Tisha B'Av, the saddest fast day in the Jewish calendar, begins at sunset on July 23. Jews remember it as a day of calamity: The first and second temples in Jerusalem destroyed on that day (in 586 b.c. and a.d. 70, respectively), Jews exiled from Spain in 1492, and so on.
Rabbis say disasters of this sort occurred because Jews did not obey all of God's commands. One harsh-sounding one that they did not obey was to wipe out the Amalekites, descendants of Esau who repeatedly fought the Israelites. (Haman in the book of Esther was a descendant of Agag, king of Amalek. Jewish lore claims that Hitler was also.)
A "wipe them out" command does not sound like it could come from a loving God. Sure, the Amalekites were the al-Qaeda organization of the time, and sure, God was saying these terrorists are so bad that you have to do what you normally do not do: Kill civilians alongside combatants. But kill the children?
That's sad. I don't like it. And yet, the Bible depicts a God who shows great mercy at times. When He doesn't, I'm not so quick to say He's wrong. After all, when we read Shakespeare and do not understand a word or the motivation of a character, we are unlikely to say, "This is garbage. Shakespeare is an idiot." That's because Shakespeare has a lot of credibility-but how much more credibility does the God of the whole universe have?
The whole issue of warfare on civilians is a miserable one. Was it right for the United States and Britain to bomb German cities in World War II, leveling whole neighborhoods and killing men, women, and children-civilians? It was treating them like the Amalekites. Were the people who gave the orders, were the pilots and bombardiers, evil people? They did terrible things, but they thought that was the way to end a terrible war, and maybe they were right.
Historians still debate the dropping of atomic bombs. President Harry Truman and his advisors believed that if they did not do something horrible, the result would be hand-to-hand fighting on the island of Japan in which millions would die. We can still debate that decision, but I'm not ready to jump on it 62 years later and say it was unquestionably wrong. I also do not want to react in a knee-jerk way to an event that occurred 3,000 years ago.
It's horrifying to look at the bombing of German or Japanese cities in isolation. It's horrible in context also, but it is rationally defensible as part of a larger war. Israel's battles with the Amalekites only make sense if we see them in context, as part of an overarching cosmic war on the greatest terror ever seen. Unless we grasp the context of a terrible war going on, we are pulling out threads from a sweater instead of looking at it all.
Here's the context: God created the world and it was very good-but it wasn't perfect. (That's what the Hebrew words in Genesis indicate.) The very good apparently wasn't good enough for human beings who sought what they thought was perfection. A renegade angel, Satan, tempted the humans to rebel. Adam and Eve fell for Satan's lies and the world changed. It's not very good anymore. Evil exists in our hearts and decay mars the creation. Death has come into the world.
Most of the Bible is about what God did after evil came into the world. He was not content to let the world decay and rot. Even as He pronounced the consequences of sin, He also made a promise: One day a special human being would outwit and defeat Satan. The rest of the Bible is the story of how this works out, a story that includes God forming a people, protecting them against Amalekites, and then extending His grace so that it touches every nation.
Do I like the idea of killing Amalekite children? No. But I love the whole Bible, and its story of love and rescue, promise and deliverance. The Bible speaks of a love so terrific that God willingly sacrificed His own son to make redemption possible for all who believe in Him. The Bible has harsh chapters, but it's the greatest story ever told. Thanks be to God.