top of page

Amalek 

The Bible’s account of Amalek’s attack on the Jewish people on their way to Sinai is replete with deep theological and philosophical issues.  One could almost say that if the Amalekites were not in the Torah, Jewish tradition would have had to invent them. 

     Bible-lovers will love my latest book!

 "The Struggle for Utopia - A History of Jewish, Christian and Islamic Messianism."  Great reviews. Available on Amazon and at US bookstores. Check it out!

Moses’ hands

 

An appreciation of the function of Moses’ staff provides useful insights into the transition between the miraculous events surrounding the Exodus and the more natural post-Exodus events that would follow in the desert.1

 

Many of the miracles that occurred during the Exodus, and subsequently at the Reed Sea, were introduced by Moses’ staff.  This is true for at least half of the Ten Plagues.  These miracles would demonstrate to Israel, as well as to the Egyptians, God’s complete control over all aspects of nature and His ability to manipulate the natural world to His will.  

 

At the Reed Sea, God commanded Moses to stretch his staff over the water for it to part.  The people had to do nothing but step into the water.  God would fight on their behalf:

Moses said to the people: ‘ …… KVK will do battle on your behalf, and you shall remain silent.’  And YKVK said to Moses: ‘…….. And you – lift up your staff and stretch out your arms over the sea and split it …..’ (Exodus 17:14-16)

 

Also, during the strife with the people at Refidim regarding lack of water, Moses was told to hit the rock with his staff for it to issue forth water.2 

 

In all these instances, Moses’ staff was an external manifestation of God’s power to manipulate the forces of nature. 

 

It was logical, therefore, that when confronted with the challenge of Amalek’s attack, Moses’ first thought would be to fetch his staff.  As at the Reed Sea, God would battle on the people’s behalf and Moses would herald His intervention with his staff:

 

“And Moses said unto Joshua: 'Choose men for us, and go out, do battle with Amalek; tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of Elokim in my hand.’” (Exodus 17:9) 

 

And yet at no time did Moses receive a specific command to raise his staff.  In fact, it is by no means clear from the Bible that he used it.  Rather, Moses soon discovered that the act of raising his hand, with or without his staff, made Israel stronger while lowering his hands led to Amalek prevailing.  Moses’ staff had become irrelevant or at the least insufficient.3 

 

The format of the story also draws attention to the importance of Moses’ hands in determining the results of this battle.

 

The Amalek story consists of 9 verses.  The first three describe the coming of Amalek and Moses’ immediate preparations for war.4  The final three sentences describe God’s response to the battle and His oath to wage a perpetual fight against this people.  The middle three sentences detail the battle with Amalek: 

 

And it came to pass that when Moses held up his hand that Israel prevailed; and when he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed.  But Moses' hands were heavy; so they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat on it; and Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on this side, and one on that side; and he was with his hands in faith (literally: and he was his hands faith) until the setting of the sun.

 

And Joshua weakened Amalek and its people with the edge of the sword.” (Exodus 17:11-13) 

 

The predominant subject of this middle section is the movement of Moses’ hand and how this became a decisive factor in the outcome of the battle.   

 

The question is an obvious one and is first raised in Mishna Rosh Hashanah.  How was it possible for Moses’ hands to influence this battle?   

 

This is the Mishna’s answer: 

 

Was it Moses hands that won the battle or lost the battle?  Rather, as long as Israel looked heavenward and subjected their heart to their Father in heaven, they would prevail; but when they did not, they would fall.” 5 

 

God would continue to fight for them, just as He did at the Reed Sea; but overt miracles were now to be the exception rather than the rule.  The Israelites would need to physically fight and the conquest of Canaan would be accomplished primarily by natural means.  However, there were two prerequisites for God’s assistance.  One was that the Jewish people needed to recognize that God was ultimately responsible for the outcome of the battle, and the second was that their hearts be directed and subjected to God.

 Thus, the position of Moses’ hands would be seen by all the people when he went to the “to the top of the hill,” and possibly why the battle needed to be fought  – “on the morrow” - during the daylight.

 This is also why the verse continues:  

“ . .  and he was with his hands in faith (emuna).”  (Exodus 17:12)

 This is a difficult phrase to translate.  Literally, it reads “and his hands were faith.” The Ramban translates it as “and his hands remained firm until sunset.”6  Rashi, on the other hand, sees within this phrase Moses’ appreciation that his hands were expressing faith.7  

 

The text does not elaborate on what Moses’ hands were supposed to accomplish, but it is logical to assume that Moses was pointing to the connection between earth and heaven, the two-way influence of this connection over the affairs of the Jewish people, and possibly the need for this battle to be fought physically with hands and not through the influence of a “magic” staff.    

 

The connection between the people and God also needed to be acknowledged collectively as well as individually.  Hence, Moses as the religious leader, and Aaron as the future representative of the priests, as well as Hur of the tribe of Judah, the tribe that would become the future political leader of the Israelite nation, stood together on top of the mountain to assist Moses in elevating his hands. 

 

It is not coincidental that the word “hand” is mentioned 7 times in this passage.  This again emphasizes God’s influence over the battle.9  The first six mentions relate to the hands of Moses, whereas the seventh relates to the hand of God:   

 

And YKVK said unto Moses: 'Write this for a memorial in the Book, and recite it in the ears of Joshua, because I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens.'

 And Moses built an altar, and called the name of it “YKVK is my Banner.”

 And he said: 'For there is a hand upon the throne of God: YKVK will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.'” (Exodus 17:14-16)

 

In the ancient world, to put up one’s hand meant to swear an oath.  Hence Abraham swears to the king of Sodom “I have raised my hand to YKVK ….  If I shall take anything that is yours.” (Genesis 14:22)  Similarly, in the Amalek episode, God swears by His throne that He will be at perpetual war against the offspring of Amalek.  Moreover, just as Moses raised his hand in acknowledgment of God, so also did God raise His hand in acknowledgement of His people.

 

As the battle progresses, the Israelites would have recognized the earth-heaven connection in this battle and from their viewing of Moses’ hands would have appreciated that God had intervened on their behalf and engineered their success.  Moses now commemorated this by building an altar: 

And Moses built an altar, and called the name of it “YKVK is my Banner.” (Exodus 17:15)

 

A banner is something held aloft – just as Moses’ hands had been.  Moreover, the name of this altar would be relevant not only to this battle but to all of Israel’s future battles.   The miracles of the Exodus with their frequent involvement of Moses’ staff were past; but this was not the end of God’s engagement in Israel’s military struggles.  Moses’ hands had shown this.    

  

Amalek appears 

 

There is another word that occurs seven times in this passage - the word “Amalek”. The implication of this sevenfold repetition is that Amalek’s appearance at this time was also not fortuitous.

 

The attack of Amalek followed immediately the episode at Refidim.  At Refidim, the people complained bitterly to Moses that they lacked water and they questioned whether God was still with them; they were almost ready to stone Moses.10 

 

How could the people fail to realize that YKVK was in their “midst” after the previous manifestations of His power?11  Rashi, following midrashim points out that Amalek’s attack was a direct consequence of this questioning; this is why the two passages follow each other in the Torah.12  

 

The weak and infirm would suffer from this attack, but Amalek would eventually be repulsed.  During the battle, the people would come to the realization that victory had only been achieved because God was indeed in their midst.  

 

It is a difficult idea to conceptualize.  On the one hand, God facilitates Israel’s victory over Amalek, but He also allows or even arranges for Amalek to appear in the first place.  This type of duality is found in other places in the Torah.  For example, God promises Abraham his offspring will be exiled in Egypt, but also promises him He will bring them out.13  

 

In sum, the extent of Israel’s travails depends on its failing to appreciate that God is the source of its angst.  However, He is also the source of its salvation - provided that the Jewish people direct their hearts to Him.  .

 

Who was Amalek?

 

Who were the Amalekites and what was so reprehensible about what they did that they brought upon themselves the eternal wrath of God?

 

The Amalekites were nomads who lived on the southern border of Canaan, in what today is know as the Negev.  This is clear from a number of Biblical verses.  When the Israelites came to the Wilderness of Paran at Kadesh in the Negev, spies were sent out to survey the land of Canaan and they describe Amalek as “dwelling in the land of the south” (Numbers 13:29)  Correspondingly, when the Israelites attempted to penetrate and ascend to Canaan from their current location against the advice of Moses,

 

The Amalekite and the Canaanite who dwelled on the mountain descended, struck them and pounded them until they were destroyed.” (Numbers 14:45)   

 

However, their area of habitation and influence may have been considerably greater than this.  In Samuel I, Saul is described as smiting Amalek “From Havila until you come to Shur, east of Egypt.“ (I Samuel 15:7)  Both locations are probably close to Egypt.14  When the Israelites left Egypt “Moses caused Israel to journey from the Sea of Reeds and they went out to the Wilderness of Shur.” (Exodus 15:23)  It seems likely, that the habitation of Amalek comprised not only the Negev but also parts of the Sinai Peninsula extending to Egypt. 

 

Deuteronomy relates that Amalek attacked “and he killed among you, all the weaklings at your rear, when you were faint and exhausted, and he did not fear Elokim.” (Deuteronomy 25:18)  

 

The Amalekites were a war-like people who preyed on poorly prepared travellers on the main trade routes in the Sinai Peninsula and Negev.  Their stock in trade was killing and they avoided frontal attacks in which they themselves could suffer casualties.  This people recognized no moral authority and this is one explanation for what the Bible means when it says “he did not fear Elokim.” (Deuteronomy 25:18).  Violence was their way of life. 

 

One does find the notion in Jewish commentaries that Amalek went out of its way to locate the Israelites and preemptively attack them before they arrived in southern Israel.15  However, there is no support in the Bible for this and it is just as likely that this was a chance encounter.  In Deuteronomy it is stated specifically that the Amalekites “chanced” upon the Israelite camp.16  The Hebrew word used is “korcho” - which means “chanced upon you” or “happened upon you.”  This was not a planned attack.  The Amalekites were doing what they usually did – raiding unsuspecting travellers.

 

The Amalekites would continue to be a threat to Israel during the time of the Judges and took part in a number of aggressive alliances against Israel.  They allied with Eglon king of Moab after the death of Othniel son of Kenz,17 and with Midian after the time of Deborah.18  This latter alliance caused widespread destruction in Israel.  They also fought together with Midian against Gideon, although this time unsuccessfully.19 

 

Their border raiding and disruption of trade in Sinai was also a threat to the Israelite kingdom during the time of the monarchy.  This is stated specifically in Samuel I: 

 

And he (i.e. Saul) gathered an army, and he smote Amalek, and he saved Israel from the hand of its plunderer.” (I Samuel 14:48)

 

The warlike nature of Agag king of the Amalekites is also mentioned by the prophet Samuel as he is about to kill him because of a failure of Saul to do so: 

 

As your sword bereaved women, so will your mother be bereaved among women’. And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before YKVK in Gilgal.” (i Samuel 15:33)

 

Initially at least, Israel had no aggressive intentions on Amalek.  Amalek lived to the south of Canaan and outside the tribal territorial allocations.  They were also related to the Edomites who in the Bible were guaranteed non-aggression.20    

 

Amalek was a grandson of Esau and a descendant of his firstborn son Eliphaz through a concubine named Timna.21  She in turn was a daughter and sister of chieftains of the inhabitants of the land of Seir before Esau left Canaan to settle there.

 

The nation of Edom was a warlike one.  Even from birth Esau appeared super-masculinized, being red (adom) like blood and hairy (se’or) –a world play on the nation of Edom and its location in Seir.22  Esau’s father Jacob tells him ‘By your sword you shall live…” (Genesis 27:40) and conflict between Israel and Edom was almost predestined.   Amalek, however, was the epitome of violence and a threat to the very stability of the Jewish state. 

 

Jewish exegesis notes another reason for God’s enmity to the Amalekites, and this relates to another interpretation of the phrase “that he did not fear God” (Deuteronomy 25:18) when describing this attack.  Following the Exodus, God’s reputation due to His bringing the Israelites out of Egypt and destroying the Egyptian army at the Reed Sea had spread throughout the entire Near East.  Despite this, Amalek had no inhibitions about attacking them.23  His attack was now not only an assault on Israel, but on God Himself. 

 

The Ramban explains: 

 

Whereas all the nations “heard and were agitated” and Philistia, Edom, Moab and “all the dwellers of Canaan dissolved” “because of the fear of God and glory of His greatness,” yet Amalek came from afar and brazenly acted as one who would attempt to overcome God.  It is for this reason Scripture said about Amalek “and he did not fear God.”15

The command to hate

 

There seems to be redundancy in the following passage from Deuteronomy:

 

“Remember what Amalek did to you” the Bible states: “ on the way, when you were leaving Egypt, that he happened upon you on the way …………….. It shall be that when YKVK your God gives you rest from all your enemies around, in the land that YKVK your God gives you as an inheritance to take possession, you shall wipe out the remembrance of Amalek from under the heaven – you shall not forget. “(Deuteronomy 25:17-19).    

 

Why does the Torah add “you shall not forget”?  Clearly, if there is remembrance there is no forgetting. 

 

One possibility is that “you shall not forget” is linked to the preceding phrase regarding annihilating Amalek – hence do “not forget” to destroy them.  Alternatively, this passage is in a poetic format with the end of the paragraph emphasizing that which was stated at the beginning – “Remember what Amalek did to you” …  and “do not forget.”  

 

However, Jewish tradition understood this paragraph differently. “Remember” means to verbalize the command not to forget what Amalek did.  For this reason, this passage is read out once a year in the synagogue.  The phrase “you shall not forget” means to internalize the command to remember.  

 

In sum - hate Amalek and make a declaration of this hatred at least once a year so it remains active in your memory.  Also, internalize it and eventually bring this hate to its ultimate conclusion by obliterating the memory of this people.

 

If the Bible had not commanded the Jewish people to hate Amalek in this manner, it is by no means obvious that it should be so.  The Bible is a book about love – loving one’s neighbor, loving the stranger:  

“You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear against a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) 

 

The obligation to love the stranger is repeated numerous times in the Bible.  The reason is also given - not so long ago you also were strangers in a foreign land.  Despite the ill treatment they received in Egypt, the Jewish people are to harbor no grudge against the Egyptians.20

 

Love of a neighbor is not just a matter of warm feelings but is to be expressed in meaningful ways.  Hence, the authoritative sage Rabbi Akiva emphasized the negative form of this command when responding to a heathen who asked him to tell him the entire Torah while standing on one foot:

 

"What is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor. This is the whole of the Law, the rest is commentary" 24 

 

In general, the negative formulation of this command have become more accepted in Jewish tradition than the positive form.  There is considerable logic to this since love in the Torah is linked to revenge and bearing a grudge.  Rabbi Akiva is saying in effect: do not take vengeance, nor bear a grudge, but act in a loving way by not doing anything that is hateful to your neighbor.25  Nevertheless, the positive formulation is found in Rabbinic writings.26 

 

The Jewish Sages also directed that love be expressed by social obligations:

 

It is a positive command of Rabbinic ordinance to visit the sick, to console the mourners, to attend the dead, to dower the bride, to escort one’s guests, and to perform all the rites of burial …. likewise to cheer the bride and groom and to afford them support in all their necessities ….Though all these commandments are a matter of Rabbinic ordinance, they are nevertheless embraced in “But you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”27 

 

There is no direct command in the Torah to love one’s enemy as in Christianity, but one does find Torah laws designed to remove the enmity that is the basis of hate:28 

 

If you meet your enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, you shall surely return it to him.  Perhaps you will see the donkey of someone who hates you lying under its burden, will you refrain from helping him?  You shall surely help along with him.” (Exodus 23:4-5)

 

R’ Hirsch explains that the “enemy” whose animal is astray is someone you hate because of what he has done to you in the past.29 Hence, save him from the loss of his animal in order to reverse his enmity.  The one who “hates you” is one who bears you ill will.25  You are delighted that he is in these straits and he would love to see you in a similar situation.  Therefore, help him out so that these feelings of hatred are dissipated.30  

 

All thoughts of hatred should be removed from your heart:

 

You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall reprove your fellow and you shall not bear a sin because of him.” (Leviticus 19:17)

 

The love discussed in the Bible is reserved for those of the Jewish faith or converts to Judaism.  This is because the Torah is the blueprint for creating a community of love.  Nevertheless, there are Rabbinic Sages who saw beyond their faith community and appreciated the universal aspects of Judaism.

 

The Sage Ben Azzai felt that the equality of all humanity was a greater principle than love, although this idea was never put into a legal (halachic) format: 

 

This [i.e. love your neighbor as yourself] is a great principle in the Torah.  Ben Azzai says: These are the generations of Man [in the day that G-d created Man, in the image of G-d he made him].  This is a greater principle than the former.”31 

T

he great Sage Hillel felt that all fellow creatures should be the recipients of one’s love. 

 

Hillel said: ‘Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and drawing them close to the Torah.” (Avot 1:12)

 

Despite this exuberance of love, there is one exception – the hatred of Amalek.  In fact, this hatred stands out because it is the exception.  What is it doing here?  And what loss would there be if Amalek was not in the Torah?

 

This passage makes Jews duty bound to hate Amalek.  By his actions, Amalek represents evil.  Hence, Jews are duty bound to hate evil.  If Amalek were to be loved or his behavior excused, then the evil he perpetrates would be either ignored or waffled about. 32

 

God also hates evil – which means that the confrontations between Israel and Amalek are also God’s battles.  He may let evil temporarily have its day, but He will never let evil prevail in the world to the extent that the world becomes an evil place.  This is why he elected the seed of Abraham to bring goodness into the world.  

 

And this is why the Torah says: 

'

For there is a hand upon the throne of God: YKVK will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.'” (Exodus 17:16)

 

The massacre of Amalek

 

To the modern mind the words of the Bible may grate: 

 

You shall wipe out the remembrance of Amalek from under the heaven – you shall not forget.” (Deuteronomy 25:19)

 

Amalek perpetrated war crimes.  Now you also commit a war crime by annihilating him.  But does one crime really excuse another?  The UN Commission on Human Rights would have a hay day!

 

The reality of the directive to obliterate the memory of the Amalekites is seen in the Book of Samuel.  The Jewish nation had achieved a degree of stability under King Saul.  One battle had already been fought against Amalek33 and it was now time to deal definitively with the Amalekites as adjured in the Bible: 

 

And Samuel said to Saul …… So said the Lord of Hosts, “ I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, what he did to him on the way, when he came up out of Egypt.  Now go and you shall smite Amalek, and you shall utterly destroy all that is his, and you shall not have pity on him; and you shall slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” (1 Samuel 15:1-3) 

 

A discussion of the morality of massacring the people of Amalek, and in particular the destruction of its animals, is brought in the following midrash:

 

Saul came to the city of Amalek ….”  The Rabbis taught that he began to question God’s command” ‘ Master of the universe, so Samuel said to me: ‘Go and smite Amalek and destroy them completely …. A person may sin, but how can an animal be guilty?’ A heavenly voice declared: ‘Do not be overly righteous – more than your Creator.”34 

 

It is a poignant question.  God is the yardstick for justice and mercy.  How can He then perpetrate revenge on Amalek to the extent of annihilating him and everything that belongs to him?    

 

Yet it is precisely the killing of Amalek’s animals that provides an understanding of the reasoning of the Bible.

 

The ancient world would have had no trouble in empathizing with the Bible’s command to destroy Amalek.  Massacring one’s foes and taking their women and property as booty were commonplace in warfare.  However, this was not how the Amalekites of the past were to be treated.  None of their property was to be taken. This was a radical departure from practices at that time.

 

This massacre is not an isolated phenomenon in the Bible.  If a city after careful investigation has been found to practice idolatry, the Bible commands thus: 

 

“You shall surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword; lay it waste and everything that is in it, and its animals, with the edge of the sword.  You shall gather together all its booty to the midst of its open square, and you shall burn by fire completely the city and all its booty to YKVK your God, and it shall be an eternal heap, it shall not be rebuilt.” (Deuteronomy 13:17)

According to Jewish tradition, there has never been an instance of this type of destruction of a city.  Nevertheless, the Bible recognizes that this command may appear cruel and lacking in mercy and it addresses this objection: 

 

No part of the banned property (cherem) may adhere to your hand, so that YKVK will turn back from His burning wrath; and He will give you mercy and be merciful to you and multiply you, as He swore to your forefathers.” (Deuteronomy 13:19)

 

In your eyes, this may all seem to be lacking in mercy, but if you adhere to the words of the Torah, mercy will be bestowed upon you.  

 

There is probably no another instance in history in which those about to perpetrate a massacre are told they will be rewarded with mercy for being a participant! 

 

In some way, this city becomes dedicated to God.  In the Bible, its status is known as being in “cherem” or being “banned property”.  As such, no benefit can be obtained from it.

 

Although the Bible does not state it in precisely this way, Jericho after being captured by Joshua also seems to have been placed in a state of cherem and dedicated to God. 

 

And they burned the city and everything in it with fire.   Only the silver, gold and vessels of copper and iron they gave to the treasury of the house of YKVK. ….  And Joshua swore at that time: ‘Cursed be the person before YKVK who rises and builds this city, Jericho.  With his oldest son he will lay its foundation and with his youngest son he will set up the gates.” (Joshua 6:24-26)

 

In a similar way, at the time of Samuel, the people and property of Amalek were placed in cherem and dedicated in their entirety to God.  But King Saul, following the wishes of his soldiers, let Agag the king of the Amalekites live and also the best of the sheep, which he designated for sacrifice.  This was contrary to Samuel’s instructions and Saul was severely punished for it.

 

Hence, it is possible to extrapolate the midrash’s comment to Saul: “Do not be overly righteous – more than your Creator” as follows: 

 I, God, am the measure of mercy.  Do not try now to outdo Me on this.  The tribe of Amalek no longer warrants My mercy because of what it has done in the past and what it will continue to do if not prevented.  Because of its evil, it is now dedicated to Me.  Be accepting of this - for this is My decree.

The new Amalekites

 

There seems to be a contradiction in the Torah regarding God’s conflict with Amalek.  On the one hand, there is a command to obliterate Amalek.  On the other, God promises He will be at war with Amalek “from generation to generation.”  But if the Jewish people succeed in destroying Amalek, against whom will God wage war?  

 

The Torah is, moreover, consistent in foreseeing Amalek’s total annihilation in that the Book of Numbers relates a prophecy made by the non-Jewish prophet Bilaam:

 

Then he looked on Amalek and took up his discourse and said; Amalek was the first among the nations, but its end is utter destruction.” (Numbers 24:20)  

 

Amalek was the first nation to engage in armed conflict with Israel.  Its end is also foretold – “utter destruction.” 

 

There is good evidence from the Bible that the annihilation of Amalek was achieved.  After Israel became united under a monarch and had achieved relative stability, King Saul waged war against Amalek on the instruction of the prophet Samuel and succeeded in decimating them: 

“He took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and all his people he totally destroyed with the sword."(1 Samuel 1:15)

 

Further raids were carried out by David when he was living with the Philistines and under the protection of their king, Achish, although these would appear to have had no theological significance as David kept the animals for his own use: 

 

Now David and his men went up and made raids against the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites, for these were the inhabitants of the land of old, as far as Shur, even to the land of Egypt. 

 

And David would strike the land and would leave neither man nor woman alive, but would take away the sheep, the oxen, the donkeys, the camels, and the garments, and come back to Achish." (1 Samuel 27:8-9)

 

Finally, the Book of Chronicles relates thatduring the time of Hezekiah the last remnant of Amalek was destroyed:

 

"And of them five hundred men of the children of Simeon went to Mount Seir, and Pelatiah, Neariah, Rephaiah and Uzziel, the sons of Ishi at  their head.  And they smote the remnant of Amalekites that had escaped, and they have lived there to this day."(1 Chronicles 4:42–43).

 

Given all these massacres, it seems unlikely that Amalek could have remained as a viable entity, although it is conceivable that isolated members of the tribe escaped. Haman the Aggagite, the villain of the story of the Book of Esther, is considered by Jewish tradition to have been an Amalekite and his forebears must have been escapees.35

 

Nevertheless – the question remains.  How can God wage a perpetual war against a people that no longer exists?  

 

It seems likely that the name Amalek was to become a figurative concept, and God is promising to wage war against people or nations who embody the characteristics of the now destroyed Amalek.

 

These Amalek-like characteristics would include the following:

 1.Belief in violence almost as a creed

2.Exhibiting a pathological hatred of the Jewish people.

3.Attempting genocide of the Jewish people. 

  

What makes Amalek tick?

 

From gleanings in the Bible, it is possible to construct what the ancient Amalekites were about.  But what about the figurative Amalekites who would arise later in history?   

 

The question is a useful one since it focuses not only on the reasons for anti-Semitism, but also provides insight into the role of the Jewish people in relation to the hatred of these new Amalek’s.  

 

It is suggested that the hatred of anti-Semites, particularly that of modern-day Amalekites, is due to a clash between opposing eschatological visions.  Their hatred exists not so much because of current reality but because of how they wish to manipulate the world and their perception that the Jewish people are an impediment to their aims.  The more radical, evil and global is their vision, the more likely it is that this people will hone in on the Jews. 

 

The Nazis are obvious candidates for being figurative Amalekites, and not surprisingly there are Jewish thinkers who conceive of them in this role.36 

 

The irony is that most Jews pay scant attention to the eschatological vision of their own faith.  Nevertheless, the Torah has a clear vision.  It is to create a God-centered society practicing ethical monotheism that by its example spreads its values to the rest of the world.  Included in this eschatology, is a land and metaphorical center, or even an actual physical Temple, from whence this vision will emanate to the world.

 

It is instructive to examine Hitler’s eschatological vision, why he felt compelled to confront the Jewish people, and how, at least initially, he was able to pull it off.   

 

Hitler felt that he was chosen by God to lead the Aryan people in dominating the world.  This may sound ironic since his ideas were more pagan than monotheistic, but his conception of God was clearly much different from that of Judaism and Christianity.  

 

Hitler was well aware even during his early political life that he and the Jews were in a global conflict and that he would only prevail if he could erase this people from the map.  His aim was a Europe free of Jews.  In his book Mein Kampf, which he wrote while he was interned during his early political life, he was already entertaining the idea of genocide of the Jewish people.37,38  

 

Hitler felt that Jews were a genetically inferior nation and that they were sexually contaminating the purity of the German nation.  He probably also appreciated, although understandably this is not reflected in his writings, that even the most assimilated Jew would never agree with his utopian vision of world domination achieved by evil and violence.

 

Hitler may also have believed his own propaganda in ascribing world-changing power to the Jews.39  He saw Bolshevism as a Jewish plot designed to break down national barriers and enable the Jews to control the world, and Zionism as a Jewish decoy to detract the world from the Jewish mission of world domination. 

 

One further link was needed by Hitler to carry out his battle against the Jews and this was to unite the German people under a banner of hatred.  Christianity would provide this link.39  

 

Christianity would never countenance Jewish genocide.  Nevertheless, it was the combination of Hitler’s ideas of racial purity plus German religious hatred of the Jews that would unite the German people in their struggle for world domination.  This struggle would also provide the cover for Hitler’s war against the Jews.38

 

Christian hatred of Jews had been fostered by Christian texts from the Gospels to the time of Luther.

 

Jesus was a Jew who probably abided by the laws of Moses, although his emphasis on social justice may have been liberal for his day.  His initial followers were Torah-abiding Jews who after his crucifixion believed that he would be resurrected and return as the Jewish Messiah.  Resurrection was, and continues to be, an important doctrine in Judaism.

 

It was Paul who appreciated the religious vacuum in the Roman world and created a Judaism-light called Christianity.  Practice of the laws of Moses, such as circumcision and the Sabbath, was no longer required.  Redemption could be achieved through belief in Jesus alone.  Christianity was now God’s chosen religion and the Christians His Chosen People.  The destruction of the Jewish Temple, Jewish dispersal throughout the Roman world, and Jewish degradation were evidence of their rejection by God. 

 

Thus began an intense rivalry between Christianity and Judaism.  This rivalry was expressed is found in the writings of the Gospels, particularly that of John who portrayed the Jews in almost in satanic terms.40  Luther, the German founder of Protestantism, initially sought to gain favor with the Jews so as to persuade them to join his new version of Christianity.  However, when it became obvious to him that this would not be, he expressed his disfavor with a virulent form of anti-Semitism with strains of genocide.40  

 

This was Christianity’s contribution to Hitler’s Final Solution.  

 

The Jewish people were never powerful enough to forcefully confront Nazism.  Their role in the Second World War, as it has been throughout the millennia of their dispersal, was to do no more than survive.  They were blown along by the winds of history.  However, from the ashes of Auschwitz, they would build a society in the Land of Israel that would be in opposition to every malevolent idea of Nazi Germany.  

 

This could only happen because God had placed His hand on His throne and vowed that He would fight against and defeat Amalek.  

 

References

 1.See also “Do the hands of Moses wage war? By Rav Mordechai Sabato in Torah Metzion. New Readings in Tanach. Shemot. P211, Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers, CT, USA 2012

2.Exodus 17:6

3.Nachmanides in his commentary to Exodus 7:19 sees the use of the staff as an initial step to bring upon the Amalekites “strikes of plague, sword and annihilation”.  Joshua also used his spear for this function when attacking Ai (Joshua 8:18)  Thereafter, his hands would need to be kept free. 

4.The verses read as follows: “Amalek came and fought with Israel in Rephidim.  And Moses said unto Joshua: 'Choose men for us, and go out, do battle with Amalek; tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of Elokim in my hand.’” So Joshua did as Moses had said to him, to do battle with Amalek; and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill.” (Exodus 17:8-10

5.Mishna Rosh Hashona 3:8 

6.Nachmanides Commentary to the Torah on Exodus 17:12

7.Rashi Commentary to the Torah on Exodus 17:12

8.Exodus 17:10

9.Fourth Paragraph. The War with Amalek in A Commentary on the Book of Exodus by Umberto Moshe David Cassuto, p207, Varda Books, Skokie, IL, USA 2005.

10.Exodus 17:4

11.Exodus 17:7

12. Commentary of Rashi to the Torah on Exodus 17:8 based on Tanchuma, Yithro 3 and Shemos Rabbah 26:2  

13.Genesis 15:13

14. Commentary of Nachmanides to Genesis 2:11

15.Nachmanides Commentary to the Torah on Exodus 17:16.  Also Fourth Paragraph. The War with Amalek in A Commentary on the Book of Exodus by Umberto Moshe David Cassuto, p204, Varda Books, Skokie, IL, USA 2005.

16.Deuteronomy 25:18

17. Judges 3:13

18. Judges 6:3

19.Judges 6:33   

20.“You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a sojourner in his land …”. (Deuteronomy 23:8)

21.Genesis 36:10  

22. Genesis 25:25

23. Rashi’s Commentary to the Torah on Deuteronomy 25:18    

24. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a

25.The Maharsha to Babylonian Talmud. Shabbat Bameh Madlikin, chapter 2

26.Maimonides Mishna Torah Hilchot De’ot 6:3.  Jewish sources understand the seemingly unattainable nature of this command.  Hence, the Netziv suggests another way of understanding the words of Maimonides – one should do for another as one would want that other to do for them.  (Ha’amek Davar to Leviticus)  This may or may not be how Maimonides understood this law, but is a legitimate understanding of this Biblical command.

27.Maimonides Mishna Torah, Shoftim, Hilchot Obel 15:1

28. See for example Matthew 5:43-48 and Luke 6:30-36

29.Commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch to Exodus 23:4

30.The law of love is interpreted here as designed to foster improved social interactions within the people of Israel.  However, in contrast to Rashi, Maimonides in his Mishna Torah sees the motive of this law being to change one’s own personal feelings and thereby improve one’s character traits.  See Maimonides Mishna Torah, Hilchot De’ot, chapter 6.

31.Sifra, Kedoshim 4:12

32.There is Rabbinic discussion as to whether one must hate someone who is evil.  There are numerous modern Rabbis who suggest that his evil should be hated, but not his person (R’ Avraham Yitzchak HoKohen Kook, R’ Avraham Grodzenski, R’ Eliyahu Bakshi Doron, R’ Shlomo Wahrman, R’Yehusah Gershumi, R’ Aharon Soloveichik and others).  See The Love/Hate Relationship: Love and Hatred in The Right and the Good. Halackhah and Human Relations by Daniel Z. Feldman, p181. Yahar Books, Brooklyn, NY, USA 2005.

33.I Samuel 15:3 

34.Midrash Kohelet Zuta, parsha 7

35. In the Jewish tradition “Haman, the son of Hammedasa the Agagite” mentioned in the Book of Esther 3:1 is considered to be a descendent of Agag, King of Amalek (I Samuel 15:9)  

36.“Rav Soloveitchik on Amalek: Peshat or Derach?” In Torah Musings http://www.torahmusings.com/2007/02/rav-soloveitchik-on-amalek-peshat-or/

37. Adolf Hitler, Men Kampf (My Struggle), New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1969

38.Lucy S Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews 1933-1945. New York, Bantam 1975

39.Shoah in The Chosen; The History of an Idea, and the Anatomy of an Obsession by Avi Becker, p109, Palgrave MacMillan, New York 2008. 

40.The Gentile Replacement of the Chosen in The Chosen; The History of an Idea, and the Anatomy of an Obsession by Avi Becker, p39, Palgrave MacMillan, New York 2008.  See for example the anti-Semitic outburst of John: “These Jews killed Jesus and the prophets and for that reason they displease God and are the enemies of all mankind.”(1 Thessalonians 2:14-16).  Also, the words of John: “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he  speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it. And because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not. Which of you convinceth me of sin? And if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me? He that of God heareth God’s words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God.” John 8:44-47 King James Version). Also Constantines Sword. The Church and the Jews. A History. by James Carroll. Houghton Miflin Company, Boston and NY, 2001.  

bottom of page