According to the Book of Genesis and 1 Chronicles, Amalek (Arabic,عماليق,) was the son of Eliphaz and the grandson of Esau (Gen. 36:12; 1 Chr. 1:36); the chief of an Edomite tribe (Gen. 36:16). His mother was a Horite, a tribe whose territory the descendants of Esau had seized.
According to the genealogy in Gen. 36:12; 1 Chr. 1:36. Amalek is a son of Esau's son Eliphaz and of the concubine Timna, a Horite and sister of Lotan. Gen. 36:16 refers to him as the "chief of Amalek" thus his name can be understood to be a title derived from that of the clan or territory over which he ruled. Indeed an extra-Biblical tradition recorded by Nachmanides relates that the Amalekites were not descended from the grandson of Esau but from a man named Amalek after whom this grandson was later named. Such an eponymous ancestor of the Amalekites is also mentioned in Old Arabian poetry.
According to Arab historians such as Ibn Khaldun and Ali ibn al-Athir, Amalek is a name given to the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Hyksos who came from the same lineage.
The name is sometimes interpreted as "dweller in the valley"
, but most specialists regard the origin to be unknown (M. Weippert, Semitische Nomaden des zweiten Jahrtausends. Biblica vol. 55, 1974, 265-280, 427-433).
Some interpret Gen. 14:7 (which refers to the "land of the Amalekites"), to mean that the Amalekites existed as early as the time of Abraham, in the region that would later become the Roman
province of Arabia Petraea
This view corroborates Nachmanides' claim of an origin for the Amalekites earlier than Esau's grandson. However the passage in question does not require this interpretation as it may be referring to the region by a name from a later era. However, the Arab historian Abu al-Hasan 'Alī al-Mas'ūdī
, citing 'traditional' Arab history relates that the Amalekites did indeed exist at this early period having originated in the region of Mecca before the time of Abraham.
In the Pentateuch, the Amalekites are nomads who attacked the Hebrews at Rephidim in the desert of Sinai during their exodus from Egypt: "smiting the hindmost, all that were feeble behind," (1 Samuel 15:2). The Tanakh recognizes the Amalekites as indigenous tribesmen, "the first of the nations" (Numbers 24:20). In the southern lowlands too, perhaps the dry grazing lands that are now the Negev (Num. 12, 14), there were aboriginal Amalekites who were daunting adversaries of the Hebrews in the earliest times. "They dwelt in the land of the south...from Havilah until thou comest to Shur" (Num. 13:29; 1 Sam. 15:7). At times said to be allied with the Moabites (Judg. 3:13) and the Midianites (Judges 6:3). Each of their kings bore the hereditary name of Agag (Num. 24:7; 1 Sam. 15:8). They also attacked the Israelites at Hormah (Num. 14:45). Saul and his army destroyed most of the people, and earned Samuel's wrath for leaving some of the people and livestock alive (1 Sam. 15:8-9) against the Lord's command. Saul and the tribal leaders also hesitated to kill Agag, so Samuel himself executed the Amalekite king (1 Sam. 15:33).
Allies of the Amalekites
In the books of 1 Samuel and Judges, the tribe of Kenites
are associated with the Amalekites, sometimes their allies, sometimes allied with the tribes of Israel. The Amalek people are invariably enemies of Israel. Saul's successful expedition against the unidentified "city of Amalek," in the plain (1 Sam. 15) resulted in the capture of the Amalekite king, Agag.
War of extermination against the Amalekites
As the Jewish Encyclopedia
put it, "David waged a sacred war of extermination against the Amalekites," who may have subsequently disappeared from history. Long after, in the time of Hezekiah
, five hundred Simeonites annihilated the last remnant "of the Amalekites that had escaped" on Mount Seir, and settled in their place (1 Chr. 4:42-43).
The Biblical relationship between the Hebrew and Amalekite tribes was that the Amalekite tribes opposed the Hebrews and vice-versa, the former became associated with ruthlessness and trickery and tyranny, even more so than Pharaoh or the Philistines among the Israelitish scribes who wrote the Bible, and must be responded to with ruthlessness:
- "8 Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. 9 So Moses said to Joshua, “Choose for us men, and go out and fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” 10 So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. 11 Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. 12 But Moses’ hands grew weary, so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side. So his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. 13 And Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the sword.
- "14 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” 15 And Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The Lord is my banner, 16 saying, “A hand upon the throne of the Lord! The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation." (Exodus 17)
This enmity is repeated in Numbers 24, in Balaam's fourth and final oracle:
- "20 Then he looked on Amalek and took up his discourse and said, Amalek was the first among the nations, but its end is utter destruction.
And again in the law, in Deuteronomy 25:
- "17 “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, 18 how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. 19 Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget."
The fighting is mentioned again in Judges 3:13, in the Judgeship of Ehud, and again under Gideon, as the Amalekites teamed up with the Midianites (Judges 6:3, 6:33, 7:12). This enmity is also the background of the command of the Lord to Saul:
- "2 Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. 3 Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey." (1 Sam. 15:2-3).
Saul's failure to obey this command cost him his kingship. Note the commentary on this total destruction later by Samuel, when Saul summons him from the dead through prophetic vision literary tool:
- "16 And Samuel said, 'Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has turned from you and become your enemy? 17 The Lord has done to you as he spoke by me, for the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. 18 Because you did not obey the voice of the Lord and did not carry out his fierce wrath against Amalek, therefore the Lord has done this thing to you this day." (1 Sam 28)
A later Romanized Jewish author also commented on this event:
- "He betook himself to slay the women and the children, and thought he did not act therein either barbarously or inhumanly; first, because they were enemies whom he thus treated, and, in the next place, because it was done by the command of God, whom it was dangerous not to obey" (Flavius Josephus, Antiquites Judicae, Book VI, Chapter 7).
Maimonides explains, however, that the commandment of killing out the nation of Amalek requires the Jewish people to peacefully request of them to accept upon themselves the Noachide laws and pay a tax to the Jewish kingdom. Only if they refuse is the commandment applicable.
Some commentators, such as Rabbi Hayyim Falaggi (1788-1896) argue that we have lost the tradition of distinguishing Amalekites from other people, and therefore the commandment of killing them cannot practically be applied ("...We can rely on the maxim that in ancient times, Senaherib confused the lineage of many nations." [Eynei Kol Hai, 73, on Sanhedrin 96b])
The destruction of animals and booty, however, was not universal at Saul's time. This was evidently a command for a particular battle. His contemporary David handled the matter differently a few years later.
- "8 Now David and his men went up and made raids against the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites, for these were the inhabitants of the land from of old, as far as Shur, to the land of Egypt. 9And David would strike the land and would leave neither man nor woman alive, but would take away the sheep, the oxen, the donkeys, the camels, and the garments, and come back to Achish."
It is important, in Jewish tradition, that the plot to exterminate the Jews, as reported in the book of Esther, was carried out by Haman, an Agagite, or Amalekite. Because the Lord promised to "blot out the name" of Amalek, when the book of Esther is read at the Purim festival, the hearers make noise whenever "Haman" is mentioned, so his name is not heard.
See below for a current rabbinical teaching on the matter.
Symbolism of the Amalekites
tradition, the Amalekites came to represent the archetypal enemy of the Jews. For example, Haman
, from the Book of Esther
, is called the Agagite, which is the title of the Amalekite rulers Agag
The term has been used non-genetically, to refer to certain types of enemies of Judaism and decency throughout history, including Adolf Hitler, and controversially, and rarely ultra-rightists compare the Palestinians to Amalek. However the Palestinians have also been equated by some with the Philistines. Rabbi Israel Hess claimed once that Palestinians are Amalekites. Amalek has evolved in Jewish culture in a way that could be compared to Christians calling treacherous people Judas after the New Testament figure.
Samuel's words to Agag: "As your sword bereaved women, so will your mother be bereaved among women." (Samuel 1:15:33) were repeated by Israeli president Itzhak Ben-Zvi in his letter turning down Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann's petition for mercy.
Rejection of God
The concept has been used by hassidic rabbis
(particularly the Baal Shem Tov
) to represent the rejection of God, or Atheism
. Of the 613 mitzvot
(commandments) followed by Orthodox Jews
, three refer to the Amalek: to remember what the Amalekites do to Jews, to not forget what the Amalekites do to Jews, and to destroy the Amalekites utterly. The rabbis derived these from Deuteronomy
17:14 and 1 Sam. 15:3. Rashi
explains the third commandment :
- From man unto woman, from infant unto suckling, from ox unto sheep, so that the name of Amalek not be mentioned even with reference to an animal by saying "This animal belonged to Amalek"..
Kings of the Amalekites
Listing of Amalek/Amalekite references in Hebrew Scripture
- Genesis 14:7; 36:12, 16
- Exodus 17:8-11, 13-14, 16
- Numbers 13:29; 14:25, 43, 45; 24:20; 25:19
- Deuteronomy 25:17
- Judges 3:13; 5:14; 6:3, 33; 7:12; 10:12; 12:15
- 1 Samuel 14:48;15:2-8, 15, 18, 20, 32; 27:8; 28:18; 30:1, 13, 18
- 2 Samuel 1:1, 8, 13; 8:12
- 1 Chronicles 1:36; 4:43; 18:11
- Psalms 83:7
- The Punishment of Amalek in Jewish Tradition: Coping with the Moral Problem, Avi Sagi, Harvard Theological Review Vol.87, No.3 (1994) p.323-46.
- Between Rephidim and Jerusalem, Elliott Horowitz. This introduction from the book Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (Princeton University Press, 2006, ISBN 978-0-691-12491-9) examines the influence of the Amalek symbolism on relations between Israelis and Palestinians in the twenty-first century.