The other day I listened to the latest podcast from Justin Brierley’s radio program “Unbelievable.” I have always loved the show as it seeks to forge precisely in-depth conversation across the divide of deeply polarized positions. And that’s just what our world needs today. However, this particular program soon had me pulling out my hair. The topic was the Amalekite genocide described in 1 Samuel 15. Here’s the text:
2 This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. 3 Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”
4 So Saul summoned the men and mustered them at Telaim—two hundred thousand foot soldiers and ten thousand from Judah. 5 Saul went to the city of Amalek and set an ambush in the ravine. 6 Then he said to the Kenites, “Go away, leave the Amalekites so that I do not destroy you along with them; for you showed kindness to all the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt.” So the Kenites moved away from the Amalekites.
7 Then Saul attacked the Amalekites all the way from Havilah to Shur, near the eastern border of Egypt. 8 He took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and all his people he totally destroyed with the sword. 9 But Saul and the army spared Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs—everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that was despised and weak they totally destroyed.
10 Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel: 11 “I regret that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.” Samuel was angry, and he cried out to the Lord all that night.
12 Early in the morning Samuel got up and went to meet Saul, but he was told, “Saul has gone to Carmel. There he has set up a monument in his own honor and has turned and gone on down to Gilgal.”
13 When Samuel reached him, Saul said, “The Lord bless you! I have carried out the Lord’s instructions.”
14 But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?”
15 Saul answered, “The soldiers brought them from the Amalekites; they spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the Lord your God, but we totally destroyed the rest.”
16 “Enough!” Samuel said to Saul. “Let me tell you what the Lord said to me last night.”
“Tell me,” Saul replied.
17 Samuel said, “Although you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. 18 And he sent you on a mission, saying, ‘Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; wage war against them until you have wiped them out.’ 19 Why did you not obey the Lord? Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the Lord?”
20 “But I did obey the Lord,” Saul said. “I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. 21 The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal.”
22 But Samuel replied:
“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. 23 For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king.”
24 Then Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned. I violated the Lord’s command and your instructions. I was afraid of the men and so I gave in to them. 25 Now I beg you, forgive my sin and come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord.”
26 But Samuel said to him, “I will not go back with you. You have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you as king over Israel!”
In the program an Anglican vicar named John Allister defended this passage as historically accurate and inspired while atheist Justin Schieber of the “Reasonable Doubts” podcast crtiqued it. As for the fact that I’m now nearly bald, that is owing largely to Allister’s defense as well as the fact that the program never flagged for the listener any possible response but Allister’s. More on that at the end.
I’m committed to the authority of scripture. I think it did happen.
My frustrations began early on when Allister declared:
“I’m committed to the authority of scripture. I think it did happen.”
This is what we call an enthymeme, that is an argument with one or more unstated premises. It seems to go like this:
(1) I’m committed to the authority of scripture.
(2) Therefore, I think it did happen.
But wait. What are the embedded premises? As best I can surmise the fuller argument is missing a major premise:
(0) If a person is committed to the authority of scripture then they will think the Amalekite slaughter happened.
(1) I’m committed to the authority of scripture.
(2) Therefore, I think it [the Amalekite slaughter] happened.
The problem with (0) is that it in turn depends on a more general premise:
General Premise: If a person is committed to the authority of scripture then they will think that all the statements describing past events in any putative historical narratives in scripture accurately describe those past events.
And the problem here is that the General Premise then sets one up to be committed to accepting a literal talking serpent, global flood and sun halted in its course in the heavens for a full day. There simply is no other option. Deny any of these statements as accurately describing past events and you are de facto denying the authority of scripture.
I might expect that kind of biblicism from an untutored Baptist layperson but certainly not an Anglican vicar. Surely Allister recognizes that matters of inspiration, authority and even inerrancy are separate from issues of interpretation? One would assume so but statements like this suggest otherwise.
I think it did happen.
Let’s take a closer look at Allister’s claim that it did happen. Here we quickly encounter a deep irony because while Allister commits himself to defending the text, he then spends the next hour of the broadcast attempting to find any possible way, no matter how implausible, contrived and blushingly eisegetical, of denying what the text clearly says. I’m not going to bother noting what the text does say (you’ve got it cited in full above) except to note that the text commands that Amalekites be slaughtered, utterly wiped out, for the sins committed by their ancestors against the Israelites during the Exodus. And the text then states that eventually the Israelites were successful (despite Saul dragging his feet).
Allister says he accepts this narrative, but then he suggests that the Amalekites had time to run away as the Israelite army slowly marched toward them. He suggests that Amalekites could also have freely assimilated into the Kenite tribe to avoid annihilation. He suggests that maybe no children and infants were ever killed. He proposes that the Amalekites were being killed as much for their ongoing rebellion as the sins of their ancestors centuries before. He suggests that only those who stayed to fight the Israelites were to be killed. He suggests the Amalekites would have been given the opportunity to surrender. All of this is nothing more than an incredibly audacious intellectually dishonest attempt to recast herem sacrifice warfare as a contemporary just war. And nothing could be further from the truth.
Let’s note a few glaring examples. At one point Allister declares: “There’s a desire to wipe out the corporate identity of the Amalekites. I don’t think there’s a desire to kill every individual Amalekite.” At this point I was pulling out the last few strands of hair from my beleaguered scalp. And near the end of the interview Allister characterizes the Israelite actions as “self-defense” and even is brazen enough to make the point that “Someone is allowed to kill an intruder if they’re threatening their family….” As if the Amalekites were the aggressors in this narrative? Anybody reading the narrative can see that all this is patently false. Why bother declaring your fidelity to the narrative if you’re going to ignore precisely what it says?!
You might be wondering how Allister can make his claims. His strategy at this point is to appeal to Deuteronomy 20 which stipulates non-genocidal conditions for warfare outside the territory of Israel that include relatively benevolent actions like enslaving (rather than slaughtering) the surrendering population. What he completely ignores is that those stipulations are not absolutes. Instead, they are standard practices which are explicitly overridden in the case of the Amalekites when Yahweh directly commands complete annihilation.
Let me try to convey to you how absurd Allister’s reasoning is at this point. Imagine that the speed limit in downtown Paris is 50 kmph. Then Paris hosts a Formula One race on the streets of their downtown. If none of the cars break any laws during the race does it follow that none of the cars exceeded 50 kmph? Of course not! The reason is simple: the traffic laws are normative laws, not absolutes. Consequently they can be suspended during the race which constitutes an obvious exception to the norm. By the very same token, in 1 Samuel 15 God’s explicit commands override the standard practices of war outlined in Deuteronomy 20.
And that is the irony. Allister is so concerned to construct his own contrived readings that remove or minimize moral offense that he loses the proper reading of the narrative altogether.
Corporate responsibility of the nation.
Let’s take a look at Allister’s defense of the killing of Amalekites for the sins of their ancestors. He declares:
“I think we need to, we need to look at it on two levels. We need to look at it as a corporate identity. The national identity of the Amalekites is that they are the nation that attacks Israel. You know, if you’re part of a country that has gone to war with another country five times in the last two hundred and fifty years, that’s going to be written big on your national consciousness that these are your enemies. And the current generation of Amalekites I think identify with that.”
Do you see what is going on here? Allister is justifying the slaughter of the Amalekites by appealing to a principle. We can call it the First Rationale for Genocide:
First Rationale for Genocide: some cultural, religious and/or ethnic groups can become so opposed to another group in their cultural, religious and/or ethnic identity that the second group could be warranted in conducting a genocide of the first group by killing all members of that group.
This is the substance of the principle to which Allister has appealed. And I call it the First Rationale for Genocide not to score cheap rhetorical points but because you repeatedly find exactly this kind of principle being appealed to in historic genocides. For example, read through some of the rhetoric of the Hutu Interahamwe in the run up to the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The Tutsis were culturally identified as a class of elite oppressors identified essentially with the Belgian colonizers, and as such they had to be wiped out. It is difficult to overstate how shocking this is, an Anglican vicar appealing to the same kind of reasoning that “justified” Rwandan genocide.
Whose fault is that?
In my opinion the nadir of Allister’s performance comes when Brierley points out that surely some Amalekite children were killed by the invading Israelite armies. Allister concedes that it is at least possible that some Amalekite infants and children were killed by the Israelites. But then he makes a statement which made my blood run cold:
“I think I’d want to ask though, if a parent takes their child to war and the child dies, whose fault is that? Is that the fault of the army who attacks or is it the fault of the parent who doesn’t get their children out of the way?”
It is clear what Allister thinks: the fault lies with the parent. This moral claim is unbelievably noxious. It will help us if we formalize it a bit:
Allister’s principle of blame the victim: When Army 1 invades territory x and begins killing the children of territory x, the parents of the children of territory x are responsible for their deaths because those parents did not successfully remove their children from the advance of Army 1.
Imagine applying Allisters principle of blame to the victims to Rwanda. If you read up on Rwanda you’ll find out that there was excellent evidence from January 1994 that the Hutus were plannning to commit a genocidal slaughter of Tutsis. And so starting in January 1994 if not earlier Tutsi parents could have escaped the country with their children. With that in mind, according to Allister’s principle of blame the victim, if Hutus hacked apart Tutsi children in May 1994 it must be the fault of the Tutsi parents who failed to evacuate their children in time.
I think “Unbelievable” is a great program. But in this case we were given two options: atheism or a collocation of intellectual dishonesty and unthinkable moral principles. There are other options. There are other views that adhere to the inspiration of scripture while remaining intellectually honest and keeping our deepest moral intuitions intact. That’s why I wrote the chapter on genocide in The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver, and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails. It is high time that this growing chorus of reasonable Christian voices is given a wider audience.