Destroying Amalek



This article originally appeared as part of The Future of the Past Lab at UMN Classical & Near Eastern Religions & Cultures at:

Ancient texts are dangerous (1). The Bible, by which I mean the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, is especially dangerous when it informs political and ethical decisions. It would be irresponsible for us as teachers of the Bible and other ancient literature to teach only the sections that we find beautiful, uplifting, or morally just—but what should we do with the problematic parts? I would like to explore this matter by looking at the biblical texts that command the ethnic cleansing of the Amalekites, an issue that resonates with contemporary discourse.

Both Exodus 17:8-16 and Deuteronomy 25:17-19 discuss the genocide of Amalek. Exodus depicts an initial defeat of this wandering tribe, and explains that YHWH, the national God of Israel, “will utterly blot out the memory (Hebrew זֵכֶר) of Amalek from under heaven!” (2) (Exod 17:14). The shorter text in Deut 25:19 speaks more problematically not of YHWH obliterating Amalek, but of Israel’s obligation to “blot out the memory (again, זֵכֶר) of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” In a follow-up in 1 Samuel 15:3, Saul, Israel’s first king, is told by YHWH via the prophet Samuel, “Now go, attack Amalek, and proscribe [kill and dedicate to YHWH—MZB] (3) all that belongs to him. Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses!”

Marc Zvi Brettler

Duke University

Image: Israel Institute for Advanced Studies, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem 

These passages describe a complete ethnic cleansing (“kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings”) in retaliation for Amalek’s unprovoked attack on Israel when they “were famished and weary” (Deut 25:18). Such genocide, including even the youngest of children, is morally abhorrent; when we teach such texts, we must say so. This is a dangerous biblical text since it is being used, even now, to justify the wholesale murder of any person perceived to be an Amalekite. 

I am writing this several months after October 7, 2023, when the terrorist organization Hamas murdered over 1,200 Israelis and captured approximately 230 hostages. Hamas raped women and butchered children. Given the brutality of these events, some have written that all residents of Gaza, and in some cases, all Palestinians, are Amalek, and must be obliterated, young and old, men, women, and children (4). This is a dangerous claim, especially when it is applied even to men who opposed Hamas, and to women and children who were not involved in the pogrom and its aftermath.

As scholars of antiquity, we read texts carefully and try to recreate their most original form and meaning. Our scholarly training may suggest a very different understanding of the texts in Exodus and Deuteronomy. As noted above, both insist unequivocally (5) on blotting out the memory of Amalek. The Hebrew word used for “memory” is, in its consonantal form, זכר. This word is homonymic: זכר I means “memory,” (6) and זכר II, means “male.” The vowels of the text will usually determine the word’s correct translation. These vowel points were inserted into biblical texts only in the second half of the first millennium CE (7); they represent longstanding oral traditions, but are not always accurate. Perhaps the more original text was זְכַר, the likely construct form of זָכָר, “male” (from זכר II), (8) and mandated killing Amalekite adult males—namely the soldiers. This is certainly feasible because the Hebrew verb מחה/י (“blot out”) found in both the Exodus and Deuteronomy texts is used elsewhere to refer to killing people (9). It may thus be appropriate to understand this verse as unrelated to “memory,” but mandating killing all the (adult) males of Amalek.

I cannot prove that this was the original reading. But it has some benefits: It would make sense that (male) soldiers should be singled out (10) and removes the paradox that the current text presents of perpetually blotting out the memory of Amalek; this seems impossible if Amalek is completely forgotten (11)! Although to the best of my knowledge, modern critical scholars do not recognize that Exodus and Deuteronomy mandated killing only males, (12) the rabbis were well aware that זכר can be read as “males of.” An Aggadah (story) in the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Batra 21b) has Joab, David’s nephew and army officer, initially (mis)understand the word in this way (13). Yet, against this reading, “males” is attested in none of the ancient translations, (14) and 1 Samuel 15, where all Amalekites were killed, certainly understood זכר broadly as “memory” and not as just “males.” It may be laudable to solve a moral problem through emending, and appealing to a rabbinic text, but (sadly) it is far from certain that the original or very early text meant that only adult male Amalekites should be killed (15).

Another solution to the problematic mandate of ethnic cleansing is to look to its post- biblical Jewish treatment. One tradition in the Babylonian Talmud noted that the sons of Haman, who was descended from Amalek, (16) studied Torah in the town of Bnai Brak (b. Gittin 57b) (17)—for some in the rabbinic period, then, the commandment to kill all Amalekites was no longer valid. (18) The contemporary validity of the commandment to kill all Amalekites has been examined in detail in a responsum by Rabbi Professor David Golinken, who has noted a strong (but not unanimous) tendency in both halachic (Jewish legal) and commentary literature on the Bible to tone down, allegorize, or eliminate it. (19) For example, Arnold Eisen, Chancellor Emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary suggests that the commandment calls for our need “to change the world so thoroughly that the sort of evil attributed to Amalek becomes utterly inconceivable.” (20) This commandment to subject all Amalekites to genocide is less of a problem for neo-Marcionist Christians, (21) who reject Old Testament traditions (22).

It is quite possible that the original authors of the biblical passages did imagine killing all Amalekites. Even if we bowdlerize the biblical texts that we assign to students, some will discover these passages, so it is our responsibility to call these texts out. We might share with our students the following strategies for dealing with the problems in this (and similar) texts:

(1) The text presents ancient norms of war that are no longer applicable;

(2) the Hebrew was misvocalized, and the text originally mandated killing only adult male (combatants);

(3) the Amalekites may have never existed (23) and this is a type of theoretical law, never meant to be implemented (24);

(4) similar to the previous suggestion, the genocide of Amalek might be understood not as history, but on the basis of “a transference of fears of national destruction” or other psychological explanations (25);

(5) much of later Jewish tradition eliminated this commandment;

(6) Jewish tradition has never taken all parts of the Bible literally and with equal seriousness (26).

But whatever strategy or strategies we choose, we must condemn the ethnic cleansing that the text in its current form advocates. The biblical text risks serving as a dangerous and horrific model. We cannot be silent as our students read these and similar texts—or we, as educators, will have blood on our hands.

1. I would like to thank Tova Hartman, Nomi Landau, Tamar Miller, Tony Nguyen, Yoel Verete, and Jonas Weisse, and the students in my Academic Writing for Biblical Studies class at Duke University, for their help with this essay.

2. Biblical translations follow the NJPS, with some modifications.

3. See e.g. Deut 20:16-18; on this and similar חֵרֶם passages, see and Anthony Miller, A Theology of Genocide? Reading Deuteronomy 20, Hebrew Bible Monographs 99 (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2021). Note the term “sacred genocide” for the ḥerem (proscription or ban) used in Gili Kugler, “Metaphysical Hatred and Sacred Genocide: The Questionable Role of Amalek in Biblical Literature,” Journal of Genocide Research 23/1 (2021): 1-16.

4. The former Israeli cabinet officer Avigdor Lieberman proclaimed this view well before 2023; see On more recent comparisons of Hamas to Amalek, see e.g. and This claim of Netanyahu’s was cited at the recent genocide trial at the International Court of Justice; see e.g.

5. See the infinitive absolute in Exodus 17:14 and the doubling of “Remember…Do not forget!” in Deuteronomy 25:17-19.

6. On the meaning of this sense of the biblical word זכר, see the lexica and Willy Schottroff, “Gedenken” im Alten Orient und im Alten Testament (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1964), 285-292.

7. See Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, Revised and Expanded Fourth Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2022).

8 Oddly, this noun never appears in the construct in the Hebrew Bible, but based on general rules its construct form would be זְכַר, or possibly זֶֶכֶר; see below, n. 14.

9. See esp. its use in the flood narrative in Genesis 6:7, 7:4, 23. זכר I, “memory,” however, may also be appropriate; note that the verb מחה/י is used with the noun שֵׁם, “name,” in the sense of killing in e.g. Deut 29:19, and see Exodus 3:15b, where זכר and שֵׁם are parallel. On this, see Jeffrey H. Tigay, Deuteronomy, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996), 237n60: “‘Name’ is the most common meaning of Heb. zekher, like Akkadian zikru; see Exod. 3:15; Ps. 135:13; Prov. 10:7; Job 18:7.”

10. Note that the law in Deuteronomy 21:10-14 assumes that the enemy women are not killed in war.

11. This is articulated clearly, for example, by Ilana Kurshan at : “This commandment seems to contain two contradictory injunctions. On the one hand, we are told ‘remember’ and ‘do not forget.’ On the other hand, we are instructed to ‘blot out the memory of Amalek,’ which suggests that we should forget Amalek entirely, leaving not even a mental trace. Were we to successfully fulfill the second injunction, the first injunction would make no sense: How can we remember what has already been blotted out?”

12. The one exception I know is the laconic observation in Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994–2000), 270, s.v. זָכָר, which lists Ex 17:14, although that verse is also listed on 271 s.v. זֵכֶר.

13. See .

14. In theory, the construct form זֶֶכֶר found in some manuscripts could be a construct of זָכָר, “male” (see e.g. the construct of עָשָׁן in Exodus 19:18 as עֶשֶׁן) but the reading זֶֶכֶר is not found in any good early manuscripts; see the discussions in Mordechai Breuer, “Miqra‘ot sheyesh Behem Hechre‘a,” Megadim 10 (1990), 107-111 (Hebrew; I thank R. Elie Kaunfer for calling this to my attention), translated by Btzalel Shandelman, “Rav Mordechai Breuer’s ‘Doubts’ That Aren’t,” Ḥakirah 22 (2017), 83-92; and in greater detail, Jordan S. Penkower, “Minhag and Massorah: On the Recent Ashkenazic Custom of Double Vocalization of זכר עמלק (Deuteronomy 25:19),” Studies in Bible and Exegesis 4 (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University, 1997), 71-116 (Hebrew; Eng. Summary vii-ix; I thank Joseph C. Kaplan for calling this to my attention).

15. Translating זכר as “males” may be motivated by apologetic reasons, and apologetics and anachronism are, of course, the two cardinal sins that modern biblical scholars can commit.

16. See 1 Samuel 15:8, where the Amalekite king is an Agagite, and Esther 3:1, where Haman is called “Haman the Agagite.”

17. .

18. See the related tradition in m. Yadayim 4:4 that the Assyrian King Sennacherib (r. 705-681) comingled all the nations, so that the mandate to exterminate the nations native to Israel (see Deut 20:17-18) no longer applies. It is striking, however, that classical rabbinic sources never explicitly make the same claim about the Amalekites.

19., with earlier literature there; see especially Avi Sagi, “The Punishment of Amalek in Jewish Tradition: Coping with the Moral Problem,” HTR 87 (1994), 323-346, and Elliott Horowitz, Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006). See more recently Henry F. Knight, “Coming to Terms with Amalek: Testing the Limits of Hospitality,” in Steven Leonard Jacobs, ed., Confronting Genocide: Judaism, Christianity, Islam (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books 2009), 223-237 and Steven L. Jacobs, “Rethinking Amalek in this 21st Century,” Religions 8.9 (Sept. 2017), 1-15.

20. .

21. Marcion of Sinope (85-160) did not include the Old Testament as part of his scripture, and understood the God of the New Testament as a different God from that of the Old. On neo-Marcionism, see my comments at… .

22. Kugler, “Metaphysical Hatred and Sacred Genocide,” 5-6.

23. No evidence outside of the Bible confirms their existence, and we must reckon with the possibility that they never existed. Note the hedging in Gili Kugler, “Metaphysical Hatred and Sacred Genocide: The Questionable Role of Amalek in Biblical Literature,” Journal of Genocide Research 23/1 (2021), 14, “It is not impossible that at a certain point in time a historical entity called Amalek existed,” and see earlier Hugo Winckler, Geschichte Israels in Einzeldarstellungen (Leipzig: Pfeiffer, 1895), 1.211-213, esp. 212, “Es ist also das Wahrscheinlichere, dass dem Volke Amalek eine mythologische Vorstellung zu Grunde liegt.” See also , which does not deal specifically with Amalek, but notes: “There is currently no support of the idea that the ritual genocides depicted in the Hebrew Bible ever occurred as described.”

24. On theoretical law, see Bruce Wells, “What is Biblical Law? A Look at Pentateuchal Rules and Near Eastern Practice,” CBQ 70/2 (2008), 223-243, esp. 228-229.

25. Kugler, “Metaphysical Hatred and Sacred Genocide,” 14-16.

26. See .

March 22, 2024.