Everywhere and Nowhere: The Story of the Amalekites

15 minute read

We’ve talked about two of the ancient enemies of Israel, the Moabites and the Ammonites. We’ve seen the redemption of the Moabites through the boundless faith of Ruth, the foreigner who became the great-grandmother of King David. And we’ve seen the Ammonite capital Rabbah also tied up with King David–it’s where his army was when he committed adultery with Bathsheba.

But Israel has more enemies, of course. Today we look at the Amalekites, descendants of Amalek.

In the Beginning

Amalek was the grandson of Esau, Jacob’s older brother.

We know both his mother’s name (Timna, a concubine of his father Eliphaz) and his grandmother’s name (Adah, wife of his grandfather Esau) (Genesis 36:9–12; 1 Chronicles 1:34–36).

However, the timeline gets confused immediately, because the name “Amalekite” shows up long before Esau does.

Way back in the War of the Nine Kings, the one where Lot gets kidnapped and Abraham has to rescue him and they meet Melchizedek on the way back and accidentally invent a priestly order both older and higher than the sons of Aaron that the author of Hebrews later uses to point to Jesus as the Messiah, there were, um, nine kings. And they were at war.

On one side were the four kings of Shinar (Babylon), Ellasar, Elam1, and Goiim. On the other, the five kings of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Bela (Zoar). There had previously been an agreement between the king of Elam and these five other kings, and the other kings were sick of it, so they rebelled. Among the victims of the four kings during this war was “all the country of the Amalekites” (Genesis 14:1–7).

But wait, if this war happened while Abraham and Lot were still alive… this was two generations before Jacob and Esau, which means it was four generations before Amalek was even born! How can that be?

Fortunately, this conundrum has a simple answer, although I’m not sure anybody can confirm it. The book of Genesis was written down long after all of these events took place, and the people who heard it or read it would have immediately known where the Amalekites lived, which makes their name a convenient shorthand for their geography. In the same way, you might say that the Algonquians inhabited Virginia, long before Virginia was a Commonwealth or the US was a country or Queen Elizabeth I was called the Virgin Queen.

So it’s anachronistic, but convenient. On with our story.

First Wars with Amalek

After that brief mention of geography and Esau’s genealogy, Amalek disappears until the Exodus, centuries later.

Amalek reappears as the enemy in the famous story of Moses controlling the tide of battle with his hands. It goes like this.

Israel is on its way through the wilderness toward Mount Sinai. (They don’t know that’s where they’re going, but we do.) They’ve gotten hangry, so God has sent them quail and manna from heaven (Exodus 16:4) and water from a rock (Exodus 17:5–6). They’ve encamped at a place called Rephidim.

Then Amalek attacks.

Moses, ever the leader (and well past eighty) delegates the fighting to Joshua, who needs the experience given what’s coming in the next few decades. Moses sits on a hill overlooking the battlefield, holding his staff (the one God turned into a snake). When Moses holds his hands up, Joshua wins; when Moses gets tired and lets his hands down, Joshua loses.

Eventually, Moses’s brother Aaron and a man named Hur hold Moses’s hands up for him, and Israel wins the day.

For their crime of attacking Israel in its flight from Egypt, God declares eternal war on the Amalekites:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” And Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The Lord Is My Banner, saying, “A hand upon the throne of the Lord! The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.”
–‭‭Exodus 17:14-16 ESV

You will not be surprised that the wars continue.

Amalek and the Spies

But first, the wars do not continue. Joshua and Caleb scout out the promised land and identify its inhabitants, which include Amalek (Numbers 13:29), and God turns them away from that land and into the wilderness (Numbers 14:25).

The Bible doesn’t specify that God is steering them clear of the Amalekites. Instead, this is the part of the story where Israel gets angry with God for taking them out of Egypt, and God declares that nobody who left Egypt will make it to the Promised Land. This curse begins the forty years of wandering, making sure an entire generation dies before they reach the land God gave Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.

Of course, Israel is perverse and rebellious, just like we are today. So as soon as Moses tells them to go around the enemy armies, they immediately want to go through the land and fight. Moses prophesies their failure, and sure enough, “the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and defeated them” (Numbers 14:45).

We will never learn.

But God does not forget! Remember how He swore to “blot out the memory of Amalek”? He reminds Israel during Balaam’s prophecies that were supposed to be curses:

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 ESV

And then Moses instructs Israel to make it happen:

“Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.”
–‭‭Deuteronomy 25:19 ESV

It’s going to take a while, though.

Amalek and the Judges

The story of Judges is that Israel would forget God and wander dive headlong into idolatry, a foreign nation would conquer them, Israel would repent, and only then would God raise up a leader to defeat their oppressors and lead Israel for a time. This cycle repeated at regular intervals.

So of course Amalek is involved.

Near the beginning of this period, King Eglon of Moab ruled Israel for eighteen years. How did he defeat Israel? He allied with the Amalekites, of course, as well as the Ammonites (Judges 3:12–14). For the full story of Eglon’s downfall, see the story of the Ammonites.

Just a few years later, the cycle repeats, except this time Amalek is helping Midian defeat Israel, destroying crops and livestock (Judges 6:1–4).

And just as God raised up Ehud to defeat Eglon with his left-handedness, God raised up Gideon to defeat Midian very nearly by himself.

Amalek and Gideon

Now this story is long, but I’m telling the whole tale here because it’s a great story. It has prophecy, judges, betrayal, war, trickeration, some David-and-Goliath, a youngest son, family squabbles, a twist ending (wait for it), and even a bit of rags-to-riches. Let’s watch.

Gideon was an Abiezrite of the tribe of Manasseh who lived in Ophrah2. God is a fan of raising up youngest sons, and Gideon is no exception. He was the youngest son of his father Joash and part of the smallest family in Manasseh, which was not exactly the dominant tribe in Israel.

One day an angel appears to him.

This is not a normal occurrence. It seems like angels just appear to everybody in Scripture, but that’s because those are the stories worth telling. The shepherd boy who doesn’t see an angel also doesn’t compose a song about it.

Usually angels start off with “Do not fear!” But, as will become clear, Gideon did not have this problem, so this angel starts with “The Lord is with you.” And like he’s talking to his brother and not a celestial being of unimaginable power, Gideon fires back. “Oh yeah? Then why are we servants to the Midianites? And where are all the miracles? The elders talk about them all the time, but none of them seem to be recent…”

Rather than being offended, the angel claps him on the back, laughs uproariously3, and says, “Yes! That’s the spirit! Now go in this strength of yours and defeat Midian. And seriously, the Lord of all creation is with you.”

Gideon’s not convinced. He asks for a miracle. It’s the second-most-drawn-out miracle in the Old Testament4. Gideon prepares an entire feast of a young goat and bread and broth. The angel touches it with his staff and fire consumes the whole meal, at which point Gideon believes.

(He builds an altar there and calls it Yahweh-shalom, which is a fantastic name for an altar. It means “the Lord is peace.”)

Anyway, God has work for Gideon. In a dream that night, He instructs Gideon to hitch two oxen to a statue of Baal and pull it down. Gideon obeys, but he does it at night because he’s afraid of the townspeople; they find out immediately the next day anyway.

God’s call was (as usual) timely, because the Amalekites and Midianites are on the move. They encamp just across the river. Gideon calls together an army–not just from Manasseh, but from the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali and Asher, too.

And then Gideon goes out to meet them and slaughters the enemies of Israel in the strength of the Lord and everyone rejoices and they make him king and apologize for all the mean things they said about him when he pulled down the statue.

Sorry, none of that last paragraph is true. An angel and a miraculously burnt feast weren’t enough. Gideon still needs more signs.

He lays out some wool fleece and asks God to contain the dew to the fleece that night and keep the ground dry, if He really intends to save Israel.

God does.

Gideon, not convinced by an angel, this second miracle, and a dream from God, wants more. He asks for another sign the next night: dew on the ground, but not on the fleece.

God does it.

Finally, Gideon is convinced, or maybe just scared to ask Almighty God for Yet Another Sign. He marches the army out to meet the enemy, at which point God decides to give a sign of His own.

“Too many men!” says God to Gideon. Gideon is confused, because his understanding of warfare is that having more soldiers is good, and having fewer soldiers is bad. He’s still not getting the whole God of Angel Armies thing.

So God sets about decimating Gideon’s army to make sure nobody can claim they did it on their own without God’s help.

First, God has Gideon invite anyone who is afraid to take off, no questions asked. Twenty-two thousand men take the hint and skedaddle, leaving Gideon with less than a third of his force, just ten thousand men.

But ten thousand is still a big army, so God has a new plan: take all ten thousand down to the river to drink. Those who stick their heads straight in the water go home; those who cup their hands and lap at it stay.

Apparently most of them just dunked their heads to drink, because Gideon sends 9,700 men home, leaving him with less than one percent of his original force. Which suits God just fine. (This is the same God who defeats enemies before Israel’s army even gets there.)

So God sends Gideon and his servant Purah down into the camp of the Midianites and Amalekites to scout it out. They’re dismayed to see the enemy “lay along the valley like locusts in abundance, and their camels were without number” (Judges 7:12). Not great for an army that’s now down to three hundred men.

But great for God, whose goal is glory for Himself, not glory for Gideon.

Gideon and Purah overhear some soldiers talking about a dream, and the soldiers correctly interpret the dream to mean Gideon will destroy them. Which must have been a weird dream for them, and an even weirder interpretation, but their conversation encourages Gideon.

When Gideon and Purah get back, the Israelites return to the camp of Midian and Amalek armed with the ancient near east equivalent of flash-bangs: jars of clay, trumpets, and torches. They spread out around the camp, and on Gideon’s signal, they all smash their jars and blow their trumpets and light their torches and yell! God sends the enemy into disarray. The Midianites and Amalekites pull out their swords and swipe at anything that moves–which is mostly their comrades. Finally they flee, and Gideon, with his tiny little force, pursues.

God has made His point, so Gideon calls out the Ephraimites to join his pursuit. By the time he catches up with the enemy, there are only 15,000 left of the 135,000 who had originally gone to war against Israel. Gideon, not surprisingly, is victorious.

The people try to make Gideon king, but he’ll have none of it: “God is your king,” he says. But then he makes a decision even weirder than the thing with the fleece: he takes some of the spoils of war and melts down the jewelry and makes a golden ephod (a ceremonial coat or vest worn by priests), and it inexplicably becomes an idol that Israel worships.

Nonetheless, Israel has peace for forty years, until Gideon dies, at which point they apparently abandon the golden ephod and go back to worshiping Baal until the next invasion.

The Amalekites presumably return to their homeland, embarrassed, to lick their wounds. Don’t worry, they’ll be back.

Amalek and the Kings

The story of Amalek and the kings of Israel is very much like the stories of Moab and Ammon. In short, Saul fights them, David defeats them, and Solomon sets them to forced labor.

But there’s a slight twist here that changes the course of Israel’s history. For once, Saul has an opportunity to finish the job himself. The prophet Samuel tells Saul that God wants him to destroy the Amalekites for the way they treated Israel on its way out of Egypt. Not just defeat them, but destroy every man, woman, child, infant, ox, sheep, camel, and donkey (1 Samuel 15:1–3).

So Saul gathers 210,000 soldiers and crushes Amalek and captures their king, Agag. But you’ll remember from ten seconds ago what Saul did not remember: God said destroy, not capture. Saul not only fails to kill Agag, but he also keeps all the best livestock alive and takes it for himself.

We will never learn.

God tells Samuel that Saul’s disobedience spells the end of his reign, and Samuel raises a lament to Saul. “To obey is better than sacrifice,” he says, and, “Because you [Saul] have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you form being king” (1 Samuel 15:22–23). Samuel, ever obedient, kills Agag himself (1 Samuel 15:32–33).

Years later, when Saul is under attack by the Philistines, he consults a medium who brings up the spirit of Samuel, and Samuel reminds him of his disobedience and tells him the consequences have arrived: “the Lord will give Israel also with you into the hands of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me [in Sheol]” (1 Samuel 28:15–19).

Sure enough, Saul is defeated by the Philistines, but when Saul is injured, the man who ultimately kills him and takes his crown is an Amalekite (2 Samuel 1:8–10).

Now David is both more obedient to God and better at war than Saul ever was, so he starts fighting the Amalekites even while Saul is hunting him down (1 Samuel 27:8–10). After Saul dies, David kills the Amalekite who killed him (2 Samuel 1:15–16) and conquers the Amalekites along with many other nations (1 Samuel 30; 2 Samuel 8:11–12; 1 Chronicles 18:11).

Thus, abruptly, ends the story of Amalek in Scripture; we never see them again.

Amalek in History

No archaeological records have ever been found that can be definitively linked to Amalek. I’m not a scholar, but I can think of three possible reasons.

  1. The Amalekites never existed, and the stories in Scripture are entirely mythological.
  2. The Amalekites refer to a shifting collection of tribes throughout Biblical history, so they never had enough cultural identity to leave records.
  3. The Amalekites, like many other people groups, ceased to exist or completely mingled with other nations sufficiently long ago that they left no distinct records.

The first reason is not a good one. We have many reasonable accounts of Amalek in Scripture, from Genesis to Psalms, that we have no reason to disbelieve and every reason to believe.

The second reason is the one adopted by most ancient and modern Jewish scholars. In fact, for millennia Amalek has stood for the archetypal enemies of the Jews, so that whatever nation was oppressing the Jews at any time was associated with Amalek. And they do seem to show up alongside all of Israel’s other enemies–with Moab in Balaam’s oracle, with Ammon in Psalm 83, with Midian in the story of Gideon, and with all of them at the same time in David’s wars. And it was an Amalekite who killed Saul, the first king of Israel. If “Amalek” has always been identified with the enemies of Israel, then perhaps they were never a distinct nation that would leave behind distinctive artifacts.

The third reason is my favorite, because God did in fact command the absolute destruction of the Amalekites–He says He “will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (Exodus 17:14)–and sure enough, they’re gone!

Perhaps the greatest lesson of the stories of Israel and Amalek is that God’s commands are followed even by sand and storm and time itself.

  1. Elam’s king has an amazing name: Chedorlaomer. 

  2. You’re not expected to know what an Abiezrite is or where Ophrah is. I don’t know either. 

  3. This may not be a literal translation of the Hebrew. 

  4. The most drawn-out miracle in the Old Testament is Elijah’s battle with Jezebel’s priests of Baal in 1 Kings 18.