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What Made Amalek So Evil?

Jan 11, 2022

Moses' holding his hands up, with the help of Aharon and Hur, during the battle with Amalek

וַיָּבֹ֖א עֲמָלֵ֑ק וַיִּלָּ֥חֶם עִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בִּרְפִידִֽם׃

Amalek came and fought with Yisrael at Rephidim.

va-YA-vo a-ma-LEK va-yi-LA-khem im yis-ra-AYL bi-r'-fi-DAM

Exodus 17:8

The Hebrews are attacked by the Amalekites in Rephidim. Joshua is ordered by Moses to lead Israel in battle, and Moses watches from a hillside with the staff of God in his hand. When Moses’ hand is raised, Israel prevails, but when it is lowered, Israel falters. So he keeps his hand raised through the entire battle, even having assistants support him so that the battle will go in Israel’s favor.

Battle with the Amalekites, by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

Battle with the Amalekites, by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

What was the sin of the Amalekites?

What did the Amlekites do that caused God to wage war against them for all time? The sin of Amalek was twofold:

  1. They were the first to attack Israel after they left Egypt (Exodus 17:8-16)
  2. They attacked “all the stragglers in your rear” (Deuteronomy 25:18).

The attack by the Amalekites was seen as an act of defiance against God, who had chosen the Israelites to be His nation and obey His laws, and the way they went about the attack was seen as imoral. As a result of their actions, God declared that He would have war with Amalek from generation to generation (Exodus 17:16).

This has become a theological concept known as the “Doctrine of Amalek,” and is used to explain why God chooses to punish certain peoples or nations for their sins. This doctrine is seen in many other instances throughout the Bible, such as when God commanded the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 7:1-2).

Who are the Amalekites in the Bible?

The nation of Amalek descended from Abraham, its founder being the grandson of Esau. Amalek was the son of Eliphaz, the son of Esau, and Eliphaz’s concubine Timna (Genesis 36:12). According to a midrash, Timna was a princess who had tried to convert to Judaism but had been rejected by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. She replied that she would rather be a handmaiden to the dregs of this nation than be the mistress of another Nation, and therefore married Eliphaz. To punish the Patriarchs for the affront they had made her, she was made the mother of Amalek which would cause Israel much distress.

What did God say about the Amalekites?

The Amalekites lived to the south of the Land of Israel, in what is now known as the Negev Desert. In Deuteronomy 25:17–19, the Israelites are specifically commanded to “blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven” once they have taken possession of the promised land, in retribution for “what Amalek did to [them] on the way as [they] were coming out of Egypt.” At the same time, the nation was commanded to never forget the evil deeds that Amalek did.

In Judaism, the Amalekites came to represent the archetypal enemy of the Jews. In Jewish folklore, the Amalekites are considered to be the symbol of evil.

The first king, Saul, was commanded by the prophet Samuel to finally wipe out Amalek for good. Saul was victorious against the Amalekites but spared the choicest of their flocks and the Amalekite king, Agag. When Samuel found out about Saul’s disobedience, Saul lost his right to kingship. Samuel then killed Agag himself. Before he was killed, Agag sired a child who would keep Amalek’s lineage alive. One of this child’s descendants was Haman the Agagite who, some 500 years later, sought to wipe out the Jews of the Persian Empire under King Ahasuerus.

Gustave Doré, The Death of Agag

Gustave Doré, The Death of Agag

According to the Midrash, the Amalekites were sorcerers who could transform themselves to resemble animals, in order to avoid capture. Thus, in I Samuel 15:3, it was considered necessary to destroy the livestock in order to destroy Amalek.

There has been much conjecture about the trait that singles out Amamlek. The verse in Deuteronomy 25:18 states that the Amalekites surprised, or happened upon, the Israelites on their way. The medieval commentator known as Rashi explains that the word for ‘happened’ ( קָרְךָ korcha) also denotes ‘cold’ (קר kar). He understands this to mean that the Amalekites “cooled you off and made you [appear] tepid, after you were boiling hot, for the nations were afraid to fight with you.”

From the word happened we also learn that Amalek represents the belief in chance, of the haphazard dictates of “fate” and “destiny,” which opposes the Jewish belief in Divine providence. Amalek’s philosophy negates the concept that there is a purpose to humanity or to creation itself, again the antithesis of Jewish philosophy.

Another explanation is based on the Gematria (numerology) of Amalek (עמלק) being 240—the same as the value of the Hebrew word for “doubt” (ספק). Amalek’s chief weapon is to foment doubt among the faithful.

Do the Amalekites still exist today?

The question of whether the Amalekites still exist today is a complicated one. From a physical standpoint, it is unlikely that any direct descendants of the ancient Amalekites still exist. The tribe was conquered and absorbed into other cultures over time, and there is no evidence of a distinct Amalekite people or language surviving to the present day.

However, many Jewish scholars and religious leaders believe that the Amalekites live on in the form of antisemitism. In Jewish tradition, the Amalekites are seen as the archetypal enemy of the Jewish people, representing the forces of evil and destruction. The commandment to wipe out the Amalekites is therefore interpreted as a call to combat antisemitism in all its forms.

This interpretation has been influential in Jewish culture and history. Throughout the centuries, Jews have faced persecution and discrimination from various groups, often under the banner of religious or political ideologies. In each case, Jewish leaders have invoked the memory of the Amalekites to encourage their followers to resist and survive.

In conclusion, while it is unlikely that any direct descendants of the Amalekites still exist today, their legacy lives on in Jewish tradition. The commandment to wipe out the Amalekites is seen as a call to combat antisemitism in all its forms, and this legacy continues to inspire and guide the Jewish people in their struggles today.

Related Names and Places: Samuel, Saul, Esau, Exodus from Egypt, Moses, Patriarchs

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