The Mitzva to Destroy Amalek and Our Moral Qualms

  • Rav Elchanan Samet

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 

 

I. THE NATURE OF THE MITZVA

 

            Following Yehoshua's defeat of Amalek in Refidim, the Torah narrates (Shemot 17:14-16):

 

And God said to Moshe: "Write this for a remembrance in a book, and repeat it in Yehoshua's ears, that I will surely wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens."

And Moshe built an altar... and he said, "For God has sworn by His throne that He will be at war with Amalek from generation to generation."

 

Later, we are given a commandment to wage this war (Devarim 25:19):

 

You shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens; you shall not forget.

 

Shaul, the first king of Israel, was specifically commanded by Shmuel the prophet (Shmuel I 15:3) to fulfill this mitzva:

 

... And now, go and smite Amalek and destroy everything that is theirs; do not have mercy on them, but kill every man and woman, child and infant, ox, sheep, camel and donkey.

 

This mitzva applies to all generations, and is listed as one of the 613 commandments (e.g. positive mitzva #188 in Rambam's Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, and mitzva #604 in Sefer Ha-Chinukh).

 

            The mitzva is not applicable today, since the nation of Amalek no longer exists. Yet this does not exempt us from the obligation to study and understand it. Prima facie, this seems to be a commandment of genocide, which understandably arouses in us a great deal of discomfort. In general, we give no expression to our inner sense of moral unease. But to ignore a psychological fact, to deny what we are feeling, is unhealthy. It is better to formulate the question directly and to attempt openly and honestly to deal with it. "Then I shall not be ashamed, when I look at all Your commandments" (Tehillim 119:6).

 

            The prevalent solution to this problem is treat the mitzva as a war of ideas, rather than the extermination of a specific nation. According to this approach, Amalek is no more than a symbol, such that the war with Amalek is merely a metaphor for the eternal battle to defeat evil or heresy. However, while there is indeed great symbolic meaning to the war with Amalek, we cannot ignore its literal and concrete meaning. Amalek was a real nation that we were (and are) commanded to destroy.

 

II. HISTORICAL BACKDROP

 

            Let us examine the broad biblical context of this mitzva. In biblical terms, the war with Amalek is defined as a "war of cherem," of destruction or extermination, as king Shaul was commanded: "Go and smite Amalek and DESTROY EVERYTHING (ve-hacharamtem) that is theirs..." A war of cherem was always carried out with religious motives, and in a case where everything had to be destroyed, the enemy nation was all put to death and no booty was taken. The taking of booty in such a war was considered a most serious sin. We encounter several wars of cherem in the Tanakh: the war with Arad (Bamidbar 21:1-3), the war of Yericho (Yehoshua 6:17-21), and even the mitzva of to wipe out the "ir ha-nidachat" – an Israelite city that has been corrupted to serve idols (Devarim 13:13-19).

 

            The idea of a war of cherem is not unique to Israel, but was rather an accepted norm among ancient nations. Thus we learn, for example, from the Mesha Stone (lines 11-18) that King Mesha's war with the Israelite cities of Atarot and Nevo was a war of cherem. Not only do the facts described there match the rules of a war of cherem, but with regard to Nevo it is stated explicitly (line 17) that it was "exterminated."

 

            In general, the mitzva of cherem was aimed at a certain city (as in the examples cited above), and therefore its period of validity was restricted: once the city was exterminated, the war of cherem against it was over. In a few instances, one thing was left for all generations from the war of cherem: the burnt mound of the city. This was the case with the "ir ha-nidachat" (Devarim 13:17): "And it shall be a ruin forever; it shall not be rebuilt," and also in the case of Yericho (Yehoshua 6:26), "And Yehoshua swore at that time saying, Cursed is the man before God who will rise up and rebuild this city, Yericho."

 

            In only two instances, the war of cherem applies to NATIONS, and there it is a mitzva for all generations, requiring war against those nations so long as they exist. This is so with regard to the war against the seven nations of Canaan (which is only partially a war of cherem), and with regard to the war against Amalek. The war with Amalek is one of complete cherem, but since Amalek is a nomadic nation, their destruction is not like the destruction of a city: it is not a one-time act, but rather an ongoing battle "from generation to generation."

 

            [As mentioned, every war of cherem commanded in the Torah has a religious reason, and this may change from one instance to another. Accordingly, the scope of the destruction and other details may vary. Thus, the reason for the war against Amalek differs from the reasons for these other wars of cherem. However, an examination of reason for God's war against Amalek - what was so serious about Amalek's act of waging war against Israel when they came out of Egypt? - lies beyond the scope of the present discussion.]

 

            Thus, the war against Amalek is not such an outstanding exception against the backdrop of accepted wartime practices prevalent in the ancient world. This does not completely ease our discomfort, but it is important to realize that the mitzvot of the Torah, although valid and relevant for all generations, are also related to the era in which they were given. In a world where a war of cherem is an accepted moral norm, Israel also occasionally engages in such a war for religious reasons. And He who brought the world to a point where humanity has come to negate the legitimacy of such wars, also brought about a situation in which "there never was, nor will there ever be, a [real example of an] 'ir ha-nidachat'" (Sanhedrin 61a), and in which the war against Amalek has no one left to whom it applies, such that all that is left for us is to study the mitzva in theory and thereby gain reward.

 

III. RAMBAM'S OPINION

 

            In his discussion of this mitzva (Hilkhot Melakhim 6:1-4), the Rambam introduces an important qualification: the first step to be taken in the war against Amalek is to offer them peace! If they accept (which entails accepting the Seven Noachide Laws and paying a tax to the Israelites), "it is forbidden to violate the treaty with them and to deceive them!" How does this fit in with the commandment, "You shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens?" The Rambam explains that the mitzva of destroying Amalek (and the Seven Canaanite Nations) refers only to those who do not accept the option of peace. The Kesef Mishneh further elucidates, "For if they accept upon themselves the Seven Laws, then they are no longer considered as belonging to the category of the Seven Nations or to Amalek, and they are like any upright gentiles."

 

            How did the Rambam reach this conclusion (to which no explicit dissent is found among any of the commentators)? The mitzva of wiping out Amalek does appear to be an absolute command with no possibility of compromise. But the mitzva of offering the option of peaceful surrender prior to waging war (Devarim 20:10) also appears unequivocal - it does not differentiate between different types of wars. As the Rambam writes, "War is not waged against ANYONE IN THE WORLD unless the possibility of a peaceful surrender is first offered."

 

            This contradiction can be answered in one of two ways: we may limit the mitzva to proclaim peace and say that it does not apply in the case of Amalek, or we may say that the mitzva of war against Amalek applies only after the offer of peace has been rejected. As concerns the war against Amalek, there is no direct proof as to which of the above possibilities is correct. But with regard to a similar contradiction – between the mitzva of proclaiming peace and the mitzva of cherem against the seven nations of Canaan – there are proofs, both in Sefer Yehoshua and in the teachings of Chazal, that the proclamation of peace applies even here. Thus, it becomes apparent that the mitzva of proclaiming peace is indeed an absolute command that makes no distinction between one type of war and another.

 

            The significance of the above has far-reaching implications for our question. The intention behind the mitzva of wiping out Amalek is not to persecute a nation to the point of total extermination, in such a way that the nation is left with no escape from its fate. On the contrary, this nation is exhorted to make peace with Israel. It is only when the offer of peace is rejected, and a war rages between this nation and Israel, that the laws of total cherem apply to them. Indeed, the thought that the Torah desires the extermination of a nation under all circumstances is an anachronistic idea influenced by modern racism that developed in Europe during the last two centuries. The Giver of the Torah is the Creator of man, and He is the father of all nations. Why would He desire the extinction of a nation that He Himself created?

 

            The background to the mitzva of the war against Amalek is completely ethical-religious in nature, and very far from any racist intent. Amalek committed a most heinous sin in waging war against Israel as they came out of Egypt. When a nation sins, the responsibility for the sin is borne not only by the generation that committed the sin, but also by the generations that follow. The same applies to Israel: "Our forefathers sinned, and they are no more; and we suffer for their sins" (Eikha 4:7). Because of Amalek's terrible sin against God and against Israel, God's nation was commanded to exact revenge from Amalek and to punish them for their sin, not allowing the passage of time to dull their memory of the deed and of the need to repay it.

 

            But the ethical system we are discussing, in which there is sin and punishment, contains – by its very definition and by its very nature – the means for a sinner to part with his sin. The assumption underlying this mitzva is that Amalek is a bitter enemy of Israel, and that he will continue to be such, and therefore the war against Amalek is a war of cherem. But if the nation of Amalek wishes to end their hostility towards Israel and agree to coexist peacefully, then they are abandoning the sin of their forefathers, and their punishment is likewise then cancelled; "they are like any upright gentiles."

 

            This moral background to the mitzva of wiping out Amalek is explicit in the verses that overflow with moral pathos (Devarim 25:17-18):

 

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you came out of Egypt; how he came upon you on the way and attacked your rear, all that were following feebly behind you, when you were weary and faint...

 

Clearly, the Rambam arrived at his formulation based on the same moral perception of the mitzva.

 

IV. SHAUL AND AMALEK

 

            We find only one explicit description in Tanakh of the fulfillment of the mitzva of war against Amalek, in Shmuel I chapter 15 - the obvious choice for the haftara of Shabbat Zakhor. A detailed narrative such as this about the fulfillment of the mitzva would seem to provide the opportunity to put to the test the Rambam's innovative explanation. Let us first list the questions that we shall need to investigate:

 

1)      Can any proof be brought for the nature of the relations between Amalek and Israel in Shaul's generation? Is Amalek a peaceful nation against whom war is suddenly declared for some ancient reason, or is Amalek still - after all this time - Israel's bitter enemy, with the sins of their fathers adding to their own sins in the present?

2)      Either way, is there any proof of a proclamation of peace that precedes Shaul's war against Amalek?

 

            Slightly before the main account of Shaul's battle with Amalek, we read (14:47-48):

 

And Shaul consolidated the kingdom over Israel and waged war against his enemies all around... And he made an army and smote Amalek, and delivered Israel from the hand of he that spoiled them.

 

The commentators are divided as to whether the description of the attack against Amalek in this verse, included in the summary of Shaul's battles, refers to his battle with Amalek described later in chapter 15, or whether it refers to previous battles with Amalek that preceded this particular one that is described in detail. In the opinion of the Radak, "This is what God referred to when He commanded him (15:3), 'Go and smite Amalek.'" But in the opinion of the Abarbanel, "The text here is not referring to the war that he waged against Amalek at Shmuel's command, as suggested by the Radak in his commentary, but rather to previous battles on other occasions."

 

            If we accept the Abarbanel's opinion, this verse proves that Amalek was Israel's enemy even before Shaul was commanded to wage a decisive war against them. But even according to the Radak and his followers, this verse has significance for our question: Shaul's victory over Amalek, described in chapter 15, is described in this verse as "THE DELIVERANCE OF ISRAEL from the hand of he that spoiled them." (We know that Amalek's regular practice was to instigate trouble against the Israelite inhabitants of the Negev – see Shoftim 6:3-5 and Shmuel I 30).

 

            The command to Shaul to smite Amalek is repeated twice in our narrative: once at the beginning of the story (verses 1-3) with the original command to Shaul, and then again in verse 18, as part of Shmuel's rebuke of Shaul for not having fulfilled completely what he had been commanded to do. Let us compare these two sources:

 

Verse 3: Go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that is his.

Verse 18: Go and utterly destroy THOSE SINNERS, Amalek, and fight against them until they are finished.

 

            What is the meaning of the words added in verse 18, "those sinners"? In the original command, the reason for attacking Amalek involved only the past (15:2), "I remember what Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for them on the way when they came up out of Egypt." What does it matter whether Amalek in the present generation is a nation of "sinners" or a righteous nation? Again, we have proof that Amalek is being judged not only for the sins of their forefathers, but also for their own sins in that generation. Shmuel, in his words of rebuke, wishes to highlight specifically this aspect of Amalek (well-known to Shaul, and therefore there had been no need to state it explicitly in the original command) in order to emphasize the gravity of Shaul's sin.

 

            Before Shmuel executes Agag, the king of Amalek, he explains his action as repaying Agag "measure for measure:"

 

Shmuel said, "As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women."

 

This teaches us two lessons: firstly, that Agag made many women childless by killing their sons; apparently, the reference is to the murder of Israelites, for which the prophet now seeks revenge. Secondly, the reason that Shmuel chooses to declare to Agag for his execution is not based on the deeds committed by Agag's ancestors against Israel, but rather on the deeds that he himself has perpetrated. This is reminiscent of Shmuel's emphasis in his rebuke to Shaul that the command to attack Amalek arose from the fact that they were "sinners" in that very generation.

 

            All that we have said thus far comes together to create a clear picture: Amalek is Israel's sworn enemy FROM THE TIME OF THE EXODUS ONWARDS, and for this he is judged. If he would change his ways and make peace with Israel, the punishment for both his deeds and those of his forefathers would be removed. Was this possibility suggested to him?

 

            In verses 4-6, we find a description of Shaul's preparations for the war with Amalek, while the war itself is described very briefly in verse 7:

 

Shaul gathered the nation and counted them in Tela'im... And Shaul came to a city of Amalek and CONTENDED WITH THEM in the valley. And Shaul said to the Kenites, "Go, depart, go down from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you together with him..." And Shaul smote Amalek...

 

What is the meaning of the words "and he contended with them in the valley" in verse 6? Many commentators interpret this to mean, "And he fought in the valley." This is a problematic interpretation, both literally – "riv" (va-yarev) in Tanakh usually refers to words, not actions – and also from the point of view of the order. Only in verse 7 is Shaul's battle described, and if it began already in verse 5, then what would be the point of his appeal to the Kenites once the battle had already started?

 

            Some answers to these questions have been proposed (see Radak), but the interpretation that seems to stay closest to the literal meaning of the text is that of the Malbim:

 

Since it is not customary for kings to declare war without some specific reason, as it is written (Shoftim 11:12), "What have you to do with me, that you have come to me to wage war against my land?" - therefore Shaul sought some dispute in the valley that was in front of the cities of Amalek... such that that became the justification for the war.

 

What was the content of that verbal dispute between Shaul and Amalek in the valley? The Malbim ventures, "Shaul declared that the valley belonged to him, and Amalek disputed this." He even concludes with the following judgment concerning Shaul:

 

This also teaches us that he did not fulfill the mitzva properly, for he should not have sought any [other] reason but rather [should have attacked] just because God so commanded... not some other dispute that had nothing to do with God.

 

            But if we bear in mind the words of the Rambam, that "war is not waged against ANYONE IN THE WORLD until he is first offered the possibility of peace, regardless of whether it is a voluntary war or an obligatory one" – even if it is a war against Amalek – we will easily conclude that the "dispute" with Amalek was really the required proclamation of peace (i.e., an ultimatum by the attacker to surrender peacefully on the terms offered and thus to avoid war). Since Amalek refused to accept this proclamation, due to of their sworn hatred of Israel (because of which the negotiations with them are called a "riv"), Shaul launched his attack. Thus we conclude that – at least from this perspective - Shaul did, in fact, fulfill the mitzva as required.