The Amalekites were a nomadic group living in the Negev and Sinai, south of Israel. Nothing is known of them from extrabiblical sources, though nomadic groups, called Shasu in Egyptian, are known to have been present in the region, and some of them attacked travelers. Israelite tradition regarded the Amalekites as descended from Esau and hence distantly related to Israel, but also as invariably aggressive.

In the period of the chieftains (the "Judges") and Saul and David, they periodically raided and pillaged Israel.[1] According to Psalms 83:4-9, they were among a group of aggressive nations that plotted to wipe out the Israelites, saying: "Let us wipe them out as a nation; Israel's name shall be mentioned no more" (cf. v.19 here). According to Exodus 17:8-16, they first attacked Israel at Rephidim, in the Sinai, shortly after the Exodus. The Israelites beat them off, and God declared that He would make war on Amalek throughout the ages and would ultimately wipe them out. Our passage refers to the same event, commanding Israel to carry out God's intention when they are secure enough to do so.

Israel's experience with the Amalekites must have been particularly bitter to have led to a determination to wipe them out. Acts of hostility by other nations did not elicit such a response, not even those of Egypt or of the nations that attacked and ruled Israel in the period of the Judges. The account in Exodus provides no explanation for this determination, but Deuteronomy does: this was a sneak attack on the defenseless weak lagging at the rear of the migrating Israelites, an attack which showed the Amalekites lacked the basic principles of morality common to all peoples and religions. Conceivably, the Israelites thought that the Amalekites had genocidal intentions, as in Psalms 83:4-9, and regarded the command to wipe them out as a measure-for-measure punishment.

There is a Sumerian parallel to this command. An inscription of Utuhegal, king of the Sumerian city-state Uruk (Erech) in the 22nd century BCE, states that the chief god, Enlil, commanded Utuhegal to "destroy the name" of the Gutians, the hated mountain folk who invaded Sumer, ruling cruelly and offending the gods before Utuhegal finally expelled them.[2]

Exhortations to remember past events, and to take action on that basis, are more frequent in Deuteronomy than in any other book of the Torah.[3] They reflect the fact that Moses speaks here at the end of a long career during which Israel underwent many seminal experiences, and that he seeks to persuade Israel to learn from its experience and act accordingly.

"Remember" is complemented by "Do not forget" at the end of the law, and it is clear from Verse 19 that the point is to remember to wipe out the Amalekites. Despite this strong and exclusive injunction, halakhah (Jewish religious law) dictates that the Amalekites, like the Canaanites, were to be offered the option of surrender and were to be spared if they accepted.[4]

In Jewish practice, however, remembering what Amalek did become a separate obligation, carried out by reading the paragraph from Exodus in the synagogue on the Sabbath before Purim. This is because Haman, the arch-anti-Semite in the book of Esther, is not only hostile like the Amalekites but is also referred to as an Agagite, implying that he is a descendant of Agag the Amalekite.[5]

According to the book of Samuel, the first attempt to eliminate the Amalekites was assigned to Saul, who lost his kingdom over his failure to implement the assignment completely. David later conquered the Amalekites, and they are not heard of again apart from a reference to "the last surviving Amalekites" living in Mount Se'ir, who were destroyed by five hundred men from the tribe of Simeon in the time of Hezekiah. (I Samuel 14:48; ch. 15; 27:8; 30:18; II Samuel 1:1; 8:12; I Chronicles 4:43).


[1] Judges 3:13; 6:3,33; 7:12; 10:12 I Samuel 14:48; 30:1.
An earlier encounter is mentioned in Numbers 14:45. [back]
[2] S.N. Kramer, The Sumerians (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1963). [back]
[3] Deut. 5:15; 7:18; 8:2; 9:7; 15:15; 16:3,12; 24:9,18,22; 32:7. [back]
[4] Maimonides, Hilkhot Melakhim 6:1,4. [back]
[5] Maimonides, Sefer ha-Mitzvot, pos. no. 189; neg. no. 59; Est. 3:1; I Samuel 15:8. [back]
From: The new JPS translation Commentary to Deuteronomy, 1996

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