In my study of Genesis 36 today, which is a genealogical account of the descendants of Esau, Jacob’s brother and Isaac’s son, it tells that one of Esau’s grandsons was named Amalek. The study goes on to guide the reader to look up verses of how the people-group known as the Amalekites were enemies to the nation of Israel and some of the things they did to the Israelites. For instance, as the Israelites were coming out of Egypt and were tired from their long journey, the Amalekites came from behind them and killed those that were falling behind (Deuteronomy 25). These attacks prompted Moses to send Joshua and his men to fight the Amalekites, which they did and defeated them (as Moses held his staff up, with the help of Aaron and Hur) (Exodus 17). Unfortunately, this battle didn’t end the enmity between these two nations – in Judges 3 it tells of how the Amalekites were allies with the Moabites and helped them defeat Isreal. Moab ruled over Israel for 18 years before Ehud killed the Moabite king and led Israel to take over Moab and to enjoy a period of 80 peaceful years. In Judges 6 it tells of how the Israelites were oppressed by the Midianites, who with the help of the Amalekites and others invaded Israel and destroyed almost everything they had. This goes to show that the Amalekites were definitely a thorn in Israel’s side for many, many years. When Israel was stronger and had been given a king to lead them, God ordered him (Saul) to go against the Amalekites and to kill every single one of them – men, women, and children, and every living animal (1 Samuel 15). God had said multiple times that the Amalekites would be demolished and forgotten, and He intended this to be carried out by Saul. Saul carried out the attack on the Amalekites, but he did not follow through completely, keeping the best of the livestock and sparing their king, Agag (which was the name given to every Amalekite king). This, of course, lost Saul his kingship and prompted the throne to be given to David. David later attacked the area where the Amalekites lived (1 Samuel 27: “Now David and his men went up and raided the Geshurites, the Girzites and the Amalekites. Whenever David attacked an area, he did not leave a man or woman alive, but took sheep and cattle, donkeys and camels, and clothes.”). Unfortunately, it doesn’t say that David wiped them out (and I believe there are accounts later where David fights the Amalekites again), but at least when he did raid them, he carried out what God had commanded before.
An interesting consequence does come from Israel’s refusal to completely wipe out the Amalekites. The book of Esther tells a story of the Jewish people while they were under control of the Assyrian empire. The Jewish people had been given permission to go back to Jerusalem, but not everyone returned. A Jewish woman named Hadassah (a.k.a., Esther) ends up being made queen. One of the Assyrian king’s assistants was named Haman – he was an Agagite (does the Agag part look familiar – it should, since every Amalekite king was named Agag, meaning that Haman was an Amalekite descendant). Haman had a deep hatred for the Jewish people (probably related to the fact that Israel and Amalek were enemies for a long, long time, and his descendants probably passed down the hatred of the Israelites as much as Israel passed down their feelings for the Amalekites), and he works it out so that the Jews are wiped out completely. Esther goes to the king and tells him of Haman’s plan, and that she herself is of Jewish descent, and the king puts a stop to the whole ordeal. The interesting part of this whole thing (other than the fascinating story of the faith and courage of Esther) is that this was happening around 480 B.C. (see this timeline). Saul became king of Israel a little before 1000 B.C, which means that, had Saul wiped out the Amalekites 500 years earlier, the whole ordeal with Esther never would have been an issue. Sometimes not being obedient to God can come back to haunt us a lot more than we realize.
Now, my study of Genesis 36 this morning tried to induce me to think that Esau’s grandson, Amalek, was the founder of this group of people who lived in Canaan at the time that the Israelites came out of Egypt. I’m not 100% sure this is the case. For instance, in Numbers 24:20 it says “…Amalek was first among nations…”, and in Genesis 14 it refers to “the land of the Amalekites” long before Esau was ever around…in fact, Esau’s father Isaac wasn’t even born yet. Perhaps this grandson of Esau was only named after this group of people, instead of the group being named after him. But of course, it is possible that whoever wrote this passage in Genesis 14 was only referring to an area based on what it was known as at a later time…like I might do if I were explaining where a Native American tribe lived before Europeans took over America by saying “They lived in what is now known as Oklahoma…” Either way, Genesis 36 does say that Amalek was a “chief” in v. 16, which I assume means that he was a leader of a group of people that took that name from that point, regardless of whether it was the same group of people or not.
Another interesting point about the Amalekites is the meaning of their name. One source I read said that the Hebrew word for Amalek (which I couldn’t read of course – see it here) doesn’t really exist, but that it may be a compound of the words ‘am, which means nation or people, and the word malaq, which means to nip or wring, but not severing completely (malaq is used in Leviticus 1:15 and 5:8, where a bird’s head is wrung but not severed completely). Perhaps Amalek means “the people who wring,” or were known for cutting people’s heads off (but maybe not completely severing…). This is pretty speculative, of course. Another source talked about how, in Arabic, a similar word – ʿimlāq, or plural ʿamālīq – means giants, possibly suggesting that the Amalekites were large people, perhaps the same “descendants of Anak” that the Israelite scouts saw in Numbers 13 that were supposedly giants. Again, lots of speculation…
One final thought on this war between the nations of Israel and Amalek. Some Jewish people still believe that the Amalekites exist, and have assimilated into the nations that surround them. For instance, in one article I read, it said that many Jews believe that the Palestinians that share Jerusalem and much of the land of Israel with the Jews are actually Amalekites (see here). Others, such as the writer at this site, take a more inward approach by stating that there is a little Amalekite in all of us that we must learn to fight off and kill to live happier lives. Of course, that may be a little too much psycho-babble for me… One thing he did say that I found interesting, and might actually line up with the first view that some nations today are actually descended from Amalek, is that “The Amalekites took any opportunity to attack Jews for absolutely no reason. There was no land dispute or provocation that caused this hatred – it was an intrinsic pathological need to destroy G‑d’s people.” And there definitely seems to be a good amount of that going on in the world today…especially in the Middle East.