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!

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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.

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