A nation described in the Hebrew Bible as enemies of the Israelites, the Amalekites are also the descendants of Esau.
In a sculpture at the Holocaust Memorial in The Hague, a Star of David sculpted by the Dutch artist Dirk Stins in 1967, one reads a quote from Deuteronomy (Dt 25:17-19): “Remember what Amalek has done to you … do not forget.” Who is this Amalek Deuteronomy is telling the Israelites not to forget about?
The Amalekites are often referred to in the Hebrew Bible as “the sons of Amalek,” or also just as “Amalek,” referring to the nation’s founder, Amalek, the grandson of Esau. How could the grandson of Esau become the ancestor of the quintessential enemy of the Israelites? To better understand who Amalek is and what he stands for, we need to go back two generations in the Bible and understand the dynamics at play in the relationship of Jacob and Esau.
Esau and Jacob are twins, although they could not be any more different. Their rivalry is suggested, from the very beginning, in the book of Genesis: chapter 25 clearly states that Esau was born before Jacob, who came out holding on to Esau’s heel, as if trying to pull him back into the womb so that he could be firstborn. In fact, the name “Jacob” comes from a Hebrew root that can be either translated as “to follow,” “to be behind,” “to supplant,” or as “heel.” But, in fact, their rivalry precedes even their birth. Genesis 25 reads:
Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The Lord answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord.
The Lord said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”
In the biblical narrative, Esau is presented as a rough, red-haired (the text only says he was “red all over,” though) hairy hunter who seems to be more interested in being out in the fields than in learning the skills he would need to develop to deal with the responsibilities that come with being the firstborn. Jacob, on the other hand, is described as either a simpleton, or as an “almost perfect man:” there are discrepancies here, on whether the Hebrew word tam should be translated in one way or the other.