Among the prominent themes within the Old Testament, YHWH’s election of Israel to be his special people is especially significant. However, the idea that YHWH chose one specific group to be his special people has offended many people in the modern world, for whom the ideals of equality and equal opportunity are very important. If YHWH chose Israel, did he reject the other nations? This post will examine two groups whom YHWH views ambiguously in the Torah to explore in more detail YHWH’s relationship with non-Israelite nations in light of the election of Israel.
Nothing positive is said regarding the Amalekites in the Old Testament. This group attacked the Israelites on their way from Egypt to Sinai, leading to YHWH’s command to destroy them (Exod. 17:8–16). Amalek later defeated Israel when they attempted to enter Canaan (Num. 14:40–45) and continued to be in conflict with the Israelites after the conquest (1 Sam. 15; 30). However, the background of the Amalekites complicates this seemingly simple picture. Amalek was a grandson of Esau (Gen. 36:12) and became a chief in the land of Edom (Gen. 36:16). Although Amalek descended from Esau, the Old Testament treats them differently than the Edomites, as Deuteronomy’s account of Israel’s journey through Transjordan on the way to Canaan records that YHWH prohibited Israel from provoking Edom to war or taking any of their land because he had given it to Esau (Deut. 2:5). Deuteronomy also prohibited Israel form abhorring Edom, because he was their brother (Deut. 23:7 [Heb. 8]). Although the Edomites are often viewed negatively in the Old Testament, YHWH never commanded their destruction like he did with Amalek.
The Old Testament never explains the difference in disposition toward the two descendants of Esau. If Israel was not to abhor Edom because he was their brother, then they should not have abhorred Amalek, who was also descended from Esau. While YHWH’s distinct disposition toward the two descendants of Esau is unclear, I propose that the difference derives from the severity of their rejection of YHWH. Both rejected YHWH and his people. However, while Edom did not allow Israel to pass through their land, the Amalekites attacked Israel and were punished more severely for it. Their actions toward YHWH and his people, not their genealogy, led to the differing reactions from YHWH. That is, their actions against Israel caused them to forfeit any benefit their familial relationship with Israel might bring.
The Midianites also provide a window into YHWH’s relationship with the nations. In general, the Torah displays two very different attitudes about the Midianites. On the one hand, the Midianite relationship with the Israelites was antagonistic. During Israelite sojourn in the wilderness, the elders of Midian collaborated with the Moabites to hire Balaam to curse the Israelites (Num. 22:4–7). In addition, the Midianite women led the Israelites to idolatry at Baal Peor (Num. 25:6–15), leading YHWH to command Israel to attack Midian (Num. 25:17–18). However, on the other hand, Moses had close connections with the Midianites. He fled from Pharaoh to the land of Midian, where he met Jethro, a Midianite priest, and married his daughter (Exod. 2:15–22; 3:1). While he was living in Midian, YHWH first appeared to Moses (Exod 3:1; 4:19). After the exodus, Moses visited with this group of Midianites, and Jethro praised YHWH for his work in the exodus and proclaimed that YHWH was greater than all other gods (Exod. 18:9–12). When the Israelites left Sinai, Moses invited Jethro to join Israel (Num. 10:29–32).
These features suggest that this group of Midianites had a much more favorable relationship with Israel than the group of Midianites that was attacked by Israel. Similar to YHWH’s relationship with the Egyptians, his different relationship with these two groups of Midianites depended on their respective actions. Jethro, who recognized the power of YHWH, was a friend and fellow follower of YHWH. In contrast, the Midianites associated with Moab harassed Israel and forced a wedge between Israel and their god. YHWH did not command Israel to strike Midian simply because they were Midianites, but because of their actions. A person from a different country who became a follower of YHWH could become a part of the nation of Israel.
In two upcoming posts we will look at YHWH’s attitude toward the Canaanites in the Torah and the book of Joshua. These posts are an abstract of a published article; see there for more details:
Trimm, Charlie. “Did YHWH Condemn the Nations When He Elected Israel? YHWH’s Disposition toward Non-Israelites in the Torah.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 55 (2012): 521–36.