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Amalek (Hebrew: עֲמָלֵק, Modern Amalek Tiberian ʻĂmālēq) is a figure in the Hebrew Bible. According to the Book of Genesis and 1 Chronicles, Amalek was the son of Eliphaz (the grandson of Esau/Edom) and the concubine Timna. Timna was a Horite and sister of Lotan. Amalek was the grandson of Esau (Gen. 36:12; 1 Chr. 1:36) who was the chief of an Edomite tribe (Gen. 36:16).
At Genesis 36:16, Amalek is described as the "chief of Amalek", and thus his name can be construed to refer to a clan or a territory over which he ruled. Josephus calls him a 'bastard' (νόθος), though in a derogative sense. A late extra-biblical tradition, recorded by Nachmanides, maintains that the Amalekites were not descended from the grandson of Esau but from a man named Amalek, from whom the grandson took his name.
The Amalekites were a people mentioned a number of times in the book of Genesis, and considered to be Amalek's descendants. In the chant of Balaam at Numbers, 24:20, Amalek was called the 'first of the nations', attesting to high antiquity.
The name is often interpreted as "dweller in the valley", and occasionally as "war-like," "people of prey", "cave-men" In some rabbinical interpretations, Amalek is etymologised as a people am, who lick blood, but most specialists regard the origin to be unknown.
In Arabic, the corresponding term for the Biblical Amalek is Imlīq, whose descendants Al-′Amālīq were early residents of the ḥaram at Mecca, later supplanted by the Banu Jurhum, and formed one of the first tribes of ancient Arabia to speak Arabic.
Some interpret Gen. 14:7 (which refers to the "land of the Amalekites") to mean that the Amalekites existed as early as the time of Abraham, in the region that would later become the Roman province of Arabia Petraea. This view is similar to Nachmanides' claim of an origin for the Amalekites earlier than Esau's grandson. However, the passage in question does not require this interpretation as it may be referring to the region by a name from a later era. However, the Arab historian Abu al-Hasan 'Alī al-Mas'ūdī, citing 'traditional' Arab history, relates that the Amalekites did indeed exist at this early period having originated in the region of Mecca before the time of Abraham.
In the Pentateuch, the Amalekites are nomads who attacked the Hebrews at Rephidim (Exodus 17:8-10) in the desert of Sinai during their exodus from Egypt: "smiting the hindmost, all that were feeble behind," (Deuteronomy 25:18). The Tanakh recognizes the Amalekites as indigenous tribesmen, "the first of the nations" (Numbers 24:20). In the southern lowlands too, perhaps the dry grazing lands that are now the Negev, there were aboriginal Amalekites who were daunting adversaries of the Hebrews in the earliest times. "They dwelt in the land of the south...from Havilah until thou comest to Shur" (Numbers 13:29; 1 Samuel 15:7). At times said to be allied with the Moabites (Judg. 3:13) and the Midianites (Judges 6:3). One may consider the hypothesis that each of their kings bore the hereditary name of Agag (Num. 24:7; 1 Sam. 15:8). They also attacked the Israelites at Hormah (Num. 14:45). Saul and his army destroyed most of the people, and earned Samuel's wrath for leaving some of the people and livestock alive (1 Samuel 15:8-9) against God's command. Saul and the tribal leaders also hesitated to kill Agag, so Samuel himself executed the Amalekite king (1 Samuel 15:33).
Agag's death might be expected to have been the end of the Amalekites; however, they reappear in later periods described in the Bible (see below). Even Samuel said to Agag: "As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women"(1 Samuel 15:33) before be "hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD".
As the Jewish Encyclopedia put it, "David waged a sacred war of extermination against the Amalekites," who may have subsequently disappeared from history. Long after, in the time of Hezekiah, five hundred Simeonites annihilated the remnant "of the Amalekites that had escaped" on Mount Seir, and settled in their place (1 Chr. 4:42–43).
The Biblical relationship between the Hebrew and Amalekite tribes was that the Amalekite tribes without provocation pounced on the Hebrews when they were weak. The Amalekites became associated with ruthlessness and trickery and tyranny, even more so than Pharaoh or the Philistines, and required a ruthless response:
This enmity is repeated in Numbers 24, in Balaam's fourth and final oracle:
And again in the law, in Deuteronomy 25:
The fighting is mentioned again in Judges 3:13, in the Judgeship of Ehud, and again under Gideon, as the Amalekites allied with the Midianites (Judges 6:3, 6:33, 7:12). This enmity is also the background of the command of the Lord to Saul:
Saul's failure to obey this command cost him his kingship. Note the commentary on this total destruction later by Samuel, when Saul summons him from the dead through prophetic vision literary tool:
Flavius Josephus also commented on this event:
The destruction of animals and booty, however, was not universal at Saul's time. This was evidently a command for a particular battle. His contemporary David handled the matter differently a few years later.
It is not clear if the historical Amalekites were exterminated or not. 1 Samuel 15:7–8 states that "He took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and all his people he totally destroyed with the sword." This implies that after Agag had been killed so were all the people of Agag who consequently became extinct. In a later story in the time of Hezekiah, however, the Simeonites annihilated a group of Amalekites on Mount Seir and settled in their place: "And five hundred of these Simeonites, led by Pelatiah, Neariah, Rephaiah and Uzziel, the sons of Ishi, invaded the hill country of Seir. They killed the remaining Amalekites who had escaped, and they have lived there to this day." (1 Chr. 4:42–43).
In the Book of Esther, the arch villain is Haman, an Amalekite (his origin is evident from the epithet the Agagite—i.e., descendant of the agags, Amalekite kings) that led the plot to kill the Jews. Because the Lord promised to "blot out the name" of Amalek (Exodus 17:14), it is customary when the book of Esther is read at the Purim festival, for the audience to make noise whenever "Haman" is mentioned, so that his name is not heard.
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.
Maimonides explains that the commandment of killing out the nation of Amalek requires the Jewish people to peacefully request of them to accept upon themselves the Noachide laws and pay a tax to the Jewish kingdom. Only if they refuse must they be physically killed.
Some commentators, such as Rabbi Hayim Palaggi (1788–1869) argued that Jews had lost the tradition of distinguishing Amalekites from other people, and therefore the commandment of killing them could not practically be applied ("...We can rely on the maxim that in ancient times, Sennacherib confused the lineage of many nations." [Eynei Kol Ḥai, 73, on Sanhedrin 96b])
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 Sam. 15:3. Rashi explains the third commandment:
In the books of 1 Samuel and Judges, the tribe of Kenites are associated with the Amalekites, sometimes their allies, sometimes allied with the tribes of Israel. The Amalek people are invariably enemies of Israel. Saul's successful expedition against the unidentified "city of Amalek," in the plain (1 Sam. 15) resulted in the capture of the Amalekite king, Agag. In Judges 6-8 in the story of Gideon, the Amalekites and the Midianites are said to have amassed a visible army of at least 135,000 encamped against Israel.
In Jewish tradition, the Amalekites came to represent the archetypal enemy of the Jews. The 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.
Yiddish tradition identified Armenians as descendants of Amalek, an ascription once current among Eastern Jews. The tradition identifying Armenians and Amalekites goes back to the early 10th. century, when it is attested in the Byzantine chronicle Josippon attributed to the Southern Italian Jew Joseph ben Gorion.:122
The Italian rabbi Obadiah ben Abraham of Bertinoro wrote to his father of the sects in Jerusalem, to which he had made aliyah late in the 15th century, he listed among the Christians "the Latins, Greeks, Jacobites, Amalekites,Abyssinians." It may be that Byzantine Jews made the identification of Armenians and Amalekites to distinguish the former from the Greek Orthodox Christians, and its continued use seems primarily aimed to register the idea that the Amalekites still existed within the realm of Christendom.:122-3
The Byzantine Emperor Leo V the Armenian, who ruled from 813 AD to 820 AD until his assassination by one of his top generals, Michael the Amorian, was known as "the Amalekite" apparently because of his approval of the Islamic prohibition against the depiction of sacred images.
In 1839 the British Jewish-Christian missionary Joseph Wolff was struck by what he thought remarkable, namely
'that the Armenians, who are detested by the Jews as the supposed descendants of the Amalekites, are the only Christian church who have interested themselves for the protection and conversion of Jews.':10
After visiting Palestine that same year, the Scottish missionaries Andrew Bonar and Robert Murray M'Cheyne suggested that what they saw as “the peculiar hatred which the Jews bear toward the Armenians may arise from a charge often brought against them, namely that Haman was an Armenian, and that the Armenians were the Amalekites of the Bible, attributing this to the fact that Armenians were the first nation to adopt Christianity in 301 AD.:10-11 Late in the nineteenth century, the Russian traveller Joseph Judah Chorny reported hearing from the Jews of Georgia that the Armenians were descendants of the Amalekites.:124 Another Jewish traveler reported that among Armenians who traded with Jews in eastern Galicia, there was a practice of mourning Haman’s death on Purim, and lighting candles in his memory.:124
Itamar Ben-Avi, in the newspaper HaZvi in 1909, intervened in an editorial ("We") to speak on behalf of the Armenians who were reportedly being slaughtered by the Ottoman Turks, and protested at Jewish indifference to calls to help alleviate their plight. He characterized the reaction of some of his coreligionists as follows:
“'A slight grimace on their lips, a short heartfelt sigh, and nothing more. The Armenians are not Jews, and according to folk tradition the Armenians are nothing more than Amaleks! Amaleks? We would give them help? To whom? To Amaleks? Heaven forbid!'.'
A prominent 19th and early 20th century rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, claimed upon Kaiser Wilhelm's visit to Palestine in 1898, three decades before Hitler's rise to power, he had a tradition from his teachers that the Germans are descended from the ancient Amalekites.
Samuel's words to Agag: "As your sword bereaved women, so will your mother be bereaved among women." (Samuel 1:15:33) were quoted by Israeli President Itzhak Ben-Zvi in his handwriting in response to a telegram sent by Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann's wife pleading for clemency after he was taken to Israel and sentenced to death.
Nur Masalha has written that:
"Frequently Jewish fundamentalists refer to the Palestinians as the 'Amalekites' … of today… According to the Old Testament, the Amalek … were regarded as the Israelites' inveterate foe, whose 'annihilation' became a sacred duty and against whom war should be waged until their 'memory be blotted out' forever (Ex 17:16; Deut 25:17-19)…. Some of the [modern] political messianics insist on giving the biblical commandment to 'blot out the memory of the Amalek' an actual contemporary relevance in the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The Palestinians have been associated with Amalek since 1974 when Rabbi Moshe Ben-Tzion Ishbezari of Ramat Gan made the association in a book. The equation began to circulate in Gush Emunim circles, and its full implications were spelled out by Rabbi Yisrael Hess in 1980. A former campus rabbi of Bar-Ilan University, Hess published in the university's student paper in February 1980 an article on "The Genocide Commandment in the Torah", in which he concluded that:
'The day is not far when we shall be called to this holy war, to this commandment of the annihilation of Amalek.'
Hess's reference to Amalekites was later taken in Israel to be an allusion to the Palestinian Arabs, especially since he spoke of a jihad.
'Against this holy war God declares a counter jihad . .in order to emphasise that this is the background for the annihilation and that it is over this that the war is being waged and that it is not a conflict between two peoples. . God is not content that we annihilate Amalek -'blot out the memory of Amalek' - he also enlists personally in this war . .because, as has been said, he has a personal interest in this matter, this is the principal aim.'
'In every generation there is an Amalek. The Amalekism of our generation finds expression in the deep Arab hatred towards our national revival in our forefathers' land.'
In 1985 Uriel Tal, in his Foundations of a Political Messianic Trend in Israel, argued that Hess's position is to be contextualised within a totalitarian messianic force, whose process he summed up as follows.
Ron Geaves also writes that 'in settler circles, the Palestinians are likely to be identified with the Amalekites', and citing the same pamphlet from the campus rabbi attached to Bar-Ilan University, adds that the message is passed on through 'the religious schools where boys are taught that the Arab is Amalek.' After Baruch Goldstein's massacre of Palestinians at the Mosque in Hebron, Rabbi Arthur Waskow argued that Goldstein had decided to 'blot out the memory of Amalek' by machine-gunning the Palestinian worshippers, and commented:
So then, in our generation, for some Jews the Palestinians become Amalek. Some Palestinians are terrorists? Some Palestinians call publicly for the State of Israel to be shattered? The archetypes of fear slide into place: all Palestinians are Amalek. And the fantasies of the powerless become the actions of the powerful. For in our generation, Jews have power.’
After the death of Yassir Arafat, a declaration was issued by 200 rabbis of Pikuach Nefesh asserting that the anniversary of the death of 'this Amalek of our generation' should be celebrated as 'a day of rejoicing'.
The anti-Zionist Haredi rabbi Zalman Teitelbaum denounced the proposed draft of Haredi men by the Israel Defense Forces by saying "the Zionists came from the seed of Amalek. There has never been such a sect that caused so much damage to the Jewish people." A senior rabbi in Israel's Shas party, Shalom Cohen, publicly labeled Religious Zionists as Amalek, but later clarified that his remarks were aimed only at The Jewish Home party, not all Religious Zionists. Another rabbi associated with Shas, Shimon Badani, referred to Finance Minister Yair Lapid and The Jewish Home party as Amalek.
The Neturei Karta are a Haredi group known for their radical opposition to the state of Israel and extreme wariness with regard to non-Haredi Jews. Historically, Neturei Karta equated Zionism with Amalek and Nazism. For some Neturei Karta rabbis the very word 'amalek' is read in gematriya to mean 'politics', which in their view is something pious Jews should never engage in, since politics for them constitutes galut, or exile.
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