, sheep, camels, and donkeys.   Since none of these animals were dietarily forbidden, it is possible that they were slaughtered in order to feed the army.

If you feel like you’re seeing a bit of circular reasoning here, you aren’t alone!  Most of us struggle to wrap our minds around thought processes unlike our own and it usually takes a willingness to sit down with people who think differently, to ask genuine (polite) questions, listen carefully to their answers, and ask further questions to clarify those answers before we begin to understand the way they think and why.  If you aren’t already a Christian, it may take some time to understand the Christian point of view.

Next week, we’ll tackle a follow up question to this article: What does the belief that this destruction was God’s Will mean for Christians today?  Are we to support or, worse yet, engage in genocide?  Should we participate in the murder of children?  These are good questions and we’ll take a look at each in turn.  In the meantime, I encourage you to take some time to examine the views of others (not just Christians) with an open mind and a willingness to learn.  You may be surprised at the understanding you gain!

Answering Questions about the Bible, Apologetics, Case Studies, How Do Christians Determine What They Accept As Scripture

God of Wrath and Love: A Case Study in Doctrinal Non-contradiction Part III

Today, we’re continuing our four part series “A God of Wrath and Love” in which we’re examining the apparent doctrinal conflict between the text of 1 Samuel 15:2-3 (in which the Israelites are ordered to kill every Amalekite man, woman, and child) and 2 Peter 3:9 (in which God expresses His desire for all to be saved).  In Part I, we took a look at a few of our presuppositions about the passage and how they influenced our view of the Amalekites.  In Part II, we considered the options available to those disinclined to embrace the God of Israel.  This week, we’ll take a look at God’s patience and love and the role that they played leading up to the battle.

Before we begin, however, we must define what we mean by “love”.  For many people, the word conjures mushy feelings of “good will” – something we give to people unchecked regardless of how deserving they may or may not be.  It’s our willingness to turn our heads and look the other way when someone slights us.  In Biblical terms, this is considered “mercy” and it does have an important role to play when it comes to love, especially the unconditional kind.  But it isn’t the only aspect of genuine love and, by itself, it becomes license – allowing an offending party to do whatever they please without fear of repercussion.

Take a look at the shopping mall and you’ll probably see your fair share of children throwing fits because they didn’t get what they wanted from the toy department.  You’ll probably also see a fair number of parents punishing the children for their bad behavior.  Are these children unloved?  Probably not.  While genuine love recognizes the need not to hold the fit against the child (mercy), it also recognizes that this behavior is inappropriate and will harm the child later in life.  (Imagine a full-grown adult pounding the floor of his boss’ office screaming and crying because he didn’t get the raise he wanted!)  A good parent will take the time to discipline the child (justice) in the hope that their efforts will result in a well-adjusted adult, capable of functioning within our society.

It isn’t surprising to think that God does something similar with the people of the earth.  While we tend to focus on the major acts of judgment portrayed in Scripture, i.e., the flood (Genesis 6-9), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18-19), and the obliteration of entire villages during the conquest of Canaan (Numbers-Joshua), these were only the final punishment after smaller rebukes were ignored.  (In a way, they would not be unlike the adult mentioned in the previous paragraph losing his job after that unsightly tantrum!)

Unlike a parent’s rules which may or may not be evident to the child, the Bible tells us that God’s standards are known to all the people He created:

“For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.”  (Romans 1:20-21)

A few acts of disobedience, however, aren’t enough for God to give up on us.  2 Peter 3:8-9 declares, “…do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. 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.”  Nahum 1:3 explains that, “The LORD is slow to anger and great in power.”  And we see this demonstrated in the case of the Amalekites.

In the Bible, we need flip only a few pages between God’s promise to give Abraham the land of Canaan and the conquest of the land, yet in reality, over 400 years passed between that promise and the giving of the Ten Commandments at mount Sinai – and another 40 between that and the actual conquest!  Why so long?  “God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” (Genesis 15:13,16)[1]  If we approach the passage with the presupposition that the God of the Bible is true and that the text as a whole is non-contradictory (we’ll talk a bit more about why even a non-Christian should at least take a moment to attempt to view the text this way next week), we can presume that God didn’t just deal out judgment on a whim.  He gave the Amalekites sufficient knowledge of their sin and plenty of time to correct it – enough for several generations to pass!

For most of us, though, these are just “side issues.”  In the end, the destruction of all the men and women in the city could rightly be anticipated were the invading army to win.  Unlike the Amalekites, who launched an attack against Israel when they were weak and unarmed, the Israelites were coming against a defended city – one in which despicable acts were taking place.  Each of us is aware that most human beings are willing to fight for the sake of their homes and loved ones.   Even many children will stand and fight the enemy (real or perceived) in such a situation and we see this played out regularly in wars fought around the world.  Everyone on the side of the “invaded” becomes a combatant.  Everyone on the side of the “invaders” becomes an enemy.  In a situation in which nearly everyone is an aggressor, the options that remain are to kill or be killed.

But what about those too young to fight?  Those who aren’t old enough to know right from wrong or to make a moral judgment based on anything more than, “My parents said…”?  If you feel there’s a moral conflict here, you aren’t alone.  We’ll tackle this difficultly next week beginning with a brief lesson in anthropology.

[1] Traditionally, the term “Amalekite” was used as a reference to both the Amorites and the Canaanites.  This verse, then, would be a reference to a subgroup of Amalekites.

Answering Questions about the Bible, Apologetics, Case Studies, How Do Christians Determine What They Accept As Scripture

God of Wrath and Love: A Case Study in Doctrinal Non-contradiction Part II

Last week, in “A God of Wrath and Love Part I” we began a four part series examining the text of 1 Samuel 15:2-3 and the apparent conflict between the Old Testament command to exterminate all of the Amalekites and the New Testament depiction of God as wanting all men to be saved.  (2 Peter 3:9)  We looked at what is known about Amalekite society (both from Biblical and extra-Biblical texts) and came to the conclusion that the Amalekites (as a people) were not innocent by any common moral standard.  At the same time, we recognized that, if our society is to serve as a model from which we may (rightly or wrongly) draw conclusions about other cultures, it is highly unlikely that every Amalekite (as an individual) was actively involved in child sacrifice and warmongering.  That word “actively” is where we will start this week’s discussion.

Edmund Burke once said that, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”  We see this principle played out daily both in our country and throughout the world.  Indeed, most of us would agree with Abraham Lincoln that, “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.”  To sit on our hands as we witness evil and do nothing either to alter, to reform, or to remove is, indeed a great crime.

Our judicial system punishes those who by their silence are considered accomplices in unlawful acts and most of us would agree that (at least in the case of heinous crimes) this is only right.  We hold a man guilty not just for molesting a child, but for being aware that the molestation was taking place and keeping silent.  We refuse to excuse not only a boy who walks into an elementary school and begins shooting students and teachers, but also his friend who knew of the plan in advance.  We punish not merely sins of commission, but also sins of omission – the failure to do what is right in the presence of that which is wrong.

That presume that such “sins of omission” were being committed within Amalekite society is not unreasonable, yet even this is not sufficient to establish the guilt of the whole, nor provide any form of defense for the command to kill every man, woman, and child.  Was there really to be no hope at all, even for “conscientious objectors”?

I think that, in this case, we must turn to another passage of Scripture for our answer.  In Joshua 2, we read the story of Rahab, a harlot from Shittim – a town which the Israelites had been ordered to destroy.  Two spies had been sent out to “scout the territory” and return with information that would lead to the eventual fall of the city and the destruction of all who lived there.  Rahab (being a “conscientious objector”) chose to help the men, hiding them on her roof until they had the opportunity to escape.

That she was awed by the God of Israel is obvious… as is her rejection of the lifestyle of the city.  “Now before they lay down, she came up to them on the roof, 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. 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. 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. 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.”  (Joshua 2:8-12)  Later on, in chapter 6, we read that because of her willingness to embrace the Israelites, her life was spared.  And in Matthew 1:5, we find that she even made her way into the genealogy of Jesus!

Would the same have been done in the case of Amalekite objectors?  It wouldn’t be unreasonable to presume that it would have.  What about objectors who didn’t embrace Israel’s God?  According to this passage, news of the Hebrews’ advance (and the acts which their God had performed on their behalf) had preceded them.  Doubtless, those who objected to the depravity of Amalekite society, but were not ready to embrace Israel’s God, still had time to escape.  Only those without the foresight to do so would be lost.

If you’re anything like me, our explanation so far isn’t sufficient to clear up all of your questions about the apparent conflict in the text (or to convince you of the moral rectitude of either the Israelites or their God).  Next week, we’ll take our case study a step further as we explore the question of God’s patience and love and the role they play in a scene of carnage like this one.  (And don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten the command to execute all of the children!  We’ll get around to that one too.)

Answering Questions about the Bible, Apologetics, Case Studies, How Do Christians Determine What They Accept As Scripture

God of Wrath and Love: A Case Study in Doctrinal Non-contradiction Part I

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.