A few days ago, I posted a reply to a challenge regarding how people who believe in inerrancy can reconcile that belief with certain events described in the Bible under the title Focusing on the Trees While Ignoring the Forest." My response has received a great deal of attention, and I have been reading many of the comments from the sidelines but declining to do much commenting due to time constraints. Now, a week later, I have fixed my attention on four different responses that I received and want to use some specific examples to clarify what I meant. Thus, this is the first of what I expect to be four posts that are responsive to some of these comments, challenges or objections to the viewpoint I expressed in my essay A Reasonable Understanding of the Destruction of the Amalekites.
One enterprising skeptic carrying the moniker Freezbee challenged my statement that the Amalekites were understood to be evil and wicked people. He posted a lengthy challenge to that statement by quoting every single verse he could find in the Bible that might possibly reference the Amalekites and entitled it The sad, but true story of the Amalekites. I posted a response which was mostly quoting from my underlying essay in which I point out that the commentators were in agreement that the Amalekites were a wicked, evil people. Freezbee made some comments to my response, and I wanted to address them here because I think it is illustrative of the approach taken by many skeptics when arguing about Biblical issues.
First, in my view, Freezbee’s view of the mentions of the Amalekites is very much agenda-driven. He has a goal -- make it appear that the Amalekites are not evil people. To do this, he must ignore or downplay the verses of the Bible that portray them as evil. For example, he notes that Deut 25:17-19 reads:
"Remember what Amalek did to you, on the way when you were leaving Egypt, that he happened upon you on the way, and he struck those of you who were hindmost, all the weaklings at your rear, when you were faint and exhausted, and he did not fear God. It shall be that when the Lord, your God, gives you rest from all your enemies all around, in the Land that the Lord, your God, gives you as an inheritance to possess it, you shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under heaven – you shall not forget!"
Now, these verses seem to describe a base attack on the Israelites -- an attack on those who are too old and crippled to stay in the midst of the march through the wilderness. Certainly, Freezbee and others like him would not be so callous as to say that attacking old and crippled people is a sign of goodness. It would seem that this is evidence of the type of evil that was part of the Amalekite culture. So, how does Freezbee handle this? He says:
Moses has grown old, and apparently his memory isn't, as he remembered it. This isn't quite the same story as in Exodus; but who cares? Just pick and choose the version that you like the best.
Now, let's keep in mind something that is important in these conversations: context. In this case, the context of the discussion. I am defending the viewpoint that the account of the destruction of the Amalekites is justified only because of the doctrine of inerrancy. If I didn't believe in this doctrine, I could choose to dismiss this account because I don't like it. But I have written my defense of the account with the idea that the Bible is inerrant, and this belief has consequences for those who would attack this viewpoint.
In this case, he is trying to make it sound as if there is some deep inconsistency between the accounts in Exodus and Deuteronomy. In fact, there's nothing in Exodus that contradicts the account set out in Deuteronomy. The Exodus account doesn’t mention the facts raised in the Deuteronomy account, but Exodus doesn’t say particularly what the Amalekites did either. Thus, given the concept of inerrancy in which this discussion takes place, there is no reason to conclude that they cannot both be true. Yet, Freezbee wants to play up the silence of Exodus on the points raised in Deuteronomy as evidence that they aren't true. Instead, he wants people to accept that Moses must have been a dottering old fool who couldn't remember the events that took place in Exodus and so made up facts. Why does he do this? I can only conclude that his explanation is nothing more than his desire to simply downplay this very clear explanation of what the Amalekites did that caused them to be under the wrath of God.
When I raised the fact that the Deuteronomy account simply clears up facts not included in the Exodus account, his response was much the same: "What is the most likely - that a 120 year old man has a few memory faults about an event that happened 40 years, or that he doesn't?" A few memory faults? Fabricating an attack on the old and weak among the Israelites is not a mere memory fault, it would be an outright fabrication. If it were a "memory fault", then certainly there must be some grain of truth to the account that Moses has misremembered, but that doesn't seem to be considered as a possibility. But this whole line of discussion takes us out of the context in which the discussion takes place -- the starting point of inerrancy. Thus, the answer, my friend, is that it is more likely that Moses, inspired by God included accurate information in both the Exodus and Deuteronomy verses.
You see, Freezbee is trying to argue from both sides. In my essay, I am taking the account of the Amalekites as being part of an inerrant Bible and arguing why, from that point of view, it is still not evil or detestable what God did. In other words, I am showing why the destruction of the Amalekites was ultimately good despite the fact that, from our limited human perspective, it would be considered bad for any human being to engage in such acts. In doing so, I show -- using the Biblical account -- that Amalek was bad. His answer is not to acknowledge that Amalek was bad, but to try to make the case that Amalek wasn’t bad. However, he can only do this by throwing out inerrancy. Well, if we’re going to throw out inerrancy, there is no reason to have this discussion at all because I can simply take the position that the account of the destruction of the Amalekites is someone’s "memory fault", too. But I don’t feel free to do that within the confines of this conversation, and if Freezbiz is arguing that the OT account is unreliable on this issue, then he has no basis for arguing that the OT account is accurate when it comes to the verses from 2 Samuel which serve as the basis for the initial attack against Christianity.
He further objects, repeatedly, to the fact that I am quoting from interpretations of the Bible. He says, for example, when I quote from the Jewish Encyclopedia, "The quoted entry is not based on the biblical record, but on later interpretations." Maybe he doesn’t realize this, but his post is also a "later interpretation" of the Biblical texts. Whenever we read the Bible, there is some level of interpretation involved. The question is whether I should accept Freezbee’s interpretation that the Amalekites were good guys who have been given a bad name or the interpretation of virtually all other Biblical commentaries that I read that the Amalekites were truly evil people. I think that the answer, when posed in that light, is very clear. But to make it clearer, let’s take a look at a couple of other things.
First, he objects, in part, to the use of the Jewish Encyclopedia because "[n]owhere in the OT is it mentioned that Amalek held any personal grufge [sic] against Israel." Okay, but that assumes that the Bible is the be-all and end-all of interpretation. That’s simply bad hermeneutics. The Bible, while inerrant, does not always contain every relevant piece of information on a topic. Rather, a great deal of information that informs the understanding of the Biblical texts is found outside the confines of the Old and New Testaments. We look to science, archaeology and other ancient texts to give a more fuller background for the Biblical world than what comes from a straight reading of the Bible. Among these texts are other ancient Jewish rabbinical teachings that can provide additional information about the Biblical texts. In this case, we find in the Rabbinical teachings other information that can be used to supplement that Biblical record as to the evilness of the Amalekites. From the Jewish Encyclopedia entry on the Amalekites:
A kinsman of the Israelites, Amalek nevertheless displayed the most intense hatred toward them: he inherited Esau's hostility to his brother Jacob. When other nations hesitated to harm God's chosen ones, his evil example induced them to join him in the fray. "Like a robber he waylaid Israel"; "like a swarm of locusts"; "like a leech eager for blood"; "like a fly looking for sores to feed on"; Amalek ('am lak = the people which licketh) hurried over hundreds of miles to intercept Israel's march: (Tan. Ki Teze, ix., and Pesik. iii. 26b)"Having taken the list of the tribes from the archives of Egypt, he arrayed his hosts in front of the Israelitish camp—over which God's glory rested in the sheltering pillar of cloud—and called the names of the tribes aloud, one after the other, and pretending to have business negotiations with them, he treacherously slew the last, or, rather, the guilty ones among them, those chosen by lot".
According to some he also used witchcraft to secure victory for his men (Yalk. Reubeni, and Chronicle of Jerahmeel, xlviii. 13). "Moreover, he mutilated their bodies, making sport of the Abrahamic covenant" (see Pesik. l.c. and Pesik. R. xii., Mek. BeshallaH).
But the Bible itself records that the Amalekites were consistently joining with the enemies of Israel and seeking to attack them. As noted in the Jewish Encyclopedia entry linked above:
The Amalekites themselves always appear as hostile to Israel. Thus (Judges, iii. 13), together with the Ammonites, they assist Eglon of Moab, and (Judges, vi. 3, 33, vii. 12) they aid the Midianites and the children of the East against Israel. Ps. lxxxiii. 7 refers to both occasions.
Now, Freezbee simply tries to downplay these accounts by noting that the Amalekites are "simply running along with the others to punish Israel," but that simply downplays that they are the willing accomplices to these efforts to destroy Israel in the OT times.
In sum, I think that the evidence is more than sufficient to establish that the Amalekites were the types of people that the commentators describe. It is impossible to read the accounts about them and not understand that they were seen in that light by the Jewish people, they were joining in with other nations when they sought to destroy Israel, and they were among the chief cancers which needed to be removed for Israel to survive. If you want to try to ignore verses like those in Deuteronomy that make it very clear why they were considered evil and worthy of destruction thereby abandoning the discussion on the grounds of Biblical inerrancy, then my response is that you should also ignore the language of 2 Samuel where it talks about their destruction since it isn't the most relevant story in the Bible, anyway. That distinction belongs to the accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Let's talk about that.