Was the biblical command to destroy nations cruel?

Deuteronomy 29 relates that Moses reminded the Israelites that when they approached Canaan, “Sihon, king of Heshbon, and Og, king of Bashan, went out against us in battle; we smote them, and took their land.” These events are detailed in Numbers 21 and Deuteronomy 2 and 3. The battles with Heshbon and Bashan remind us of the war against Amalek in Exodus 17 and Deuteronomy 25, where the Israelites are commanded to exterminate the people.

Questions

  1. What is the justification for the annihilation of Heshbon and Bashan?
  2. Why were the Israelites commanded to destroy Amalek?

Heshbon and Bashan

When the Israelites were traveling in the wilderness, they sent an envoy to Sihon, king of the Amorites, with a declaration of peace and a request for permission to pass though the Amorite land. Moses assured the Amorites through his emissaries that they would keep to the road, not touch their produce and would pay for their water. Their request to Sihon and their later

similar request to Og were refused, and the two nations responded with an unprovoked attack against the peaceful Israelites. The Israelites defended themselves and won the battle. They destroyed the people and took their land.

The Jewish Greek philosopher Philo (about 20 B.C.E. to 50 C.E.) justified the Israelite behavior. He informed us that Sihon answered the envoys insolently and unjustifiably planned to kill them. He was stopped from slaughtering the messengers only because of the international law respecting the treatment of envoys. Instead, he attacked the entire nation of Israel. Philo describes Sihon’s Amorites as a nation sunk into the lowest levels of passion and a people who devoted themselves to corrupting truth. Thus, besides the need for defense, the extermination of the Amorites was a cauterization of a malignant and poisoning cancer. Philo does not mention Og, presumably assuming that what he said of Sihon applied to Og.

The Jewish historian and general Flavius Josephus (around 38–100 C.E.) adds further details showing the unreasonable and belligerent behavior of Sihon. Moses stated that he would agree to any terms set by Sihon and offered a commercial incentive; the Israelites would buy the Amorites’ food and water and thereby enrich them. Thus, there was absolutely no justification for the Amorite attack.

Did the Israelites kill everyone?

While the Bible seems to state that the Israelites killed all the inhabitants of these nations, neither Philo nor Josephus do so. It is possible that they recognized that the Bible frequently “speaks in human language,” to quote Rabbi Ishmael, and that it sometimes exaggerates to highlight its message.

Statements such as “killed all its inhabitants” should not be taken literally, as one would not take the statement, the tower of Babel “reached into the heaven” literally. The Israelites defended themselves against the unprovoked attacks of two belligerent nations and killed many of the combatants in the battle.

Amalek

While the narratives of Sihon and Og are easily understood as being reasonable, the account of Amalek is much more difficult to understand.

Exodus 17 and Deuteronomy 25 report that Amalek attacked the Israelites from the rear shortly after their exodus from Egypt. The Israelites defended themselves and were victorious. God commanded the Israelites through Moses to completely blot out the memory of the nation of Amalek. The command is repeated by the prophet Samuel in I Samuel 15. The only voice speaking against this apparent genocide is that of the first Jewish king Saul, who was strongly criticized by Samuel for not killing all of the Amalekite people and who lost his monarchy because of his apparently reasonable behavior.

Philo sidesteps the difficulty of the slaughter of an entire people by interpreting the entire report allegorically. Amalek is not a nation, but a symbol of the impassioned coward who strikes anyone he sees standing in his way. He hides until his enemy has passed him by, no longer looking at him. Then he rises and assaults what he perceives is his opponent’s weakest point. Philo was thus the first to introduce the idea that it is not the people that should be eradicated, but the nefarious self-destructive quality of Amalek that an individual must obliterate from his personality.

Josephus took another approach. He emphasized that Amalek was the most war-like nation and struck the Israelites unprovoked. He states that the Bible is not commanding the Israelites to destroy Amalek, but, rather, Moses is predicting that Amalek will be obliterated.

Josephus justifies Samuel’s command to kill the people of Amalek because they were still acting belligerently against the Israelites.

When one tries to be kind to such people, one will probably unwittingly become the begetter of further crimes. This occurred, according to a midrashic legend, when the king of Amalek had relations with his wife during the night of his captivity, when he should have already been killed, and had a child from this union. The descendant of this child, Haman, caused the descendant of Saul, Mordechai, enormous problems. Additionally, Saul himself was later killed by the son of the Amalek king, whom he had not killed.

The Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 22b, seems to capture this idea. Rabbi Mani asked, how could God have commanded the obliteration of Amalek? The Talmud answers by quoting Ecclesiastes 7:16, “Be not righteous overmuch.”

The Aramaic Bible translation known as Pseudo-Jonathan (generally dated in the ninth or tenth century) collects an assortment of ideas from various earlier Midrashim and elaborates imaginatively in its retelling of the Amalek story. The thrust of the targumic presentation is a picture of Amalek having an incurable long-lasting hatred against Israel. Amalek was successful only when Israel sinned but lost when Israel acted properly. Thus, the tale is a moral and

religious lesson that encourages the Jew to behave properly. Specifically, the Amalekites, according to the Targum, were descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau, and waged war against Israel simply “because of the enmity that existed between Esau and Jacob.” Amalek was able to overcome some of the members of the rear tribe, that of Dan, because they were practicing idolatry and were not protected by God. Moses instructs Joshua to pick a force of men who

observe the divine commandments, while he devoted himself to fasting and prayer. As long as he was involved in these activities, Israel was successful.

Some other Jewish scholars understood that the command to kill all of Amalek was not to be taken literally and not to be understood as being applicable at all times and under all circumstances. A fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q252) seems to restrict Jews from carrying out the command to destroy Amalek until “the end of days,” seemingly postponing the event until God carries it out, if God wants to do so.

Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, Concerning Kings and Wars 5:1 and 6:1, 4, states that Jews may not harm Amalek or any other nation during a war without first offering that they, the Jews, would cease the battle under certain circumstances. An opinion in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 96b, recognized that not all Amalekite people were or should have been killed. It states that some descendants of Amalek repented, became proselytes to Judaism and studied Torah in B’nei Berak.

Summary

In sum, we see that some Jewish commentators were troubled by a literal reading of the divine command to destroy other people. We also see that they found ways to interpret and justify the incidences where a literal reading implied what they thought was cruel behavior.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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