Illustration from Phillip Medhurst Collection depicting Joshua fighting Amalek (Exodus 17).

Amalek (/ˈæməlɛk/;[1] Hebrew: עֲמָלֵק, 'Ămālēq, Arabic: عماليق 'Amālīq) was a nation described in the Hebrew Bible as a staunch enemy of the Israelites. The name "Amalek" can refer to the nation's founder, a grandson of Esau; his descendants, the Amalekites; or the territories of Amalek, which they inhabited.


In some rabbinical interpretations, Amalek is etymologised as am lak, 'a people who lick (blood)',[2] but most specialists regard the origin to be unknown.[3]

Amalekites in the Hebrew Bible

According to the Bible, Amalek was the son of Eliphaz (himself the son of Esau, ancestor of the Edomites) and Eliphaz's concubine Timna. Timna was a Horite and sister of Lotan.[4] Amalek is described as the "chief of Amalek" among the "chiefs of the sons of Esau",[5] from which it is surmised that he ruled a clan or territory named after him.

The Amalekites (/ˈæməlɛkts/[6]) were considered to be Amalek's descendants through the genealogy of Esau.[7] In the oracle of Balaam, Amalek was called the 'first of the nations'.[8] One modern scholar believes this attests to Amalek's high antiquity,[9] while traditional commentator Rashi states: "He came before all of them to make war with Israel".[10] First-century Roman-Jewish scholar and historian Flavius Josephus refers to Amalek as a 'bastard' (νόθος) in a derogatory sense.[11]

Battle with the Amalekites, by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1860), representing Exodus 17:8–16.

According to the Bible, the Amalekites inhabited the Negev.[12] They appear to have lived a nomadic or seminomadic lifestyle along the fringes of southern Canaan's agricultural zone.[13] 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). It has been suggested by Moshe Kochavi that the ‘ir Amaleq, (city of Amalek) referred to at 1 Samuel 15:5 may be identified with the site at Khirbet eI-Meshash (Tel Masos) on the periphery of the Wadi Beer-sheba, some 12 kilometres east of the city of Beer Sheva itself.[14][15] An earlier hypothesis held that the Tel Masos site was an Israelite settlement mentioned in the Bible as Hormah.[16] It has been further argued that if the identification of the settlements at Tel Masos with the Amalekites is correct, then behind the biblical narrative of Saul's campaigns against this central Amalekite station of the southern network of metal transportation and trade, there may have been a strategic desire to wrest control of copper production, a metal of key importance in the early Israelite period and, it is argued, in its early theology and ritual.[17]

As a people, the Amalekites were identified as a recurrent enemy of the Israelites.[7] This role appears in several stories:

Alternative theories of origins

Gustave Doré, The Death of Agag. "Agag" may have been the hereditary name of the Amalekite kings. The one depicted was killed by Samuel (1 Samuel 15).

In Genesis 14:7, the "field of the Amalekites" is mentioned, though the person Amalek had not yet been born.

Some commentators explain this as a reference to the territory which was later on inhabited by the Amalekites.[23] C. Knight elaborates this concept by making a comparison: one might say "Caesar went into France", though Gaul only later became known as France.[24]

Alternatively, during the Islamic Golden Age, certain Arabic writings claimed that the Amalekites existed long before Abraham.[25] Some Muslim historians claimed that the Amalekites who fought Joshua were descendants of the inhabitants of North Africa. Ibn-Arabshâh purported that Amalek was a descendant of Ham, son of Noah.[24][25] 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 Qahtan (Joktan) and Adnan and became Mostarabs or Mocarabes, that is, Arabians mixed with foreigners.[24]

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 a literal approach to Genesis 14:7.[26] However, the modern biblical scholar Gerald L. Mattingly uses textual analysis to glean that the use of Amalekite in Genesis 14:7 is actually an anachronism,[13] and in the early 19th century, Richard Watson enumerated several speculative reasons for having a "more ancient Amalek" than Abraham.[25]

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.[25] According to Samuel Cox, the Amalekites were the "first" in their hostility toward the Israelites.[27]


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 ahistorical.[28] While considerable knowledge about nomadic Arabs has been recovered through archeological research, no specific artifacts or sites have been linked to Amalek with any certainty.[13] However, it is possible that some of the fortified settlements in the Negev highlands and even Tel Masos (near Beer-sheba) have Amalek connections.[29]

It has been argued that archaeological evidence from Tell el-Qudeirat and Horvat Haluqim in the Negev dated to the late 11th to early 10th century BCE could corroborate the biblical narrative of warfare against the Amalekites by kings Saul and David.[30]

Jewish traditions

"Davidster" (Star of David) by Dick Stins is a Holocaust memorial in The Hague. The text at the side (in Dutch and Hebrew) is from Deuteronomy 25:17, 19 – "Remember what Amalek has done to you ... do not forget."

According to a midrash, Amalek's mother Timna was a princess who had tried to convert to Judaism but had been rejected by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. She replied she would rather be a handmaiden to the dregs of this nation than be the mistress of another Nation; to punish the Patriarchs for the affront they had made her, she was made the mother of Amalek, whose descendants would cause Israel much distress.[31][32]

According to the Midrash, the Amalekites were sorcerers who could transform themselves to resemble animals, in order to avoid capture. Thus, in 1 Samuel 15:3, it was considered necessary to destroy the livestock in order to destroy Amalek.[33]

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.

Nur Masalha, Elliot Horowitz, and Josef Stern suggest that Amalekites have come to represent an "eternally irreconcilable enemy" that wants to murder Jews, 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.[34] Groups identified with Amalek include the Romans, Nazis, Stalinists, ISIS, Palestinians[35] and bellicose Iranian leaders such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.[36][37]

More metaphorically, to some Hasidic rabbis (particularly the Baal Shem Tov), Amalek represents atheism or the rejection of God.

During the Purim festival, the Book of Esther is read in the commemoration of the saving of the Jewish people from Haman who plotted to kill all Jews in Persian Empire. It is customary for the audience to make noise and shout whenever "Haman" is mentioned, in order to desecrate his name, based on Exodus 17:14. It is also customary to recite Deuteronomy 25:17–18 (see below) on the Shabbat before Purim. This was because Haman was considered to be an Amalekite although this label is more likely to be symbolic rather than literal.[38][39][40]

Commandment to exterminate the Amalekites


In Judaism, three of the 613 mitzvot (commandments) involve 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".

As enumerated by Maimonides, the three mitzvot state:

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 ethical deficiency of the commandment to exterminate all the Amalekites, especially including the command to kill children, and the presumption of collective punishment.[41][42][43][44] It has also been described as genocidal, according to genocide scholars like Norman Naimark.[45][46][47][48]

Religious and modern scholarly discussion

The commandment to kill Amalekites is not practised 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.[49]

In addition, many rabbinic authorities ruled that the commandment only applies to a Jewish king or an organized community, and cannot be performed by an individual.[50] According to Haggahot Maimuniyyot, the commandment applies only in the future messianic era and not in present times; this limitation is almost a consensus among medieval authorities.[51]

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.[52]

In addition, the Amalekites, as a physical nation, have been extinct since the time of Hezekiah's reign, according to the Hebrew Bible.[53]

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;[54] the Sfat Emet said that the command was to fully hate Amalek rather than performing any action;[55] and the Chofetz Chaim said that God would perform the elimination of Amalek, and Jews are commanded only to remember what Amalek did to them.[56]

Theologian Charles Ellicott explains that the Amalekites were subject to cherem in the Book of Samuel for the purposes of incapacitation, due to their 'accursed' nature and the threat they posed to the commonwealth of surrounding nations.[57]John Gill also describes the cherem as an example of the law of retaliation being carried out.[58]

According to Christian Hofreiter, historically almost all Christian authorities and theologians have interpreted the herem passages as referring to real, historical events when God commanded the Israelites to exterminate all the members of particular nations. He states that "there is practically no historical evidence that anyone in the Great Church" viewed them as being purely an allegory. In particular, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin have defended a literal reading of these passages at length. Origen of Alexandria is sometimes cited as having viewed the herem passages allegorically; Hofreiter argues that although Origen viewed a spiritual interpretation as having primary importance to Christians, he did not deny that the herem passages described historical events.[59]

See also


  1. ^ "Amalek". Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.
  2. ^ Patterson, David (2011). A Genealogy of Evil: Anti-Semitism from Nazism to Islamic Jihad. Cambridge University Press. pp. 43, 244. ISBN 9781139492430.
  3. ^ M. Weippert, Semitische Nomaden des zweiten Jahrtausends. Biblica vol. 55, 1974, 265-280, 427-433
  4. ^ Genesis 36:12; 1 Chronicles 1:36
  5. ^ Genesis 36:16
  6. ^ "Amalekite". Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.
  7. ^ a b Mills 1997, p. 21.
  8. ^ Numbers 24:20
  9. ^ Macpherson, J. (2004) [1898]. "Amalek". In Hastings, James (ed.). A Dictionary of the Bible: Volume I (Part I: A -- Cyrus). Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific. pp. 77–79. ISBN 9781410217226.
  10. ^ Rashi [1]
  11. ^ Feldman 2004, p. 8–9.
  12. ^ Numbers 13:29
  13. ^ a b c Mattingly 2000, p. 48.
  14. ^ Ze'ev Herzog, Beer-Sheba II: The Early Iron Age Settlements, Institute of Archaeology, Tel Aviv University, issue 7 1984 pp.72–74.
  15. ^ Ze'ev Herzog, Beer-sheba of the Patriarchs, Center for Online Judaic Studies
  16. ^ Aharon Kempinski, "Tel Masos: Its Importance in Relation to the Settlement of the Tribes of Israel in the Northern Negev," Expedition Magazine vol. 20, issue 4 1978.
  17. ^ Nissim Amzallag,"A Metallurgical Perspective on the Birth of Ancient Israel," Entangled Religions 12.2 (2021)
  18. ^ 1 Samuel 15:2
  19. ^ 1 Samuel 15:3
  20. ^ 1 Samuel 30:9–20
  21. ^ 2 Samuel 1:6–10
  22. ^ 2 Samuel 1:16
  23. ^ Including Rashi
  24. ^ a b c Knight 1833, p. 411.
  25. ^ a b c d Watson 1832, p. 50.
  26. ^ Easton 1894, p. 35, Am'alekite.
  27. ^ Cox 1884, pp. 125–126.
  28. ^ 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.
  29. ^ Mattingly 2000, p. 49.
  30. ^ Bruins, Hendrik J. (2022). "Masseboth Shrine at Horvat Haluqim: Amalekites in the Negev Highlands-Sinai Region? Evaluating the Evidence" (PDF). Negev, Dead Sea and Arava Studies. 14 (2–4): 121–142.
  31. ^ Ginzberg, Louis (1913). The Legends of the Jews. pp. 422–423.
  32. ^ For an Rabbanic explanation of Timna lineage see Kadari, Tamar (31 December 1999). "Timna, concubine of Eliphaz: Midrash and Aggadah". The Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. Retrieved 16 January 2022.((cite encyclopedia)): CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  33. ^ Rashi, 1 Samuel 15:3 commentary, The Rubin Edition, ISBN 1-57819-333-8, p. 93
  34. ^
    • Masalha, Nur (2000). Imperial Israel and the Palestinians: the politics of expansion. Pluto Press. pp. 129–131.
    • Stern, Josef (2004). "Maimonides on Amalek, Self-Corrective Mechanisms, and the War against Idolatry"". In Hartman, David; Malino, Jonathan W. (eds.). Judaism and modernity: the religious philosophy of David Hartman. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. pp. 360–362.
    • Hunter, Alastair G. (2003). "Denominating Amalek: Racist stereotyping in the Bible and the Justification of Discrimination". In Bekkenkamp, Jonneke; Sherwood, Yvonne (eds.). Sanctified aggression: legacies of biblical and post-biblical vocabularies. Continuum International Publishing Group. pp. 99–105.
  35. ^ Elliott Horowitz,Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence, Princeton University Press, 2018 ISBN 978-0-691-19039-6pp.1-7
  36. ^ 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.
  37. ^ Zaimov, Stoyan (April 29, 2017). "ISIS a Reenactment of Biblical War Between Israel and the Amalekites, Military Analysts Say". Christian Post. Archived from the original on 2021-04-16.
  38. ^ Finley, Mordecai (21 February 2018). "Unmasking Purim, Fighting Amalek: Behind the whimsy of this holiday lie some deep lessons for living". Jewish Journal. Retrieved 22 February 2018.
  39. ^ "Esther 3 Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges". Biblehub.((cite web)): CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  40. ^ Public Domain Hirsch, Emil; Seligsohn, M.; Schechter, Solomon (1904). "HAMAN THE AGAGITE". In Singer, Isidore; et al. (eds.). The Jewish Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Funk & Wagnalls. p. 189–190. Retrieved 13 February 2017
  41. ^ Harris, Michael J. Divine Command Ethics: Jewish and Christian perspectives. pp. 137–138.
  42. ^ Elkins, Dov Peretz; Treu, Abigail. The Bible's Top Fifty Ideas: The essential concepts everyone should know. pp. 315–316.
  43. ^ Sorabji, Richard; Rodin, David. The Ethics of War: Shared problems in different traditions. p. 98.
  44. ^ Rogerson, John William; Carroll, M. Daniel. Theory and Practice in Old Testament Ethics. p. 92.
  45. ^ Naimark, Norman M. (2017). Genocide: A World History. Oxford University Press. pp. 8–9. ISBN 978-0-19-976526-3.
  46. ^ Morriston, Wes (2012). "Ethical Criticism of the Bible: The Case of Divinely Mandated Genocide" (PDF). Sophia. 51 (1): 117–135. doi:10.1007/s11841-011-0261-5. S2CID 159560414.
  47. ^ Freeman, Michael (1994). "Religion, nationalism and genocide: ancient Judaism revisited". European Journal of Sociology / Archives Européennes de Sociologie / Europäisches Archiv für Soziologie. 35 (2): 259–282. doi:10.1017/S000397560000686X. ISSN 0003-9756. JSTOR 23997469. S2CID 170860040.
  48. ^ Kugler, Gili (2020). "Metaphysical Hatred and Sacred Genocide: The Questionable Role of Amalek in Biblical Literature". Journal of Genocide Research. 23: 1–16. doi:10.1080/14623528.2020.1827781. S2CID 228959516.
  49. ^ Eynei Kol Ḥai, 73, on Sanhedrin 96b. Also Minchat Chinuch, parshat Ki Tetze, mitzvah 434.
  50. ^ Maimonides (Sefer Hamitzvot, end of positive commandments), Nachmanides (Commentary to Exodus 17:16), Sefer HaYereim (435), Hagahot Maimoniyot (Hilchot Melachim 5:5)
  51. ^ Klapper, Aryeh (4 March 2020). "How Not to Talk About Amalek". The Times of Israel. Archived from the original on 2020-03-04. Retrieved 16 January 2022.
  52. ^ Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim uMilchamot, 6:1 and 6:6-7
  53. ^ "1 Chronicles 4:43". BibleStudyTools. Archived from the original on 2010-07-12.
  54. ^ Commentary to Deuteronomy 25
  55. ^ Shemot Zachor 646
  56. ^ Introduction to positive commandments, Beer Mayim Hayim, letter Alef
  57. ^ "1 Samuel 15: Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". Biblehub. Archived from the original on 2014-11-08.
  58. ^ "1 Samuel 15: Gill's Exposition". Biblehub. Archived from the original on 2013-12-17.
  59. ^ Hofreiter, Christian (16 February 2018). Making Sense of Old Testament Genocide: Christian Interpretations of Herem Passages. Oxford University Press. p. 247-248. ISBN 978-0-19-253900-7.