History Files

Near East Kingdoms

Ancient Levantine States


Amalekites (Canaan)

In the mid-third millennium BC, city states began to appear in Syria as people benefited from interaction with Sumer and from improvements in irrigation. Within five hundred years, around 2000 BC, the same process was happening farther south and west, in the Levant, along the Mediterranean coast. Semitic-speaking Canaanite tribes occupied much of the area, creating a patchwork of city states of their own. The Phoenicians (more Canaanites) also occupied parts of this region, eventually founding their own mighty seaborne trading empire.

The Amalekites formed a group (a 'nation') which appears only in the Old Testament. They were painted by the victors in their battles against the Israelites as a constant enemy. Their stated origins though, make them an offshoot of the early Israelites, with enmity only apparent after Moses led his followers back towards Canaan from Egypt. Their founder was Amalek, grandson of the Esau who was the son of Isaac and who founded the Edomites. These early relationships must have continued to mean something to the non-Israelites, as the Amalekites are noted for their closeness to the Kenites.

The domain of the Amalekites was the hinterland on the south-western edge of modern Israel, with the Negev Desert being included in the areas in which they pursued their nomadic existence. When the Israelites were returning to Canaan during the exodus, Edom refuses them access to its territory, while many other cities of inland Canaan such as Arad also opposed them, so Amalekite hostility towards these migrants was far from unique.

However, such was the Amalekite enthusiasm to oppose the Israelites that the latter apparently imposed an order to execute the entire nation, an action which is largely interpreted today as an attempted genocide. Some modern scholars have tried to argue against this, but a seeming majority are more reluctant to do so. Both sides in the ongoing struggle exhibited great cruelty and little reluctance towards mercy until the reign of Saul. Unfortunately even his mercy was overridden by Samuel. The last-known Amalekite king was executed by Samuel in the later eleventh century BC, and the people were considered to be extinct by the end of the eighth century BC.

Phoenicians shifting cedarwood from shore to land

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Sean Bambrough and Wayne McCleese, from the Illustrated Dictionary & Concordance of the Bible, Geoffrey Wigoder (Gen Ed, 1986), from Easton's Bible Dictionary, Matthew George Easton (1897), from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, from Jewish War & Jewish Antiquities, Flavius Josephus, from Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times, Donald Redford (Princeton University Press, 1992), and from Early Israel and the Surrounding Nations, A H Sayce, and from External Links: Time Maps, and Ancient History Encyclopaedia, and Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Ancient Jewish History: The Amalekites (Jewish Virtual Library).)

fl c.1660s? BC


Grandson of Esau of the Edomites.

c.1660s? BC

One of the sons of Eliphaz of the Edomites is Amalek, with his mother being Timna, the Horite, previous occupants of the Edomite territories. Amalek is 'chief of Amalek', suggesting that he leads a division of Edomites who become known as the Amalekites. These people live on the edge of habitable territory, pursuing a nomadic life in the Negev Desert to the immediate south of modern Israel.

Map of Anatolia and Environs 1550 BC
A short dark age followed the Hittite collapse and the creation of power vacuums in Babylonia and Syria (caused by the Hittites) during the sixteenth century BC (click or tap on map to view full sized)

c.1200 BC

This is the period of Israelite settlement after the traditional exodus from Egypt. At this time, there is general instability in the region: the Hittite empire is destroyed in Anatolia, the Canaanites begin to be reduced to owning the shores of Lebanon (eventually to become the sea traders known as the Phoenicians), the Philistines and other Sea Peoples are first settling on the lower coast of the Levant, and various neo-Hittite city states are arising in northern Syria, many of which come into contact with the Israelites following their migration, mainly under the leadership of Moses.

The unnamed king of Arad may be little more than a pastoral tribal leader who claims some territory but whose 'city' is little more than a farming town on the edge of habitable Canaan. Even the Old Testament (Numbers 21:1-3) states that he dwells in the Negev, the large semi-hospitable desert on the southern border of today's Israel.

This slightly fanciful view of the migrating Israelites does show a surprisingly small number of participants (more are cropped off from the left, but even so their numbers are very finite), something which chimes with the 'ruling elite' theory of migration which is detailed on the Israelites page

However, the Old Testament coverage of an event which involves the Aradites is confusing and possibly contradictory unless it is taken as two events. If that is the case then the Aradites, along with the Amalekites, come down from the hills to deal the Israelites 'a shattering blow'. Then the Israelites strike back, defeating and destroying the Aradites and claiming their town.

c.1120 BC

Gideon of the Israelites defeats the Midianites after what appears to be an attempt to cattle-rustle and steal crops by the Midianites and their allies, the Amalekites. The latter crop up several times in the form of a fringe group which aids others in attacks against the Israelites.

fl c.1010s? BC


Probably a title rather than a name. Executed.

c.1010s BC

Saul of Israel defeats Nahash, king of Ammon, after the citizens of the frontier city of Jabesh-Gilead call for assistance against the Ammonite army. He also hands Edom a defeat and possibly makes it a vassal of Israel. The ruler of the Amalekites is spared by him but Samuel, the former Israelite Judge, executes him anyway.

Israelites and Amalekites in battle
This image depicts a battle between the Israelites and the Amalekites, as created by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1860), and representing a scene from Exodus (17.8-16)

The Amalekites as a recognisable group are subsequently absorbed into the general population. By the time of King Hezekiah of Judah at the end of the eighth century BC - by which time Judah itself is being attacked and subjugated by Assyria - they are considered to be extinct.

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