Reading Exodus with Leon Kass: The Meaning of Amalek

Why is the Lord so adamant about obliterating Amalek, and why does He make His intentions known?

An illustration from the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations depicting Joshua fighting Amalek as in Exodus 17. Wikipedia.

An illustration from the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations depicting Joshua fighting Amalek as in Exodus 17. Wikipedia.

Jan. 29 2021
About the author

Leon R. Kass is dean of the faculty at Shalem College, professor emeritus in the College and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute. A physician, scientist, educator, and public intellectual, he served from 2001-2005 as chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

Once a week for the next few months, Mosaic will be publishing brief excerpts of Leon R. Kass’s new book on Exodus, Founding God’s Nation. Curious about one of the foundational texts of the Jewish tradition? Read along with us. To see earlier excerpts, go here.

This week, Jewish communities all over the world begin their study of Exodus  13:17–17:16, a portion of the text known by its first significant Hebrew word, “B’shalaḥ.” Having fled Egypt, the Israelites arrive at the Sea of Reeds, which God parts and from which they emerge reborn as a free people. They sing and dance in exultant celebration. Once in the wilderness, the Israelites are tested by the need for sustenance, for internal order and peace, and for defense against external attack, with each need revealing a new face of God’s providence and of the human virtues necessary for national life. In this week’s selection, we join Kass as he interprets the final episode of B’shalaḥ, in which the hostile Amalekites launch an unprovoked attack on the Israelite rear, and then Moses and Joshua rally the people to victory.

Only after the battle is over and the enemy is repulsed does the Lord explicitly enter the story. Appearing to endorse the enterprise, He (privately) offers Moses instructions about how it is to be regarded hereafter:

And the Lord said unto Moses: “Write this for a memorial in the book (ba-sefer), and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance (or “the name”; zekher) of Amalek from under heaven.” (17:14)

These remarks are puzzling in several respects. What is to be memorialized: the story of the battle, the Lord’s promise to blot out the memory of Amalek, or, as I suspect, both together? In what book is the writing to be done: a special book (or inscription) of remembrance written expressly for this purpose or the book we are now reading, the Torah or, perhaps, specifically Deuteronomy (in Hebrew, Dvarim, “speeches”)—the last book of the Torah comprising Moses’s complete retelling of Israel’s story, including the story of Amalek? If the story is to be written down, what is the need for rehearsing it orally, and specifically to Joshua? And most puzzling of all: how can one reconcile the injunction to remember Amalek with the divine purpose to obliterate the memory—the name—of Amalek from under heaven? Before addressing these questions, we must note some unambiguous facts about God’s speech.

The first thing to notice is the emphasis on memory. As with the Passover story, the Lord insists on the sacred obligation of remembering. But unlike the Song of the Sea, which poetically memorializes, interprets, and glorifies the Lord’s victory at the Sea of Reeds, the Lord here calls only for an accurate recording of the event and of His plan for the Amalekites. Remarkably, the commemoration is to be made in writing: no one in the Bible has previously spoken of writing, and the verb “to write” (katav) occurs here for the first time. Through the written word, memory can be safeguarded and transmitted limitlessly to future generations—exactly what God here intends. The written record, if it follows closely the account we have just read and analyzed, will pay tribute to the people and their human leaders; it will not be a song of glory for the Lord or, for that matter, anyone. But the important thing the Lord wants remembered is less the Israelite victory than the unprovoked and wicked attack of the Amalekites, the first nation to attack God’s people and for no good reason (“Then came Amalek”).

The written record of the attack and of God’s plan to obliterate Amalek will preserve their memory for the people as a whole. But it will not suffice for their leaders, especially their generals, who need more than the dead letter of the written word. They need the living word, the spoken word, the animated word. It must be passed to them directly, and they must pass it on directly: God spoke it to Moses, Moses is to speak it to Joshua, and Joshua, we infer, will speak it to his successors.

God may be making an additional point by His special reference to Joshua. Joshua arrived on the scene—may we say providentially?—just when needed. Moses, singling him out, deputized Joshua to lead the battle. In summing up the battle, the text speaks only of Joshua’s singular success with the sword. Now, as part of His post-battle comments, the Lord affirms Joshua’s importance and makes sure Moses will pass the living word, for future reference, into only his ears. The Lord confirms, both for Moses and for us, Joshua’s rising importance. The Lord, as it were, anoints Joshua as Moses’ successor and seeks to ensure that Joshua believes He will be working with and through him against future enemies, the way He has worked with and through Moses.

Yet there remains a large and puzzling question: why is the Lord so adamant about obliterating Amalek, and why does He make His intention known? Is Amalek to be obliterated for political and pedagogical reasons or for moral and theological ones? Is Amalek a uniquely guilty or incorrigible nation, punished for its own specific wrongdoing? If so, why does the Lord regard its evil as greater than that of Pharaoh’s Egypt? Or is Amalek a paradigm or type, whose fate is a warning to other nations?

One plausible answer is pedagogical. Amalek was the first nation to make war on Israel, but alas, it will not be the last. A major reason for writing down this story and for rehearsing it in the general’s ear is to teach young Israel that vigilant and courageous self-defense will be an eternal necessity. God knows that His people—and His Way in the world—will have inveterate enemies. “Giving” this enemy to the people through writing will enable them to remember, in good times and in bad, that they must always worry about their security. Taking encouragement from this surprising first success against Amalek, the Israelites must always be willing and able to resist their enemies, hopeful always of divine assistance and of an equally successful outcome.

A second possibility is political: the Lord intends to make an example of Amalek. The world needs to know what happens to those who threaten the Lord’s people. Especially at the start of Israel’s career as a nation, a strong message must be sent to all the nations of the world. It will be just as God promised Abraham: “I will bless them that bless you, and him that curses you I will curse” (Gen. 12:3). Hate the Lord and His people, and you will face utter destruction.

But God is not just teaching lessons and giving warnings for the future. The extreme fate He promises Amalek calls for an explanation in terms of justice, a punishment that Amalek has earned not as a “type” but as itself, for an unspeakable “crime.” What exactly did Amalek do that would warrant obliteration? Our earlier speculations on the meaning of Amalek’s attack provide a plausible explanation.

Amalek comes without provocation to make war on nascent Israel, not to plunder but to destroy. Wittingly or not, it was in effect avenging its founding father Esau and carrying out his unfulfilled pledge to kill Jacob. Moreover, as we suggested, although Amalek had heard of the victory the Lord gave to Israel over Egypt, it showed no fear of God. On the contrary, Amalek attacked, among other reasons, precisely to demonstrate its fearlessness and win a victory also over the God of Israel. Pharaoh had waited to attack the Israelites at the Sea of Reeds until he saw them confused in the land, a sign, he thought, that the Lord was no longer with them. But Amalek, on hearing about the Lord’s rescue at the sea, attacks directly. Like Pharaoh before he was “enlightened,” the Amalekites behave on the principle, “We know not the Lord—and even if we did, we would not fear-revere Him.” Even if the Amalekites were not intentionally doing battle with God, their attack carries, implicitly, that very meaning. Those who intentionally attack the Lord’s people are enemies of the Lord Himself; an attack on the people embodying the Lord’s Way is ipso facto a direct attack also on Him. The Lord pledges to erase Amalek’s name—its posterity—from the face of the earth, just as the Amalekites had hoped to do with His posterity and with Him.

Excerpted and adapted from Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus by Leon R. Kass. Published by Yale University Press in January 2021. Reproduced by permission.

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