Perhaps no verse in the Torah has inflamed the sensibilities of modern readers as Deuteronomy 25:19 that calls upon the Israelites to erase every last Amalekite. True, the Amalekites were cruel and brutal when they attacked the most vulnerable of Israelites following the exodus from Egypt. But for modern, enlightened, liberal thinkers there is no justification for genocide, not even redressing past wrongs no matter how heinous. For Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, and one of the so-called “new atheists,” almost all the biblical wars are what he calls “barbaric.” And the eradication of the Amalekites is no different. A more thoughtful and less doctrinaire reading, however, leads to a different conclusion.
Philosopher David Hume, one of the most influential thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, who would never be characterized as neanderthal in his attitudes, writes: “Were a civilized nation engaged with barbarians, who observed no rules, even of war, the former must also suspend their observance of them, where they no longer serve any purpose; and must render every action or recounter as bloody and pernicious as possible to the first aggressors” (An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Section III, “On Justice”). On Hume’s view, the law to eradicate the Amalekites is thus entirely justified.
Moreover, the annihilation of the Amalekites and the seven nations that inhabited the land of Canaan at the time of the entry of Israelites was never intended to be a precedent, a fact that Dawkins breezily overlooks. In an earlier passage (Deuteronomy 20:10) the Torah commands the Israelites to offer terms of peace before making war and if the opponents surrender, no life is lost.
The message the Torah is sending is that warfare, though sometimes necessary and frequently harsh, is never welcome. That is why the prophets Isaiah (2:4) and Micah (4:3-4) envision a time when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation neither shall they learn war anymore”