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From generation to generation January 24, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Religion.
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The Amalekites, so the story goes, launched an unprovoked attack against the people of Israel as they wandered through the desert. The Israelites eventually prevailed, but Yahweh declared an eternal vendetta against the aggressor tribe:

the LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.

The people of Israel were later commanded explicitly:

thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget.

A few centuries later, Yahweh sent the prophet Samuel to inform Saul, king of Israel, that it was payback time:

Thus saith the LORD of hosts: I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he set himself against him in the way, when he came up out of Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.

Saul did as he was told — well, almost: he decided to spare Agag, king of the Amalekites, and some of the livestock. The Lord was not pleased: because Saul failed to follow his command to the bloody letter, God took Saul’s kingdom away from him. (In case you were wondering, “Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD.”) The moral of the story: no matter if you’re the king, whomever God tells you to kill — you kill.

Why do I bring up this gem of ancient “history?” Several months ago, dozens of Israeli rabbis signed a letter urging Jews not to rent or sell apartments to non-Jews. Other rabbis publicly denounced the letter, and have since been harshly criticized in the pages of “Ma’ayanei Hayeshua” — a popular weekly leaflet circulated in Orthodox synagogues:

“Ma’ayanei Hayeshua” issued an unsigned editorial titled “Have men of faith gone astray?” about four weeks ago. The editorial attacked rabbis who, it said, are no more than “functionaries who don’t want to make waves.” These “career rabbis,” it charged, do not want to take part in the “culture wars,” insisting instead that controversial religious rulings reflect “only one side” of the religious debate and that “many other rabbis don’t think like that.”

The editorial then continued: “It would be interesting to see whether they [these rabbis] will leave concentrating the Amalekites into death camps to others or perhaps decide that wiping out Amalek is no longer relevant. Time will tell.”

Did you get that? Within living memory of the Holocaust, we have Jews criticizing other Jews for their reluctance to round up people of a specified ancestry into death camps. The fact that there are no Amalekites around anymore is no cause for comfort — various “enemies of the Jews” have been labeled “Amalek” over the years, and in any case, there are plenty of other people whose death is commanded by the Biblical God: homosexuals, blasphemers, adulterers, heretics, women who are not virgins on their wedding night… we’re going to need lots of camps.

This phenomenon cannot be dismissed as merely representing a few misguided extremists. First of all, tens of thousands of copies of this leaflet are distributed weekly by a mainstream religious organization, partially supported by public funding. More importantly, though, those who endorse the murder of Amalekites are not distorting or misinterpreting the “True Judaism” — destroying Amalek is indisputably one of the 613 mitzvot.

Reasonable people should not respond to this situation by offering a creative “reinterpretation” of the texts purporting to show that God doesn’t really want us to kill anyone (anymore) — we must confront the root of the problem. Religious bigotry and violence will remain with us for as long as the core foundations of religion are respected: valuing faith over evidence and reason, and valuing obedience to authority over critical, independent thinking. We must stop respecting the ridiculous claim that one of our books was dictated by the creator of the universe; we must stop teaching children that following commandments blindly is a virtue. We must reach the point where everyone understands what Saul really did wrong: even if God himself asks you to kill an Amalekite, the correct answer is no.

(via Religion and State in Israel)

And Samuel said unto Saul: ‘The LORD sent me to anoint thee to be king over His people, over Israel; now therefore hearken thou unto the voice of the words of the LORD. {S}
ב כֹּה אָמַר, יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, פָּקַדְתִּי, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה עֲמָלֵק לְיִשְׂרָאֵל–אֲשֶׁר-שָׂם לוֹ בַּדֶּרֶךְ, בַּעֲלֹתוֹ מִמִּצְרָיִם. 2 Thus saith the LORD of hosts: I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he set himself against him in the way, when he came up out of Egypt.
ג עַתָּה לֵךְ וְהִכִּיתָה אֶת-עֲמָלֵק, וְהַחֲרַמְתֶּם אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ, וְלֹא תַחְמֹל, עָלָיו; וְהֵמַתָּה מֵאִישׁ עַד-אִשָּׁה, מֵעֹלֵל וְעַד-יוֹנֵק, מִשּׁוֹר וְעַד-שֶׂה, מִגָּמָל וְעַד-חֲמוֹר.  {ס} 3 Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.’

Comments»

1. Joel Katz - January 24, 2011

thanks for the Hat-tip mention.

2. Guy - January 24, 2011

Within the world of the Bible (specifically the Book of Samuel), Saul should have killed the Amalekites because that’s what God wanted. No biblical scholar (secular or religious) disputes this. You make a good case that morality trumps biblical law, but a poor case that Saul (in the context of the Book of Samuel) did the right thing. The bible is a book that has a tribal/national/religious agenda. We must not forget that when discussing religion, politics, morality, or biblical interpretation.

Ezra Resnick - January 24, 2011

I’m not sure what you’re trying to say. Obviously, the author of the book of Samuel thought that Saul was right to kill the Amalekites (and wrong to spare Agag and the livestock); but we can ask ourselves whether we agree with the moral of the story, and the answer ought to be no.

Guy - January 25, 2011

We are saying the same thing. The answer is “no” in 2011 in the real world; a world without the prophecy apparent in the Book of Samuel. However, the answer is “yes” in a (mythical) world in which prophecy exists. I am aware that even this formulation has its problems. The mountains of commentary on the Akedah comes to mind.

Ezra Resnick - January 25, 2011

We do disagree, then. How would the existence of prophecy turn an immoral deed into a moral one? Even if the Bible stories were true, that would not make the execution of homosexuals, heretics, blasphemers, etc. morally right.

3. עדו - January 25, 2011
4. Guy - January 25, 2011

You ask the same question the commentators ask with reference to the Akedah. I don’t know the answer or if there even is a satisfactory answer. The point is that not every biblical mitzvah ought to inform behavior in modern times.

Furthermore, the bible does not mandate execution of for the “crimes” of homosexuality or heresy. I don’t remember if the Torah mandates death to blasphemers (though I wouldn’t be surprised).

Ezra Resnick - January 25, 2011

My point is that the question of “Biblical times” versus “modern times” is irrelevant, and you have provided no argument to the contrary. I’ve written more about this here.
For your information, the Bible does mandate execution for homosexuals (Leviticus 20:13), heretics (Deuteronomy 13:7-19), and blasphemers (Leviticus 24:16).

5. Guy - January 25, 2011

Whoops. My mistake. I thought they were just an “abomination” (whatever that means).

I reread our conversation and think I now understand what you’re saying. I’ve been arguing in favor of moral relativism in anthropology, but not in in politics. You’ve been against moral relativism in any context. Your method is more empirical and timeless (and perhaps more valuable), but mine yields a better understanding of history.


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