What Makes Amalek So Evil?

January 11, 2022

The attack perpetrated by Hamas terrorists on October 7th, 2023 proved to the world what Israel has known for many years – that Hamas and the terrorists who perpetrate evil against Israel and her citizens are modern-day Amalakites. What exactly do we mean by Amalekites?

Biblical Background

As they traveled through the wilderness following their liberation from Egyptian slavery, the Israelites faced an unexpected attack by the Amalekites near Rephidim. Moses, their leader, directed Joshua to lead the Israelite forces into battle against the Amalekites, while Moses ascended a nearby hill with the staff of God in his hand.

Down in the valley, a fierce battle ensued. Moses played a unique role in the outcome – when he raised his staff high, the Israelites gained the upper hand, but when fatigue caused his hand to lower, the Amalekites gained ground. To secure victory, Aaron and Hur, companions of Moses, lent their support to keep his hands raised until sunset.

Ultimately, the Israelites emerged victorious against the Amalekites. As a consequence of this battle, God declared an everlasting conflict with the nation of Amalek, vowing to “utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (Exodus 17:14).

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 exactly did the Amalekites 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 picked the Israelites to be His chosen nation and obey His laws. Furthermore, it ruined the opportunity for God to be known and recognized as by everyone on earth as the one, true God. In the words of Nechama Leibowitz, a great Torah scholar of the 20th century:

“Mankind as a whole might have taken one great step forward and acknowledged the sovereignty of the God of Justice and Truth.  But then along came Amalek – unrestrained by the dread and awe that kept all the nations of the world in check – jumped as it were, to use the midrashic expression, into the boiling cauldron … What was there to fear? … they were wandering in the wilderness, weary and struggling.  Why should they not be attacked and spoiled?  This is the way of the world!  In this manner the moment of awe at the mighty hand of God passed away and the atmosphere of astonishment at his miracles evaporated.  The world returned to … the idols of gold and silver, its faith in mortal power and brute force.  The opportunity had been lost.  And who was responsible? – Amalek.”

While the rest of the world was still in awe and fear of God following the Exodus, Amalek attacked, ruining the pristine image that everyone had of God at that time. Their brazen attack was not only an attack against the Jewish people who represent God, but against God Himself, and God holds this against them for eternity.

Furthermore, the way they went about the attack was immoral. The Israelites themselves were tired and weary (Deuteronomy 25:18), and they attacked the old and weak at the back of the camp.

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 the sages, 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.

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, however, 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.

According to the sages, 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.

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 never to 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.

Trait of 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, destruction and immorality. 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. Our modern-day enemies, such as Hamas, certainly embody the traits attributed to Amalek – a lack of godliness, morality, and a propensity for evil.

The story of the Amalekites serves as a powerful reminder of the enduring struggle between good and evil, faith and defiance, and the need to confront and overcome those who seek to harm the righteous and undermine the divine. The lessons from this ancient conflict continue to resonate in the modern world, highlighting the importance of upholding principles of goodness and defending against the forces that would sow evil and discord.

Shira Schechter

Shira Schechter is the content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. She earned master’s degrees in both Jewish Education and Bible from Yeshiva University. She taught the Hebrew Bible at a high school in New Jersey for eight years before making Aliyah with her family in 2013. Shira joined the Israel365 staff shortly after moving to Israel and contributed significantly to the development and publication of The Israel Bible.

Shira Schechter

Shira Schechter

Shira Schechter is the content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. She earned master’s degrees in both Jewish Education and Bible from Yeshiva University. She taught the Hebrew Bible at a high school in New Jersey for eight years before making Aliyah with her family in 2013. Shira joined the Israel365 staff shortly after moving to Israel and contributed significantly to the development and publication of The Israel Bible.

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