Tuesday, January 11, 2022

The Prototypical Enemy

Amalek is Israel’s prototypical enemy. Or perhaps I should say “was” rather than “is”. That requires a bit of explanation ...

Israel became a nation during its period of Egyptian slavery, so we can certainly number the Egyptians among Israel’s earliest mortal antagonists. But Israel fought no battles with Egypt. At the Red Sea, no Israelite even drew his sword. Instead, God fought for his people, and the nations were awed, just as God had anticipated: “The peoples have heard; they tremble; pangs have seized the inhabitants of Philistia. Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed; trembling seizes the leaders of Moab; all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away.”

Who is absent from this list of trembling peoples? Amalek.

The First Among the Nations

Amalek was the one nation in the surrounding area quite untroubled by news of Egypt’s devastation. At Rephidim they brazenly ambushed the people of God in the wilderness. So Israel fought its first war, and won a decisive victory in its initial battle.

This may be what Balaam meant when he said, “Amalek was the first among the nations, but its end is utter destruction.” I’m not sure the Amalekites were particularly prominent among the nations of their day; they were no empire like Egypt or, later, Assyria. They were, however, the prototypical enemy of the people of God. As the book of Deuteronomy puts it, “[Amalek] attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God.”

All the other nations knew fear. Amalek did not. As a result, God gave Moses these instructions:

“Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.”

And Moses added this to the text: “The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.”

Boots on the Ground

Now, in the case of Pharaoh and Egypt, God dealt with Israel’s enemies miraculously and personally. In the case of Amalek, Israel’s deliverance had to be accomplished by boots on the ground, or at least sandals. Sometimes that’s how it goes. That doesn’t mean God wasn’t present with his people or that he had no part in their victories; it just means he worked through his people as well as on behalf of them.

Accordingly, Moses told Israel:

“Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.”

So God would do it by getting Israel to do it. All clear?

A Thorn in the Side

It’s not like this happened quickly. Israel had other enemies to deal with, and many generations passed before Amalek ceased to exist as a nation. Amalek remained a thorn in the side of Israel all through the book of Judges, allying with Moab and Midian to harass the people of God. In fact, the downfall of Israel’s first king was that he failed to observe this centuries-old command, reiterated to him by Samuel the prophet:

“I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”

God had intended this to be the end of Amalek as a nation. But Saul spared King Agag and the best of his flocks and herds, and as a result Saul was rejected as king of Israel. So Samuel did what the head of Israel’s army would not, and he hacked Agag to pieces before the Lord at Gilgal.

But though Amalek was devastated, some of its people escaped to fight another day, and their enmity for Israel intensified. When David was on the run from Saul and living among the Philistines, the Amalekites raided Ziklag, burned it, and took captive all its Israelite inhabitants, including two of David’s wives. With God’s help, David pursued them and struck them down, reducing Amalek’s forces to a mere 400 men who had escaped on camels.

The last mention of Amalek as a nation is found in Chronicles, where it is recorded that in the days of King Hezekiah, a band of 500 Simeonites went to Mount Seir and defeated the “remnant of the Amalekites who had escaped”, took their land and lived in it. Finally, Israel had gotten around to fulfilling the word of the Lord, at least to the best of its ability.

It only took them a little over 700 years.

This Wicked Haman

That isn’t the end of the story. While scripture doesn’t mention Amalek as a distinct people group after this point, there were Amalekite survivors among the nations. One of these came back to haunt Israel in a big way during its period of captivity under the Medes and Persians. The book of Esther notes, not without significance, that Haman was an Agagite, a descendant of the same man Saul had failed to destroy. Like his forefathers, Haman had no fear of God, even though his own people had been all but completely exterminated, largely because they could not control their pathological hatred of Israel even when it put them at great risk. Nobody came closer than Haman to wiping out Israel forever, and it is quite likely his fury at Mordecai’s unwillingness to pay homage to him was not merely personal. There was plenty of history to inform Haman’s racial prejudice.

Esther ends with Haman hanging on his own gallows, the Jews striking down their enemies all over the Persian Empire in the tens of thousands, the ten sons of Haman hanged and his lineage cut off. The threat of the Amalekites is finally over and the word of God through Moses fulfilled despite the repeated failures of men to carry out his commands.

Blotting Out the Memory

If you want to find a memorial to Amalek today, good luck with that. Other than the account in scripture, there is not a shred of proof to be found that the nation ever existed. Infogalactic says this:

There is no archaeological or epigraphic evidence for the existence of the Amalekites; all sources mentioning them are either directly based on the Hebrew Bible, or of a far later date than the presumed time of their existence.”

As a result, if you Google “Amalek”, you will get a bunch of Jewish rabbis using them as nothing more substantial than an allegory for a long list of current enemies. “Who is Amalek today?” they ask. Ben Artzi says the spirit of the Amalekite is alive in Hamas. Pinchas Winston writes that “Atheism is an extreme form of Amalek.” Yosef Berger says, “Amalek is a symbol, it is a character trait.” And Yosef Dayan says, “Anyone ... who tries to stop the Jews from doing God’s will, from settling Israel, is Amalek. This can be Jews or non-Jews. This is certainly countries and leaders like Iran. This can even be left-wing Jews in Israel.”

In other words, none of the glory of Amalek remains. The nation has been reduced to a cautionary tale in a book many secular authorities regard as historically questionable and a convenient straw man available to be identified with and excoriated for every anti-Semitic sentiment and every political enemy modern Israel encounters.

It is hard to imagine a more comprehensive fulfilment of the prophetic word.

The Christian and Amalek

What can we take from this for ourselves? Like many Old Testament stories, this one is not about us. But the spirit of Amalek is certainly alive today. Where the inhabitants of Jericho quaked and quivered behind their walls at the sight of what God was doing in the land of Canaan, Amalek had no fear of God. Where the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites had good reason to fear being dispossessed of their land, Amalek initiated war with Israel for with nothing whatsoever at stake and for no reason other than pure, malignant hatred.

Amalek is gone, but the spirit of Amalek is alive whenever someone hates Christ without a cause, and hates his people for no reason other than that we belong to him. “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.”

Hey, there is plenty of that to go around today.

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