Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – In his speech on Saturday, October 27, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made reference to the Bible’s instructions about the Amalekites, a favorite trope of his when he has argued that Israel is under existential threat and must respond with lethal and devastating force. He has talked about Iran this way, as well.
According to the Bible, the Amalekites were a southern Canaanite tribe that attempted to block the Israelites from coming out of Sinai into the land of Canaan.
The incident to which Netanyahu referred occurs in 1 Samuel 15. In the eleventh century BCE, Saul has become Israel’s first king, and there is a good deal of tension over this rise of monarchy. It is clear that the Jewish priests and prophets were critics of the new institution.
The prophet Samuel tells Saul that God wants him to take revenge on the Amalekites for their earlier actions:
- 15 1 Samuel said to Saul, “The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord. 2 Thus says the Lord of hosts: I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. 3 Now go and attack Amalek and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”
4 So Saul summoned the people and numbered them in Telaim, two hundred thousand foot soldiers and ten thousand soldiers of Judah. 5 Saul came to the city of the Amalekites and lay in wait in the valley. 6 Saul said to the Kenites, “Go! Leave! Withdraw from among the Amalekites, or I will destroy you with them, for you showed kindness to all the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt.” So the Kenites withdrew from the Amalekites. 7 Saul defeated the Amalekites, from Havilah as far as Shur, which is east of Egypt. 8 He took King Agag of the Amalekites alive but utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword.
The passage goes on to say that Saul initially spared King Agag along with many sheep and other animals, and that God became angry with him for this less than total elimination of the enemy, and expressed regret at having made Saul king.
This text is one of a number of “genocide narratives” in the Hebrew Bible where the Israelites were ordered to wipe out other peoples, including the Canaanites (Psalm 83:4; Isaiah 19:1–10; exodus 17:8–16, Joshua 8:24–25). In Hebrew the technical term for this sort of total holy war was herem, which is cognate to the Arabic haram, a sacred space.
Gill Kugler points out that these passages often troubled Christians, some of whom saw them as allegorical and others of whom saw them as pre-, sub-, and anti-Christ. I fear some of our contemporary Evangelicals may see them as a how-to manual.
There is no archeological evidence for the existence of a people called the Amalekites, who are depicted in the Bible as living in what is now the Negev desert or perhaps in Jordan. Bernhard Asen argues that similar notions of the extermination or displacement of enemies are found in the Mesha Stele of circa 840 BCE, a Canaanite text of a Moabite king. This may be so, but it doesn’t settle the question of whether boasting of genocide was a rhetorical flourish or reflected a concrete practice.
In fact, although the authors of 1 Samuel 15 have Saul wipe out the Amalekites, other authors have David tangle with them at a later time (1 Samuel 30). So Saul seems to have missed some. Or, Israel’s kings annihilating the Amalekites was a literary image deployed over and over again. The books of Samuel are thought to have been written down around 550 BCE during the Babylonian Exile, under the Iranian Achaemenid dynasty. They tell tales that supposedly occurred hundreds of years before. The authors weren’t historians and were rather reworking oral legends into theological interpretations of history.
Netanyahu has never been accused of being a religious man, and he quotes the Bible the way Donald Trump does, to appeal to fundamentalist voters.
He is using 1 Samuel 15 to cover a secular ideology that underpins his Likud Party. It is the revisionist Zionism of Vladimir “Ze’ev” Jabotinsky (1880-1940),
As the great historian Avi Shlaim pointed out, Jabotinsky wrote in the 1920s, “Every indigenous people will resist alien settlers as long as they see any hope of ridding themselves of the danger of foreign settlement. This is how the Arabs will behave and go on behaving so long as they possess a gleam of hope that they can prevent ‘Palestine’ from becoming the Land of Israel.”
It was only by establishing settlements fiercely guarded by Zionist gangs forming an “Iron Wall” that the native Arabs could be made to kowtow to the alien settlers, Jabotinsky held: “Settlement can thus develop under the protection of a force that is not dependent on the local population, behind an iron wall which they will be powerless to break down.”
His followers founded the Irgun Zvai Leumi terrorist group, which blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946, killing dozens of civilians, and perpetrated the massacre of Palestinian villagers at Deir Yassin in April, 1948, in an attempt to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians from Palestine.
Netanyahu has openly celebrated the terrorist strike against the King David Hotel, which does not differ in kind, only in the numbers of dead, from the Hamas attack of October 7. He drew a rebuke from the British Parliament 17 years ago, which passed a resolution: “That this House notes that the sixtieth anniversary of the bombing of the King David Hotel fell on 22nd July 2006; recalls that 96 people died in this atrocity, which remains the highest death toll for British subjects in a terrorist attack; further notes that an event was held in Jerusalem to celebrate this event and that prominent members of the Knesset, including former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, attended; condemns terrorism unreservedly; and associates itself with the comments of Her Majesty’s Ambassador in Tel Aviv and the Consul-General in Jerusalem, `We do not think that it is right for an act of terrorism, which led to the loss of many lives, to be commemorated.'”
Netanyahu may have gestured to, and defiled, the Bible by excusing his genocide against the civilians of Gaza with reference to 1 Samuel. But his real bible is Revisionist Zionism with its Fascist and explicitly colonial ideology. The Iron Wall is now advancing into Gaza, doing to small children and pregnant women what the authors of 1 Samuel in prosaic Babylon probably only dreamed of doing to the mythical Amalekites.