Was the Amalekite Massacre a Moral Atrocity?
Was the Amalekite Massacre a Moral Atrocity?
The story of the Israelite massacre of the Amalekite nation is
recorded in [ref001]1 Samuel 15
. The facts of the case, as claimed in this chapter, are these:
Yahweh sent the prophet Samuel to command Saul, the first king
of Israel, to "go and smite Amalek" and to "_
utterly_ destroy all that they have and spare them not"
); the command explicitly stated that Saul was to kill "both
man and woman, _infant and suckling_, ox and sheep,
camel and ass" (same verse). According to the story, Saul
took "two hundred thousand footmen and ten thousand men of
) against the Amalekites and "utterly destroyed all the
people with the edge of the sword" ([ref004]v:7
), except for Agag their king, whom he kept alive to take
back as a prisoner. This act of mercy, of course, was a clear
violation of Yahweh's instructions, which were to kill everyone
and spare no one. In addition to this act of disobedience, Saul
also kept alive "the best of the sheep, and of the oxen,
and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and
would not utterly destroy them" ([ref005]v:9
Saul's disobedience irked Yahweh, whose word came to Samuel (as
Yahweh's word had a habit of doing in those days) and said, "It
repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king, for he is turned
back from following me, and hath not performed my commandments"
). Apparently when Yahweh said kill everyone and everything
and spare no one and nothing, he meant kill everyone and everything
and spare no one and nothing. Samuel left the next morning and
met Saul returning home from battle. Samuel sharply reprimanded
Saul for not executing [no pun intended] Yahweh's word to the
letter and informed Saul that Yahweh had rejected him from being
). Samuel ordered that Agag, the Amalekite king, be brought
out, and then in the presence of Yahweh, Samuel hacked Agag to
pieces with a sword ([ref008]vv:32-33
), presumably to show the people that when Yahweh said kill
everyone, he meant kill everyone.
What happened on that day, if indeed it did happen, must by all
standards of decency and morality--except for biblical standards,
of course--be considered a moral atrocity. After all, this is
a case where an attacking army went beyond the killing of the
soldiers they fought against to the butchering of women and children
and even infants still nursing their mothers' breasts. Please
notice that Yahweh's order was to slay even "infant and suckling"
(v:3); no one--nothing--was to be spared. As we will soon note,
it was Yahwistic vengeance at its bloodiest.
My position, which is the position that any humanitarian would
take in the matter, is that such an event as this must be considered
a moral atrocity. _The_American_Heritage_Dictionary_
defines _moral_ as that which is "concerned with the
judgment of the goodness or badness of human action and character;
pertaining to the discernment of good and evil." It defines
_atrocity_ as an "atrocious condition, quality, or behavior;
monstrousness; vileness." Atrocious is defined as "extremely
evil or cruel; monstrous; exceptionally bad." What degree
of judgment is required for one to determine that killing defenseless
babies is "bad"? In the following article, Lindell Mitchell
will deny that the massacre of the Amalekites was a moral atrocity,
so I wonder if Mr. Mitchell will tell us that killing children
and babies in his "judgment" is not "monstrous"
or "exceptionally bad," that it can, in fact, be an
act of goodness? Indeed he will, because he is a Bible inerrantist
and can take no other position.
The killing of just one Amalekite woman or child or infant, solely
because of her, his, or its nationality, would have constituted
moral atrocity by any civilized standard of morality, but to put
into proper perspective the extent of this massacre, I want first
to establish a concrete image of what probably occurred on that
occasion. If the story happened as recorded, then by necessity,
hundreds of women, children, and babies were killed by Israelite
soldiers. How do I know this? Well, even though Saul "utterly
destroyed" the Amalekites, except for Agag, whom Samuel quickly
took care of, the Amalekites were, inexplicably, still around
just a few chapters later where the guerrilla escapades of David
were chronicled. On one occasion, David raided the Amalekites
and "saved neither man nor woman alive" ([ref009]1 Sam. 27:8-9
), yet these twice-utterly-destroyed Amalekites somehow made
a speedy comeback, raided David's camp at Ziklag ([ref010]30:1
), and took the women captive. (Apparently, Amalekites were
more humanitarian than the Yahwistic Hebrews.) David pursued the
Amalekites, and when he reached their encampment, he "smote
them from the twilight even unto the evening of the next day"
). There "escaped not a man of them, save four hundred
young men, who rode upon camels and fled" ([ref012]v:17
). Now if David smote these twice-utterly-destroyed Amalekites
from twilight until evening of the next day, there must have been
a lot of them when the battle started. The extent of their numbers
would also be indicated by the way it was said that "there
escaped not a man of them, save four hundred young men."
In other words, the writer must have intended for us to understand
that the "four hundred young men" who escaped on camels
represented just a small fraction of the total Amalekite population.
If 400 young men escaped on camels, we can reasonably assume that
many other young men were killed when David was smiting the Amalekites
"from the twilight even unto the evening of the next day."
So if that many young Amalekite men were alive at the time of
this encounter with David's guerrillas, we can imagine how many
of them there must have been before Saul and Samuel _utterly
_ destroyed them. Be that as it may, we can assume that if
there were at least 400 young Amalekite men, there were probably
that many young women too. Young men able to escape on camels
were probably not children, and certainly they were not infants.
A steadiness of tribal growth from year to year, then, would suggest
a population of at least several hundred children and infants
at the time of David's battle with the Amalekites, so before the
Amalekites were "utterly destroyed" by Saul and Samuel,
there must have been thousands of children and infants. The point
is that, if there is any degree of accuracy at all in the Bible,
inerrantists will have to concede that the Israelite massacre
of the Amalekite nation in 1 Samuel 15 entailed the killing of
thousands of women, children, and infants. Mr. Mitchell wants
us to believe that this massacre was morally proper.
To put the incident--if indeed the massacre of _thousands_
of women, children, and infants can properly be called just an
"incident"--into a clear perspective, let's try to visualize
in specific, concrete terms what had to have happened on that
day, not just once, not just twice, but hundreds of times. The
instruments of warfare at that time were swords, spears, and bows
and arrows, so we can only assume that these were the weapons
used to "slay both man and woman, infant and suckling"
([ref013]1 Sam. 15:3
). David, whom the Bible describes as a man "after Yahweh's
own heart" ([ref014]1 Sam. 13:14
), made the survivors of a battle with the Moabites lie on
the ground so that he could measure them off in three "lines."
Two of the lines were killed, and the third was kept alive to
become "servants of David" ([ref015]2 Sam. 8:2
). As brutal as this was, it was comparatively civilized in
terms of the treatment that the Israelite king Menahem accorded
his captives. He "ripped up" the pregnant women captives
after a military campaign against Tiphsah ([ref016]2 Kings 15:16
). The point is that these were barbaric times, so we can
reasonably assume that what contemporaries did with civilian captives
was probably what the Israelites did with the Amalekites.
I have often wondered if inerrantists defend biblical events like
the Amalekite massacre because they don't take the time to think
in specific terms of everything that such an event would necessarily
have encompassed. I don't know; I'm willing to give them the benefit
of the doubt. Do men like Mr. Mitchell see thousands of Amalekite
women, children, and infants as merely an abstract concept or
words on paper rather than specific, living and breathing individuals
with hopes, aspirations, and a desire for life as real as yours
and mine... and Mr. Mitchell's? Does he think that Amalekite children
and babies somehow didn't bleed when spears were thrust through
them or feel pain when they were hacked with swords? Recalling
again that the weapons of the time were swords and spears, we
can reasonably assume that these were the instruments of slaughter
that the Israelites used to kill the Amalekite women, children,
and infants. So, if the story happened as recorded, Mr. Mitchell
has to know that not just once, not just twice, but hundreds of
times, a specific Israelite soldier, wielding a specific sword
or spear, thrust his weapon through a specific Amalekite infant.
We can hardly imagine that all of these children and infants were
killed simultaneously. The massacre was surely a sequential affair.
Some were killed first, then others, then others, then others,
etc., as the Israelite army passed through the civilian population.
We can imagine, then, the terror of screaming children who, seeing
what was happening as the soldiers advanced toward them, knew
what was soon going to happen to them. How many of them were thrust
through from the back as they tried to flee for their lives? We
can never know, but from reports of what happened at places like
My Lai, we can be reasonably sure that it did happen. So these
Amalekite children were not just abstract concepts or words on
paper; they were real individuals, just as real as Mr. Mitchell's
children (if he has any). They had individual names and personalities,
just as children today have. They were the Jasons and Brandons
and the Jennifers and Lisas of their time and place--and they
were all killed, individually, by specific Israelite soldiers,
presumably acting on orders from the God of heaven. We can imagine
too Amalekite mothers futilely trying to shield their babies from
Israelite swords and spears with their own bodies, because we
know from many documented cases that this routinely happens when
mothers sense threats to their babies.
If Mr. Mitchell's inerrant "word of God" is truly inerrant,
the scenario I have just described is exactly what happened on
that day. So now I am going to state my position as emphatically
as I know how. _If such a scenario as this is not morally
wrong, then nothing is!_ I will repeat it. _If such
a scenario as this is not morally wrong, then nothing is!
_ And I can't wait to put Mr. Mitchell's defense of this atrocity
into print, because I want the world to see the extremes to which
blind allegiance to the absurd doctrine of Bible inerrancy will
lead one. It requires its believers to defend the killing of children
and babies for no other reason than the circumstance of national
birth, and such a belief is repugnant to everything that modern
civilization stands for.
To cut right to the heart of the matter, I am going to ask Mr.
Mitchell a question that will let us know just how sincere his
belief in the moral rightness of the Amalekite massacre really
is. I will state it in the form of a true or false question:
If I, Lindell Mitchell, had been born an Israelite in the time
of King Saul, I would have willingly and gladly participated in
the Amalekite campaign by killing women, pregnant women, children,
infants, the elderly, the sick, and the feeble.
I sincerely hope that he will answer false, but I know that he
won't. To do that would raise questions highly detrimental to
his inerrancy position. Why would he not willingly do the will
of God? Why would he not gladly do the will of God? In all probability,
he will somehow evade the question, but if he does answer it,
the only answer he can give, without surrendering his position,
is true. So an honest and forthright answer from him will put
this issue in a crystal clear perspective for our readers. It
will enable them to see that belief in Bible inerrancy will require
them to defend the killing of babies.
I know that Mr. Mitchell is not completely without compassion
for children, because he usually plasters his letters to me with
"pro-life" stickers that say such things as, "It's
a child, not a choice." Although I don't agree with his position
on the issue of abortion, I do recognize that his position implies
a concern for children. So now I will ask him to explain something
that puzzles me. If abortion, even in the very first days of pregnancy
is morally wrong (as he seems to believe), then what made morally
right the abortions that the Israelite soldiers performed on Amalekite
women that day? We can certainly assume that in a population of
thousands (as already established) there were many pregnant women,
so when the Israelite soldiers _utterly_ destroyed "man
and woman, infant and suckling," they necessarily terminated
many pregnancies. Why was that morally right if abortion is wrong,
period? What had those unborn Amalekite babies done to deserve
death? For that matter, what had the babies already born done
to deserve death? Mr. Mitchell has a lot of explaining to do.
Now inerrantists like Mr. Mitchell would have us believe that
the massacre was done upon direct orders from God, so somehow
that made everything all right. You see, God can do no wrong;
God knows things we cannot know, so he had special omniscient
insights into the matter that enabled him to understand the necessity
of the massacre, no matter how shocking it may seem to our pathetically
finite minds. In the sweet by and by, however, we will understand
God's ways, which are higher than our ways, so then we will know
why God had to do this, and it will make perfectly good sense
to us. I have debated this subject with Bible fundamentalists
enough to know that we can expect to hear some kind of _doublethink
_ like this as Mr. Mitchell seeks to explain it all to us.
Meanwhile, as we wait for Jesus to pass out answers to us in the
great beyond, we can take solace from knowing that God actually
did the Amalekite children and infants a big favor by commanding
Saul to massacre them. Had they been permitted to live, they would
have simply grown up to be wicked like their parents. By having
them killed as children living in a state of innocence, he assured
them of a place in heaven, so now they won't have to fry in hell.
Yes, expect Mr. Mitchell to say such stuff as this too. If you
don't believe that anyone could possibly advance an argument as
asinine as this, see page 6 of Clarence Lavender's article ("Was
It Morally Right for God to Order the Killing of the Canaanites?"
TSR, Winter 1993), where he actually said that the Israelite massacre
of Canaanite children was the "best thing that could have
happened." I don't make this stuff up, readers. I just encounter
it in my engagements with fundamentalists and pass it along to
you. So you can expect to see some kind of rebuttal from Mr. Mitchell
that is based on the premise that God did it, so it had to be
all right. He will expect us to believe that, somehow, a deity
whom the Bible describes as the "Father of mercies and God
of all comfort" ([ref017]1 Cor. 1:3
), "merciful and gracious" ([ref018]Ex. 34:6
), and who is "abundant in lovingkindness" (_Ibid
_.), and who is praised with various other descriptions
intended to convey qualities of goodness and righteousness, was
simply manifesting his supreme moral excellence when he ordered
the slaughter of the Amalekites. I have yet to see a logically
coherent defense based on this premise, so I don't expect one
from Mr. Mitchell either. Whatever he says, I will respond to
it in our next exchange.