In the endless cycle of religious violence, ancient extremism begets modern extremism, as Israel's Prime Minister cites the genocidal verses of the Bible to sanctify his war today.
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The world’s sacred scriptures are endless sources of extremism.
All of humanity’s major religions are based on books that were written in less enlightened times. They all have verses that endorse violence, prejudice, slavery, and other profound evils. And because these books are treated as divinely inspired, they’re immutable. They can’t be edited to remove the unsavory parts.
In times of trouble, when believers turn to their scripture for guidance, the evil passages will always be there, waiting to be rediscovered. Like water drawn from a poisoned well, they’ll keep wreaking harm indefinitely.
As Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip continues, there’s an awful reminder of that.
“Now go and smite Amalek”
On Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israelis were united in their fight against Hamas, whom he described as an enemy of incomparable cruelty. “They are committed to completely eliminating this evil from the world,” Netanyahu said in Hebrew. He then added: “You must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible. And we do remember.““The Dangerous History Behind Netanyahu’s Amalek Rhetoric.” Noah Lanard, Mother Jones, 3 November 2023.
Netanyahu was alluding to a biblical verse, which reads as follows:
“Thus saith the Lord of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from 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.“1 Samuel 15:2-3
According to the Bible, King Saul and the Israelites failed to follow this command. True, they “utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword” (2:8)—killing men, women, children, the elderly, and even their animals.
But Saul disobeyed God by showing a tiny bit of mercy. He spared the life of Agag, king of the Amelakites, and some of the best livestock. This act of compassion was “evil in the sight of the Lord” (2:19), and so God condemns Saul to lose his throne.
The prophet Samuel finishes the bloody job. He has Agag brought before him. The captive pleads for his life, saying “Surely the bitterness of death is past” (2:32). Samuel, prophet of a kind and loving god, responds, “As the sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women” and “hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord” (2:33).
This is genocidal. There’s no other way to describe it. It’s the savage mindset of a violent age: an age where there were no Geneva Conventions, no laws of war that protected civilians or governed the treatment of captives. “Might makes right” was the only rule, and the winners subjugated or slaughtered the losers as they saw fit. The Bible—in this verse and the other genocidal wars of the Old Testament—embodies this cruelty untempered by compassion.
(What did the Amalekites do to earn such animosity, you might ask? The answer: Their ancestors supposedly attacked the Israelites’ ancestors during the exodus from Egypt—four hundred years earlier.)
Ancient verses inspire modern bloodshed
This is the mentality that’s guiding Israel’s war on Gaza today, according to its prime minister. Just as the ancient Hebrews exterminated their enemies, he wants to exterminate the Palestinians. There’s no other inference that can be drawn from his decision to quote this specific verse. And because it’s written in the Bible, Netanyahu’s rivals can’t say that there’s no precedent for this.
Some Jewish authorities have come up with rationalizations for the disturbing moral of this passage. For example, some commentaries say that because the nation of Amalek no longer exists (and may never have existed; archaeologists are divided on its historicity), there’s no longer anyone to whom it refers. Therefore, this verse has no meaning and we should no longer consult it for guidance.
This is very convenient, but it doesn’t evade the point at hand. It’s not an argument that genocide is morally wrong. It’s just saying that this particular case is now moot.
Other rabbis offer a metaphorical reading:
Amalek is alive and well today, albeit in a different form. No longer a foreign nation, today’s Amalek is an internal enemy. We each have an Amalekite lurking within our very self. The inner Amalek is unholy cynicism. That little voice inside each of us that derides, belittles and attacks truth and goodness; our irrational tendency to mock people who act morally, to be cynical when we see altruism, to doubt our own or other’s sincerity—these are the modern day Amalekites.
…There is no answer to such cheap pot-shots. You can’t fight cynicism with reason. Just wipe it out. No dialogue. No compromise. Erase it from the face of your soul.
Come on, seriously. Who are you fooling?
You can’t sanitize a call for genocide by pretending it only means you should stamp out evil desires in yourself. No Jewish person would countenance such a bizarre reinterpretation of the antisemitic attacks flung against them. Nor should they.
That’s not to say that all Jews are forced to obey these horrifically violent passages. On the contrary, some progressive Jewish groups have been dedicated advocates for peace.
For example, Jewish Voice for Peace shut down Grand Central Terminal in New York City, in an act of mass civil disobedience to dramatize their call for a ceasefire. They followed it up by staging a protest at the Statue of Liberty a few days later.
Like most religious believers across faiths, these peace activists have benefited from millennia of moral progress. They’re better than their own scriptures. They know that calls for war and bloodshed are always wrong, whatever the Bible says about it.