Anatomy Of An Enemy

Amalek's personal history may have fueled his descendants' anger towards the descendants of Abraham.

Commentary on Parashat Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4 - 36:43

Amalek is the archetypal enemy of Jewish consciousness. The villain Haman is an heir to Amalek’s murderous designs. Traditionally, any mortal threat to the Jewish people is referred to as Amalek.

In Genesis 36:12 the following verse introduces the birth of the character who will prove to be the nemesis of Israel:

Now Timna was concubine to Elifaz son of Esau, and she bore AMALEK to Elifaz. These are the sons of Ada, Esau’s wife.

Somewhat later a verse gives us the background on Amalek’s mother: “And the children of Lotan were Hori and Hemam; and Lotan’s sister was Timna.” (Genesis 36:22)

And a little later the verse tells us some details about Lotan: “These are the chiefs who came of the Horites; the chief Lotan, the chief Shobal, the chief Zibeon, the chief Anah,” (Genesis 36:29)

1. If you had to create a story from these verses of why Amalek became the tribe most dedicated to destroying Israel, how would you do it?
2. Timna was the sister of a Canaanite chieftain. Is it strange for her to settle for being a concubine? Why would she do such a thing?
3. How would Amalek respond to his mother’s inferior concubine status knowing that she came from princes?

A Word

Amalek’s inauspicious origins are mentioned in the Torah without fanfare and without any explicitly ominous foreshadowing. We know little of Timna and Lotan, but we do know that they came from prominent people and that Timna accepted a lower status to be the concubine of Elifaz, Esau’s son.

There are two possibilities for why she did this. One, because she loved Elifaz so desperately that she was willing to accept any relationship he was prepared to offer. Or, two, it was greater in her eyes to be a concubine in this family than it was to be of higher status in her own clan.

The midrash (Genesis Raba 82:14) notices this and claims that being from the seed of Sarah and Abraham was so prestigious, that such a leap was not outrageous. The midrash, however, does not answer why Amalek emerged from Elifaz and his concubine.

Timna joined Elifaz, according to the midrash, for reasons of status, to be part of a powerful, but not necessarily a spiritual people. Maybe she perceived that this family, this clan would ultimately rule and she was willing to sacrifice her personal dignity in order to be attached to a people even if her connection would be a servile one.

Any child reared in such a union would certainly have bitter feelings for the family who did not entirely accept his mother. The seeds of enmity were sown at that moment.

One can imagine her saying to Amalek, “I was not always a concubine, you should know I once came from princes.” The sacrifice that Timna made was one that cost Israel, a fledging people at the time, dearly when they were tired and thirsty in the desert. Remember it was the tribe of Amalek who ambushed Israel in the desert.

Timna made a choice which disenfranchised her son, and generations later his progeny, the seed of Amalek, wage war against the seed of Abraham, as well as the God of Abraham. Amalek’s anger cannot countenance the fact that his mother is the one who chose her station. Just as Elifaz could have chosen to deny her any place among his people.

In the desert, when the seed of Amalek is ambushing a tired and weary seed of Abraham, one can hear Amalek’s taunts: “Let’s see how noble you are now!”

I’ve heard it said that everything is political, but I disagree. Everything is personal.

Provided by Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, which creates educational resources for Jewish organizations on college campuses.

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