“You Must Kill Amalek!”
A long time ago, when I was still a very young man, I came to the conclusion (like most of my peers) that the Bible was to be taken with a grain of salt. I had heard it said, and completely agreed, that if a human father were to treat his children the way the God of the Hebrew Bible treated His children, we would demand that he be arrested and locked up. This hardly seemed like the sort of fellow whose opinions on morality and appropriate social behavior needed to be taken seriously. The ethics of the New Testament were admittedly less horrific, but they appeared rather trite and unrealistic. Anyway, the more I learned about science and history, the more irrelevant the whole thing became.
A few years ago, all of this changed. What happened was that I discovered a whole new way in which the stories spoke to me. It wasn’t the history that interested me, or the teachings about morality and social justice. It certainly wasn’t the fantastic claims that defied all scientific logic. What interested me was the symbolism: the symbols, images and metaphors that tell an inner psychological story—not about the journey of a nation, but about the journey of a human soul.
Let me share one such story, to show you what I mean:
Shortly after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, we are told that “Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim.” So Moses told Joshua to put together an army and go into battle with Amalek and his people.
The Amalekites had a deep-rooted, irrational, ferocious hatred toward Israel. They attacked whenever possible and with no provocation. They would sneak up behind the Israelites and use ambushes and cunning to attack the weak, the elderly and the stragglers. Later, during Moses’ teachings by the Jordan River in Deuteronomy, he says that God will be at war with Amalek forever, and he transmits this divine command to his followers: “You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”
Taken literally, this appears to be one of many examples of a God who often approves of murder and slaughter, and wishes us to show our love for Him by killing certain other people. In fact, this particular story has sometimes been used to explain and justify a need for Israelis to kill Arabs. But this degrading excuse for violence and inhumanity takes literalism to the extreme and completely misses the point.
Like everything in these stories, the episode with Amalek is an internal symbol. Amalek represents the great enemy of the soul. He is lurking within each one of us. The name ‘Amalek’ has the root ‘malak’, a word which means ‘cutting at the neck’—that is, severing the Mind from the Body. In addition, according to the Kabbalah, the name ‘Amalek’ signifies Doubt. Thus, whenever one is considering an appropriate positive act, ‘Amalek’ introduces doubt into one’s being, and cuts off our mind (our wisdom, intelligence and better judgment) from our actions.
Now, doubt can be intelligent and rational, making sure we don’t jump to foolish conclusions, and that we search for accuracy and truth. But there is also an irrational, automatic kind of doubt—the kind that mocks our Reason, belittles any argument without even listening, and reacts to the most inspiring moments with nothing but a cynical shrug. Amalek is that ugly inner voice that sneaks up and attacks goodness and truth, that laughs at decency and sincerity, that scoffs at kindness and altruism. Amalek represents the all-too-familiar cynicism that pounces on any sign of weakness, that seeks to prevent any attempt to improve oneself, that cavalierly denies God or anything more important than our selfish desires, and insists that everything must be ultimately meaningless.
This uncontrollable hatred of everything noble and good cannot be reasoned with—it cannot be persuaded by rational argument. Symbolically, then, there is no room for acts of diplomacy with Amalek. He must simply be annihilated! From this comes the injunction in Deuteronomy that we must “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.”
But the only form of slaughter that is being justified here is the slaughter of our own cynicism and doubt.
This is a never-ending battle, and the soul must be ever vigilant. King Saul would later lose his kingship for letting the king of the Amalekites live. David, in his own battle against them, would fare better: he would not “let” any Amalekites live—but four hundred of them would escape. Some Amalekites always escape. And that’s the point the Bible is making. This deadly inner voice does not give up, it will never leave us in peace, and we ignore it at our peril. Cynicism and doubt are the worst spoilers of the soul. Like God, we must be at war with Amalek forever.
Andrew Cort is an author, speaker, attorney, teacher, and doctor of chiropractic. His most recent book is The Purpose of Religion: Enlightenment, Meaning and Love in Jewish, Christian and Islamic Symbology. He also writes about the inner meaning of myth and scripture on his blog, Spirituality and Religion. This coming September, the tenth anniversary of 9-11, his blog will be hosting a month-long “Celebration of Spiritual and Religious Unity, Wisdom and Friendship”. There will be Guest Bloggers, Book Excerpts, Music and Videos as well as contests and prizes. All are welcome.
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