lamb-leftWhat the Bible Really Says by J. R. Hyland
From Humane Religion


Along with being personally involved in the death of other human beings, the Former Prophets were also involved in power politics. They anointed kings that they chose were instrumental in deposing those who did not meet with their approval.

The prophet Samuel, who lived circa 1100 B.C., chose the first King of Israel: he was Saul, of the tribe of Benjamin. Samuel was also the first major prophet reported to have deliberately murdered a man. The Bible reports that he “cut King Agag to pieces in front of the altar.”[1]

Agag was king of the Amalekites and the only survivor of a war of extermination initialed by Samuel. The prophet had gone to King Saul demanding a war against the Amalekites and reminding him how he got to be king. “I am the one whom the Lord sent to anoint you king of his people Israel.  Now listen to what the Lord Almighty says. He is going to punish the people of Amalek because their ancestors opposed the Israelites when they were coming from Egypt. Go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything they have. Don’t leave a thing: kill all the men, women, children and babies; the cattle, sheep, camels and donkeys.”[2]

Neither the Bible nor any of its commentators can give a reason why God would demand the extermination of the Amalekites for something that had taken place four hundred years before. Not only had it taken place centuries earlier, but the Amalekites had been defeated by the Israelites at that time. So scholars revert to the “explanation” that we cannot always understand the unfathomable-will-of-God.

In his commentary, Adam Clarke, LLD, had this to say about the Prophet’s demand for the annihilation of the Amalekites. “Nothing could justify such an exterminating decree but the absolute authority of God. This was given: all the reasons of it we do not know; but this we know well, the Judge of all the earth doth right.”[3]  It seems not to have occurred to Clarke or other Bible scholars that it might have been a lust for power and not the “authority of God” that demanded the extermination of an entire people.

The IVP Bible Background Commentary characterizes Samuel’s demand for the extermination as a divine mission. “Since the warfare was commanded by Yahweh and represented His judgment on Israel’s enemies, the Israelites were on a divine mission with Yahweh as their commander. Since it was His,    not theirs and He was the victor, the spoil belonged to Him . . . God had singled out the Amalekites for destruction because of their acts against God’s people [four hundred years before].”[4]

Obviously, King Saul did not think the battle plan originated with Yahweh, because as Commander-in-Chief he decided it would be a good tactical move to spare the life of King Agag. But when Samuel found out about this, he was furious. Saul could not be allowed to use his own judgment; a ruler who did this was a threat to the prophet’s power and authority. So he hastened to the army encampment and demanded. “Bring King Agag here to me. Samuel ordered, Agag came to him, trembling with fear . . . and he cut Agag to pieces in front of the altar.”[5]

Although religious commentators do not fault the prophet for hacking a man to death on an altar dedicated to the Lord, they are scandalized by the “independent judgment” used by Saul in sparing Agag’s life. And they refer to his failure to kill the Amalekite leader as a shirking of his duty.[6]

Two hundred years after the death of Samuel, in 855 B.C., the Prophet Elijah makes his biblical appearance. Much had changed during those centuries. The United Kingdom that had come into existence under King Saul and had entered its Golden Age of prosperity under the leadership of David and his son, Solomon. But when King Solomon died, the excesses and injustices of his reign led to a bloody civil war.

When it was over, The United Kingdom had been divided into two separate nations. The Northern Kingdom was known as Israel and the Southern kingdom of Judah had its capitol city at Jerusalem.

Elijah was a prophet of the Northern Kingdom of Israel who came into prominence at a time when the country was suffering from a prolonged drought. The Prophet told King Abah and his wife Jezebel that this disaster had come upon the nation because they were allowing the people to sacrifice to both Yahweh and Baal. So he proposed a contest in which the god represented by the winner would be the only god the people would be allowed to worship. The challenge was accepted.

The people of Israel, the Prophet and the priests of Baal gathered together on Mount Carmel where Elijah told them to make up their minds: “If the Lord is God, worship him; if Baal is God worship him!”[7] But the people could not make up their minds, so it was necessary to go on with the competition. Two bulls would be killed, one for Baal and one for Yahweh. They would be offered as a holocaust, but no one could light the fire that would consume them. The fire had to come from their god.

For several hours the 450 priests of Baal prayed for fire from on high. But in spite of their increasingly frantic petitions, nothing happened. Then it was  Elijah’s turn: “answer me Lord; answer me, so that this people will know that you are God and that you are bringing them back to yourself.”[8]

The Bible says that the Lord sent down fire and burned up the sacrificed animal. The people immediately proclaimed their allegiance to Yahweh and to his prophet. No sooner had they done so than Elijah told them to round up the 450 priests of Baal and march the losers down the hillside. “The people seized them all and Elijah led them down to Kishon Brook and killed them.[9]

Christian scholars choose not to comment on the moral implications of the prophet-as-mass-murderer. Instead, they endlessly debate the question of how many people he, personally, could have killed.  There is general agreement that Elijah probably didn’t kill them all himself, because of the logistics involved. They also agree that the slaughter was necessary because it was immediately after this “act of impartial justice”[10] that the rains came and the drought ended. This is seen as a vindication of and a reward for the massacre.

Like the people of Israel, King Ahab had also turned against the priests of Baal when they lost the contest. But his wife Jezebel, was neither impressed nor convinced by the display of power on Mount Carmel.[11] She sent a message to Elijah: “May the gods strike me dead if by this time tomorrow I don’t do the same thing to you that you did to my (priests). Elijah was afraid and fled for his life.”[12]

Although it seems strange that a man who had just commanded power from on high would be afraid of the woman whose god had been defeated, Elijah stayed in hiding for a long time. And during that time, he said he received further instructions from the Lord. The prophet said God told him that Jehu, one of King Ahab’s soldiers, was to go to war against Ahab, kill all the King’s descendants and become King of Israel himself. But Elijah was getting on in years and feared he might not be around long enough to engineer the bloody coup. So he named a successor, Elisha, son of Shabat, who would make sure that the massacre took place.

Elisha was a good choice for the job; violence came easily to him. The Bible recounts an incident in which forty-two young boys died for ridiculing him because he was bald. “(Elisha) went up to Bethel; and as he was going up by the way, young lads came out from the city and mocked him and said to him, ‘Go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead!’ When he looked behind him and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two female bears came out of the woods and tore up forty-two lads of their numbers.”[13]

It is not only the ancient scribes who found this gruesome story acceptable and indicative of God’s favor. Modern scholars also affirm the incident. They speculate that the boys were mauled to death because the Prophet Elisha was God’s represent-tative, so the youths were actually being disrespectful to God. These commentators find it reasonable that the boys had to die for not giving God the proper respect. They promulgate this viewpoint although the Bible, itself, forbids retaliation that exceeds the original provocation.[14]

Based on nothing but conjecture, other religious teachers suggest that the young men had previously been in the woods and had killed the cubs of the she-bear . . . If this conjecture is correct, the bear was prepared by its loss to execute the curse of the prophet and God’s justice guided the boys to the spot (where they encountered Elisha) to execute the curse of the prophet and God’s justice.

The kind of rationalization that approves the death of forty-two disrespectful boys also approves the subsequent slaughter of all King Ahab’s descendants. Elisha told Jehu that he was God’s choice to be the new king of Israel and also told him that there was a condition to that appointment. It was the condition set by the now deceased Elijah: “(Jehu) you are to kill your master the king, that son of Ahab, so that I may punish Jezebel . . . All of Ahab’s family and descendants are to die; get rid of every male in his family, young and old alike.”[15]

Jehu carried out the Prophet’s order and had seventy descendants of Ahab beheaded. Their severed heads were placed in baskets at the city gates. After killing everyone of royal blood, Jehu, with the Prophet Elisha’s blessing, went on to carry out a massacre that was truly worthy of the name. “Jehu put to death all the other relatives of Ahab and all of his officers, close friends and priests; not one of them was left alive.”[16]

A modern religious textbook comments on this massacre: “Apart from the faultiness in his motives, the deeds recounted up to this point fall within the letter of Jehu’s commission [from the Prophet Elisha].”[17]   This textbook and others like it, excuse the horrific violence involved because they attribute it to the instrumentality of God.

Religious leaders like Elijah and Elisha were continuing the rule of murder and the exercise of political power that had begun with the Prophet Samuel. Yet even as this travesty of godliness seemed to reign supreme, the age of the Latter Prophets was being born. The eighth century B.C. inaugurated an era of spiritual and moral evolution in Judaism that struggles to continue in our own day. It was a giant leap in consciousness that seemed to emerge, full blown, in the teachings of the Latter Prophets of Israel

[1]  I Samuel 15:33  TEV

[2]  I Samuel 15.1 – 3  TEV

[3]  Clarke Commentary  V 1, p 255

[4]  IVP p 303

[5]  I Samuel 15:32,32 TEV

[6]  Independent –HBC, p 278.  Shirking-IBC, p365

[7]  I Kings 18:21  TEV

[8]  I Kings 18:37  TEV

[9]    I Kings 18:40  TEV

[10]  Clarke Commentary

[11]  Jezebel had been a princess of Tyre before her marriage and had never been committed to the worship of Israel’s God.

[12]   I Kings 19:2, 3  TEV

[13]  II Kings  2:23, 24  NAS

[14]  Exodus 21:24, 25 and Deuteronomy 19:21

[15]  II Kings   9:6-8 TEV

[16]  II Kings 10:11  TEV

[17]  ISBE  Vol 2,  p. 981

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