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Why we shouldn’t use the Bible to justify war
Bibi Netanyahu drew upon the conquest of Amalek to justify his war against the Palestinians; that is a misuse of the Bible.
Last week, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, used 1 Samuel 15:2-3 in the Bible about the conquest of Amalek to justify atrocities in Palestine. This is an incorrect interpretation of the text, and a flagrant misuse of Scripture.
After the prime minister justified Israel’s violence based on this analogy, I saw many followers of God ready to dismiss the Bible in its entirety. However, the texts where Amalek appears do not support Netanyahu’s argument. First, in 1 Samuel 15, the pillaging of Amalek is a result of God assigning Israel Saul as king, who would go down as bad king of Israel. This monarchical assignment is one that God warned Israel against, because Israel was to serve God and God alone. God was king, and so Israel did not need an earthly king. God explicitly warns Israel they would become a nation of war if they had an earthly king (and the actions in 1 Samuel 15 showcase this).
In Exodus 17, Moses also does battle with Amalek, but in this case, it is strictly through the power of God. Israel is only effective when Moses raises his staff. In fact, Moses can’t keep his arm raised for long and needs help. This showcases again that it is God who is leading the effort, not at all Moses’ own effort and energy. And so in both cases, there is theology behind these actions.
To place Amalek within its theological context for Israel, we need to focus on Deuteronomy 7 and 20, where the writer describes God destroying seven nations: the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. Deuteronomy is a book that received its final form in the seventh century, BCE, during the reign of King Josiah. This was after Assyria had conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel and had its sights set on the Southern Kingdom as well. Judah had become a vassal state of Assyria in order to protect itself. However, God wanted to show Judah that such an alliance or covenant with Assyria was idolatrous. Relying on any power other than God is a violation of the covenant that God made with Israel. Deuteronomy’s message is a reminder of that covenant to a people who were about to betray it.
God wants to wipe out the Amalekites and others so that they don’t “...teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods” (Deut. 20:8). The reasoning here is not mysterious. God is calling for the destruction of these nations so that Israel will continue to worship God, instead of worshiping idols, like those other nations.
To the ancient audience, this was a clear warning about allying with Assyria. God didn't want Judah to face the same fate as Israel, i.e. destruction. Judah did accept vassalage to Assyria. Eventually, it was conquered by Babylon and underwent a long period of captivity. That was both a punishment for their idolatry and a result of it. In the book of Deuteronomy, God wants to declare that another way was and is possible and that Judah could prosper without making political treaties with the enemy. Thus the violent passages in Deuteronomy, and elsewhere in the Bible, emphasize the importance of not worshiping other Gods—maintaining a treaty with God alone.
It must also be said that Israel’s military campaigns against Amalek are not historical—in fact, archeologists don’t even believe Amalek was a real nation. They didn’t happen. They’re hyperbolic and serve the theological purpose I’ve outlined above: to prevent false worship and to demonstrate God as supreme. The lack of historical accuracy requires us to find a deeper meaning, and certainly not to literally interpret the passages to justify violent ends.
Unfortunately for Netanyahu, that deeper is not the destruction of Palestine—which, according to the prime minister himself, is the state of Israel’s intent. But this intent is not biblical and it is, in fact, the very opposite of what the passage Netanyahu quotes attempts to deliver. Israel is not to make alliances with foreign gods that result in false worship.
Israel, in allying with Western powers, and acting like a vassal state of the United States and Western powers, is repeating the mistakes of the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah. It is relying on foreign powers to enact its will, and clearly, in the interests of those foreign powers. If Netanyahu wanted to use the Bible as a guide for leadership, he would initiate a ceasefire. He would not accept support from foreign states that worship not Adonai, but power. There is a lesson from the Bible for the modern state of Israel and its far-right prime minister, but it is not to destroy Palestine. The good kings of Israel and the prophets who warned the bad ones against their wicked alliances are rolling in their graves at what Israel is doing to Palestine now. God calls them and all of us to another way, before it is too late.