In the Book of Deuteronomy (25, 19) it is a commandment incumbent upon the people Israel to wipe out the memory of Amalek – “you shall wipe out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven”. This commandment has been widely understood, and in my eyes widely misunderstood, as a commandment to exterminate the Amalekite people. This is indeed the way that Samuel the prophet understands the command in telling Saul, the first king of Israel (1 Samuel 15, 3) – “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not, but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass”. However, in the Book of Samuel (1 Samuel 15, 2), it is written that Samuel says that God has commanded the extermination of the Amalekites – and, not that God has so commanded.
I want to point out that in the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses), in the plain meaning of Scripture (Deuteronomy 25, 19), the command is not to wipe out the Amalekites but to wipe out the memory of Amalek. Samuel the prophet clearly understands the command in a literal sense of wiping out the Amalekite people without distinction between innocent and guilty, and including women and children. In my view, this is a misunderstanding on the part of Samuel – and, it is indeed possible for a prophet to misunderstand the will of God.
The great example of a Biblical prophet who in the plain meaning of Scripture misunderstands the will of God is the prophet Jonah. Jonah is commanded by God to preach against the wickedness of the city of Ninveh, which was an enemy of the Israelites. However, the people of Ninveh repent, and God decides not to destroy the city. Jonah becomes distressed that God does not destroy the city. As a person of truth (and, in the opening verse of the Book of Jonah, Jonah is called Jonah the son of Amitay, and the name Amitay contains within it the term truth), Jonah is distressed that strict justice is not being served, for Ninveh is deserving of punishment for its wickedness. When waiting to see what will happen to the city, God makes a plant grow to shelter Jonah from the sun, and then causes the plant to shrivel up, grieving Jonah. The book concludes with God telling Jonah that if he is concerned about a plant, which he did not work for or grow, should not God be concerned about Ninveh! Thus, the book concludes with God teaching Jonah that God is much more a God of caring and compassion than strict justice and truth.
Moreover, there is a Talmudic commentary (Brachot 55a) which attempts to explain why in the Book of Exodus Betzalel in carrying out the instructions of Moses in building the Tabernacle did not follow the instructions of Moses. The instructions that Moses receives from God (Exodus 25 – 30) as part of the Divine revelation on Sinai are that first is the making of the ark, followed by the making of the vessels (furniture of the Tabernacle) and lastly the building of the Tabernacle. Later, when Betzalel carries out the instructions of Moses (Exodus 35 – 40), Betzalel changes the order – first building the Tabernacle, followed by the making of the ark and lastly the making of the vessels. According to the Talmudic commentary, Betzalel suggested to Moses that the instructions of Moses are not logical for if Betzalel builds the Tabernacle last, as Moses understood (or, misunderstood, according to this Talmudic commentary), then Betzalel will have no place to put the ark and vessels, which are holy – and, Betzalel thus suggests, and Moses agrees, that he must first build the Tabernacle followed by the ark and vessels so that he can put the ark and vessels in the Tabernacle. According to this Talmudic commentary, Moses, the greatest Biblical prophet, misunderstood the will of God regarding the building of the Tabernacle, ark and vessels – and, Moses was corrected by Betzalel.
If we return to Samuel the prophet, there are three differences between his understanding of the command regarding Amalek and the command (Deuteronomy 25, 19) of the Torah. First, Samuel understands the command regarding Amalek in a literal and nationalistic sense as referring to the Amalek nation requiring extermination of the Amalekites. However, the command in the Torah is to wipe out the memory of Amalek, and not to wipe out the Amalekites – and, the language of the Torah thus lends itself to a metaphoric understanding of wiping out the memory of Amalek in the sense of overcoming evil of which Amalek is a symbol.
Second, if the command regarding Amalek is understood, like Samuel, in a literal sense of extermination of a particular nation, then the commandment of the Torah no longer applies – as, we can no longer identify such a people Amalek. Yet, the command regarding Amalek stands out not only in the Torah as a central commandment but it stands out also in the Jewish tradition in connection with Purim. On the Sabbath before Purim, called Shabbat Zachor (the Sabbath of remembrance), we read the passage from Deuteronomy (25, 17-19) in which the command to wipe out the memory of Amalek is given to the people Israel – and, on Purim itself we read the passage from Exodus in which it is written (Exodus 17, 14-16) that God will wipe out the memory of Amalek.
Third, in the passage from Exodus (and, this is the biggest problem, in my eyes, with the understanding of Samuel) it is written that God has a war with Amalek “from generation to generation” (Exodus 17, 16). If the command to wipe out the memory of Amalek is understood as extermination, and the Amalek nation is exterminated, then God cannot have war with Amalek “from generation to generation” as written explicitly in the Torah.
If we examine the passage from Deuteronomy (25, 17-19), there is clear textual evidence that the command to wipe out the memory of Amalek is meant not literally but metaphorically – and, that Amalek is a symbol of evil. Before looking at the passage, though, I want to emphasize that I am not engaging here in apologetics and attempting to rationalize a difficult Biblical passage. In the Torah, in the plain meaning of Scripture, there is an explicit command of God to take vengeance upon the Midianites that included killing the entire male population and some of the women (Numbers 31, 2-18). In my eyes, such a command, in the plain meaning of Scripture, is immoral – and, in the plain meaning of Scripture a decree of God can be evil, such as in the story of the golden calf in which the decree of God to destroy the Jewish people is explicitly termed evil and God repents of the decree (Exodus 32, 14). But, the command to wipe out the memory of Amalek is not an explicit command to kill or to wipe out the Amalekites – it is a command to wipe out the memory of Amalek.
In the passage from Deuteronomy, there is a historical and religious explanation of why Amalek is a symbol of evil. The historical explanation is that the Amalekites attacked the tired and weak of the Israelites in the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt (Deuteronomy 25, 17-18). The religious explanation is that the Amalekites thus displayed a lack of fear of God (Deuteronomy 25, 18). The term fear of God is a central religious concept of the Hebrew Bible. The Biblical concept is not a theological concept requiring belief in a propositional sense (such as belief that God exists or is provident) but a moral concept – “fear of God is the hatred of evil” (Proverbs 8, 13). Notice that according to this moral and anti-theological conception of fear of God of the Book of Proverbs one who believes that God exists, and believes that God is provident, may not hate evil and may live an immoral life – and, conversely, one may be a devout atheist, and yet hate evil and live a truly righteous life displaying fear of God in the Biblical conception. Fear of God is displayed not in philosophic declarations and not in the holding of correct theological propositions but in the living of a moral life.
Professor Nechama Leibowitz, the Biblical scholar, points out (Studies in Deuteronomy, 250-253) that there are several other passages in the Torah (Genesis 20, 11; Genesis 42, 18 and Exodus 1, 17) besides the passage relating to Amalek from Deuteronomy (25, 18) where the term fear of God is used in the context of a story, and in each of these cases the meaning of the concept is clear. Nechama Liebowitz suggests (P. 253) that the common denominator in each of these cases is that the concept of fear of God is a universal and moral concept. The concept is universal in that it relates to all human beings and not only to the people Israel; and the concept is moral in that it is characterized by an attitude of the subject to the weak or stranger in which the subject is unwilling (or should be unwilling where the subject is lacking fear of God) to oppress or harm the weak and defenseless. What emerges then in each of these passages is that the concept of fear of God is a psychological and moral concept, and not a theological or philosophic concept. Fear of God is a matter of moral conscience and commitment, which expresses itself in the avoidance of immoral and improper behavior – in accordance with the verse from the Book of Proverbs (8, 12) that I just previously quoted (“the fear of the Lord is to hate evil”).
In the Book of Deuteronomy, what constitutes the lack of fear of God of the Amalekites is not their polytheistic theological beliefs but, as the Torah itself tells us, their immoral behavior in attacking the weak and defenseless among the Israelites (Deuteronomy 25, 18). Fear of God is a psychological and behavioral rather than a theological concept, and the lack of fear of God of the Amalekites consists not of improper theological belief but of improper behavior. The term fear of God then is used in the Torah in a consistent way as a psychological and moral rather than theological concept.
The concept of love of God in the Hebrew Bible is, like the concept of fear of God, primarily a moral concept – the fear of God being the hating of evil, and the love of God being the love of goodness. In the Biblical conception of religion the concepts of fear and love of God are intimately related in the sense of being two sides of the same coin – fear of God expressing itself in the negative motivation not to commit wrong actions and love of God expressing itself in the positive motivation to do good deeds. Reflected in the verse from the Book of Proverbs, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1, 7), is a conception of moral wisdom in which fear of God is the beginning of wisdom as it is a minimum standard of moral action (of refraining from the committing of immoral actions); while love of God is a maximum standard of performing moral acts in a positive sense. What emerges then from the passage of Deuteronomy relating to Amalek is that Amalek is a symbol of hatred and immorality who in the Biblical conception lacks fear of God as a minimum standard of moral action.