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Layered Levels of Understanding: Genocide in the Torah

A simplistic reading of the Torah suggests that G-d is commanding nothing short of genocide:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Inscribe this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!” (Ex. 17:14)

This is genocide, right? Isn’t the Torah describing the extermination of a people?

Not if we read the words and try to understand them. The verse does not say “I will utterly destroy Amalek.” Instead, it says, “I will blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.”

This is quite odd, and for two reasons. The first reason is that “blot out the memory” is not the same thing as “exterminating.” The second reason is that the Torah writes these words down, and we are commanded to learn and repeat them! How can we possibly blot out the memory of a people whom we keep remembering?! It is a laughable paradox.

Indeed, the Torah repeats the commandment, and again uses that strange language:

Therefore, when the LORD your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deut. 25:19)

The Torah is not employing euphemism. When the Torah commands us to kill someone, the words make that quite clear. So when the text tells us that G-d (and elsewhere “the people”) will “blot out the memory of Amalek,” then it is telling us NOT that we are to exterminate the people of Amalek, NOR that we will forget that they ever existed. We know the commandment, and we remember Amalek precisely because of the commandment.

It is deeper than this, because the Torah also tells us:

The LORD will be at war with Amalek from generation to generation. (Ex. 17:16)

How can G-d always be at war with Amalek, a nation that is long gone, that has no DNA trace or racial characteristics? Either the Torah lacks relevance to us today, or the simplistic understanding – genocide – is missing something critical.

I believe it is clearly the latter, and here is how it unfolds in the text: We know why Amalek are a special kind of enemy:

For everyone who does those things, everyone who deals falsely, is abhorrent to the LORD your God. Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt; how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the LORD your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deut. 25:16-19)

Fair enough. Amalek were bad actors. They fought dirty, by attacking the weak and weary, and by acting with falsity.

One possible interpretation is that when we are commanded to “blot out the memory of Amalek,” we are thus commanded to hate injustice in every generation, to always oppose those who have no fear of G-d and have no belief in the sanctity of human life. Humans who target and kill innocents are the enemy of all those who see that man is made in the image of G-d. In this reading, we are to attack Amalek-like behavior in every generation.

But this interpretation still avoids around the basic problem with understanding the language the Torah uses: the text does not tell us to fight everything that is “like” Amalek, and while we are commanded to love the stranger, the widow and the orphan, as well as to love our neighbors like ourselves, none of those verses are connected to Amalek. Nor are they about “memory.”

There is a piece missing.

My brother figured it out, some years ago. He points out that Amalek are found in the Torah much earlier, in Genesis. In the time of Avram, an alliance of four kings subdues a competing group of five kings. In time, the five kings rebel, and a war ensues.

And they returned … and smote all the country of the Amalekites (Gen 14:7)

The Amalekites were collateral damage in another war, innocent bystanders who were overrun and smitten by rival armies. They were the Belgium (or if you prefer, the Poland or Korea) of their age.

Avram did nothing. At least at first.

But then, after his nephew, Lot, was taken hostage, Avram goes to war and handily defeats the kings, freeing his nephew.

Now try to see it from the perspective of the Amalekites: they unjustly suffered as mere collateral damage, and Avram stood by and did nothing at all. That is, until it affected him personally, and then Avram swooped in and saved the day.

What if, my brother points out, Amalek held a grudge against Avram and his descendants?! They had a gripe, they nursed it, and then when they saw a chance for payback, they seized that chance, striking at the Jewish people after the Exodus.

If this is correct (and the text certainly supports it), then the commandment to “blot out the memory of Amalek” is not for us to blot out OUR memory of Amalek, but instead to always oppose grudges and feuds, especially those that span generations:

The LORD will be at war with Amalek from generation to generation. (Ex. 17:16)

The conclusion is that no genocide is planned or commanded. Nor is it only about the behavior of Amalek when they attacked the weak. In this understanding, the commandment to combat Amalek is not racial or national or tribal, but instead speaks directly to the kinds of toxic mindsets that eat a people out from the inside.

Indeed, it is not hard to draw conclusions to the modern day: everyone knows that they, either personally or as a class or a color or a people, were oppressed by someone else at some point. We are all descended from people who were conquered at some point. Many of us are descended from slaves. Most Americans fled from people whom they considered their oppressors, either in Poland or Africa or England or Vietnam. We can all find a way to hold a grudge, to see ourselves as victims, to cling to intergenerational feelings of victimhood.

But when we do that, we are reduced by it. People who wallow in their victimhood are reduced by that mindset, by seeing their own situation as “someone else’s fault.”

And the Torah uses the 400-year Amalekite grudge as a case study in how such a mindset poisons a nation. Amalek lived for revenge, nothing more. Revenge is not a positive goal. And G-d has commanded the Jews to seek to blot out these kinds of feuds in every generation.

It is one reason why I consciously and knowingly do business with people whose ancestors (perhaps only one generation ago), tried to exterminate my own family as if they were vermin. G-d tells me not to hold a grudge. Each person needs to be valued for themselves, and judged on their own merits. Similarly, when I find people who are living for the sake of an old grudge (whether blacks in America or Arabs in Israel or the Irish in Boston), I do what I can to try to help them see that we have to blot out the memory of those grudges in order to get on with having productive lives.

When we live our lives going forward, then we can achieve great things. But when we preserve the memory of perceived wrongs, we are preserving the memory of Amalek, locking ourselves in the prisons we have built in our own minds.

The Torah is clearly telling us that we, in every generation, must set ourselves against anyone who defines themselves by such inherited baggage. Our greatest enemies are not those who wronged us in the past. Our greatest enemy is ourselves.

One reply on “Layered Levels of Understanding: Genocide in the Torah”

Wisdom, friend! Particularly in these fraught, fractious days of tribalism – commingled with internalized labeling of oneself as either unworthy victor or helpless victim. Thanks for such timely thoughts for reflection and action.

Comments are welcome!