From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
"The Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites" by Nicolas Poussin
Light iron-age reading
The Bible
Icon bible.svg
Gabbin' with God

The Amalekites were one of the most enduring enemies of the Hebrews in the Hebrew Scriptures, more reviled than the Egyptians or the Philistines.

By tradition, the Amalekites were the descendants of the Edomite, Amalek, himself the grandson of Esau — unless you are Arabian, in which case Amalek was the grandson of another Amalek who was also the Chief of the Amalekites, which was, in fact, just another name for the Canaanites.

The Hebrew scriptures gives these people the legendary qualities of the Punching Bag Clown or Chumbawamba, getting knocked down then getting right back up again, serving as a foil to any Hebrew who needed a good win.

Given the very long span of time over which they are repeatedly described, it is possible that "Amalekites" is used broadly as a term for any tribe that happened to be competing with or threatening Israel at a particular time, much as "Baal" is used to refer to any particular monotheistic deity who competed with YHWH.

The etymology of "Amalek" is generally regarded as unclear. It might mean someone who lives in a valley; certain rabbinical sources claim it means someone who licks blood, but that's probably unfair.[1]

The Hebrew Wars[edit]

According to the Hebrew scriptures, the Amalekite nomads first attacked the Israelites in the Sinai desert after their exodus from Egypt. YHWH didn't take that battle so well (even though his people appear to have won), and insured that "the LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation."[2]

True to God's word, there were a number of skirmishes between the Israelites and the Amalekites all through the period of Joshua and the Judges. The Hebrew scriptures say the Amalekites pounced on Israel any time it was unable to fully defend itself. The Amalekites were said to be ruthless and aggressive, and the only real recourse, according to God himself, was to obliterate them.

Tired of playing with his Amalekite food, God ordered Saul (1079-1007 BCE), King of Israel (1049-1007 BCE) to "Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass."[3]

And Saul smote the Amalekites from Havilah until thou comest to Shur, that is over against Egypt. And he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword.

It was a total annihilation for Saul. Unfortunately, not killing Agag the King (presumably for a measure of a personal trophy) was a bad choice. God was furious. He said, "It repenteth me that I have set Saul up to be king."

Apparently God knew what he was talking about when he said to kill them all. Because a little while later, sure enough, those darn Amelekites were right back on their ancient lands again, and David had to go and stamp them out for sure this time:

And David and his men went up, and invaded the Geshurites, and the Gezrites, and the Amalekites: for those nations were of old the inhabitants of the land, as thou goest to Shur, even unto the land of Egypt. And David smote the land, and left neither man nor woman alive...[4]

But when we get to chapter 30, those blasted Amalekites are back! And the really remarkable thing about these folks with nine lives, after being completely wiped out time after time, and then rising again, they seemed to show far more mercy than either Saul or David:

1 Samuel 30:1-2
And it came to pass, when David and his men were come to Ziklag on the third day, that the Amalekites had invaded the south, and Ziklag, and smitten Ziklag, and burned it with fire;
And had taken the women captives, that were therein: they slew not any, either great or small, but carried them away, and went on their way.

Modern significance[edit]

Because the Amalekites are considered by Hebrews to be "the" enemy (even though, as mentioned above, they showed more mercy to the Israelites than the Israelites showed to them), modern Jewish communities have made frequent associations with people who have tried to slaughter the entire Jewish community, as well as groups that there is a political advantage to this particular association.[note 1]



  1. See also Nazi analogies for a more broadly applicable analogue.