The Identity And Culture Of Amalek
As to origins, Genesis 36 displays the Amalekites as descendants of Esau:
2 Esau took his wives from the Canaanites: Adah the daughter of Elon the Hittite… 10 These are the names of Esau’s sons: Eliphaz the son of Adah the wife of Esau…11 The sons of Eliphaz were Teman, Omar, Zepho, Gatam, and Kenaz.12 (Timna was a concubine of Eliphaz, Esau’s son; she bore Amalek to Eliphaz.) These are the sons of Adah, Esau’s wife.
So the Amalekites were descendants of Eliphaz, son of Esau through his Canaanite-Hittite wife Adah, through not the wife of Eliphaz, but rather his concubine Timna. Possibly for the latter reason, the Amalekites were not counted as among the Edomites.
Outside the Bible, there seems to be no record of the Amalekites. This has led some to be sceptical of their very existence, but the absence of extra-Biblical historical account can be explained by three related points: Amalek’s lack of any cultural impact, their lack of any historical impact, and their relatively small size in contrast to peoples such as the Egyptians.
Before examining these points, we shall look at their origins. The first Biblical reference to the Amalekites is in Genesis 14:7, referring to the alliance of northern kings who attacked the southern Levant: ‘Then they turned back and came to En-mishpat (that is, Kadesh) and defeated all the country of the Amalekites, and also the Amorites who were dwelling in Hazazon-tamar.’ This is probably a deliberate anachronism by Moses, referring to territory that in his time was occupied by the Amalekites, e.g., if one were to refer to a Roman visiting Carthage in Tunisia, although Tunisia as a name and political entity did not exist in Roman times.
In Numbers 13:29, we read: ‘The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb.’ This indicates that they lived outside the Land of Promise, so had nothing to fear from the Israelite conquest, and that they were a desert people, probably living by oases. In 14:25 we read ‘…the Amalekites and the Canaanites dwell in the valleys…’, and Judges 12:15 refers to ‘the hill country of the Amalekites.’ In Judges 6:33 we read: ‘Now all the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the East came together, and they crossed the Jordan and encamped in the Valley of Jezreel…’ This puts them in Transjordan. The likelihood, therefore, is that they were a nomadic or semi-nomadic people, which the OT as a whole would seem to suggest, and that they were more a tribal confederacy than a nation, with encampments rather than normal cities.
The latter would partly explain their lack of cultural and historical impact. Let us compare and contrast them with the Canaanites. It should be noted that the people normally known as ‘Phoenicians’ never called themselves by that name. Rather, they referred to themselves as ‘Canaanites’ (Garbini, Giovanni, ‘The Question of the Alpahbet’, in Moscati, Sabatino (ed.), The Phoenicians, London: I. B. Tauris, 2001, p. 107). There was no cultural or conceptual distinction between the people of Tyre and Sidon and those to the south of them.
The Phoenicians explored and traded as far as Britain (for Cornish tin), and established colonies across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, as far as what is now Morocco. Carthage was a Phoenician colony (founded 814 BC), and they conquered Sicily and Sardinia, as well as parts of Spain – the city of Cartagena was originally New Carthage. Cadiz was originally a Phoenician colony (founded 1104 BC).
The Phoenician alphabet influenced others, including even the Romans. We know from 1 Kings 5 and 6 how Phoenician builders from King Hiram of Tyre helped to build the Temple of Solomon. Previously, Tyrian builders constructed David’s house – 2 Samuel 5:11.
At the Canaanite city of Ugarit in northern Syria, discovered in 1929, extensive elements of the people’s culture and religion were discovered. One text discovered at Ugarit, concerning ‘Keret’, refers to ‘a [sacri]ficial lamb [in] your right hand’ as well as a young goat and ‘a bird for sacrifice’ (Bernhardt, Karl-Heinz, ‘Ugaritic Texts: Keret’, in Beyerlin, Walter (ed.), Near Eastern Religious Texts Relating to the Old Testament, London: SCM, 1975, 1978, p. 224). This demonstrates that the Canaanites had a literary heritage. Hence, the Canaanites, especially the Phoenicians, had a major historical and cultural impact, even outside their homeland.
By contrast, we read nothing of the Amalekites being great builders, agriculturalists, horticulturalists or traders. All we read of them is that they were robbers, raiders and enslavers. Their whole economy was built on the principle of raiding to satisfy their needs.
Since they were economically parasitic, this would explain their lack of coinage or constructions, whether buildings or goods. Again, it would follow that this would mean that they did not engage in normal trade, especially with their neighbours. As an inland, largely desert people, they obviously were not sailors, which would undermine their contact with other peoples. Their relatively small size would have limited their impact, in the absence of extensive trading relations. This being the case, it is hardly surprising they the Amalekites left no cultural or historical footprint.
We know nothing about their language, but given their proximity to the Canaanites, it was probably the same or a related dialect. Similarly, we know nothing about their religion – a point to which we will return. This is somewhat surprising, since the OT usually does say something about the religion of the surrounding nations, albeit in a hostile and denunciatory fashion, e.g., 1 Kings 11: ‘5 For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites…7 Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abominationof Moab, and for Molech the abominationof the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem.’Again, the lack of reference to them in the annals of surrounding nations testifies to their lack of cultural impact. They would only be known as plunderers.
Part 3 of 6 will discuss The Malicious And Incorrigible Nature Of The Amalekites