In some scriptural situations, extreme biblical literalism would leave God either a failure or a liar. If we took every word of the Sacred Text as viable, without study, question or context, right off the paper which it is now printed on, we would have to confront contradictions, blatant disregard for history, and come to understand that biblical literalism leaves us without a Sacred Text.
Amalek and his descendants had erred onto the bad side of Israel’s God. He was the son of Esau (Genesis 36.12), perhaps the first mistake. While Israel was marching in the Wilderness, the Amalekites attacked the 12 Tribes. Defeated, they suffered the promise of a future wrath from God, which would obliterate them from the memory of humanity.
After the victory, the LORD instructed Moses, “Write this down on a scroll as a permanent reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will erase the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” Exodus 17:14 NLT
Twice more, the Amalekites attacked Israel (Numbers 13 and 24) but were defeated by divine acts. The Exodus command was repeated again in Moses’ final discourse with the Children of Israel,
“Remember what Amalek did to you along the way when you came out from Egypt, how he met you along the way and attacked among you all the stragglers at your rear when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God. Therefore it shall come about when the LORD your God has given you rest from all your surrounding enemies, in the land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you must not forget. (Deu 25:17-19 NAU)
“Never forget what the Amalekites did to you as you came from Egypt. They attacked you when you were exhausted and weary, and they struck down those who were straggling behind. They had no fear of God. Therefore, when the LORD your God has given you rest from all your enemies in the land he is giving you as a special possession, you must destroy the Amalekites and erase their memory from under heaven. Never forget this! (Deu 25:17-19 NLT)
While God was promising that no one would remember the Amalekites, He was commanding them to never forget what they had endured because of the Amalekites, but it was not over for the two families. In Judges 3, the Moabites allied with the Amalekites and defeated Israel forcing the 12 Tribes to be servants to Eglon of Moab. When the time arrived in which Israel had achieved a stable political sovereignty, they were forced to deal with God’s promise against the Amalekites. Readers should know the story well in 1st Samuel 15, in which King Saul was told to utterly destroy the Amalekite nation:
This is what the LORD of Heaven’s Armies has declared: I have decided to settle accounts with the nation of Amalek for opposing Israel when they came from Egypt. Now go and completely destroy the entire Amalekite nation— men, women, children, babies, cattle, sheep, goats, camels, and donkeys.” (1st Samuel 15:2-3 NLT)
We know that King Saul didn’t do it, not utterly. He and his soldiers kept the spoils of war including the women and children, which would have kept the memory of the Amalekites alive. Saul was disposed and David took the charge,
King David dedicated all these gifts to the LORD, as he did with the silver and gold from the other nations he had defeated– from Edom, Moab, Ammon, Philistia, and Amalek– and from Hadadezer son of Rehob, king of Zobah. (2nd Samuel 8:11-12 NLT)
David, however, didn’t complete the task, but escaped Saul’s demise. It wasn’t until King Hezekiah that the Amalekites suffered full extermination by Israel:
But during the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah, these leaders of Simeon invaded the region and completely destroyed the homes of the descendants of Ham and of the Meunites. No trace of them remains today. They killed everyone who lived there and took the land for themselves, because they wanted its good pastureland for their flocks. Five hundred of these invaders from the tribe of Simeon went to Mount Seir, led by Pelatiah, Neariah, Rephaiah, and Uzziel– all sons of Ishi.
They destroyed the few Amalekites who had survived, and they have lived there ever since. (1Ch 4:41-43 NLT)
It is thought that Haman who attempted to exterminate the Jews was an Amalekite (In Esther 3.1, he is referred to as a Agagite, the king of the Amalekites). Even today, when his name is read during the Jewish feast of Purim, Jews makes noises so that Exodus 17.14 rings true.
While the Amalekites may have been wiped out completely, their memory remains, contrary to Exodus 17.14. This presents us with a few options.
- God was being hyperbolic – which would destroy the notion of an always literal approach to the Sacred Text;
- God lied
- God depended upon humanity to do His bidding, which means His commandment failed.
- We don’t understand fully what the passage means
In my opinion, according to the nature of God as revealed in the texts, only options 1 and 2 are valid responses to the question. The question, of course, being that if God said that He would so utterly wipe the Amalekites off the face of the earth – even the memory of them – then why do we remember them in our Sacred Texts? Even today, some Jews still see the Amalekites as those who opposed Israel – from Adolf Hitler to the Palestinians. Those who do so see no problem with the biblical text as they seemingly do not take it as literal as many Christians.
The author who penned the 83rd psalm didn’t see utter destruction for the Amalekites, instead asking God to humble them, among other names, to His Name:
O my God, scatter them like tumbleweed, like chaff before the wind!
As a fire burns a forest and as a flame sets mountains ablaze, chase them with your fierce storm; terrify them with your tempest.
Utterly disgrace them until they submit to your name, O LORD.
Let them be ashamed and terrified forever. Let them die in disgrace.
Then they will learn that you alone are called the LORD, that you alone are the Most High, supreme over all the earth. (Psalm 83:13-18 NLT)
So, what do the biblical literalists do? Do we feign an answer and say that God hasn’t kept His promise yet but will? How could He when he put the history of the Amalekites into the Sacred Text which will never perish? Esther’s author changed the name of the Amalekites and the Psalmist instead sung of the day which they would submit to the Name of the Lord. Where they expecting a complete wipe of memory, especially seeing that they recorded the events? I note that there are no archeological evidences of the Amalekites.
Scripture is essential to my faith, but literalism is not. I believe that there are answers to this question without turning to the negative consequences. What are your thoughts?