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After they are defeated by the Israelites at Rephidim, God promises unending judgement on Amalek in Exodus 17:

14Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.15And Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The Lord Is My Banner, 16saying, “A hand upon the throne of the Lord! The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.ESV

The reason for the judgement and the form of the judgement are given in slightly more detail in Deuteronomy 25:

17“Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, 18how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. 19Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget. ESV

What I find difficult to understand is how 'the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation' if their memory has been blotted out from under heaven. Am I missing the Hebrew idiom here? Is one or other of the statements not to be taken literally, and if so, which one?

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Related: How do we erase the memory of Amalek? –  Gone Quiet Jan 17 '13 at 1:47

3 Answers 3

When the Israelites entered the Promised Land the Amalekites had “tripped them up.” That is, they attacked the Israelites at their weak spot, or at their hindermost part or "tail," which was comprised of those who had lagged behind (Deut 25:17).

The Hebrew word for the hindermost part of the body is עָקֵב, which is used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to the rear echelon of an army (Genesis 49:19 and Joshua 8:13). That is, the rear echelon of an army is their hindermost part. The Amalekites attacked Israel at their hindermost part.

The exact same Hebrew word is also found in Genesis 3:15, where the serpent bites the "hindermost part" of the seed of the woman -- that is, the serpent attacks his heel, since the heel is physiologically the hindermost part of the human body. The seed of the serpent is therefore the enemy of God. It is the intent of the seed of the serpent “to trip up” the seed of God.

“Amalek” therefore is the enemy of the seed of God (Israel), who “trips up” at the most vulnerable time and opportunity. In the context of the Torah (first five books of the Hebrew Bible), the Amalekites in Canaan were not the seed of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites or the Jebusites, but of Esau (Genesis 36:12). When Esau was born, his twin brother tried “to trip him up” at birth, and therefore the twin brother was named “Jacob.” Please note that “Jacob” (יַעֲקֹב) and “heel” (עָקֵב) are therefore related etymologically. Jacob later deceived his father Isaac in order to inherit the blessing of the firstborn -- that is, he had STRIVEN to inherit the promises made to Abraham and Isaac. Jacob “tripped up” his brother Esau to this end (of course he had already first secured the birthright from Esau in exchange for a mess of pottage, when Esau was most vulnerable because of hunger). Because Jacob was persistent and had striven with man (and now with God in Genesis 32:28) to inherit the promises to Abraham and Isaac, his name was changed from one who "trips up" to one who "persists" or strives with God (Israel).

The promised seed of Abraham therefore passes from Abraham to Isaac, and now to Jacob (Israel), whose sworn enemy in the Promised Land is Amalek. This hostility is not only between the biological descendants of Esau and Jacob, but also between those who are sons of promise to Abraham and those who reject the promise (like Esau).

Thus the Lord will have war with "Amalek" from generation to generation, notwithstanding that the biological Amalekites are no longer an identifiable race of people on the earth anymore.

Aside (not directly related to the question):

Let me illustrate from the New Testament. Jesus was born of Mary (seed of the woman). As the biological son of David through Mary, and therefore of Abraham, he was “tripped up” by his enemy. When Jesus quoted Psalm 41:9 (in John 13:18) he was referring to someone who would “trip him up.” (That is, he [Judas Iscariot] “lifting his heel [עָקֵב] against me”). Judas was his friend (in fact his disciple) and therefore his immediate access to Jesus was a point of vulnerability. Judas "tripped up" Jesus, since he was able to identify Jesus’ whereabouts when he was alone, and therefore betray him. In other words, Jesus (the seed) was "tripped up" by the seed of the serpent. Judas is the "son" of perdition (John 17:12). Jesus and Judas Iscariot were biological descendants of Jacob, but Judas Iscariot was not the son of the promise to Abraham but the son of perdition. Thus while there may no longer be any biological "Amalekites" on the earth anymore, Amalekites are also those who are enemies of the Promised Seed -- i.e., those who "trip up" the sons of Promise. Judas Iscariot was such a person.

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+1 I find this very useful, thanks –  Jack Douglas Jan 18 '13 at 5:38

Blotting out the memory of Amalek can't mean completely eliminating any memory of same, because the torah itself tells us about Amalek and there is no indication that humans have permission to alter the text of the torah. So blotting out Amalek must mean something else.

The medieval commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak) wrote on Deut 25:19:

you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek: Both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep [camel and donkey] (God’s command to King Saul: see I Sam. 15:3), so that the name of Amalek should never again be mentioned (נִזְכָּר), from the word (זֵכֶר) , even regarding an animal, to say:“This animal was from Amalek.” - [Midrash Lekach Tov]

(I do not have access to Midrash Lekach Tov so cannot chase his reference.)

In 1 Samuel 15, King Saul failed to complete this task, killing most of Amalek but leaving King Agag alive. Shmuel later killed Agog; traditions exist that say Agog had time to sire a child, but the text does not say anything about that.

Rashi understands Psalm 9 to be referring to the destruction of Amalek in the future (see his commentary on v1 and v6). Other rabbinic opinions hold that Saul and Shmuel destroyed Amalek -- the commandment has been fulfilled. The latter opinion is based on II Sam 7:1-2, where God gave the king peace from "all his enemies". For more on these interpretations, see this question. (Thanks to Jack Douglas for pointing out the possible reference in this psalm.)

So the text leaves open both possibilities, that Amalek has been destroyed and that he hasn't, and prominent rabbis take both sides.

Finally, note that the text commands Israel to blot out the memory of Amalek from under Heaven. This would seem to exclude heaven itself, so even if Amalek is gone from the world, it is possible that there is more to the job that is in God's hands. That would be consistent with Ex 17:16 ("have war with Amalek from generation to generation") and could be what is referred to in Psalm 9 (taking the future-fulfillment approach), but it is a speculative interpretation.

(I was helped in writing this by this answer on Mi Yodeya.)

Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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Out of interest, I've discovered Psalm 9:5-6 where David uses similar language. –  Jack Douglas Jun 5 '13 at 18:01
@JackDouglas, good find! And, sure enough, Rashi connects v6 to Amalek: chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/16230#v6 (if that link doesn't show Rashi, click the "show Rashi" button at the top of the page). –  Gone Quiet Jun 5 '13 at 18:09
Thanks! He also cross-references Numbers 24:20, which is interesting as (eg) judgement against Edom can be directly compared to judgement against Amalek. –  Jack Douglas Jun 5 '13 at 19:17
also he links to Esau as does Joseph in his answer –  Jack Douglas Jun 5 '13 at 19:20
I tried to edit Ps 9, with Rashi's commentary there and Ex 17, into this answer, but I still don't seem to have a complete picture. It seems like Rashi is saying that, per the psalm, God ended the war against Amalek, but there is also a strong rabbinic tradition that Haman, centuries later, was an Amalekite. I'm not sure how to resolve that so, for now, I'm leaving this answer as-is. –  Gone Quiet Jun 5 '13 at 21:00

The deity of the Pentateuch is not precisely omnipotent (or unique). So, stating an intention to blot out the memory of Amalek does not imply success. The process of eliminating the memory is, in this case, 'war from generation to generation'. G!d stops the sun, and performs other miracles, but never wipes out any other nation. G!d instructs the People of Israel to do so, and that clearly doesn't happen to any of the original inhabitants of Caanan, any more that it happens to Amalek.

So, the answer, in theory, is 'yes'.

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