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Judges 5:14

Some came from Ephraim, whose roots were in Amalek; ; Benjamin was with the people who followed you. From Makir captains came down, from Zebulun those who bear a commander's staff. (NIV)

מִנִּ֣י אֶפְרַ֗יִם שָׁרְשָׁם֙ בַּעֲמָלֵ֔ק אַחֲרֶ֥יךָ בִנְיָמִ֖ין בַּֽעֲמָמֶ֑יךָ מִנִּ֣י מָכִ֗יר יָֽרְדוּ֙ מְחֹ֣קְקִ֔ים וּמִ֨זְּבוּלֻ֔ן מֹשְׁכִ֖ים בְּשֵׁ֥בֶט סֹפֵֽר

How should understand this cryptic poem? Is the translation by the NIV correct? If so, what does it mean that Ephraim's roots are in Amalek? Is it possible that in the distant past the Ephraimite people mingled with the Amalekites and intermarried with them? Is it possible that the text is hinting at that?

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Without disputing any of other answers, I wanted to provide more interpretations and arguments:

Emendation switching "Amalek" with "valley"

Several manuscripts of the LXX have “in the valley” rather than “into Amalek.” Brannan, R., & Loken, I. (2014). The Lexham Textual Notes on the Bible (Jdg 5:14). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

Interpeting "Amalek" as a geographic marker in which some Ephramaites lived

New American Commentary: From the New American Commentary:

The following phrase, “whose roots were in Amaleq,” makes little sense in the context unless at this time the Amalekites (who later joined with the Midianites in oppressing Israel; cf. 6:3) had established a foothold in some of the Ephraimite highlands.

Block, D. I. (1999). Judges, Ruth (Vol. 6, p. 232). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

Keil & Delitzsch's commentary:

“From (מִנִּי, poetical for מִן) Ephraim,” sc., there came fighting men; not the whole tribe, but only nobles or brave men, and indeed those whose roots were in Amalek, i.e., those who were rooted or had taken root, i.e., had settled and spread themselves out upon the tribe-territory of Ephraim, which had formerly been inhabited by Amalekites, the mount of the Amalekites, mentioned in Judg. 12:15 (for the figure itself, see Isa. 27:6, Ps. 80:10, and Job 5:3). “Behind thee,” i.e., behind Ephraim, there followed Benjamin among thy (Ephraim’s) people (עֲמָמִים, a poetical form for עַמִּים, in the sense of hosts).

Keil, C. F., & Delitzsch, F. (1996). Commentary on the Old Testament (Vol. 2, p. 230). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

Bible Knowledge Commentary:

The explanation about Ephraim’s roots being in Amalek (v. 14) apparently indicates that the Ephraimites lived in the central hill country previously occupied by the Amalekites.

Lindsey, F. D. (1985). Judges. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 1, p. 390). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

interpreting "root" as "rooted out" or defeated

LXX : Ephraim rooted out those in Amalek,

The Lexham English Septuagint. (2020). (Second Edition, Jdg 5:14). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

And JPS Commentary:

One solution that continued into the Middle Ages was to interpret the passage as referring to heroes who stemmed from Ephraim and fought against Amalek (e.g., Joshua and Saul; see Exod. 17:8–13 and 1 Samuel 15, respectively). Compare Targum Jonathan, Rashi, and Kimḥi.

Fishbane, M. A. (2002). Haftarot (p. 104). Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.

Also, Rashi:

In Ephraim. From Ephraim emerged the root of Joshua bin Nun's dominance over Amaleik ( Joshua was descended from Ephraim, son of Yoseif, and Amaleik was a descendant of Eisov. Scripture states, “The house of Yaakov shall be fire, the house of Yoseif flame, the house of Eisov chaff” [Ovadiah, 18], teaching that the descendants of Yoseif shall devour the descendants of Eisov as flame consumes chaff. (Yalkut, 51. Cf. Rashi to [[Genesis, 30:25]])) when he debilitated them with the sword.24([[Exodus, 17:13]].) This passage is related to the preceding one, as it explains ""Adonoy empowered me over the mighty"" by establishing Joshua's dominance over Amaleik.

Rashi Commentaries. (n.d.). (p. 860).

One problem with this interpretation is that root is in construct form attached to Amalek, so viewing it as "rooted out" rather than "root of" would require some textual emendation.

That this is a prophetic passage that describes some of Ephraim who will behave like Amalekites later in Judges

Here is the NICOT commentary:

What we get is a rather cryptic statement about the Ephraimites which is at best ambivalent and at worst entirely (and sarcastically) negative. The meaning depends largely on how we take the opening phrase, minnî ʾep̱rayim. If the minnî is partitive, it could mean “some [a few] Ephraimites.” If it is originative, what we would then have is a blanket statement: “Those who are from/of Ephraim” (i.e., the Ephraimites in general). Since, however, verses 14 and 15 in general deal with tribes that did participate, it seems best to take this opening statement as positive: “Some [went down] from Ephraim.” What follows, though, can hardly be anything other than negative: literally, “their root [was] in Amalek.” Overall the force of the line seems to be that while volunteers did come from Ephraim, they displayed some “Amalekite” characteristics; that is, they were hostile, quarrelsome. At this stage in the book such a mixed report on the Ephraimites is very puzzling, but the negative aspect of it will be confirmed by the way the Ephraimites behave in both the Gideon and Jephthah episodes, which follow (8:1–3; 12:1).

Webb, B. G. (2012). The Book of Judges. (R. K. Harrison & R. L. Hubbard Jr., Eds.) (p. 211). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

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  • "Several manuscripts of the LXX have “in the valley” rather than “into Amalek." For that +1. I was completely unaware of this emendation. Indeed, it makes totally sense. Valley in Hebrew is עמק if we add only one letter "lamed" it becomes עמלק (Amalek), so it makes sense that it originally said עמק and somehow evolved into עמלק (Amalek) making this poem look more enigmatic than it actually is! – Bach Jan 31 at 22:15
  • The valley may actually refer to the famous "valley of Jezreel" which was part of Ephraim's territory. The Ephraimites may have originally settled there and from there spread to the "hills of Ephraim". I'm not a scholar, just speculating. – Bach Jan 31 at 22:20
  • @Bach Thanks! My geographic knowledge is poor, but I think Valley of Jezreel is to the north of the inheritance of Ephraim, on the border of Manasseh just south of Galilee and heading up to present Haifa. Really I need a better atlas that has this all layed out instead squinting at different maps. – Robert Jan 31 at 22:53
  • You're probably right, but Ephraim's boundaries in the times of judges might not have been so well defined. It may also be that Manasseh and Ephraim were lumped together as one tribe. But you're right that most maps have them in the territory of Issachar or Manasseh. In any case, if it can be proven that they originally came from Jezreel then it won't matter whether Jezreel itself was part of Ephraim, Issachar or Manasseh later on. – Bach Feb 1 at 0:30
  • Interestingly, according to Jewish virtual library "While there are other valleys in Israel, in Hebrew the Jezreel Valley is often referred to simply as “Ha’emek - The Valley”. Not sure if this reflects only modern Hebrew or ancient Hebrew as well. It's cool nevertheless. – Bach Feb 1 at 0:32
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the book of judges does not seem to know other parts of the bible placing amalek in the negev and part of the edomites. judges holds no grudges against these peoples and even considers them family and places them in the north

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    Yerachmiel, I appreciate your feedback, however on BH evidence must be provided to support assertions, unsupported assertions are at risk of being closed or taken off. Please edit your answer to reflect this. Even citing verses within Judges can be used as evidence. – Bach Jan 31 at 19:33
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We should remind ourselves that Ephraim was one of the sons of Joseph, governor of Egypt who married Asenath the daughter of Potiphera, one of the priests of On (Gen 41, 45, 50, 46:20). Such a lineage excludes any biological connection to Amalek.

The section of Judges 5:13-15 is part of the song of Deborah. These particular verses list those who aided Deborah in her battle with the enemy. She lists these helping tribes as:

  • The survivors
  • Ephraim with roots in Amalek
  • Benjamin
  • Commanders of Machir
  • Some from Zebulun
  • Princes of Issachar
  • clans of Reuben

The meaning of "Ephraim, with their roots in Amalek" (an entirely reasonable translation of the Hebrew) now becomes clear - these are simply the parts of Ephraim that had settled in the territory of Amalek by displacing those people. Note this confirming comment in Judges 12:15 -

Then Abdon son of Hillel died and was buried at Pirathon in Ephraim, in the hill country of the Amalekites.

The operative word here is שֶׁרֶשׁ (Shoresh) = root. BDB gives this as the first meaning of this word.

1 root of people under figure of tree, involving firmness, permanence, Amos 2:9; Hosea 9:16; Hosea 14:6; Isaiah 14:30; 2 Kings 19:30 = Isaiah 37:31; — שָׁרְשָׁם Judges 5:14 is probably corrupt, see GFM; — so of person (compare Phoenician, Eshmunazar11 GACookepp. 30, 36) Isaiah 5:24; Malachi 3:19; Job 8:17; Job 18:16; Job 29:19; Proverbs 12:3,12; = stock, family Isaiah 11:1,10; Daniel 11:7, compare (of serpent) Isaiah 14:29; = source or cause Deuteronomy 29:17, דָּבָר ׳שׁ Job 19:28.

Most commentaries reach exactly the same conclusion. Ellicott says:

... the meaning seems to be, “Out of Ephraim (came down to the battle) those whose root is in Amalek,” or, “among the Amalekites.” Ephraim had firmly rooted himself (comp. Isaiah 27:6; Psalm 80:10) in the country which had been the stronghold of the Amalekites. (See Judges 12:15.)

Benson says this:

Out of Ephraim came down those who were planted, or whose rest was in Amalek; meaning some of the tribe of Ephraim, who were settled in or about the mount of Amalek. See Jdg 12:15.

Similarly, the Cambridge commentary says this:

Out of Ephraim came down they whose root is in Amalek] i.e. those Ephraimites whose settled home was ‘in the hill country of the Amalekites,’ the latter term being used in Jdg 12:15 to describe the situation of Pirathon in the land of Ephraim.

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    I'm not satisfied with this interpretation. Roots usually indicate ancestry. Evidence that שרשם can indicate settling in some land is scant. Also, if that is true we should expect something like "rooted in the hills of Amalek" or "rooted in the land of Amalek". The fact that we find "rooted in Amalek" indicate to me that were dealing with some more significant roots (possibly ancestral roots by intermarriage with that clan). – Bach Jan 31 at 14:13
  • @Bach - USUALLY. I am sure there was some intermarriage. – Dottard Jan 31 at 19:37

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