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Ancient Jewish History: The Amalekites

The Amalekites were a people of the Negev and adjoining desert that were a hereditary enemy of Israel from wilderness times to the early monarchy. Amalek, a son of Esau's son Eliphaz, was presumably the eponymous ancestor of the Amalekites.

- Amalek & Israel
- Land & People
- The Amalekites & the Kenites
- In the Aggadah

Amalek and Israel

According to the Bible, Amalek was the first enemy that Israel encountered after the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. Inasmuch as contemporary archaeology has convinced most biblicists that the biblical traditions of enslavement in Egypt, wilderness wandering, and conquest of the land are unhistorical, traditions about Amalek and Israel in the pre-settlement period probably reflect later realities. In effect, by setting encounters with Amalek in the days of Moses and Joshua, the writers of the Bible were saying that hostilities existed from time immemorial. Among these traditions we find that Amalekites attacked the Israelites in a pitched battle at Rephidim, which, to judge by the Bible (Ex. 17:6, 7, 8–16; 18:5), is in the neighborhood of Horeb; if the locality Massah and Meribah (17:7) is to be found in the region of Kadesh-Barnea or is identical with it (Num. 20:1–14, 24; Ezek. 47:19), then this battle was waged in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula. The Book of Exodus relates that Joshua fought against Amalek under the inspiration of Moses, who was supported by Aaron and Hur, and that he mowed them down with the sword. Amalek was not destroyed, however, and at the end of this war Moses was ordered to write in a document, as a reminder, that the Lord would one day blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven. In commemoration of the victory, Moses built an altar which he called "YHWH-Nissi," and proclaimed that "The Eternal will be at war against Amalek throughout the ages." This implies that Israel is commanded to wage a holy war of extermination against Amalek (Deut. 25:12–19), for in the early days "the wars of Israel" and the "wars of the Lord" were synonymous expressions (cf., e.g., Judg. 5:23).

In the biblical traditions, Israel, after sinning through cowardice and lack of faith as a result of the discouraging report of the spies, turned around and "defiantly marched to the crest of the hill country" (Num. 14:44–45) against the divine command and was punished by sustaining a shattering blow at the hands of the Amalekites and Canaanites who inhabited the hill country, the former no doubt being confined to its southernmost end (Num. 14:45). In this particular case, therefore, YHWH, who according to Exodus 17:16 had sworn eternal enmity to Amalek, permitted Amalek to defeat Israel, but, since He had specifically warned Israel against this particular undertaking, there is no real contradiction between Exodus 17:16 and Numbers 14:45. It is possible that this tradition is based on abortive attempts by Israel to expand its holdings in the South during the premonarchic period (see Num. 13:29; 21:1–3, 4–34; Deut 1:44). More closely historical than the Pentateuch's accounts of Amalek are the traditions set in the period of the Judges and the monarchy. During the period of the Judges, the Amalekites participated with other nations in attacks on the Israelite tribes. Together with the Ammonites, they joined Moab against Israel and were among those who captured "the city of palms" – apparently Jericho or the pasture lands of Jericho (Judg. 3:12–13). It seems probable that the wanderings of the Amalekites, or of a particular part of them, extended as far as Transjordan in the neighborhood of Moab or Ammon. (Some scholars (Edeleman in Bibliography) have argued that there was a northern Amalekite enclave adjoining Ephraimite territory.) The Amalekites and the people of the East joined the Midianite raids on the Israelites in the time of Gideon, and, like true desert tribes, undoubtedly participated in the destruction of the crops, as related in the Book of Judges (6:1–7). The Amalekites took part in the battles in the valley of Jezreel (6:33; 7:12) and perhaps also in the Jordan Valley, but there is no evidence that Gideon also fought with the Amalekites in his pursuit of the Midianites in Transjordan. In no case did the Amalekites as a whole suffer decisive defeat at this time and their center in the Negev was not harmed.

The decisive clash between Israel and Amalek came only with the advent of the monarchy, in the famous Amalekite war of Saul. According to the biblical account, the war began as a result of a divine command of the Lord to Saul through Samuel to smite Amalek and destroy it, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass" (I Sam. 15:3). Although Samuel alludes to Amalek's provocation of Israel, "in opposing them on the way, when they came up out of Egypt" (15:2), there is no mention of the battle of Rephidim and of the victorious war of Moses and Joshua. Samuel's words more closely parallel the narrative about the attack of Amalek in the Book of Deuteronomy (25:17–19), which relates that the Amalekites attacked the Israelites on their way out of Egypt, "when you were famished and weary," and cut down the stragglers in the rear, without mentioning any victorious Israelite counteraction. Deuteronomy explicitly admonishes the Israelites to remember Amalek and blot out its memory from under heaven, whereas in the Exodus version this can only be inferred (see above). The command imposed on Saul to subject the Amalekites to the ban (ḥerem), however, conforms to the version in Deuteronomy. The dispute between Samuel and Saul with regard to the ḥerem was not over the command itself, but the extent to which it had been put into effect. Saul's act of extermination was not absolute, for he spared the best of the sheep and cattle – setting aside part for a sacrifice to God – and Agag, king of Amalek. It should be noted that even the deuteronomic ḥerem, though it does not allow for the sparing of persons (such as Agag), except for particular ones (like Rahab) specified in advance, permits the taking of booty (e.g., Deut. 2:34–5; Josh. 8:26–27) except in special cases (Deut. 13:13 ff.; Josh. 6:17 ff.). Despite the "pre-deuteronomic" literary framework of chapter 15 and its prophetic-ideological aim, embedded in it is an ancient historical tradition about a war of extermination that reflects Saul's war against Amalek. This may be seen in the record of Saul's wars in which the war of Amalek receives special mention: "He did valiantly, and smote the Amalekites, and delivered Israel out of the hands of those who plundered them" (I Sam. 14:48). The matter was, therefore, a war of rescue as were the wars of the Judges, and it seems that because of its difficulty Saul vowed that in the event of success he would devote the spoil to the Lord by ḥerem.

From the scanty information in I Samuel 15, it may be concluded that Saul achieved victory over the Amalekites and advanced all the way to their headquarters, "the city of Amalek." The battle (or the main one) was waged in "the wadi," by which is perhaps meant the Wadi of Egypt (cf. Num. 34:5; Josh. 15:4; Ezek. 47:19). Accordingly, the main Amalekite center was on the Sinai Peninsula in the region of "the waters of Meribath-Kadesh," which may have been in the vicinity of Kadesh-Barnea, as the Amalekite attack at Rephidim was also in the same area. The term "city of Amalek" is not to be understood literally, and it is possible that it means a fortified camp. Neither does the title "king," applied to Agag, necessarily imply an organized kingdom as customarily found in settled regions, and it may be presumed that Agag was a type of tribal chief called a king, like the kings of Midian (Num. 31:8; Judg. 8:5, 12; cf. Num. 25:18; Josh. 13:21) and the kings of Ḫana in Mari, whose main function may have been a military one.

According to I Samuel 15:7, "Saul defeated the Amalekites from Havilah all the way to Shur, which is east of (or close to) Egypt." However, Saul himself can hardly have advanced as far as the borders of Egypt (and if this Havilah is the same as that in Gen. 10:7, 29 – Arabia as well). Perhaps the author merely wishes to define the normal range of the nomadic Amalekites in the time of Saul. A similar expression occurs in the description of the much wider range of the Ishmaelites: "From Havilah, by Shur, which is east of (or close to) Egypt, etc." (Gen. 25:18). The magnitude of the Amalekite defeat in the days of Saul is apparently reflected in the pronouncement of Balaam: "Their (i.e., Israel's) king shall rise above Agag, their kingdom shall be exalted" (Num. 24:7). It is related that when Samuel put Agag to death he said "As your sword has bereaved women, so shall your mother be the most bereaved of women" (I Sam. 15:33). This may indicate that Agag's military success was proverbial. The Amalekites were not completely destroyed by Saul, since at the end of his reign they were still raiding the Negev of the Cherethites, of Judah, and of Caleb, and the town of Ziklag, that had been assigned by King Achish of Gath to David (I Sam. 30:14).

Although the story of David's victory over the Amalekites is intended to add to his glory, it need not be doubted that it reflects an historical truth about David's wars against the desert tribes in his premonarchial period, being distinguished by exact topographical indications, by correct military-legal conduct, and the division of booty among the cities of Judah and of the Negev (30:9, 21–31). After the victories of Saul and David the Amalekites ceased to be a factor of any influence in the border regions of Judah and the Negev, just as the Midianites had after the war of Gideon. In I Chronicles 4:42–43, some obscure information has been preserved about the remnant of Amalek. These verses relate that some of the Simeonites went to Mt. Seir, killed the survivors of Amalek, and settled there. It is difficult to imagine that Mt. Seir means Edom, in light of the fact that the concept "Seir" may be applied to a variety of regions (e.g., Josh. 15:10; and perhaps also Judg. 3:26) and the areas mentioned in the previous verses (I Chron. 39–42); it seems most likely that the reference is to the western Negev, where the Amalekites roamed from early times. According to the allusion in verse 41, it is possible to say that the destruction of the survivors of Amalek took place during the reign of Hezekiah.

Land and People

The name Amalek is not mentioned in writings outside the Bible. The proposed identification of the Amalekites with the Amaw or the Shasu of Egyptian sources is untenable. In the biblical genealogical system, Amalek is the son of Esau's son Eliphaz by Eliphaz's concubine Timna (Gen. 36:12). On the analogy of the genealogies of the sons of Nahor by concubinage (Gen. 22:24) and of Abraham's sons by Keturah and Hagar it may be surmised that Amalek's genealogy was intended to imply his special status as a nomad as distinct from the sedentary Edomites, in the same way as the Ishmaelites or the children of Keturah were distinct from the sedentary descendants of Abraham. There may be geographical significance in the listing of Amalek after Edom in the Song of Balaam (Num. 24:18, 20).

The Amalekites and the Kenites

Those among the Amalekites who lived in the border regions maintained a relationship to the Kenites, who certainly lived near the permanent settlements (I Sam. 15:6). Whereas the Kenites passed into permanent settlement during the First Temple period and were assimilated in Judah (I Chron. 2:55), the Amalekites did not deviate from their desert nomadic character until they ceased to exist. Some believe that this Amalekite patronage of the Kenites is also mentioned in Judges 1:16, reading (in accordance with a few Septuagint manuscripts and the Latin Vulgate version) "and they settled with the Amalekite" instead of "and they settled with the people." However, such an interpretation contradicts the meaning of the chapter – whose purpose is to relate how various tribes and families became annexed to Judah, i.e., "the people." This reading which occurs only in secondary versions of the Septuagint and not in original ones can be explained as an attempt to interpret a difficult passage in the light of I Samuel 15:6, i.e., the verse in the Song of Deborah where it says of Ephraim "they whose root is in Amalek" (Judg. 5:14). Without raising the possibility of textual reconstruction in detail, it may be established, by drawing a parallel with the element "people," which appears repeatedly in this song, that the name Amalek in the masoretic text is the authentic one. Hence the meaning of the name in this context is not merely geographic (Judg. 12:15), but serves to indicate the warlike nature of Ephraim, beside Benjamin. It is unimaginable that such a juxtaposition would have been possible after the consciousness of the divine war of extermination against Amalek had taken root in Israel.

In the Aggadah

Amalek, "the first of the nations" (Num. 24:20), had no wish to fight alone against Israel but rather, with the help of many nations (Mekhilta, ed. by H.S. Horovitz and I.A. Rabin (19602), 176; Jos., Ant., 3:40). At first these nations were afraid to join Amalek, but he persuaded them by saying: "Come, and I shall advise you what to do. If they defeat me, you flee, and if not, come and help me against Israel."

Moses appointed Joshua to lead the Israelite army not because of his own weakness or advanced years but because he wished "to train Joshua in warfare" (Mekhilta, 179; Ex. R. 26:3). After he defeated the Amalekites, Joshua refrained from the common practice of abusing the bodies of the slain and instead "treated them with mercy" (Mekhilta, 181). The war with Amalek did not end with their defeat, and the Israelites were commanded always to remember the deeds of Amalek (Deut. 25:17). In rabbinic literature, the reasons for the unusual eternal remembrance of Amalek are the following: (1) Amalek is the irreconcilable enemy and it is forbidden to show mercy foolishly to one wholly dedicated to the destruction of Israel (PR 12:47). Moreover, the attack of the Amalekites upon the Israelites encouraged others. All the tragedies which Israel suffered are considered the direct outcome of Amalek's hostile act (PdRK 27). (2) The injunction "Remember" does not enjoin us to recall the evil actions of others but rather our own. For "the enemy comes only on account of sin and transgression" (ibid.). (3) The verse "Remember…" is meant to remind all men of "the rule which holds good for all generations, namely, that the scourge [the staff of God's indignation] with which Israel is smitten will itself finally be smitten" (Mekhilta, 181). In the course of time this biblical injunction became so deeply rooted in Jewish thought that many important enemies of Israel were identified as direct descendants of Amalek. Thus the tannaitic aggadah of the first century B.C.E. identifies Amalek with Rome (Bacher, Tann, 1 (19302), 146). The most outstanding example is "Haman the Agagite" (Esth. 3:1) who is regarded as a descendant of Agag (I Sam. 15:8) the Amalekite king (Jos., Ant., 11:209).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved
Bridger, David. Ed. The New Jewish Encyclopedia. NY: Behrman House, Inc. 1976.
Schreiber, Mordecai (ed.). The Shengold Jewish Encyclopedia. Shengold Books. 1998.
Telushkin, Joseph. Jewish Literacy. William Morrow and Company, Inc. 1991.