Amalek: A Pawn in the Rivalry Between Saul and David’s Legacy
Soon after their departure from Egypt, the Israelites are attacked at Rephidim by the Amalekites, a semi-nomadic people (Exod 17:8). After the Israelites defeat their attackers, YHWH paradoxically commands Moses to write on a scroll the promise to erase the memory of Amalek. Moses then swears that YHWH will be eternally at war against Amalek, implying that their remembrance will never be erased:
שׁמות יז:יד וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה כְּתֹב זֹאת זִכָּרוֹן בַּסֵּפֶר וְשִׂים בְּאָזְנֵי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ כִּי מָחֹה אֶמְחֶה אֶת זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם.... יז:טז וַיֹּאמֶר כִּי יָד עַל כֵּס יָהּ מִלְחָמָה לַי־הוָה בַּעֲמָלֵק מִדֹּר דֹּר.
Exod 17:14 Then YHWH said to Moses, “Inscribe this in a book as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!”…. 17:16 He (Moses) said, “For a hand is upon the throne of YHWH! YHWH will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.”
This seeming paradox continues in the retelling of the event in the book of Deuteronomy, where the Amalekites are declared to be Israel's archrival from the past who must be annihilated, this time as a mission to be fulfilled by Israel themselves:
דברים כה:יט ...תִּמְחֶה אֶת זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם לֹא תִּשְׁכָּח.
Deut 25:19 …you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
Earlier in the passage, Deuteronomy offers two additional reasons that do not appear in Exodus for this attitude toward Amalek: 1. The Amalekites used the cruel tactic of targeting the weak tail-end of the pack; 2. They do not fear God:
דברים כה: יח זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם. כה:יח אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחַרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱלֹהִים.
Deut 25:17 Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—25:18 how he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear; and he did not fear God.
Thus, the call to obliterate the Amalekites is not mere revenge but is also presented as a response to their wicked nature.
The Israelites have negative encounters with other nations on their way to the Promised Land—they fight wars with the Midianites (Num 31) and the Amorites (Num 21:21–35), and Balak King of Moab tries to have them cursed (Num 22–24)—and yet, only the Amalekites become YHWH’s eternal enemies. Even the Egyptians, who enslave the Israelites and throw their baby boys into the Nile (Exod 1:22), are protected according to the Deuteronomic law (23:8b–9).
Amalek in Genesis
References to Amalek elsewhere in the Torah do not carry this same animus. Amalek first appears in Genesis 14 in the story of the battle of the four kings in the days of Abraham; there they are mentioned as a group living south of Canaan and attacked by the invading army (Gen 14:7). Later in Genesis, Amalek appears as a grandson of Esau:
בראשית לו:יב וְתִמְנַע הָיְתָה פִילֶגֶשׁ לֶאֱלִיפַז בֶּן עֵשָׂו וַתֵּלֶד לֶאֱלִיפַז אֶת עֲמָלֵק...
Gen 36:12 Timna was a concubine of Esau’s son Eliphaz; she bore Amalek to Eliphaz…
Amalek is then mentioned as just another of Esau’s clans:
בראשית לו:טו אֵלֶּה אַלּוּפֵי בְנֵי עֵשָׂו בְּנֵי אֱלִיפַז בְּכוֹר עֵשָׂו אַלּוּף תֵּימָן אַלּוּף אוֹמָר אַלּוּף צְפוֹ אַלּוּף קְנַז. לו:טז אַלּוּף קֹרַח אַלּוּף גַּעְתָּם אַלּוּף עֲמָלֵק אֵלֶּה אַלּוּפֵי אֱלִיפַז בְּאֶרֶץ אֱדוֹם...
Gen 36:15 These are the clans of the children of Esau. The descendants of Esau's first-born Eliphaz: the clans Teman, Omar, Zepho, Kenaz, 36:16 Korah, Gatam, and Amalek; these are the clans of Eliphaz in the land of Edom…
This tradition of Amalek as Esau’s grandson is incongruous with the mention of the existence of an Amalekite group already in the time of Abraham (Esau’s grandfather), but it reflects a belief about the distant familial bond between Amalek and Israel. The description of Amalek as the son of a concubine, as opposed to a wife, implies a lower status than other clans of Esau, as does their placement as the last group in the Eliphaz clan list, but nothing sinister about Amalek is implied here.
Amalek in Numbers
Even after the recounting of war in Rephidim in Exodus 17, Amalek is presented as simply one of the nations that Israel would need to defeat to enter the land. Thus, the spies complain:
במדבר יג:כח אֶפֶס כִּי עַז הָעָם הַיֹּשֵׁב בָּאָרֶץ וְהֶעָרִים בְּצֻרוֹת גְּדֹלֹת מְאֹד וְגַם יְלִדֵי הָעֲנָק רָאִינוּ שָׁם. יג:כט עֲמָלֵק יוֹשֵׁב בְּאֶרֶץ הַנֶּגֶב וְהַחִתִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי וְהָאֱמֹרִי יוֹשֵׁב בָּהָר וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי יֹשֵׁב עַל הַיָּם וְעַל יַד הַיַּרְדֵּן.
Num 13:28 However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw giants there. 13:29 Amalekites dwell in the Negeb region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan.
Later in this story, when YHWH warns Moses to lead the people away from the land, YHWH mentions Amalekites alongside Canaanites, without marking them as special in any way (Num 14:25). Moses also treats Amalekites and Canaanites as a pair in his message to the Israelites about to enter the land (Num 14:43), as does the narrator when mentioning those Israelites who attempt to enter the land, and are defeated by them:
במדבר יד:מה וַיֵּרֶד הָעֲמָלֵקִי וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי הַיֹּשֵׁב בָּהָר הַהוּא וַיַּכּוּם וַיַּכְּתוּם עַד הַחָרְמָה.
Num 14:45 And the Amalekites and the Canaanites who dwelt in that hill country came down and dealt them a shattering blow at Hormah.
Balaam and the Powerful Amalekites
After Balaam curses the Moabites and Edomites, he turns to Amalek:
במדבר כד:כ וַיַּרְא אֶת עֲמָלֵק וַיִּשָּׂא מְשָׁלוֹ וַיֹּאמַר רֵאשִׁית גּוֹיִם עֲמָלֵק וְאַחֲרִיתוֹ עֲדֵי אֹבֵד.
Num 24:20 He saw Amalek and, taking up his theme, he said: A leading nation is Amalek; but its fate is to perish forever.
Next, Balaam moves on to the Kenites. Thus, Amalek is just one of several nations that Balaam predicts Israel will crush in the future. Balaam’s description of Amalek as a leading nation fits with his earlier reference to the Amalekite king Agag as an important ruler whom Israel’s ruler will eventually surpass:
במדבר כד:ז ...וְיָרֹם מֵאֲגַג מַלְכּוֹ וְתִנַּשֵּׂא מַלְכֻתוֹ.
Num 24:7 …Their king shall rise above Agag, their kingdom shall be exalted.
The verse is likely foreshadowing King Saul’s defeat of Agag described in Samuel (see below) and seems to describe the Amalekite king as a respected opponent.
Amalek in Judges
In the book of Judges, Amalekites appear alongside other enemies. Eglon king of Moab joins forces with the Ammonites and Amalekites to oppress the Israelites (Judg 3:13). Similarly, in the opening of the Gideon story, we hear that the Midianites bring the Amalekites along for their raids on the Israelite crops:
שופטים ו:ג וְהָיָה אִם זָרַע יִשְׂרָאֵל וְעָלָה מִדְיָן וַעֲמָלֵק וּבְנֵי קֶדֶם וְעָלוּ עָלָיו.
Judg 6:3 After the Israelites had done their sowing, Midian, Amalek, and the Kedemites would come up and raid them.
Again, the Amalekites appear as a kind of second fiddle to the main enemies in the story. When YHWH rebukes Israel before the Jephthah story, Amalek is mentioned as just one of many enemies that made the Israelites suffer:
שופטים י:יא וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הֲלֹא מִמִּצְרַיִם וּמִן הָאֱמֹרִי וּמִן בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן וּמִן פְּלִשְׁתִּים. י:יב וְצִידוֹנִים וַעֲמָלֵק וּמָעוֹן לָחֲצוּ אֶתְכֶם וַתִּצְעֲקוּ אֵלַי וָאוֹשִׁיעָה אֶתְכֶם מִיָּדָם.
Judg 10:11 But YHWH said to the Israelites, “I have rescued you from the Egyptians, from the Amorites, from the Ammonites, and from the Philistines. 10:12 The Sidonians, Amalek, and Maon also oppressed you; and when you cried out to Me, I saved you from them…”
Saul and Amalek
When summarizing Saul’s military achievements as king, Amalek is similarly listed as one of the many enemies Saul dealt with:
שׁמואל א יד:מז וְשָׁאוּל לָכַד הַמְּלוּכָה עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּלָּחֶם סָבִיב בְּכָל אֹיְבָיו בְּמוֹאָב וּבִבְנֵי עַמּוֹן וּבֶאֱדוֹם וּבְמַלְכֵי צוֹבָה וּבַפְּלִשְׁתִּים וּבְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יִפְנֶה יַרְשִׁיעַ. יד:מח וַיַּעַשׂ חַיִל וַיַּךְ אֶת עֲמָלֵק וַיַּצֵּל אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל מִיַּד שֹׁסֵהוּ.
1 Sam 14:47 When Saul had taken the kingship over Israel, he fought against all his enemies on every side—against Moab, against the Ammonites, against Edom, against the kings of Zobah, and against the Philistines; wherever he turned he routed them. 14:48 He did valiantly, and struck down the Amalekites, and rescued Israel out of the hands of those who plundered them.
While the text does present Amalek separately from the others, it doesn’t describe them as having a special status as the ultimate enemy against whom YHWH has sworn to fight generation after generation. The next chapter, however, does seem to know of Amalek’s special status, as it opens with Samuel conveying to Saul the divine command to destroy the Amalekites, and thus avenge what they did to Israel in the wilderness:
שׁמואל א טו:ב כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת פָּקַדְתִּי אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה עֲמָלֵק לְיִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר שָׂם לוֹ בַּדֶּרֶךְ בַּעֲלֹתוֹ מִמִּצְרָיִם. טו:ג עַתָּה לֵךְ וְהִכִּיתָה אֶת עֲמָלֵק וְהַחֲרַמְתֶּם אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ וְלֹא תַחְמֹל עָלָיו וְהֵמַתָּה מֵאִישׁ עַד אִשָּׁה מֵעֹלֵל וְעַד יוֹנֵק מִשּׁוֹר וְעַד שֶׂה מִגָּמָל וְעַד חֲמוֹר.
1 Sam 15:2 Thus said YHWH of Hosts: I am exacting the penalty for what Amalek did to Israel, for the assault he made upon them on the road, on their way up from Egypt. 15:3 Now go, attack Amalek, and proscribe all that belongs to him. Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses!
The timing of this command works with Deuteronomy’s claim that the destruction of Amalek can take place when וְהָיָה בְּהָנִיחַ יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ מִכָּל אֹיְבֶיךָ מִסָּבִיב “...YHWH your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you” (Deut 25:19). According to the passage in chapter 14 quoted above, Saul has defeated these enemies, so it is now time to turn Israel’s attention to this ancient enemy. Saul accepts the mission and gathers a tremendous army:
שמואל א טו:ד וַיְשַׁמַּע שָׁאוּל אֶת הָעָם וַיִּפְקְדֵם בַּטְּלָאִים מָאתַיִם אֶלֶף רַגְלִי וַעֲשֶׂרֶת אֲלָפִים אֶת אִישׁ יְהוּדָה. טו:ה וַיָּבֹא שָׁאוּל עַד עִיר עֲמָלֵק וַיָּרֶב בַּנָּחַל.
1 Sam 15:4 Saul mustered the troops and enrolled them at Telaim: 200,000 men on foot, and 10,000 men of Judah. 15:5 Then Saul advanced as far as the city of Amalek and lay in wait in the wadi.
After warning Israel’s allies, the Kenites, to leave the area (v. 6), Saul attacks, and deals Amalek a crushing blow:
שמואל א טו:ז וַיַּךְ שָׁאוּל אֶת עֲמָלֵק מֵחֲוִילָה בּוֹאֲךָ שׁוּר אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי מִצְרָיִם. טו:ח וַיִּתְפֹּשׂ אֶת אֲגַג מֶלֶךְ עֲמָלֵק חָי וְאֶת כָּל הָעָם הֶחֱרִים לְפִי חָרֶב.
1 Sam 15:7 Saul destroyed Amalek from Havilah all the way to Shur, which is close to Egypt, 15:8 and he captured King Agag of Amalek alive. He proscribed all the people, putting them to the sword.
The text continues with Saul keeping the best of the animals as booty (v. 9). While Saul sees this as an overwhelming victory (v. 13)—he even “builds himself a monument” (מַצִּיב לוֹ יָד) ostensibly to commemorate the victory (v. 12)—YHWH tells Samuel that he regrets having made Saul king. The reason is that Saul kept Agag alive and did not slaughter all the animals as he had been commanded (vv. 10–11); and Samuel communicates the message to Saul (vv. 16–19, 22–23). At first Saul defends himself (vv. 20–21), but eventually repents of his error (v. 24–25). Nevertheless, Samuel insists that YHWH is rejecting him (v. 26), and executes King Agag himself, since Saul has neglected to do so (vv. 32–33).
Amalek in the David Story
Saul’s destruction of the Amalekite city is hardly the final mention of Amalek in the book of Samuel. A few chapters later, in the stories about David’s time as ruler in Ziklag under the thumb of Achish, the king of Philistine Gath, Amalek is again depicted as just one of several of Israel’s neighboring foes whom David raids:
שמואל א כז:ח וַיַּעַל דָּוִד וַאֲנָשָׁיו וַיִּפְשְׁטוּ אֶל הַגְּשׁוּרִי (והגרזי) [וְהַגִּזְרִי] וְהָעֲמָלֵקִי כִּי הֵנָּה יֹשְׁבוֹת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר מֵעוֹלָם בּוֹאֲךָ שׁוּרָה וְעַד אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. כז:ט וְהִכָּה דָוִד אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְלֹא יְחַיֶּה אִישׁ וְאִשָּׁה וְלָקַח צֹאן וּבָקָר וַחֲמֹרִים וּגְמַלִּים וּבְגָדִים...
1 Sam 27:8 David and his men went up and raided the Geshurites, the Gizrites, and the Amalekites, who had been the inhabitants of the region forever, all the way to Shur and to the land of Egypt. 27:9 When David attacked a region, he would leave no man or woman alive; he would take flocks, herds, asses, camels, and clothing…
Notably, David takes animals and clothing as booty here, and slaughters men, women, and children. The slaughtering is not presented as a response to YHWH’s instructions, but rather as serving a practical function, to allow David to pretend that he was attacking his fellow Judahites and their allies without any captives alive to contradict him:
שמואל א כז:ט ...וַיָּשָׁב וַיָּבֹא אֶל אָכִישׁ. כז:י וַיֹּאמֶר אָכִישׁ אַל פְּשַׁטְתֶּם הַיּוֹם וַיֹּאמֶר דָּוִד עַל נֶגֶב יְהוּדָה וְעַל נֶגֶב הַיַּרְחְמְאֵלִי וְאֶל נֶגֶב הַקֵּינִי. כז:יא וְאִישׁ וְאִשָּׁה לֹא יְחַיֶּה דָוִד לְהָבִיא גַת לֵאמֹר פֶּן יַגִּדוּ עָלֵינוּ לֵאמֹר כֹּה עָשָׂה דָוִד...
1 Sam 27:9 … When he returned and came to Achish, 27:10 Achish would ask, “Where did you raid today?” and David would reply, “The Negeb of Judah,” or “the Negeb of the Jerahmeelites,” or “the Negeb of the Kenites.” 27:11 David would leave no man or woman alive to be brought to Gath; for he thought, “They might tell about us: David did this.”
Nothing here singles out the Amalekites, as all of these tribes are treated the same way. At one point, when David is at Gath, his own city is raided by Amalekites:
שמואל א ל:א וַיְהִי בְּבֹא דָוִד וַאֲנָשָׁיו צִקְלַג בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי וַעֲמָלֵקִי פָשְׁטוּ אֶל נֶגֶב וְאֶל צִקְלַג וַיַּכּוּ אֶת צִקְלַג וַיִּשְׂרְפוּ אֹתָהּ בָּאֵשׁ. ל:ב וַיִּשְׁבּוּ אֶת הַנָּשִׁים אֲשֶׁר בָּהּ מִקָּטֹן וְעַד גָּדוֹל לֹא הֵמִיתוּ אִישׁ וַיִּנְהֲגוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ לְדַרְכָּם.
1 Sam 30:1 By the time David and his men arrived in Ziklag, on the third day, the Amalekites had made a raid into the Negeb and against Ziklag; they had stormed Ziklag and burned it down. 30:2 They had taken the women in it captive, low-born and high-born alike; they did not kill any, but carried them off and went their way.
In contrast to David’s behavior, the Amalekites do not slaughter the inhabitants of Ziklag, but take them as slaves. After consulting with YHWH through the priest’s ephod, David gives chase, and his army surprises the Amalekites and defeats them:
שׁמואל א ל:יז וַיַּכֵּם דָּוִד מֵהַנֶּשֶׁף וְעַד הָעֶרֶב לְמָחֳרָתָם וְלֹא נִמְלַט מֵהֶם אִישׁ כִּי אִם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת אִישׁ נַעַר אֲשֶׁר רָכְבוּ עַל הַגְּמַלִּים וַיָּנֻסוּ.
1 Sam 30:17 David attacked them from before dawn until the evening of the next day; none of them escaped, except four hundred young men who mounted camels and got away.
The text does not present Amalek as a special enemy of David, nor as a pursued target of YHWH, but as we saw in Numbers and Judges, they are one of the many enemies of Israel. What, then, are we to make of the story of Saul’s attack on the Amalekite city in 1 Samuel 15, which is working with a very different model of Amalek’s status vis-à-vis Israel and YHWH?
Undermining Saul’s Victory
The tension in the story between Saul’s military success and his religious failure masks the story’s literary development. It is probable that YHWH had no role in the older version of Saul’s war against Amalek, before it was reworked by the redactor of 1Samuel 15. I suggest (all or part of) verses 4–9 are the core of the older story, which told how Saul fought against Amalek on his own initiative; he struck them just as he had struck other enemies of Israel as listed in chapter 14.
The war story in the chapter relates Saul chasing the Amalekites from their home territory all the way down to the border of Egypt, killing whomever he can, and taking the booty for himself and his men. This is not unlike David’s taking the booty from the Amalekites as would be mentioned later in the narrative (1 Sam 27:9), and again when he chases the Amalekites down after their raid on Ziklag (1 Sam 30:20).
But the account of Saul’s defeat of Amalek was then revised to include an introduction, with YHWH specifically telling Saul to proscribe (cherem) all the animals. This made Saul’s not doing so—which would not have been an issue in the core story—a direct violation of YHWH’s command, and allowed for Samuel’s dramatic confrontation of Saul, ending with Saul’s painful humiliation.
A Davidic Polemic
The fact that both David and Saul have a story about how they defeated the Amalekites is no coincidence. Saul and David represent two different dynasties, whose founding figures competed—whether in reality, or in the minds of their later adherents, or both—for the identification and legacy as the founder of the monarchy in Israel.
The claim inherent in the core story of Saul defeating Amalek undercuts David’s achievement. If Saul had already destroyed the Amalekite city, then the Amalekites David fights in the Negev, and who raid his city of Ziklag, can be nothing more than leftover escapees from Saul’s almost total victory earlier in his reign.
It is possible that the story of Saul’s triumph was written to overshadow David’s narrative. Alternatively, it is possible that the two stories were freestanding traditions. But when the accounts of the two early kings were combined, and their wars with Amalek placed sequentially in one narrative arc, the story of Saul’s triumph overshadowed that of David. In either case, it was the pro-Davidic scribes, responsible for much of the book of Samuel, who eventually won this monarch contest, turning the success of Saul on its head. This was their retaliation.
While maintaining the core story about Saul’s military achievement, these scribes added the framing about the divine command and the punishment for its violation. Thus, what was at one stage a pro-Saulide narrative about a war achievement turned into an indictment against Saul, which consisted of a religious justification for the future loss of his dynasty.
The Memory of Amalek: A Pawn in Israel’s Political Discourse
The legacy war between the Saulide and Davidic scribes had a profound effect on the place of Amalek in Israelite consciousness. Historically speaking, the conflict with Amalek was likely nothing out of the ordinary at first, and this is reflected in how they are remembered in many biblical texts, i.e., just another group whom Israel fought with. The decision of the pro-David scribes to turn Saul’s military victory into a religious defeat changed this picture.
In the final form of 1 Samuel 15, Amalek was no longer presented as just another enemy, but as a group so anathema to YHWH, that anything less that total destruction to the last sheep and goat was deemed an abject failure. The text had to explain this divine wrath, and did so by telling about an early wilderness battle in Israel’s prehistory in which Amalek was so offensive to YHWH that he could not forgive them.
This command made its way into Exodus, with the oath that war with Amalek would be fought throughout the ages. Deuteronomy, with the account of Amalek’s cruelty in attacking the weak and defenseless first, is a further elaboration of this perspective.
In the end, the texts about Amalek’s role as YHWH’s ultimate enemy reveal little about the historical Amalek and much more about the politics and ideology of their opponents. The Israelite scribes used the legacy about Amalek’s defeat in the time of Saul and David as a virtual battleground in the conflict over the question of who was Israel’s legitimate founding monarch.
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Dr. Gili Kugler is a Senior Lecturer of Biblical Studies in the University of Haifa. Until recently she was a lecturer in Biblical Studies and Classical Hebrew at the University of Sydney. She holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and teaches and writes about topics such as chosenness in biblical theology, religion and politics in prophecy, and biblical narratives and mythology in light of modern psychology. She is the author of several articles as well as the book When God Wanted to Destroy the Chosen People: Biblical Traditions and Theology on the Move (De Gruyter, 2019).
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