Amalek (Hebrew: עֲמָלֵק, Modern Amalek, Tiberian ʻĂmālēq, Arabic: عماليق 'Amaaleeq) is a nation described in the Old Testament of the Hebrew Bible. The name "Amalek" can refer to the nation's founder, a grandson of Esau; his descendents, the Amalekites; or the territories of Amalek which they inhabited.
The Old Testament describes the Amalekites as a tribe which lived in ancient Israel and in the land called Moab, in what the Romans called Arabia Petraea (Moab and the desert of Sinai), a region depopulated in the fourteenth century BC and then occupied by Edomites.
According to the Book of Genesis and 1 Chronicles, Amalek was the son of Eliphaz and the concubine Timna. Timna was a Horite and sister of Lotan. Amalek appears in the genealogy of Esau (Genesis 36:12; 1 Chronicles 1:36) who was the chief of an Edomite tribe (Genesis 36:16). Amalek is described as the "chief of Amalek" in Genesis 36:16, in which it is surmised that he ruled a clan or territory named after him. In the chant of Balaam at Numbers, 24:20, Amalek was called the 'first of the nations', attesting to high antiquity. Rashi states: "He came before all of them to make war with Israel". First-century Roman-Jewish scholar and historian Flavius Josephus refers to Amalek as a 'bastard' (νόθος) in a derogatory sense.
According to the Old Testament, the Amalekites inhabited the Negev. They are commonly considered to be Amalek's descendants through the genealogy of Esau. This is probably based on the association of this tribal group with the steppe region of ancient Israel and the area of Kadesh (Genesis 14:7). As a people, the Amalekites were identified as a recurrent enemy of the Israelites.
Etymology of Amalek
Amalekites in the Hebrew Bible
In Exodus 17:8–16, Amalek makes war against Israel in the wilderness. Joshua is tasked by Moses to lead Israel in battle, and Moses watches from a hillside. When his hand is raised, Israel prevails, but when it is lowered, Israel falters. So Moses keeps his hand raised the entire battle, even having assistants hold him up, so that the battle will go to Israel.
According to 1 Samuel 30:1–2, the Amalekites invaded the Negev and Ziklag in the Judean/Philistine border area towards the end of the reign of King Saul, burning Ziklag and taking its citizens away into captivity. The future king David led a successful mission against the Amalekites to recover "all that the Amalekites had carried away".
In 2 Samuel 1:5–10, an Amalekite tells David that he found Saul leaning on his spear after the battle of Gilboa and killed him and removed his crown. David has the Amalekite put to death for his action in killing the anointed king.
Exegesis of origins
The Bible portrays the Amalekites as descendants of Amalek, a grandson of Esau, who derive their origins from Edom (Genesis 36:11–12, 15–16). In exegesis of Genesis 14:7, the use of "Amalekites" seems out of place in a passage that concerns the days of Abraham. Rashi explains that the writer was making a reference to the country which was afterwards inhabited by the Amalekites. C. Knight elaborates this concept by making the comparison: "Caesar went into France" because Gaul was afterward occupied by the Franks, as Gaul is present day France.
Alternatively, during the Islamic Golden Age, certain Arabic writings claimed that the Amalekites existed long before Abraham. Some Muslim historians claimed that the Amalekites who fought Joshua were descendants of the inhabitants of North Africa. Ebn Arabshah purported that Amalek was a descendant of Ham, son of Noah. It is, however, possible that the name Amalek may have been given to two different nations. The Arabians mention Imlik, Amalik, or Ameleka among the aborigines of Arabia, the remains of which were mingled with the descendants of Joktan and Adnan and became Mostarabs or Mocarabes, that is, Arabians mixed with foreigners.
By the 19th Century, there was strong support by Western theologians for the idea that the nation of Amalek could have flourished before the time of Abraham. Matthew George Easton advocated that the Amalekites were not descendants of Amalek, by taking the literal approach to Genesis 14:7. However, the modern biblical scholar David Freedman uses textual analysis to glean that the use of Amalekite in Genesis 14:7 is actually an anachronism, a chronological inconsistency of (in this case) a group of people in a misplaced time. Also in the early 19th century, Richard Watson enumerated several speculative reasons for having a "more ancient Amalek" than Abraham.
In the exegesis of Numbers 24:20 concerning Balaam's utterance: "Amalek was the first one of the nations, but his end afterward will be even his perishing", Richard Watson attempts to associate this passage to the "first one of the nations" that developed post-Flood. According to Samuel Cox, the Amalekites were the "first" in their hostility toward the Israelites.
Many nomadic groups from the Arabian desert, apparently including Amalekites, have collectively been termed "Arab(s)". While considerable knowledge about nomadic Arabs have been recovered through archeological research, no specific artifacts or sites have been linked to Amalek with any certainty. However, it is possible that some of the fortified settlements in the Negev highlands and even Tel Masos (near Beer-sheba) have Amalek connections. Easton claims that the Babylonian inscription Sute refers to the Amalekites, as well as the Egyptian term Sittiu. Easton also claims that the Amarna tablets refer to the Amalekites under the general name Khabbatti, or "plunderers".
Judaic views of the Amalekites
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. This concept has been used by some Hassidic rabbis (particularly the Baal Shem Tov) to represent atheism or the rejection of God. Nur Masalha, Elliot Horowitz and Josef Stern suggest that Amalekites have come to represent an "eternally irreconcilable enemy" that wants to murder Jews, and that Jews in post-biblical times sometimes associate contemporary enemies with Haman or Amalekites, and that some Jews believe that pre-emptive violence is acceptable against such enemies. Groups identified with Amalek include the Romans, Nazis, Stalinists, and bellicose Iranian leaders such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
During the Purim festival, the Book of Esther is read in the commemoration of the saving of the Jewish people from Haman (considered to be an Amalekite) who leads a plot to kill the Jews. On the basis of Exodus 17:14, where the Lord promised to "blot out the name" of Amalek, it is customary for the audience to make noise and shout whenever "Haman" is mentioned, in order to desecrate his name. It is customary to recite Deuteronomy 25:17–18 (see below) on the Shabbat right before Purim.
Although Egyptian and Assyrian monumental inscriptions and records of the period survive which list various tribes and peoples of the area, no reference has ever been found to Amalek or the Amalekites. Therefore, the archaeologist and historian Hugo Winckler suggested in 1895 that there were never any such people and the Biblical stories concerning them are entirely mythological and without any connection to actual historical events.
Extermination of the Amalekites
Of the 613 mitzvot (commandments) followed by Orthodox Jews, three refer to the Amalek: to remember what the Amalekites did to the Israelites, not to forget what the Amalekites did to Israelites, and to destroy the Amalekites utterly. The rabbis derived these from Deuteronomy 25:17–18, Exodus 17:14 and 1 Samuel 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".
- 598 Deut. 25:17 – Remember what Amalek did to the Israelites
- 599 Deut. 25:19 – Wipe out the descendants of Amalek
- 600 Deut. 25:19 – Not to forget Amalek's atrocities and ambush on our journey from Egypt in the desert
Some commentators have discussed the ethics of the commandment to exterminate all the Amalekites, including the command to kill all the women, children, and the notion of collective punishment.
The commandment to kill Amalekites is not practiced by contemporary Jews, based on the argument that Sennacherib deported and mixed the nations, so it is no longer possible to determine who is an Amalekite. For example, Rabbi Hayim Palaggi stated:
- "... We can rely on the maxim that in ancient times, Sennacherib confused the lineage of many nations".
In addition, many rabbinic authorities ruled that the commandment only applies to a Jewish king or organized community, and cannot be performed by an individual.
Maimonides explains that the commandment to destroy the nation of Amalek requires the Jewish people to peacefully request that they accept upon themselves the Seven Laws of Noah and pay a tax to the Jewish kingdom. Only if they refuse must they be physically killed.
A few authorities have ruled that the command never included killing Amalekites. R' Samson Raphael Hirsch said that the command was to destroy "the remembrance of Amalek" rather than actual Amalekites; the Sfat Emet said that the command was to fully hate Amalek rather than performing any action; and the Chofetz Chaim said that God would perform the elimination of Amalek and Jews are only commanded to remember what Amalek did to them.
- J. Macpherson, 'Amalek' in James Hastings, (ed.) A Dictionary of the Bible: Volume I (Part I: A -- Cyrus), University Press of the Pacific, Honolulu, (1898) 2004, pp.77-79,p.77.
- Rashi 
- Louis H. Feldman, '"Remember Amalek!": Vengeance, Zealotry, and Group Destruction in the Bible According to Philo, Pseudo-Philo, and Josephus, Hebrew Union College Press, 2004 pp.8-9
- Numbers 13:29
- Mercer Dictionary 1990, p. 21.
- Easton 1894, p. 35 Am’alek.
- David Patterson, A Genealogy of Evil: Anti-Semitism from Nazism to Islamic Jihad, Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp.43,244.
- M. Weippert, Semitische Nomaden des zweiten Jahrtausends. Biblica vol. 55, 1974, 265-280, 427-433
- Eerdmans 2000, p. 48.
- 1 Samuel 30:9–20
- 2 Samuel 1:16
- Knight 1833, p. 411.
- Watson 1832, p. 50.
- Easton 1894, p. 35, Am'alekite.
- Cox 1884, p. 125-126.
- Eerdmans 2000, p. 49.
- Masalha, Nur, Imperial Israel and the Palestinians: the politics of expansion, Pluto Press, 2000, pp 129–131.
- Stern, Josef, "Maimonides on Amalek, Self-Corrective Mechanisms, and the War against Idolatry" in Judaism and modernity: the religious philosophy of David Hartman, David Hartman, Jonathan W. Malino (Eds), Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2004 pp 360–362
- Hunter, Alastair G. "Denominating Amalek: Racist stereotyping in the Bible and the Justification of Discrimination" in Sanctified aggression: legacies of biblical and post-biblical vocabularies, Jonneke Bekkenkamp, Yvonne Sherwood (Eds), Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003, p 99–105.
- Roth, Daniel. "Shabbat Zachor: “Remember what Amalek did to you!” But why did he do it? Can we reconcile with our eternal sworn enemies?" Pardes from Jerusalem, 18 Feb. 2018. Elmad by Pardes.
- Finley, Mordecai. "Unmasking Purim, Fighting Amalek: Behind the whimsy of this holiday lie some deep lessons for living." Jewish Journal. 21 February 2018. 22 February 2018.
- Singer, Isidore (1901). The Jewish encyclopedia: a descriptive record of the history, religion, literature, and customs of the Jewish people from the earliest times to the present day (2004 reprint ed.). Cornell University Library. ISBN 978-1112115349.
- Divine Command Ethics: Jewish and Christian Perspectives, Michael J. Harris, pp 137–138
- The Bible's Top Fifty Ideas: The Essential Concepts Everyone Should Know, Dov Peretz Elkins, Abigail Treu, pp 315–316
- The Ethics of War: Shared Problems in Different Traditions, Richard Sorabji, David Rodin, p 98
- Theory and Practice in Old Testament Ethics, John William Rogerson, M. Daniel Carroll R., p 92
- Eynei Kol Ḥai, 73, on Sanhedrin 96b. Also Minchat Chinuch, parshat Ki Tetze, mitzvah 434.
- Maimonides (Sefer Hamitzvot, end of positive commandments), Nachmanides (Commentary to Exodus 17:16), Sefer HaYereim (435), Hagahot Maimoniyot (Hilchot Melachim 5:5)
- Commentary to Deuteronomy 25
- Shemot Zachor 646
- Introduction to positive commandments, Beer Mayim Hayim, letter Alef
- Cox, Samuel (1884). Balaam: An Exposition and a Study. London: K. Paul, Trench, & Company.
- Easton, Matthew George (1894). Illustrated Bible Dictionary (2nd ed.). London: T. Nelson.
- Feldman, Louis H (2004). Remember Amalek!: Vengeance, Zealotry, and Group Destruction in the Bible according to Philo, Pseudo-Philo, and Josephus. Hebrew Union College Press. ISBN 0878204636.
- Freedman, David Noel (2000). Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers, Astrid B. Beck ed.). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. ISBN 9780802824004.
- Knight, Charles (1833). Penny Cyclopaedia, Volumes 1-2. Great Britain.
- Mills, Watson E.; associate editor, Roger Bullard (1997). Mercer Dictionary of the Bible (3rd and corr. print. ed.). Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press. ISBN 9780865543737.
- Sagi, Avi (1994). The Punishment of Amalek in Jewish Tradition: Coping with the Moral Problem, Harvard Theological Review Vol.87, No.3, p. 323-46.
- Watson, Richard (1832). A Biblical and theological dictionary. London: John Mason.
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- Contemporary Amalek - Hirhurim - a blog post by Rabbi Gil Student explaining Rav Soloveitchik's controversial view that the Nazis were considered Amalekites