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Bible Encyclopedias

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica


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an ancient tribe, or collection of tribes, in the south and south-east of Palestine, often mentioned in the Old Testament as foes of the Israelites. They were regarded as a branch of the Edomites (Gen. xxxvi. 12, see Edom), and appear to have numbered among their divisions the Kenites. When the Israelites were journeying from Egypt to the land of Canaan, the Amalekites are said to have taken advantage of their weak condition to harry the stragglers in the rear, and as a judgment for their hostility it was ordained that their memory should be blotted out from under heaven (Deut. xxv. 17-19). An allusion to this appears in the account of Israel's defeat on the occasion of the attempt to force a passage from Kadesh through Hormah, evidently into Palestine (Num. xiv. 43-45, cp. Deut. i. 44-46). The statements are obscure, and elsewhere Hormah is the scene of a victory over the Canaanites by Israel (Num. xxi. 1-3), or by the tribes Judah and Simeon (Judg. i. 17). The question is further complicated by the account of Joshua's overthrow of Amalek apparently in the Sinaitic peninsula. The event was commemorated by the erection of the altar "Yahwehnissi" ("Yahweh my banner" or "memorial"), and rendered even more memorable by the utterance, "Yahweh hath sworn: Yahweh will have war with Amalek from generation to generation" (Ex. xvii. 8-16, on its present position, see Exodus [Boox]). The same sentiment recurs in Yahweh's command to Saul to destroy Amalek utterly for its hostility to Israel (1 Sam. xv.), and in David's retaliatory expedition when he distributed among his friends the spoil of the "enemies of Yahweh" (xxx. 26). Saul himself, according to one tradition, was slain by an Amalekite (2 Sam. i., contrast 1 Sam. xxxi.). A similar spirit appears among the prophecies ascribed to Balaam: "Amalek, first (or chief) of nations, his latter end [will be] destruction" (Num. xxiv. 20).

The district of Amalek lay to the south of Judah (cp. 1 Chron. iv. 42 seq.), probably between Kadesh and Hormah (cp. Gen. xiv. 7; 1 Sam. xv. 7, xxvii. 8), and the interchange of the ethnic with "Canaanites" and "Amorites" suggests that the Amalekites are merely one of Israel's traditional enemies of the older period. Hence we find them taking part with Ammonites and Midianites (Judg. iii. 13, vi. 3), and their king Agag, slain by Samuel as a sacrificial offering (I Sam. xv. 9), was a byword for old-time might and power (Num. xxiv. 7). Even in one of the Psalms (lxxxiii. 7) Amalek is mentioned among the enemies of Israel - just as Greek writers of the 6th century of this era applied the old term Scythians to the Goths (Noldeke), - and the traditional hostility between Saul and Amalek is reflected still later in the book of Esther where Haman the Agagite is pitted against Mordecai the Benjamite.

Twice Amalek seems to be mentioned as occupying central Palestine (Judg. v. 14, xii. 15), but the passages are textually uncertain. The name is celebrated in Arabian tradition, but the statements regarding them are confused and conflicting, and for historical purposes are practically worthless, as has been proved by Th. Noldeke (Ueber die Amalekiter, Göttingen, 1864). On the biblical data, see also E. Meyer, Die Israeliten (Index, s.v.). (S. A. C.)

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Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Amalekites'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

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