Q: Can you explain the treatment of the Amalekites by the Hebrews?
This question is a shortened version of a much longer one. In it, the questioner asked why God would have His people go around wiping different people out who were "sinful." There was also another question that asked why God allows His people to kill, plunder, and even rape women.
There's a lot going on here. After pondering these questions, I had a difficult time trying to find an effective game plan on how I should explain my jumbled thoughts. I'm not confident that my approach is effective, but I thought we should perhaps start with making two statements that will help me address this question.
First, the Bible is not a fairy tale. I'm not saying that the questioner thinks that God is a made-up entity. However, I need to remind everyone (including myself) that God is real. In a fairy tale, the storyteller is an all-seeing narrator who knows things that people in the story do not know. For example, the storyteller would know exactly what Cinderella was feeling and thinking. When we read a fictional story, we get insight into the characters and circumstances that, in a real world situation, would not be available to us.
When someone asks the question, "Why would God do this or that?" I'm not sure what that person is expecting me to say. I fear that if I answer, "I have no idea," they would somehow feel that they have ammunition to believe that God is not real. The exact opposite is true.
I think it is noble to study the Bible to learn more about God. Yes, there are many hints in the Scriptures that reveal God's purposes, but there are also many actions by God that we just won't understand. For the parts we don't understand, we are tempted to let our own imaginations (sometimes our evil imaginations) dictate God's motives.
So, our lack of agreement (which often comes from our lack of understanding) with God does not make Him a monster. We often read the Bible, make a quick assumption about Him, then fold our arms and decided whether if we should give Him a stamp of approval or not. This implies that I have God figured out (making me higher than God), and that I decide what is moral (making me more moral than God). It's okay to not understand God's actions and motives, but it is arrogant to think that we know Him better than He knows us.
Second, we must remember that the Bible is a historical document that has no perfect equivalent in translation. If you are bilingual, you will know that certain words have no perfect translation. In the Old Testament, God gives the Israelites the task of destroying a few tribes. The word that is used in ancient Hebrew is herem. According to an article that will be released later this year, Old Testament scholar, Prof. John Walton made a discovery of some ancient Middle Eastern artifacts that helped the biblical scholarship community define this word with more accuracy. According to Walton, herem means to cause the subject to evacuate for a divine purpose.
For example, when God ordered the Israelites to herem Jericho, He wasn't ordering a genocide. Rather, He was asking the Israelites to get the people of Jericho to evacuate the city, so God can use it for His purposes. A similar example would be Jesus clearing the Temple of buyers and sellers because they were defiling it by negating the original intended purpose of the Temple with their commerce practices. Sometimes, people do not evacuate the premise, which then the people of God use excessive force.
There are other variations for the word herem in the Old Testament. If herem is for a person, then it means that person cannot be married or used as a slave by the group that is invading his/her land. Also, if (and only if) there is a specific sin that is described in the context of the use of herem, then it means to punish the tribe for its crime.
In the case of the Amalekites, the author of 1 Samuel uses the word herem with a description of their crime - they attacked the Israelites while they traveled the desert. This is a reference to the Exodus. God pulled the Israelites out of slavery and gave them a 40-year crash course on how to become a Holy Nation. It is through this group of people that God was going to fulfill His great plan for the world. God called for the punishment of the Amalekites because they tampered with God's primary method of saving the world.
If you know the characteristic of God in the Bible, he can change our hearts. He uses love, grace, mercy, and kindness to do so. So, why didn't God patiently wait for the Amalekites to change their hearts? If you know the characteristics of humanity in the Bible, you will note that there comes a time when not even the most powerful force in the universe can crack our stubborn hearts. God keeps nudging us to make the right choices until He realizes that you have no intention of changing. And only an all-knowing God can make that judgement.
In the questions asked, there were some mentions of rape. God does not condone rape. Just because there are examples of rape in the Bible does not mean it is there to be followed as a good example. In Genesis 34, the founding fathers of the nation of Israel lies to a tribe and rapes their women. This was not commanded by God, and they are rebuked.
So, what is God's view on rape? Deuteronomy 22:13-29 speaks directly against forcing a woman into a sexual encounter against her will. In this command, you will even find punishments listed for the person who commits rape.
Critics often point to Numbers 31 as an example of God condoning rape. It only states that the people of Israel to take the female as captives. I guess you can read rape into this passage (if you're trying to make an argument that God wants men to rape women, you'll begin to see rape in narratives that don't even mention it), but there's nothing here suggesting that.
In conclusion, the Bible is a narrative of the story of how God intervened with humanity to restore it. While the main character is God, the secondary character is humanity. In a collection of books that talk about the destructiveness of humanity, you are, without doubt, going to find many examples of betrayal, rape, wars, and misunderstandings of God's commands... but this is not as an indication that God is evil (because He's not), but a biography of how destructive we are without Him.