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A people remembered chiefly as the most hated of all the enemies of Israel, and traditionally reputed among the fiercest of Bedouin tribes.


According to a widely accepted interpretation of Genesis 36:10-12, their descent is to be traced from Amalec, son of Eliphaz and grandson of Esau, and ultimately therefore from Abraham; which account is credited by most modern scholars in so far as it indicates the Arabian origin of the Amalecites and a racial affinity with the Hebrews. The Amalec of Genesis 36:12, however, is not stated to be the ancestor of the Amalecites, though the main purpose of the context, which gives the origin of various Arabian tribes, favours that view; but against it is the earlier account of Genesis 14, which can only be fairly interpreted to mean that the Amalecites, instead of being descended from Abraham, were already a distinct tribe in his day, when they were defeated at Cades (Kadesh) by Chodorlahomor (Chedorlamour), King of the Elamites. This evidence of their antiquity would be confirmed by the more probable interpretation of those who regard the obscure prophecy of Balaam, concerning "Amalec, the first of the nations) as indicating not their greatness, but their age, relative to the other nations mentioned in the oracle. No light on the origin of the Amalecites can be gathered from other sources; the Arabian traditions are late and add nothing trustworthy to the biblical data; and though it happens that nearly every passage of Scripture concerning their origin in subjected by competent scholars to different, and at times, even contradictory, interpretations, little doubt is entertained that the Amalecites were of Arabian stock and of greater antiquity than the Israelites. The belief in their Arabic descent is confirmed by their mode of life and place of dwelling.


The Amalecites were nomadic and warlike and their name is consequently connected in the Bible with various regions. Their original home, however, as appears from 1 Samuel 27:8, was in the desert to the south and southwest of Judea, which stretches to the border of Egypt and to the foot of Mt. Sinai, and is now called Et Tih; a region too arid for cultivation, but fertile enough to afford excellent pasture. This indication of 1 Samuel 27:8, is confirmed by other passages. It was in this desert, at Cades, that they suffered defeat from Chodorlahomor (Genesis 14); here, farther to the south, at Raphidim, near the foot of Mt. Sinai, they offered opposition to Moses (Exodus 17); here Saul attacked them (1 Samuel 15), and here the last remnant of them perished under Ezechias (1 Chronicles 4:43). But they were not always confined to the desert; they pushed farther north and in Moses's time some of them, at least, are found within the borders of Palestine, and frustrated the attempt of the Israelites to enter the country from the south (Numbers 13). Twice our present Hebrew text shows them even as far north as the territory of Ephraim (Judges 5:14; 12:15); but in both cases there seems to be a faulty reading in the Hebrew, which allows us, therefore, to dispense with the habitual speculations, based on these texts, regarding the great expansion and varying fortunes of the Amalecites and their puzzling possession of Mount Ephraim. (See commentaries of Moore and Lagrange on Judges, and Moore's Hebrew text of Judges in Paul Haupt's polychrome Bible.) Nomads and possessors of the Sinaitic peninsula, the Amalecites necessarily came into contact, and almost inevitably into conflict, with the Israelites.

Amalec and Israel under Moses

Their first meeting took place in the first year of the wandering, after Israel came out of Egypt, and was of such a nature that Israel then conceived a hatred of the Amalecites that outlasted their extermination under King Ezechias, many centuries later. The first encounter was at Raphidim, where the Israelites under Moses had encamped on their way to Mount Sinai; in the desert home, therefore, of the Amalecites. Moses, putting Josue in command, went up to the top of a hill, with Aaron and Hur, and it was on this occasion that the fortune of battle was decided by "the rod of God" held in the hands of Moses, Israel prevailing while his hands upheld the rod, Amalec when they dropped, the victory finally going to the Israelites (Exodus 17). There is little in this account of Exodus to show why the Amalecites should be singled out to incur the special animosity of the Israelites, yet it concludes with the decree of Jehovah that He will destroy the memory of Amalec from under heaven, and that His hand will be against Amalec from generation to generation. Amalec, however, was the agressor (ibid., 8); though it must be borne in mind that the Israelites had invaded their country. The reason for Israel's hatred, which is wanting in this historical account, may be supplied from the later (and hortatory) account given in Deuteronomy 25, where it is incidentally stated that the head of Amalec's offending lay in his cruel and treacherous attack, by which he disregarded the laws of Bedouin hospitality, which was an affront to God as well as to man. Instead of showing ordinary humanity to the feeble stragglers of the Israelite army, "spent with hunger and labour", they ruthlessly slew them. Now, "according to the rules of ancient hospitality, and with some sense of God, the Amalecites ought to have spared, and indeed, rather assisted, those who lagged behind, unfit for battle. That they did the contrary was inhuman and barbarous" (Dillman). Cruelty such as this was considered to render a tribe unfit for existence; so hatred of the Amalecites, even unto extermination, was enjoined upon the Israelites as a religious duty. Even apart, however, from this cruelty, rivalry between the two tribes was almost inevitable, as Amalec could not be expected to regard with complacency Israel's invasion of his rich pasture-lands.

No further molestation from the Amalecites is related during the journey of the Israelites to Mt. Sinai, or their stay there, or their march to Cades, near the southern boundary of Palestine. It was from this side that the Israelites first attempted the entry into the Promised Land; and here they again encountered the Amalecites, at the place where the ancestors of the latter had been defeated by Chodorlahomor. Israel had got as far as the wilderness of Pharan (Paran) and from there they sent spies into Palestine to spy out the peoples there, with their lands and cities. The Amalecites were found in the south of the country and apparently at the head of a confederacy of different tribes, or nations, since they soon led a concerted attack on the Israelites; but the spies also brought back reports of giants living in the land, in comparison with whom, they said, "we were in our own sight as grasshoppers; and so we were in their sight" (sic Hebrew text, Numbers 13:34). These stories of the giants frightened the people and "the whole multitude crying wept that night", and they began to murmur and to wish they had died in Egypt or in the wilderness, rather than be doomed by the Lord to undertake the conquest of the land of giants. Moses, Aaron, and Josue contended against their foolish rebellious spirit, but only gained their hatred; and the Lord then passed on them the punishment of the forty years' wandering, decreeing that none of them should enter the Promised Land. This grieving the people exceedingly, they determined to go up into the land and attack the Amalecites and the Chanaanites. But Moses forbade it, prophesying evil because the Lord was not with them. They presumed, nevertheless, to go up, though Moses would not accompany them, and they met the fate foretold; the Amalecites, with their allies, attacking them with considerable slaughter and driving them as far as Horma (Numbers 14:45). The subsequent history of the Amalecites during the time of Moses is obscure. Their destruction is foretold by Balaam in his famous oracle uttered on the top of Phogor, while he viewed the nations around. "And when he saw Amalec he took up his parable and said: ' Amalec, the first of nations, thy latter end shall be destruction,'" a prophecy (whatever be its date) which shows at least that Amalec once held an important place among the Semitic tribes or nations surrounding Israel (Numbers 24). The fulfillment of this prophecy is enjoined upon the Israelites by Moses in a farewell discourse as a sacred duty. "When they shall have established peace with all other people, then shall they blot out the remembrance of Amalec from under heaven: see thou forget it not" (Deuteronomy 25:19). And if this seem an inhuman command, let us remember the prevailing sentiment that the Amalecites were "inhuman and barbarous; a people with such evil customs deserves no mercy"; for it is a question of national life or death. It is plain, however, that we are far from the Sermon on the Mount.

Period of the Judges

Under Josue, Israel, entering Palestine from the east, did not come in contact with the Amalecites, but was kept busy with other enemies, whose territories they were endeavouring to capture. As soon, however, as the Israelites were well established in Palestine, the old enmity became active again. When Eglon, King of Moab, went up against Israel, he was joined by the Amalecites and Ammonites as allies, and together they subdued the Israelites; and the Israelites remained in subjection for fourteen years till, through the cunning and treachery of Aod (Ehud) the Benjamite, King Eglon met his tragic death (Judges 3). Petty warfare between the Amalecites and the Israelites was incessant during a good part of the period of the Judges. The Israelites had by this time become an agricultural people, while the Amalecites remained Bedouin, and made frequent incursions into the land of their enemy and destroyed their crops and cattle (Judges 6). On one occasion, they accompanied the Madianites on an invasion of Palestine, forming an almost innumerable host; they were unexpectedly attacked at night by Gedeon and 300 picked men, and through panic (and perhaps distrust) turned the sword on one another and fled, with Gedeon in pursuit (Judges 7).


This defeat of the Amalecites had the effect of quieting them for many years, for they are not heard of again till the early days of Saul. Saul began his reign by vigorous military operations, waging war, with great success, against "enemies on every side"; among them, the Amalecites, who had been harassing the Israelites (1 Samuel 14:48). Then came the prophet Samuel and reminded Saul of Amalec's old offence and God's decree of extermination. The prophet's words made it clear (xv, 1-3) that no enemy was hated like Amalec and that his extermination was regarded as a religious duty, imposed by God. All, man, woman, child, and beast, were to be destroyed and Israel was to covet none of Amalec's possessions for spoils. Saul proceeded to carry out this injunction, and its character as special punishment upon the Amalecites is emphasized by his mercy to the Cinite (Kenites). Saul invaded the territory of the Amalecites to the south of Palestine and smote them from Hevila in the extreme east, to Sur near the border of Egypt—a campaign of unusual magnitude—and put all to the sword,—men, women, and children—except the King, Agag, whom he took alive, and the best of the animals, which he reserved for sacrifice. For this disobedience in sparing Agag and the best of the flocks and herds, Saul was rejected in the name of God by Samuel who hewed down Agag in his presence; from that day his fortune changed, and when, after Samuel's death, Saul consulted his spirit in the cave at Endor, he was told that he was rejected because he had not executed the fierce wrath of God upon Amalec (Newman's sermon, "Wilfulness the Sin of Saul"). It was an Amalecite who claimed, untruthfully, it seems (2 Samuel 1 with 1 Samuel 31), to have given King Saul his death-blow. While still a fugitive from Saul, David was bringing nearer to its climax the extermination of the doomed race. He was in the service of Achis, King of Geth, in the land of the Philistines, near therefore to Amalecite territory. With his own men, and soldiers borrowed from Achis, he raided the Amalecites and inflicted great slaughter, sparing not a soul (1 Samuel 27). The Amalecites retaliated, during the absence of David and Achis, by burning Siceleg (Ziklag), a city which Achis had given to David, and carrying off all its inhabitants, including two wives of David. David pursued and overtook the enemy in the midst of feast and revel, recovered all the spoil and captives, and slew all the Amalecites except 400 young men who escaped on camels (xxx). This slaughter broke the power of the Amalecites and drove them back to their desert home; there a miserable remnant of them lingered on till the days of Ezechias, tenth successor of David, when a band of 500 Simeonites sufficed to exterminate, to the last man, Israel's fiercest foe (1 Chronicles 4:42, 43). Thus on Mount Seir was fulfilled the doom passed on them by Moses and Balaam about six hundred years earlier. Their name occurs no more except in Psalm 82 (reputed by many to be of the Machabean period) where the use cannot be taken as an historical datum, but is rather poetical, applied to Israel's traditional enemies. The Egyptian and Assyrian discoveries have as yet disclosed no mention of Amalec. The Bible is our only witness, and its testimony, though sifted and questioned in regard to many details, particularly in the accounts of the battles at Raphidim and Cades, and the marvellous victory of Gedeon, has been accepted in the main as a reliable account.


THOMAS in VIG., Dict. de la Bible; MACPHERSON in Hast., Dict. of the Bible; Jewish Encyclopedia, s.v. Amalec; Commentaries, DILLMAN AND DELITZSCH on Genesis; DILLMAN on Numbers.

About this page

APA citation. Fenlon, J.F. (1907). Amalec. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Fenlon, John Francis. "Amalec." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by WGKofron. With thanks to St. Mary's Church, Akron, Ohio.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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