Against this background, it’s not surprising that modern-day Western churches try to forget the Amalekite story. Actually, though, that response is not just unnecessary, I believe it’s even dangerous. As I suggested in my book Laying Down the Sword, when we read such passages in their historical context and understand the theological points the authors are trying to make, we understand how wholly impermissible it is to use them to command or justify violence. Read properly, we see how they actually support the Bible’s broader messages of divine love and justice.
But the most important task is to confront such scriptures theologically and historically. If Western churches don’t, then they have no basis for counseling the newer Christian communities that are growing so fast around the world, often with a passionate love for the literal text of the Bible. Faced with the threat of jihad or persecution by hostile faiths, Nigerian or South Sudanese Christians might initially turn the other cheek, but after a while, some turn instead to the fearsome warrior God who is such a prominent figure in the Old Testament. In Rwanda in 1994, Hutu preachers invoked King Saul’s memory to justify the total slaughter of their Tutsi neighbors. The last Christian who will seek to exterminate another nation on the pretense of killing Amalekites has not yet been born.
If newer believers turn to the violent passages and draw alarming lessons from them, it is currently all but impossible for mainstream Western churches to provide a corrective based on their centuries of experience in handling unsettling scriptures. Not having to face the texts themselves in recent times, churches have lost that institutional memory. They have no basis for dialogue with Global South Christians, and are laying the foundation for new global schisms.
So yes, let’s read those alarming stories, those texts of terror, and come to terms with them. Holy amnesia is no solution.
Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.