Who Were the Amalekites in the Bible?
29 SEP 2017
The Torah commands Jews to remember Amalek and his descendants, whom rabbinic commentators describe as the embodiment of evil. At the time of the Jews' exodus from Egypt, the Amalekites became their first -- and eternal -- enemy. Completely unprovoked and lacking fear of God, the Amalekites attacked the Jews when no other people dared.
1 Esau's Progeny
The Amalekites were a nation of people descended from the biblical Esau. Amalek was the illegitimate son of Elifaz -- the oldest son of Esau -- and Elifaz's concubine, Timna. Rabbinic literature describes the Amalekites as full of intense and everlasting hatred for the Jews. Like other nations, they were apparently aware of the miracles God performed on behalf of the Jewish people prior to the Jews' departure from Egypt. However, the medieval French biblical commentator Rabbi Schlomo Yitzchaki, known by the acronym Rashi -- whose textual explanations appear in most printings of the Hebrew Bible and are considered indispensable for biblical interpretation -- points out the Amalekites were uniquely aggressive to the Jews. A Judaica Press English translation of Rashi's commentary reads, "Amalek did not fear God [so as to refrain] from doing you harm" (Rashi, Deuteronomy 25:18). While other nations were fearful of God and hesitated to harm his "chosen people," the Amalekites neither feared God nor steered clear of the Jews. Instead, they rushed headlong into battle with them.
2 Godless Warriors
A nomadic people, the Amalekites were the first to engage the Jews in battle following the latter's liberation from Egyptian slavery. Exodus 17:8-16 and Deuteronomy 25:17-19 describe the scene at Refidim, where the Amalekites attacked the Jews. Targeting the stragglers -- those who were particularly tired, weak, confused and vulnerable -- the Amalekites struck in a brutal manner. Basing his interpretation of the event on Oral Torah, Rashi claims they raped, castrated and murdered the Jewish men (Rashi, Deuteronomy 25:18). Joshua, Moses' disciple and righthand man, organized the Jews' military response, while Moses -- together with his brother Aaron and nephew Hut -- ascended a hill to pray for God's help. Fighting continued for a full day until the Jews succeeded in subduing the enemy.
3 Almost Vanquished
Deuteronomy 25:19 recounts God's commandment to Moses regarding the Amalekites' unprovoked attack. According to Rashi's interpretation, God commanded the Jews to annihilate the Amalekite people and destroy all their possessions once the Jewish people were settled in Israel (Rashi, Deuteronomy 25:19). In the Book of I Samuel 15:1-3, the prophet Samuel revealed to Saul that the time had come to wipe out the Amalekites. As long as the Amalekites existed, there could be no peace for Israel, because, in the words of Rabbi Ken Spiro at Aish.com, Amalek's "pathological hatred of the Jews" was so immense. Saul's army ultimately crushed the army of Amalek, but he had mercy on their king, Agag, and permitted the Jews to confiscate the Amalekites' livestock. In failing to wipe out every remnant of the Amalekites, Saul acted against God's will. He lost the kingship -- and Agag bore descendants -- as a result of King Saul's misplaced compassion.
4 Eternal Thorn
Practicing Jews still consider it a mitzvah -- a commandment from God -- to remember the Amalekites, their treacherous behavior following the exodus and their passionate hatred of the Jewish people. On the Shabbat -- Jewish Sabbath, or day of rest -- preceding the holiday of Purim, practicing Jews publicly read the section of the Torah that commands them to remember the Amalekites' evil and to annihilate them. The timing of this reading is noteworthy. Purim celebrates the failure of Haman's plot to destroy the Jewish people. Haman, a descendent of Amalek, was determined to exterminate the Jews. At present, there is no way to accurately identify the descendants of Amalek, because they are, according to Spiro, mixed in among the nations of the world. Nevertheless, writes Spiro, the Amalekites' anti-Jewish ideology finds its expression in every generation.
- 1 Chabad.org: Shemot -- Exodus -- Chapter 17
- 2 Orthodox Union: Parshat Zachor
- 3 Aish.com: Wiping Out Amalek
- 4 Ohr Somayach: Who Is Amalek?
- 5 Chabad.org: -- Devarim -- Deuteronomy -- Chapter 25
- 6 Jewish Encyclopedia: Amalek, Amalekites
- 7 Aish.com: History Crash Course #16: King Saul
- 8 Chabad.org: Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki -- Rashi