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A Call for “Biblical” Genocide
As I worked on a sermon for my preaching course back in college, I chose as my text the poem by the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 15. In that passage, he lectures King Saul (and those of us reading it) about why “to obey is better than sacrifice.” That’s a text that’ll preach! Well, except for one problem.
In the manuscript I turned in for class, I had the full passage as the reading to show the context, but I focused on just the poem for my exhortation. My professor overall liked the sermon but noted that the broader reading included the command from Samuel to Saul to “totally destroy” the Amalekites, including killing “men and women, children and infants.” He suggested I deal with that or else people might be stuck thinking about it and miss what I had to say about Samuel’s later words.
Since I had already written enough and didn’t have time to deal with the command to kill babies — and since I really didn’t want to try and unpack that genocidal order — my “solution” was simply to cut that from the reading when I delivered the sermon in class. I figured if the context was too problematic, then I would just skip it and move to what I actually wanted to discuss.
My professor didn’t accept feigning blindness as the best decision. While I still received high marks overall, in the class conversation after the sermon he mentioned that some congregants might open their Bibles and see the context even if I didn’t read it. And then they would find themselves distracted or worse. It sparked an interesting discussion, with many of my classmates thinking it was best to just ignore the genocide — which is probably a hint as to why I’ve not heard a sermon on that passage in the two decades since. I’ve instead come to appreciate my professor’s comment. I’ve chewed on the passage and similar difficult texts that, like the story in 1 Samuel 15, aren’t found in the Revised Common Lectionary and thus are completely ignored in many pulpits.
While clergy avoid preaching on that text, others still pick it up. And that can bring deadly applications.
On Saturday (Oct. 28), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed his nation still reeling from the horrific terrorist attack by Hamas on Oct. 7. After weeks of bombing the Gaza Strip in response, Netanyahu announced Saturday that they were moving into a “second phase” of the war that includes ground troops entering Gaza. Pledging that Israel would “completely eliminate this evil from the world,” he then argued it’s a war of biblical proportions.
“You must ‘remember what Amalek has done to you,’ says our holy Bible. And we do remember and we are fighting,” Netanyahu declared.
The prime minister quoted from Deuteronomy 25, part of Moses’s long speech of rules and advice for the ancient Hebrew people. In it, Moses referred back to a surprise attack on the people by the Amalekites as he led the people from Egypt to Canaan.
“Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God,” Moses said. “Therefore, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.”
Over 400 years later, we find this word from Moses on the lips of Samuel as he came to Saul with a word he said was from God: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both men and women, children and infants, ox and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”
That’s the command Netanyahu used to explain and justify what Israel is going to do in Gaza. It’s a call for what the United Nations and international law today would consider genocide. A call to kill everyone. Not just enemy combatants but even infants. It’s a call not for a “just war” but for a total war in the name of God.
So after ignoring the verses two decades ago in my preaching class, this issue of A Public Witness will consider the admonition against Amalek and unpack what it means when politicians invoke such a passage in a war today.
The Spirit of Amalek
Netanyahu wasn’t the first person to cite the biblical texts about the Amalekites since the terrorist attack by Hamas. Multiple Christian Zionist groups referenced Amalek in messages defending Israel’s bombing of Gaza.
“This attack is without a doubt rooted in the demonic realm as a manifestation of the Spirit of Amalek,” wrote the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (which isn’t actually an embassy but a controversial nonprofit motivated by its end-times theology). “This is a time when the Church is called to ascend to our spiritual vantage point and join in this battle, just as Moses prayed while Joshua was fighting Amalek on the ground!”
Cindy Jacobs, a New Apostolic Reformation “prophet” who was at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, similarly invoked the biblical story of the Amalekites. She describes Amalek as a “spirit” and “strongman” (as opposed to an ancient people) in a modern spiritual warfare happening between demonic and angelic forces.
The rhetoric about Amalek also appeared in Israel before the prime minister’s speech. Amos Harel, a military correspondent in Israel for Haaretz, wrote about the talk about vengeance that understandably erupted in the country this month. He added it’s been aided by the fact that “army rabbis are now wandering around bases and preaching the biblical injunction to destroy Amalek.”
The rhetoric casting the conflict as a spiritual battle against the ancient enemy Amalek fits with other comments framing this as a genocidal holy war. For instance, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham called it “a religious war” as he urged Israel to level Gaza. (Hamas has also framed this fight as a religious battle, where they somehow see themselves as the holy side even after slaughtering babies and other civilians.)
Netanyahu has leaned into this holy war rhetoric even before Saturday. He argued a few days before his Amalek speech that the war was a fight between good and evil: “We are the people of the light, they are the people of darkness — and light shall triumph over darkness.” And in that speech, he also invoked scriptures.
“We shall realize the prophecy of Isaiah: There will no longer be stealing at your borders and your gates will be of glory,” Netanyahu said in reference to Isaiah 60:18.
While the ancient prophet wrote to give hope to the returning Jewish exiles that their land could be rebuilt to glory, Netanyahu invoked the passage to justify destroying communities in a war.
Having cast himself as on the side of “the light,” Netanyahu sees this as a war where his side can do no wrong. He even said as much in his remarks on Saturday after invoking Amalek. After rightly denouncing Hamas’s terrorist attack on Oct. 7 as “a crime against humanity,” Netanyahu immediately pivoted to insist that it’s not possible for the Israel Defense Forces to also commit a war crime — despite the fact that numerous experts say they already see evidence of such offenses.
“Anybody who dares accuse our troops of conducting war crimes are people who are completely hypocritical, liars who don’t have an inkling of morality. The IDF is the most moral, ethical military in the world,” he said as he praised those fighting Hamas today as “joining this chain of Jewish heroes, a chain that has started 3,000 years ago from Joshua bin Nun.”
Hamas committed war crimes. But just because their attack was evil, that doesn’t mean Israel can do no wrong in response. It’s possible for both sides in a conflict to commit war crimes, to wrongly kill children, to immorally attack the other with genocidal intents. To assume you can do no wrong — especially while believing God is on your side — is a dangerous mindset to take into battle.
We’ve seen throughout history the bloody impact of people setting off to kill some new group of “Amalekites.” Puritan leaders justified the genocide of Native Americans in the colonial period of what is now the U.S. by comparing the Native Americans to the Amalekites. As John Winthrop gave his sermon on “a model of Christian charity” to Puritans heading to the new land, he invoked the command for Saul to kill Amalek. That’s the same sermon famous for his line about the new land being “a city upon a hill.” The speech frequently quoted by politicians today to cast the U.S. as a divine city on a hill (instead of what Jesus said about the city being his followers) also includes the theological foundation for genocide against Native Americans. It’s not so shining of a speech after all.
“In America, thinking about Amalek in the 18th century also was refined through the coalescence of an ideology of America as a ‘redeemer nation’ called to defeat evil wherever it threatened Christianity,” historian John Corrigan wrote in The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America as he warned about the “rhetoric of extermination” that came from the use of the Amalek story. “And the transition from colonial status to new nation lent a particularly urgent and pointed tone to the Amalek rhetoric, as Americans made efforts to explore the continent, draw and defend boundaries, and situate themselves as the dominant power in North America.”
More recently, the rhetoric of Amalek was used by some Hutu preachers in Rwanda to justify the genocide of Tutsi people there in 1994, and it was invoked by U.S. preacher John MacArthur to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Theology can be deadly.
Turn! Turn! Turn!
Among both Jewish and Christian scholars there are debates about whether God actually gave the command to totally destroy the Amalekites or if Moses and Samuel just believed it’s what God would want. Some rabbis have taught the decree only applied to unrepentant descendants (thus not advocating for total war), while others have reinterpreted it as an ethical teaching against militarism. As Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz explained the latter approach, “The world must stop glorifying savagery as heroic, and when that happens Amalek will disappear.”
All of that — and more — shows that applying this text isn’t a simple matter. And context matters. Thus, invoking the scriptures about Amalek sounds much different on the lips of a rabbi encouraging a congregation than out of the mouth of a politician announcing more war and death as his government defends killing civilians. So while Amalek has long been a name used by rabbis and Jewish leaders to describe the worst enemies of the Jewish people — which Hamas clearly fits — the response about how to act hasn’t been uniform.
“The Amalekites provide an explanation for the irrational and intense hatred for Jews that echoes through human history,” Mennonite pastor Melissa Florer-Bixler wrote. “The interpretive work for the rabbis was to explain how the command to blot out Amalek’s line forever had been fulfilled through the death of Haman in the book of Esther. Israel was no longer under obligation to enact physical vengeance upon an extant people. Amalek remained as a metaphor, lurking in human history as a persistent force of evil.”
“Each time these words are read, as they are each year in synagogues right before Purim, Amalek is remembered — undoing the very forgetting the words describe. There is something here that God wants us to remember,” she added. “Perhaps Amalek gives us time to puzzle over the catastrophes of our enemies and our interconnectedness with them.”
When it comes to biblical passages that could justify genocide, simply saying that’s what the Bible says isn’t good enough. We need to consider the scholarly debates about the historical record, the other parts of scriptures that teach very different ideas about loving our neighbors and showing mercy, and differences between our contexts and those in the biblical stories. But such nuance is a quick casualty of war.
Netanyahu on Monday rejected international calls for a ceasefire and again cited the Bible. Believing he has God on his side, the prime minister this time utilized Ecclesiastes to defiantly declare, “That will not happen. Ladies and gentlemen, the Bible says that there is ‘a time for peace and a time for war.’ This is a time for war.” While he quoted the Bible accurately, he immediately added an interpretation to determine this is a time for war (which seems to be his default interpretation).
Just saying the Bible says so doesn’t mean he’s applying it correctly. For instance, Pete Seeger read the same passage and instead saw the need to sing for peace. And to try and make our time more peaceful, he even donated much of his royalties from that song to the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions that nonviolently opposes Israeli destruction of Palestinian homes in the West Bank — demolitions that Netanyahu has overseen.
This divergence between Netanyahu and Seeger gets to what Kaitlyn Schiess addressed in her new book as she pointed to Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” sermon as an example of the danger of assuming we can apply a text so cleanly today.
“There are two problems here. First, we tend to take promises of blessing and judgment from different covenants and apply them to our own communities. And second, we read Scripture as if we know with certainty where we stand in it,” she explained in The Ballot and the Bible: How Scripture has been Used and Abused in American Politics and Where We Go from Here. “Our reading of Scripture often comes with an assumption about what ‘time’ it is.”
Hamas’s terrorism seems on par with the attack of the Amalekites, but that doesn’t mean the people of Gaza are automatically under the edicts of Moses or Samuel. Hamas can be the new Amalek, but that doesn’t mean Netanyahu is the new Joshua, Saul, David, or other biblical Amalekite fighter.
So I’ll admit that two decades since my college preaching class I’m still not entirely sure what to make of Samuel’s message to Saul about destroying the Amalekites. But it is clear that Netanyahu sees himself leading a holy war as he weaponizes biblical passages to justify his war strategies. And like Samuel’s approach, Netanyahu’s war is killing everyone, including “men and women, children and infants.” In just over three weeks, Israeli strikes have killed more than 8,000 people. Forty percent of those killed — more than 3,400 — are children. The current death rate is equivalent to one child being killed every 10 minutes (or about how long you’ve been reading this piece). In the name of God.
We need an end to the war in Israel and Gaza. And we need to disarm genocidal texts.
As a public witness,
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