The first thing to understand is who the Amalekites were, a formidable tribe of nomads living in the area south of Canaan, between Mount Seir and the Egyptian border. The Amalekites are not listed in the table of nations in Genesis 10, as they did not originate until after Esau’s time. In Numbers 24:20 Balaam refers to the Amalekites as “first among the nations,” but he meant that the Amalekites were the first ones to attack the Israelites upon their exodus from Egypt or that the Amamlekites were “first” in power at that time. Genesis 36 refers to the descendants of Amalek, the son of Eliphaz and grandson of Esau, as Amalekites (verses 12 and 16). So, the Amalekites were somehow related to, but distinct from, the Edomites.
Scripture records the long-lasting feud between the Amalekites and the Israelites and God’s direction to wipe the Amalekites off the face of the earth (Exodus 17:8–13; 1 Samuel 15:2; Deuteronomy 25:17). Why God would call His people to exterminate an entire tribe is a difficult question, but a look at history may give some insight.
Like many desert tribes, the Amalekites were nomadic. Numbers 13:29 places them as native to the Negev, the desert between Egypt and Canaan. The Babylonians called them the Sute, Egyptians the Sittiu, and the Amarna tablets refer to them as the Khabbati, or “plunderers.”
The Amalekites’ unrelenting brutality toward the Israelites began with an attack at Rephidim (Exodus 17:8–13). This is recounted in Deuteronomy 25:17–19 with this admonition:“Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way, when ye were come forth out of Egypt; How he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, even all that were feeble behind thee, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God. Therefore it shall be, when the Lord thy God hath given thee rest from all thine enemies round about, in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget it.”
The Amalekites later joined with the Canaanites and attacked the Israelites at Hormah (Numbers 14:45). In Judges they banded with the Moabites (Judges 3:13) and the Midianites (Judges 6:3) to wage war on the Israelites. They were responsible for the repeated destruction of the Israelites’ land and food supply.
In 1 Samuel 15:2–3, God tells King Saul, “Thus saith the Lord of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”
In response, King Saul first warns the Kenites, friends of Israel, to leave the area. He then attacks the Amalekites but does not complete the task. He allows the Amalekite King Agag to live, takes plunder for himself and his army, and lies about the reason for doing so. Saul’s rebellion against God and His commands is so serious that he is rejected by God as king (1 Samuel 15:23).
David considered Saul’s life precious and of tremendous value. Though David had killed men in war, he would not kill Saul (1 Samuel 26:24). David had great faith in God’s plan and timing. As long as God wanted Saul to be king, David would wait. He would not take matters into his own hands. David knew from experience what it meant to be the Lord’s anointed. (1 Samuel 24:6)
Eventually, Saul did fall in battle, in God’s own timing. This event was bittersweet, as both Saul, who wanted to take David’s life, and Jonathan, who was David’s best friend, were killed on the same day. First Samuel 31 records this battle in which Saul and his sons perished in a battle against the Philistines.
2 Samuel 1 relates the story of the Amalekite who came to David. The biblical record describes him as a man “from Saul’s camp with his clothes torn and dust on his head” (2 Samuel 1:2). When he came to David, he fell to the ground to honor the presumptive king. He then told his lie about the death of Saul: “And the young man that told him said, As I happened by chance upon mount Gilboa, behold, Saul leaned upon his spear; and, lo, the chariots and horsemen followed hard after him. And when he looked behind him, he saw me, and called unto me. And I answered, Here am I. And he said unto me, Who art thou? And I answered him, I am an Amalekite. He said unto me again, Stand, I pray thee, upon me, and slay me: for anguish is come upon me, because my life is yet whole in me. So I stood upon him, and slew him, because I was sure that he could not live after that he was fallen: and I took the crown that was upon his head, and the bracelet that was on his arm, and have brought them hither unto my lord.” 2 Samuel 1:6–10
The Amalekite’s story conflicts with the biblical historian’s account of the death of Saul and is therefore a lie. Probably, the truth of the matter is that the Amalekite was a treasure-hunter, a battlefield opportunist who followed armies in conflict in hopes of gathering booty from the fallen soldiers. The Amalekite likely witnessed the death of Saul and heard Saul’s plea for his armor-bearer to kill him before committing suicide. After Saul was dead, the Amalekite plundered the body but then realized he might be able to gain an even greater prize from David, who stood to benefit most from the death of Saul. So the Amalekite fabricated his story about killing Saul at Saul’s request, showed Saul’s crown and armband as “proof” of his story, and sat back, expecting David to be grant him a large reward.
The Amalekite had miscalculated, however. King Saul had indeed been David’s enemy, but David was by no means happy at the death of Saul. In fact, David had previous opportunities to kill Saul himself, but he had refrained out of the fear of God, since Saul was God’s anointed (1 Samuel 24:6). Instead of the bonanza he was anticipating, the Amalekite received judgment. “David called one of his men and said, ‘Go, strike him down!’ So he struck him down, and he died. For David had said to him, ‘Your blood be on your own head. Your own mouth testified against you when you said, ‘I killed the Lord’s anointed” (2 Samuel 1:15–16). The Amalekite’s lie about the death of Saul brought about his own death.
Putting all the events concerning the death of Saul in the correct order: • Saul is wounded in battle and then kills himself by falling on his own sword. • An Amalekite comes across Saul’s dead body and takes his crown and armlet. • The next day, the Philistines find Saul’s body, behead him, strip him of his armor, send the report, and fasten his body to the wall of Beth Shan (1 Samuel 31:8–10). • Men of Jabesh Gilead travel overnight and take Saul’s body and those of his sons and burn them at Jabesh (1 Samuel 31:11–12). • The men of Jabesh Gilead bury Saul’s bones under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and the men of that city fast for seven days (1 Samuel 31:13). • The Amalekite arrives at David’s camp on the third day with the crown and armlet, reporting his fictional story. • David and his men fast and mourn until evening. • David has the Amalekite executed. • David becomes king and honors the brave men who buried Saul’s body (2 Samuel 2:4–7).
Following Saul’s death, David was appointed king of Judah for seven years before becoming king of all Israel. In total, David would rule for 40 years as king, serving as the Lord’s anointed. He had treated the previous king with great respect and later received the role himself, being called a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14).
The escaped Amalekites continued to harass and plunder the Israelites in successive generations that spanned hundreds of years. 1 Samuel 30 reports an Amalekite raid on Ziklag, a Judean village where David held property. The Amalekites burned the village and took captive all the women and children, including two of David’s wives. David and his men defeated the Amalekites and rescued all the hostages. A few hundred Amalekites escaped, however. Much later, during the reign of King Hezekiah, a group of Simeonites “killed the remaining Amalekites” who had been living in the hill country of Seir (1 Chronicles 4:42–43).
The last mention of the Amalekites is found in the book of Esther where Haman the Agagite, a descendant of the Amalekite king Agag, connives to have all the Jews in Persia annihilated by order of King Xerxes. God saved the Jews in Persia, however, and Haman, his sons, and the rest of Israel’s enemies were destroyed instead (Esther 9:5–10).
The Amalekites’ hatred of the Jews and their repeated attempts to destroy God’s people led to their ultimate doom. Their fate should be a warning to all who would attempt to thwart God’s plan or who would curse what God has blessed (Genesis 12:3).