Regina Sandler-Phillips
Renewing ways of peace in a world on fire

Amalek, Part 2: Questioning Genocide

King Saul rejected by the prophet Samuel for sparing the Amalekite king, flocks and herds | Bible Card, Providence Lithograph Company, 1902 (Detail) | Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
King Saul rejected by the prophet Samuel for sparing the Amalekite king, flocks and herds | Bible Card, Providence Lithograph Company, 1902 (Detail) | Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In “Amalek: Wiping the Mirror Clean” I noted that this archetypal enemy originally appears as a rejected family member in the book of Genesis. I also explored longstanding moral questions about the later Deuteronomy commandment to remember him: 

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, in your going-out from Egypt. What befell you on the way, and he tailed you, all the weakened-ones behind you; and you, weary and exhausted — and not revering God.

Some early rabbis suggest that the Israelitesrather than the Amalekiteswere the ones not revering God.” This equivocal retelling of the battle in Exodus raises questions of how the Israelite leadership left its most vulnerable members exposed to attack.

Recent charges by International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague have propelled the moral questions of Amalek to the world stage.  The ICJ charging document devotes many pages to allegations of public incitement to genocide by Israeli leaders, starting with the Prime Minister. His quoting of Deuteronomy is conflated with a later passage from First Samuel that he did not quote (although neither passage is cited specifically):

On 28 October 2023, as Israeli forces prepared their land invasion of Gaza, the Prime Minister invoked the Biblical story of the total destruction of Amalek by the Israelites, stating: ‘you must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible. And we do remember’. The Prime Minister referred again to Amalek in the letter sent on 3 November 2023 to Israeli soldiers and officers. The relevant biblical passage reads as follows: ‘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’.

“This false and preposterous charge reflects a deep historical ignorance,” declared the Prime Minister’s office in response. While it may have been disingenuous for Israel’s accusers to conflate Biblical passages in making their case at the ICJ, it is not clear that historical ignorance is at issue.

After all, these very same passages have been linked for thousands of years in the traditional Jewish readings for Shabbat Zakhor, the annual Sabbath of Remembrance before the holiday of Purim. Every year on Shabbat Zakhor, the First Samuel passage is read as an intentional commentary on the Deuteronomy passage quoted by the Prime Minister.

And regardless of whether or not one accepts the perspectives of the ICJ, the text of First Samuel 15 is certainly a “relevant biblical passage” where genocide is concerned. The prophet Samuels command to King Saul does not distinguish between combatants and civilians: “Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses” (15:3).

Saul obediently musters his troops and proceeds to Amalekite territory—where he pauses to call for evacuation of the intermingled Kenite people, so that they will not be slaughtered as well. He seems ambivalent. In smiting the Amalekites, Saul decides to spare the Amalekite king Agag as well as the choicest flocks and herds, and this ultimately costs Saul his own kingship. After denouncing Saul, Samuel demands that Agag be brought before him. Before hacking the Amalekite king to pieces, Samuel tells Agag: “Just as your sword bereaved women, so shall your mother be bereaved among women” (15:33).

Lest we think that the early rabbis who connected and highlighted these ancient passages harbored no concerns about their negative repercussions, a remarkable Talmud text teaches otherwise. In BT Yoma 22b Rabbi Mani imagines that, just before warning the Kenites to evacuate, Saul argues directly with God:

In the hour that the Blessed Holy One said to Saul [by way of Samuel]: Go and smite Amalek, Saul said: If Torah prescribes a ritual of atonement for one life taken, how much more so for all of these lives! And if a person sinned, how did a beast sin? And if adults sinned, how did children sin?

A heavenly voice tries to deflect this moral challenge with a partial verse from Ecclesiastes: “Do not be overly righteous.” It’s an unconvincing response, and the Talmud goes on to explore other verses and viewpoints without drawing firm conclusions. But the moral challenge remains—and it affirms the value of all lives, not only Jewish ones.

In responding to the ICJ, the office of the Prime Minister pointed out that the imperative to remember Amalek is enshrined in a Holocaust monument at The Hague itself. However, the historical contexts are very different. Amalek has now been invoked by the head of a sovereign State of Israel, after its powerful military and intelligence forces collectively failed to forestall the deadliest attack against Jews since the Holocaust. And Amalek has been invoked not for commemoration or accountability, but as a call to open-ended war with contradictory priorities and unclear strategies.

Nearly 20 weeks into this open-ended war, that head of state continues to pursue an illusion of “total victory” and to reject diplomatic efforts. Meanwhile, Israeli military intelligence advisors increasingly concede what international security experts have long predicted: Hamas cannot not be eliminated by military force alone. In the absence of negotiated political agreements, Hamas is liable to grow stronger over time. 

With each passing day, the illusion of “total victory” endangers not only hostages and IDF forces in Gaza, but the stability of the region generally. Growing numbers of traumatized October 7th survivors consider themselves abandoned a second time by the Israeli leadership that left them exposed to attack.

And the undeniable horrors of Palestinian civilian suffering raise the stakes of Rabbi Mani’s challenge. The Israelite ruler Saul was not a moral hero—but at least he showed ambivalence about pursuing the “total victory” of another people’s annihilation.

For more than two decades since the 9/11 attacks, I have been meeting with a wonderful group of Jewish, Black, Asian and Latino/a elders on the historic Lower East Side of New York City. Following one spirited discussion of the moral dilemmas of war, I was given the following handwritten note by Charlotte R (now of blessed memory):

World War 2: My uncle (7 years my senior) was a tail gunner based in Italy behind enemy lines. During a mission he shot down a German plane & was close enough to see the pilot’s face. In a letter to his mother (my Bubba) he related the incident & said he was tormented by the fact that—like my Bubba waiting for him—somewhere there was a German mother waiting for that pilot.

A young Jewish soldier’s compassion for a fallen Nazi pilot—as a mother’s son—was aroused by the sight of that enemy pilot’s human face. This quiet family legacy gives me much more hope for our Jewish humanity than does the violent public rhetoric of our prophet Samuel.

(“Just as your sword bereaved women, so shall your mother be bereaved among women” is also questionable. Since Samuel did not distinguish between Amalekite combatants and civilians, it is unlikely that Agag’s mother survived to mourn her son’s execution.)

We read First Samuel 15 every year before Purim because the unfinished extermination of the Amalekites is linked to Haman the Agagite, the murderous villain of the book of Esther. If reading about the near-extermination of the Amalekites before Purim is troubling, the recounting of vengeance wreaked upon Haman, his family and followers on Purim itself has proven even more troubling.

The final essay in this three-part series will commemorate a time when Biblical projections of Amalek onto contemporary Israeli realities reached one of their deadliest conclusions.

About the Author
Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips offers "How to Mourn AND Organize" programs through Ways of Peace Community Resources in Brooklyn, NY. She lived in Israel from 1989-1994, served in NYC leadership roles in the post-9/11 disaster relief, and coordinates an ongoing remote vigil for those lost to pandemics and wars. She sings in several languages.
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