Annihilating Amalek


A Disproportionate Response?

Shortly after the Children of Israel begin their trek through the wilderness, Amalek comes to do battle with them. After Yehoshua vanquishes Amalek's army, Shemot 17:14 records Hashem's promise to obliterate any trace of Amalek from the face of the earth:


וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה כְּתֹב זֹאת זִכָּרוֹן בַּסֵּפֶר וְשִׂים בְּאָזְנֵי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ כִּי מָחֹה אֶמְחֶה אֶת זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם.

And Hashem said to Moshe, record this as a memorial in the book and place in the ears of Yehoshua that I will destroy the memory of Amalek from under the heavens.

What about Amalek's actions engendered such a harsh Divine response? Were Amalek's actions so much worse than those of the Egyptians who, despite enslaving the Israelites for centuries1 and tossing their infants into the Nile, were nonetheless shielded by the Torah's command "You shall not abhor an Egyptian"?2

Shemot vs. Devarim

In its recounting of the Amalek story, Devarim 25 provides further details which were absent from the Shemot 17 account:


(יז) זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם. (יח) אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כׇּל הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱ-לֹהִים. (יט) וְהָיָה בְּהָנִיחַ ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ לְךָ מִכׇּל אֹיְבֶיךָ מִסָּבִיב בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ תִּמְחֶה אֶת זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם לֹא תִּשְׁכָּח.

(17) Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you came out from Egypt. (18) How he met you on the way and smote all who were feeble behind you and you were faint and weary and did not fear God. (19) And it will be when Hashem your God will give you rest from your enemies around you in the land that Hashem your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall destroy the memory of Amalek from under the heavens; do not forget.

While in Shemot, the Torah sufficed with saying merely that Amalek came and attacked, here, in Devarim, the Torah elaborates on how Amalek ambushed the Israelites when they were weakened and weary from their journey. Does this action of Amalek betray a moral failing and thus explain the need to exact retribution from them, or does it simply reflect their use of sound military strategy? This question may depend, in part, on whether the accompanying phrase "וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱ-לֹהִים" describes the character of the Israelites or the Amalekites.

Additionally, while Shemot 17 tells of Hashem's vow that He will be the one to destroy Amalek ("אֶמְחֶה"), in Devarim, it is the Children of Israel who are instructed to do so ("תִּמְחֶה"). What accounts for this discrepancy?3

Timing of the Fulfillment

Devarim 25 commands that the eradicating of Amalek should take place only after the Israelites have completed the conquest of all of their other enemies. Shemot 17:16 even hints at an eternal battle with Amalek ("מִלְחָמָה לַה' בַּעֲמָלֵק מִדֹּר דֹּר"). But if Amalek's crime was so heinous, why did Hashem postpone their day of reckoning? Could He not have ordered Moshe to wipe them out completely when Amalek first attacked in Shemot 17? Furthermore, why does Hashem tell Moshe already in Shemot 17 (before it is even known that Moshe will not be leading the nation into the Promised Land) to convey Hashem's intentions to Yehoshua? Is it not Shaul in Shemuel I 15, rather than Yehoshua, who is ultimately commanded to execute this command?