The Bible does not justify what Israel is doing in Gaza

By | March 16, 2024

Executive summary

Anyone who understands Jewish law understands that what God commanded the Jews to do in the Bible does not justify what Israel is doing in Gaza. The only people who really believe otherwise are Evangelical Christian supremacists, and it’s antisemitic.

What the Bible says

In the Bible, God commands the Jews to take the land of Israel by force. Before some of the battles, God commands the Jews to entirely destroy the enemy, killing all men, women, children, and even cattle, and to not loot any spoils. In other battles the Jews are commanded to kill all the men who are of fighting age but are permitted to leave the women and children alive and take spoils. The deciding factor is, essentially, whether the tribe being attacked was irredeemably hostile to the Jews before they went on their land acquisition spree.

Separately, there is a specific incident in the Bible where a tribe named Amalek attacked the Jews as they were escaping from Egyptian slavery. Amalek is said to have attacked the escaping Jews from behind, targeting the children, the elderly, and the sick who were lagging behind because they were not able to keep up. The Bible portrays this as an irredeemably cowardly deed. Aa a result, God not only commands the Jews to respond to their attack with no mercy, but later in the Bible the Jews are commanded to “blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.”

How Jewish law interprets it

Under Jewish law, the Bible is note a standalone legal text; rather, it must be interpreted through the lens of both the oral Torah, an interpretive tradition which was ostensibly given to Moses at Sinai along with the written Torah (a.k.a. the Bible) and which was passed on by oral tradition for many generations before eventually being captured in the Mishna and Talmud. The sages of each generation are tasked with responsibility for interpreting and continuing to pass down the oral Torah; the teachings of each generation are considered part of a long tradition unbroken since Sinai. In Judaism no commandment in the Bible is ever interpreted as a standalone text without the lens of the oral Torah.

Under Jewish law, there are no absolutely conditions which allow the Jewish people to decide on their own to engage in a genocidal war of the sort that God commanded the Jews to perpetrate in the Bible. Such a war can only be justified by a direct, explicit order of God, given to a recognized prophet. Jews do not believe that God gives direct orders to us anymore. As far as Jews are concerned, there have been no prophets since the end of the Jewish Bible (a.k.a. the “Old Testament”). Claims to the contrary are considered quite literally heretical and are not Jewish.

The Amalek situation is a little more complicated. The mainstream interpretation, which is nearly universally accepted within Judaism, is that this commandment applies only to direct genetic descendants of the Biblical tribe of Amalek, and that since it’s impossible for us to know who those descendants are, the law to wage war against Amalek wherever they are found cannot be followed until the Messiah comes and tell us who we’re supposed to kill. There are various other reasons given by Jewish legal authorities for why this law no longer applies.

How Evangelical Christian supremacists interpret it

Christianity in general approaches the Bible as a standalone text. Many Christian sects interpret it literally without any interpretive lens, and it is common in Christianity for people to read and interpret the Bible and to believe that their personal interpretation is God “speaking” to them. Some Christian sects believe that God speaks directly to adherents. Some Christian sects believe that there are modern prophets whom God speaks to. These ideas are all antithetical to Judaism.

Because of their approach to the Bible as outlined above, Evangelical Christian supremacists believe that the commands by God in the Old Testament for the Jews to wage war against the inhabitants of Israel and against Amalek are still applicable today, especially if a so-called “prophet” says they are.

Evangelical Christian supremacists want these commandments to still be applicable because it’s all part of their beliefs about the End Times. Specifically, they believe that there will be a world war triggered by a Jewish war in against Arabs in Israel, and that this war will trigger Armageddon and the second coming of Jesus, after which all of the aforementioned Jews will be killed and spend forever in Hell because they refused to accept Jesus. I am not writing metaphorically here; this is literally what they believe. And this is why their beliefs are inherently antisemitic.

Why some Jews insinuate that the Bible is on their side

I’m not going to deny it: there are a few crazy rabbis who claim that the law to blot out Amalek still applies in general, and that specifically the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza are Amalek and that Israel therefore has been commanded by God to wipe them out. These rabbis do real harm, but the reality is that their influence is much smaller than the disproportionate amount of press coverage they get because their views are so abhorrent, and they do not have a significant impact on the debate over Gaza in Israel.

What does have a significant impact is the people, including Bibi Netanyahu, who say things that insinuate that the law of Amalek is applicable to Gaza. They don’t actually say it explicitly, and when they are called out on it they deny it.

This is just the Jewish version of the same jingoistic, xenophobic nonsense that is used to rile up the population to support any war like the one Israel is currently waging in Gaza. The language used to rile people up to support a war needs to solidify cohesion among the in-group and dehumanize the out-group. Amalek references do both, because they appeal to Israelis’ real, well-founded fears of antisemitism and their shared culture (everyone in Israel, even nonreligious Jews, knows what “Amalek” means) while at the same time categorizing Israel’s enemies as the worst kind of evil, with the goal of justifying any outrage committed against them. The same strategy has been used to justify every genocide that has ever been committed. It’s no surprise to see it being used here as well.

But make no mistake: it’s people, not God, waging war in Gaza. It’s people making the decisions. It’s people killing innocents. It’s people calling the residents of Gaza “animals” and advocating “slaughter.” The God of Israel did not command it, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.

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