The permanent warfare between Israel and Amalek is one aspect of biblical military history that carries a lot of resonance throughout scriptures, leading to the rejection of Israel’s first king by God over his failure to conduct holy war  properly, and also led to the attempt by a certain Agagite named Haman to wipe the Jews off the face of the earth, a goal thwarted by a certain descendant of Kish named Morducai and his lovely neice, Hadassah (better known as Esther). In short, understanding the bad blood between Israel and Amalek is important in understanding the Bible’s view of warfare and its insistence that holy war be a war of extermination, leaving none to continue the blood feud of retaliation.
The Lord Will Have War With Amalek From Generation To Generation
In Exodus 17:8-16 we see the start of the war between God and Amalek, an account which leaves just as many questions as it provides answers: “Now Amalek came and fought with Israel in Rephidim. And Moses said to Joshua, “Choose us some men and go out, fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in my hand.” So Joshua did as Moses said to him, and fought with Amalek. And Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. And so it was, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed; and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands became heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. And Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. So Joshua defeated Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write this for a memorial in the book and recount it in the hearing of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.” And Moses built an altar and called its name, The-Lord-Is-My-Banner [Yahweh Nissi in Hebrew]; for he said, “Because the Lord has sworn: the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.”
This chapter marks a lot of firsts. For example, this is the first time that a nation deliberately seeks to add itself to the list of nations God is going to blot out. Attacking Israel in the Holy land led to the command to blot out three nations–Amalek being the only survivor (the total destruction of the other two realms, that of King Sihon and King Og, is told in Deuteronomy 2 and 3). When God says that He is going to blot out a nation, that is very serious business. Ultimately, God alone can declare a nation worthy of extinction, though genocide is lamentably not uncommon for mankind to attempt.
Another unusual first, but one that is very relevant, is that it is the first mention of Joshua in the Bible. Here we see the early recognition of Joshua as a military leader (probably one of the capable military leaders Israel had at that time, how he got that capability remains a mystery). Nonetheless, in light of Joshua’s later succession of Moses, it is clear that Joshua’s devotion to God and obvious capabilities were recognized early and developed. It is also striking that the victory owed nothing to Joshua’s own military genius and everything to God, something worthy of note. The victory itself was significant enough that Moses built an altar to commemorate it.
Why Did God Blot Out Amalek From Under Heaven?
So, those who are interested in uncovering the justice of God in pronouncing holy war against Amalek must answer one question: why did God place Amalek under the ban? The account in Exodus does not provide a lot of context about how Amalek got there, simply saying that Amalek came and fought with Israel in the wilderness just outside of Egypt. Nonetheless, the Bible itself does provide at least a hint of how Amalek operated militarily and why they would have deserved extinction according to the just standards of a just God.
Though a full account of 1 Samuel 30 will be provided later, given its own important role in setting certain precedents about the biblical way of war, a few verses in this chapter provide some of the possible reasons why Amalek was to be wiped off the face of the earth. For example, 1 Samuel 30:1-2 shows that the Amalekites were somewhat cowardly, attacking women and fighting for pillage rather than seeking fair combat. Likewise, 1 Samuel 30:11-15 shows that the Amalekites had no regard for the care of their slaves, but rather left them to die when they were sick rather than take care of them. The Bible does not speak kindly of those who abuse and oppress and exploit others.
These examples give some of the background as to the reason why the conduct of the Amalekites was so offensive to God. The Amalekites were a cruel people who oppressed others and who sought to attack the weak rather than fight the strong. This sort of cowardly and predatory behavior is worthy of destruction, and so God judged them accordingly. It is quite possible that Amalek’s attack in the Wilderness was so despicable because of the way in which it was done. At any rate, Rephidim marks the beginning of the long warfare between Israel and Amalek, warfare that will involve such biblical heroes of the faith such as David and Esther.