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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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a people whose country adjoined the southern border of the land of Canaan, in the north-western part of Arabia Petraea. They are generally supposed to have been the descendants of Amalek, the son of Eliphaz, and grandson of Esau. But Moses speaks of the Amalekites long before this Amalek was born; namely, in the days of Abraham, when Chedorlaomer, king of Elam, devastated their country, Genesis 14:7; from which it may be inferred that there was some other and more ancient Amalek, from whom this people sprang. The Arabians have a tradition that this Amalek was a son of Ham; and when we consider that so early as the march from Egypt the Amalekites were a people powerful enough to attack the Israelites, it is far more probable that they should derive their ancestry from Ham, than from the then recent stock of the grandson of Esau. It may also be said, that the character and fate of this people were more consonant with the dealings of Providence toward the families of the former. This more early origin of the Amalekites will likewise explain why Balaam called them the "first of the nations."

They are supposed by some to have been a party or tribe of the shepherds who invaded Egypt, and kept it in subjection for two hundred years. This will agree with the Arabian tradition as to their descent. It also agrees with their pastoral and martial habits, as well as with their geographical position; which was perhaps made choice of on their retiring from Egypt, adjoining that of their countrymen the Philistines, whose history is very similar. It also furnishes a motive for their hostility to the Jews, and their treacherous attempt to destroy them in the desert. The ground of this hostility has been very generally supposed to have been founded in the remembrance of Jacob's depriving their progenitor of his birthright. But we do not find that the Edomites, who had this ground for a hatred to the Jews, made any attempt to molest them, nor that Moses ever reproaches the Amalekites for attacking the Israelites as their brethren; nor do we ever find in Scripture that the Amalekites joined with the Edomites, but always with the Canaanites and the Philistines. These considerations would be sufficient, had we no other reasons for believing them not to be of the stock of Esau. They may, however, be deduced from a higher origin; and viewing them as Cuthite shepherds and warriors, we have an adequate explanation both of their imperious and warlike character, and of the motive of their hostility to the Jews in particular. If expelled with the rest of their race from Egypt, they could not but recollect the fatal overthrow at the Red Sea; and if not participators in that catastrophe, still, as members of the same family, they must bear this event in remembrance with bitter feelings of revenge. But an additional motive is not wanting for this hostility, especially for its first act. The Amalekites probably knew that the Israelites were advancing to take possession of the land of Canaan, and resolved to frustrate the purposes of God in this respect. Hence they did not wait for their near approach to that country, but came down from their settlements, on its southern borders, to attack them unawares at Rephidim. Be this as it may, the Amalekites came on the Israelites, when encamped at that place, little expecting such an assault. Moses commanded Joshua, with a chosen band, to attack the Amalekites; while he, with Aaron and Hur, went up the mountain Horeb. During the engagement, Moses held up his hands to heaven; and so long as they were maintained in this attitude, the Israelites prevailed, but when through weariness they fell, the Amalekites prevailed. Aaron and Hur, seeing this, held up his hands till the latter were entirely defeated with great slaughter, Exodus 17.

The Amalekites were indeed the earliest and the most bitter enemies the Jews had to encounter. They attacked them in the desert; and sought every opportunity afterward of molesting them. Under the judges, the Amalekites, in conjunction with the Midianites, invaded the land of Israel; when they were defeated by Gideon, Judges 6:7 . But God, for their first act of treachery, had declared that he would "utterly put out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven;" a denunciation which was not long after accomplished. Saul destroyed their entire army with the exception of Agag their king; for sparing whom, and permitting the Israelites to take the spoil of their foes, he incurred the displeasure of the Lord, who took the sceptre from him. Agag was immediately afterward hewn in pieces by Samuel, 1 Samuel 15. It is remarkable, that most authors make Saul's pursuit of the Amalekites to commence from the lower Euphrates, instead of from the southern border of the land of Canaan. ( See HAVILAH. ) David a few years after, defeated another of their armies; of whom only four hundred men escaped on camels, 1 Samuel 30; after which event, the Amalekites appear to have been obliterated as a nation.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Amalekites'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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