Is the command to wipe out the memory of Amalek immoral?

In the Book of Exodus, it is written that God says (Exodus 17, 14) – “I will utterly wipe out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven”. In the Book of Deuteronomy (25, 19) it is a commandment incumbent upon the people Israel to wipe out the memory of Amalek – “you shall wipe out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven”. This commandment has been widely understood, and in my eyes widely misunderstood, as a commandment to exterminate the Amalekite people. This is indeed the way that Samuel the prophet understands the command in telling Saul, the first king of Israel (1 Samuel 15, 3) – “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not, but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass”. In the Book of Samuel (1 Samuel 15, 2), though, it is written that Samuel says that God has commanded the extermination of the Amalekites – but, the Book of Samuel does not say that God has so commanded.

I want to point out that in the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses), in the plain meaning of Scripture (Deuteronomy 25, 19), the command is not to wipe out the Amalekites but to wipe out the memory of Amalek. Samuel the prophet clearly understands the command in a literal sense of wiping out the Amalekite people without distinction between innocent and guilty and including women and children. In my view, this is a misunderstanding on the part of Samuel – and, it is indeed possible for a prophet to misunderstand the will of God.

The great example of a Biblical prophet who in the plain meaning of Scripture misunderstands the will of God is the prophet Jonah. Jonah is commanded by God to preach against the wickedness of the city of Ninveh, which was an enemy of the Israelites. However, the people of Ninveh repent, and God decides not to destroy the city. Jonah becomes distressed that God does not destroy the city. As a person of truth (and, in the opening verse of the Book of Jonah, Jonah is called Jonah the son of Amitay, and the name Amitay contains within it the term truth), Jonah is distressed that strict justice is not being served, for Ninveh is deserving of punishment for its wickedness. When waiting to see what will happen to the city, God makes a plant grow to shelter Jonah from the sun, and then causes the plant to shrivel up, grieving Jonah. The book concludes with God telling Jonah that if he is concerned about a plant, which he did not work for or grow, should not God be concerned about Ninveh! Thus, the book concludes with God teaching Jonah that God is much more a God of caring and compassion than strict justice and truth.

Moreover, there is a Talmudic commentary (Brachot 55a) which attempts to explain why in the Book of Exodus Betzalel in carrying out the instructions of Moses in building the Tabernacle did not follow the instructions of Moses. The instructions that Moses receives from God (Exodus 25 – 30) as part of the Divine revelation on Sinai are that first is the making of the ark, followed by the making of the vessels (furniture of the Tabernacle) and lastly the building of the Tabernacle. Later, when Betzalel carries out the instructions of Moses (Exodus 35 – 40), Betzalel changes the order – first building the Tabernacle, followed by the making of the ark and lastly the making of the vessels. According to the Talmudic commentary, Betzalel suggested to Moses that the instructions of Moses are not logical for if Betzalel builds the Tabernacle last, as Moses understood (or, misunderstood, according to this Talmudic commentary), then Betzalel will have no place to put the ark and vessels, which are holy – and, Betzalel thus suggests, and Moses agrees, that he must first build the Tabernacle followed by the ark and vessels so that he can put the ark and vessels in the Tabernacle. According to this Talmudic commentary, Moses, the greatest Biblical prophet, misunderstood the will of God regarding the building of the Tabernacle, ark and vessels – and, Moses was corrected by Betzalel.

If we return to Samuel the prophet, there are three differences between his understanding of the command regarding Amalek and the command (Deuteronomy 25, 19) of the Torah. First, Samuel understands the command regarding Amalek in a literal and nationalistic sense as referring to the Amalek nation requiring extermination of the Amalekites. However, the command in the Torah is to wipe out the memory of Amalek, and not to wipe out the Amalekites – and, the language of the Torah thus lends itself to a metaphoric understanding of wiping out the memory of Amalek in the sense of overcoming evil of which Amalek is a symbol.

Second, if the command regarding Amalek is understood, like Samuel, in a literal sense of extermination of a particular nation, then the commandment of the Torah no longer applies – as, we can no longer identify such a people Amalek. Yet, the command regarding Amalek stands out not only in the Torah as a central commandment but it stands out also in the Jewish tradition in connection with Purim. On the Sabbath before Purim, called Shabbat Zachor (the Sabbath of remembrance), we read the passage from Deuteronomy (25, 17-19) in which the command to wipe out the memory of Amalek is given to the people Israel – and, on Purim itself we read the passage from Exodus in which it is written (Exodus 17, 14-16) that God will wipe out the memory of Amalek.

Third, in the passage from Exodus (and, this is the biggest problem, in my eyes, with the understanding of Samuel) it is written that God has a war with Amalek “from generation to generation” (Exodus 17, 16). If the command to wipe out the memory of Amalek is understood as extermination, and the Amalek nation is exterminated, then God cannot have war with Amalek “from generation to generation” as written explicitly in the Torah.

If we examine the two passages (Exodus 17, 14-16) and Deuteronomy (25, 17-19), there is clear textual evidence that the command to wipe out the memory of Amalek is meant not literally but metaphorically – and, that Amalek is a symbol of evil. Before looking at the passages, though, I want to emphasize that I am not engaging here in apologetics and attempting to rationalize a difficult Biblical passage. In the Torah, in the plain meaning of Scripture, there is an explicit command of God to take vengeance upon the Midianites that included killing the entire male population and some of the women (Numbers 31, 2-18). In my eyes, such a command, in the plain meaning of Scripture, is immoral – and, in the plain meaning of Scripture a decree of God can be evil, such as in the story of the golden calf in which the decree of God to destroy the Jewish people is explicitly termed evil and God repents of the decree (Exodus 32, 14). But, the command to wipe out the memory of Amalek is not an explicit command to kill or to wipe out the Amalekites – it is a command to wipe out the memory of Amalek.

In the passage from Deuteronomy, there is a historical and religious explanation of why Amalek is a symbol of evil. The historical explanation is that the Amalekites attacked the tired and weak of the Israelites in the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt (Deuteronomy 25, 17-18). The religious explanation is that the Amalekites thus displayed a lack of fear of God (Deuteronomy 25, 18). The term fear of God is a central religious concept of the Hebrew Bible. The Biblical concept is not a theological concept requiring belief in a propositional sense (such as belief that God exist or is provident) but a moral concept – “fear of God is the hatred of evil” (Proverbs 8, 13). Notice that according to this moral and anti-theological conception of fear of God of the Book of Proverbs one who believes that God exists, and believes that God is provident, may not hate evil and may live an immoral life – and, conversely, one may be a devout atheist, and yet hate evil and live a truly righteous life displaying fear of God in the Biblical conception. Fear of God is displayed not in philosophic declarations and not in the holding of correct theological propositions but in the living of a moral life. What emerges then from this passage of Deuteronomy relating to Amalek is that Amalek is a symbol of hatred and immorality who in the Biblical conception lacks fear of God.

In the passage from Exodus, Moses says – “The hand upon the throne of the Lord, the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17, 16). Strikingly the word throne (כס) is not complete and the last letter of the word (כסא) is missing – and, the name of God (YHVH) translated as the Lord is also written incomplete (YH). In my view, this is teaching that as long as evil exists, symbolized by Amalek, then the throne of God is incomplete and the very name of God is incomplete.

The essence of the revelation in the story of the burning bush (Exodus 3, 1-17) is the revealing to Moses of the name of God, YHVH. The name YHVH signifies that God is a moral God of revelation and redemption, as reflected in the revelation to Moses at the burning bush – “Thus shall you say to the children of Israel, the Lord (YHVH) God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you; this is My name for ever…I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt” (Exodus 3, 15-16). YHVH, in the verse here, is depicted as having seen the oppression and persecution that the people Israel have suffered in Egypt, and the mentioning that YHVH is the name of God in the verse signifies God’s moral opposition to such oppression and persecution. Thus, in the passage from Exodus regarding Amalek, the name of God, signifying that God demands morality, and the throne (dominion) of God are incomplete as long as evil, symbolized by Amalek, exists.

There is a central idea of the Jewish tradition, which has deep roots in the Bible – the repair of the world. The Biblical roots of the concept of repair of the world are in the opening account of the creation of the universe. After God creates the universe, God says “behold, it is very good” (Genesis 1, 31). Strikingly, God does not proclaim that the world is perfect or even excellent but merely very good – meaning less than perfect, or imperfect in need of repair and improvement. The human being created in the image of God is the only animal who has the power to repair and improve – to take what is God given such as wheat and to transform it into something even better such as bread. God creates a world then that is imperfect in need of repair – especially in overcoming evil and immorality.

I want to suggest then that the verse from Exodus (17, 16) is teaching that the throne (dominion) of God and the very name of God (signifying that God demands morality) are incomplete as long as Amalek exists. The command incumbent upon the people Israel (Deuteronomy 25, 19) to wipe out the memory of Amalek is a commandment to repair the world by overcoming evil, symbolized by Amalek – and, the repair of the world, and the overcoming of evil symbolized by Amalek, will in turn repair the throne of God and the very name of God that are incomplete until the memory of Amalek is wiped out.

About the Author
Jeffrey Radon is a teacher of Jewish studies and the author of the internet site - www.orthopraxjudaism.com - a site devoted to Jewish studies in a democratic spirit. He studied over 10 years in yeshivot in Israel. He has a teaching degree as a teacher of Jewish studies from Achva (brotherhood) College, a small secular teachers' college in Israel, and a master's degree in Jewish philosophy (from Bar Illan University in Israel). He also has a master's degree in educational psychology (from the Israeli branch of Northeastern University in the United States), as well as certification as a marriage counselor and mediator.
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