There are no Amalekites

Benjamin Corey has recently put up a blogpost, calling attention to the persecution of Palestinian Christians along with Palestinian Muslims. This follows on from an earlier very interesting post which decries the unthinking support of Israel which, it would seem, many evangelicals espouse.

First, the most recent post. I think Benjamin is right on the nail with his criticism. I can recall, back in the 1960s and 1970s, cheering on the Israelis as they defeated apparently massively superior forces of countries who were, at the time, bent on the destruction of Israel as a state. I was able at the time to forgive and forget to a great extent that the formation of that state was marked by a programme of terrorism against the forces of my own country, who were at the time mandated to keep the peace there as a result of a League of Nations resolution (though behind that resolution was a piece of empire building in the form of increasing areas of influence), and was not then yet aware of the following programme of ethnic cleansing which was carried out during the very early years of the new state.

After all, I thought, the Jews (in their complicated identity as partly a race and partly a religion) had had an immensely difficult time due to persecution by members of my own religion (over many years, not just the then fairly recent Shoah), and occasionally my own countrymen (there is a dreadful incident recorded in 1190 within 15 miles of my home). A secure home for them was not an unreasonable thing for the world to provide, I thought. Not knowing of the ethnic cleansing, I gave little thought to the pre-existing inhabitants, perhaps fobbed off with some mention of the previous owners being largely absentee Turkish landowners as a leftover from the Ottoman Empire, of which Palestine had been part for centuries. While there is some truth in that allegation, their tenants had been there for many generations, and their rights were not something I considered adequately.

Now, with more knowledge, I don’t think it is too strong to call what was done at the time “ethnic cleansing” despite the Israeli claim that in general the Palestinians left voluntarily, expecting (no doubt) to return with the victorious Arab forces. They may have – but that, to my mind, does not constitute abandonment any more than would the diaspora of Jews from the same area around two millennia earlier under the threat of first Greek and then Roman persecution, and Roman ethnic cleansing in 135. Indeed I’d argue far more for abandonment during some 1800 years than I would during, perhaps, 70 years.

I don’t think it is unreasonable to say that that ethnic cleansing has continued throughout the intervening years and is continuing today as the Israeli government and settlers expropriate more and more land from the Muslim and Christian (and no doubt Atheist, and whatever other faith) Palestinians.

However, I take issue with some of Benjamin’s argument in his earlier post.

Not the dismissal of dispensationalism – I hold to the idea of a fully realised eschatology, i.e. that everything predicted in the New Testament actually came to pass (insofar as it was ever going to) by the mid-second century at the latest. I do however consider that Jesus, as well as being a mystic and a political radical, was also an apocalyptic prophet (and before anyone suggests that everyone sees in Jesus what they are themselves, I am definitely not an apocalyptic prophet, and it is only under the influence of Jesus that my politics are becoming more radical than the liberal social democratic tradition I’ve spent most of my life supporting – mystic I plead to). Paul was also, so far as I can see, a mystic and a political radical (at least the Paul of the six undisputed epistles was), and an apocalyptic prophet – I think Paul confidently expected the new politics of Christ to be in control within a few years, possibly even with a second coming, and that clearly did not happen.

In particular, I see Revelation as being fully realised at the point when it was written, or very shortly after that. I think it speaks to the politics of the second century (and possibly the late first century) and cannot be taken  to suggest the politics of the twenty first.

No, what I dispute is Benjamin’s assertion that there is only one covenant (that laid down mostly by Paul, according to his argument) which overtakes the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. I do not think that Christianity should in any way continue the supersessionist theologies which to a great extent gave rise to the persecutions of which the nadir was the Shoah – if for no other reason that that has been their result over nearly two millennia. Yes, I know Paul was at pains to dissolve the boundaries between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians thrown up by requirements for circumcision and purity considerations centering around the Mosaic prohibitions on certain foods, but nothing Paul said, so far as I can see, dismissed the argument that the Abrahamic/Mosaic covenant continued untouched.

Romans 11:1 says “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” and Romans 2:12 “All who have sinned without the law shall also perish without the law and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” which leaves me concluding that Paul did not consider the law to have been abrogated, nor that it was not still valid for those who “lived by the law”. I grant, he took a dim view of the chances of anyone actually avoiding sinning under the law (which I think speaks more to Paul’s psychology than to the impossibility of that task, due largely to many long and fruitful conversations with Jewish friends) and he may possibly have considered the land covenant to be no longer valid due to collective non-adherence (in which I think he would have had a far better argument). Yes, there is language about “cutting off” the branch of Judaism and “grafting on” that of the nascent movement of Jesus-followers (Rom. 11:19), but if Paul intends to say that the whole of Judaism has been “cut off”, I find that both contrary to the sense of his statement in Rom. 1:1 and substantially underdetermined by the text – quite apart from the fact that this would seem not to be so much cutting off a branch as uprooting the whole plant. I could on the other hand find it convincing that he was targeting the “Jewish Christian” attitude of requiring the whole law as well as following Christ, as Douglas Campbell thinks in “The Deliverance of God”.

In fact, Judaism (rightly in my eyes) identifies an Abrahamic and an arguably separate Mosaic covenant, according to some scholars, and also a Noahide or Noahic covenant, for a total of three covenants other than that written about by Paul, two if the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants are considered to have identical scope.

What I do note, neglecting the possibility that the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants do have different scope, is that the whole history of Israel as recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures shows that the land covenant (i.e. the promise of the land of Israel, possibly in a somewhat wider sense than even the current boundaries of that state) is dependent on the population as a whole and in particular its leaders following the prescriptions of the Mosaic Law. And in those we see (relating to non-Jews within Israel) a requirement to love the stranger (Deut. 10:19), not to wrong the stranger in speech (Ex. 22:20) and not to wrong the stranger in buying or selling (Ex. 22:20). I could reasonably mention also Ezekiel 16:49 which explains the “sin of Sodom” as inhospitable and uncharitable behaviour, noting that in Genesis 19, this includes attempted rape of visitors.

I do not think it too great a stretch to suggest that the government of Israel and significant numbers of its population are in flagrant breach of several, if not all of these. In those circumstances, I see no scriptural reason to support the continued land covenant in any way, not for Christians and not for Jews either. Of course, were they to start acting in a loving way and redressing the wrongs done to the now and former non-Jews living within the state, that would then be a different matter.

I do, however, leave it entirely to the Almighty as to whether he wishes to visit on Israel the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah!

I also do not think that either the Palestinians or neighbouring Arab countries should see themselves as the agents of divine punishment of Israel, as once the Egyptians, Babylonians or Persians were so viewed in the Hebrew Scriptures, and they should certainly be deterred diplomatically from acting in that way.

There is, of course, another worry in the back of my mind. Judaism recognises not ten commandments but 613 “mitzvot” (a mitzvah has a connotation more of “good deed” than of “commandment”). Here’s a list of them, with the verses of scripture they’re taken from. It is instructive to note that six of them (601, 602, 607, 611 to 613) relate to conduct in respect of the seven Canaanite nations, Ammon, Moab and Amalek. In every case, the implication is that a war of extermination, of genocide, is mandated. Note in particular that the last three are considered still to be “live” commandments.

Now, I do not think it reasonable to label any of the nations or peoples in or around Israel as being identical to, or the successors to, any of those historical nations. Frankly, in the light of the history of the area, their ancestors are more likely to have been in part Jewish than to be clearly identifiable as coming from one of those historical nations. That said, I am aware of (for instance) at least one parliamentary commander (Thomas Fairfax) in the English Civil War ordering his troops to lay into the opposing Cavaliers with the words “Smite the Amalekites”; Luther (in common with several other Christian leaders before and since) called the Jews “Amalekites”, in a piece of amazingly bad supersessionist theology. During World War II and thereafter, with rather more justification, Hitler and the Nazi party were identified by some, Jews and Christians alike, as new Amalekites. The bite of these biblical commandments has not, therefore, gone away.

In passing, there’s some good discussion of this type of position in the Hebrew Scriptures, with particular reference to the Book of Joshua, in this post from Larry Behrendt and its comments.

These days, there is a worrying movement in Israel to treat the Palestinians as Amalekites, just as in the past Christians have found in these passages an excuse to treat Jews or other Christians as Amalekites, though since at least Maimonedes the mainstream Jewish view has been that the Amalekites can no longer be distinguished and that no new group can be so identified. Happily, I do not know of any case where Islam has used these passages in the same way, but as Islam fundamentally accepts the Jewish and Christian scriptures as previous revelations, I cannot discount the possibility. As is well known, Islam has its own problematic scriptures, however, but as with Judaism and Christianity, the bulk of scholars have wrestled with their problematic texts and do not consider them valid in present day circumstances.

Why am I rabbiting on about this at this moment? Well, an acquaintance (in the face to face world) was recently comparing ISIS to the Amalekites (as well as to Nazi Germany). Every time this comes up, I think it is incumbent on those of us who do not consider these ancient texts to have any power to command us these days to speak out. There are no Amalekites in the world today, and if there were, we should still treat them as human beings and not as untermensch.

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