Left: A blood-stained floor in a home after the Nahal Oz attacks by Hamas on Israeli civilians. October 7, 2023. (Image: Government Press Office of Israel/Wikipedia); right: Israel Defense Forces soldiers preparing for a ground operation in Gaza on October 29, 2023. (Image: IDF Spokesperson's Unit/Wikipedia)

This article was originally published by the Catholic World Report.

On October 28, 2023, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu caused a stir when he quoted a controversial passage from the Bible in the context of Israel’s war against Hamas. In a statement to the Israeli public, he said:

[Our soldiers] are longing to recompense the murderers for the horrific acts they perpetrated on our children, our women, our parents and our friends. They are committed to eradicating this evil from the world, for our existence, and I add, for the good of all humanity. The entire people, and the leadership of the people, embrace them and believe in them. ‘Remember what Amalek did to you’ (Deuteronomy 25:17). We remember and we fight.

Critics immediately connected Netanyahu’s statement to another biblical passage in which God commands: “Now go and strike Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1 Sam 15:3).

The critics took Netanyahu’s reference to Amalek as evidence of the “genocidal intentions” of the Israeli government to engage in the indiscriminate killing of the Palestinians. Inevitably, sensationalist headlines followed, such as “Netanyahu Openly Calls for Genocide Citing the Bible” or “Netanyahu declares holy war against Gaza, citing the Bible”.

These titles, of course, are “fake news.” Netanyahu did not call for a genocide or holy war against the Palestinians. Nevertheless, his association of Hamas with Amalek to legitimize Israel’s war against the terrorist group came in stark contrast to widespread calls for a ceasefire, including Pope Francis’ own call for a ceasefire ‘in the name of God’.

Both Netanyahu and the pope appealed to God and the Bible to justify two opposite courses of action—war and a ceasefire. Who is right? And which course of action is truly “for the good of humanity”?

To answer this question, it is worth taking a closer look at the figure of Amalek in the Bible.

Amalek in Scripture

Amalek first appears in the book of Genesis as a grandson of Esau, the infamous twin brother and rival of Jacob, father of Israel (Gen 36:12). Amalek inherited Esau’s deep-seated hostility to Jacob. His descendants, the Amalekites, are the first enemies who attack Israel after they leave Egyptian slavery. As Joshua leads men to go down and fight them, Moses holds up God’s staff in prayer, assisted by Aaron and Hur. As long as God’s staff is held up, the Israelites grow stronger and prevail until Amalek is defeated (Ex 17:8-13).

After the victory, the Lord instructs Moses to write in a book that he will “utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.” Moses also builds an altar as a sign that “the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Ex 17:14-16).

The passage from Deuteronomy quoted by Netanyahu elaborates on Amalek’s wickedness:

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way, when you were faint and weary, and cut off at your rear all who lagged behind you; and he did not fear God. (Dt 25:17–18)

By attacking and cutting down the stragglers in the rear—the elderly, the very young, the sick, pregnant women, etc.—the Amalekites committed the ultimate crime of being merciless to the weak. Having no fear of God, they betrayed extreme human callousness and a lack of the most elementary decency. According to Jewish tradition, Amalek initially pretended to be Israel’s friend and kinsman, luring unsuspecting Jews to death by calling them by name and inviting them to leave the camp, where they killed them and mutilated their corpses.

Amalek’s treachery and hostility sets it up not just as any enemy but the perpetual archenemy of both God and Israel—the embodiment of chaos and death seeking to thwart God’s redemptive plan by annihilating God’s people. For this reason, Israel is commanded to “blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven” (Dt 25:19).

As harsh as it is, this decree has a rationale behind it: Amalek must be eliminated because it is the archetype of murderous evil and personification of inhumanity and lack of scruples—in short, a kind of cosmic evil. As long as it survives, it will continue to afflict not only Israel, but the entire world.

Thus, Amalek cannot be appeased. It can only be defeated for the good of humanity. Even the non-Israelite prophet Balaam foresaw its future end: “Amalek was the first of the nations, but in the end he shall come to destruction” (Num 24:20).

The Amalekites continue to stir trouble throughout the Old Testament: They defeat Israel and seize Jericho (Jdg 3:12–13), destroy the produce of the land (Jdg 6:3), and “lay along the valley like locusts” (Jdg 7:12). After the rise of the Israelite Kingdom, King Saul defeats the Amalekites (1 Sam 14:47–48) but—contrary to God’s command—spares their king, Agag, in an act of disobedience that leads to his downfall (1 Sam 15:1–35). The Amalekites persist as David’s implacable foes (1 Sam 27:8) who raid and burn the city of Ziklag and take its women captive (1 Sam 30:1–20). They are repeatedly listed among Israel’s enemies (2 Sam 8:12; 1 Chr 18:11), driven by genocidal intentions (Ps 83:4–7).

The most notorious Amalekite in the Bible is the arch-villain Haman from the book of Esther. Haman is introduced as “the Agagite” (Esth 3:1)—a descendant of the Amalekite king Agag spared by Saul. King Saul’s leniency to Agag enabled his posterity to survive and made possible the rise of his genocidal descendant Haman, who was intent on eradicating the Jews. Haman reveals the justification behind the decree to blot out Amalek. If not carried out, the “spirit of Amalek” continues to be a scourge upon Israel and the world, obscuring the face of God in every generation. Indeed, according to a rabbinic saying,

The name of the Lord will not be complete, and the throne of the Lord will not be whole as long as Amalek’s seed endures in the world; but when Amalek’s seed perishes from the world, the Name will be complete and the throne will be whole.

“You shall purge the evil from among you”

One of the most difficult moral problems in the Old Testament is the question of herem warfare—the commandment to annihilate not only the Amalekites but all the Canaanite nations that previously inhabited the Promised Land (Dt 7:1–5; 20:16–18). The principle behind this commandment is simple: some evils are so extreme that they can neither be appeased nor restrained. They must be defeated and destroyed.

Like the Amalekites, the Canaanites embodied this kind of unrestrained evil. They committed abominations—such as sexual perversion, cultic prostitution, and child sacrifice—that defiled not only their perpetrators but also the whole land. Having defiled the land, the Canaanites received a punishment that fit their crimes: they were to be expelled from it (Lev 18:24–30).

The same retributive principle also applied to ancient Israel, as expressed repeatedly in Deuteronomy “you shall purge the evil from among you” (Dt 13:5–11; 17:2–7; 22:20–24). This was the ground for the Old Testament’s sanction of capital punishment: certain sins are so heinous that they are liable of corrupting an entire society; thus, for the sake of preserving society from their cancerous spread, they are punishable by death.

Divine mercy and divine justice

Though shocking to modern sensibilities, the harsh treatment of evildoers in the Bible is not an expression of divine cruelty or vindictiveness, but of mercy and justice. Divine mercy provides a path to forgiveness through repentance; but divine justice demands that unrepentant evildoers be punished because of the harm they cause to others.

The Bible abounds in examples. On the one hand, God postponed judgment on the Amorites for four generations because their iniquity was “not yet complete” (Gen 15:16). He was willing to spare Sodom and Gomorrah on account of just a few righteous men (Gen 18:22-33). He overturned his impending judgment on the inhabitants of Nineveh after they repented (Jon 3:1-10).

Yet God also punished societies that persisted in iniquity, such as the generation of the flood (Gen 6:5-7), Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:24-25), and Jerusalem at the time of the Babylonian exile (2 Kings 25).

While God takes no pleasure in punishing the wicked, repentance is the only sure path to mercy (Ezek 18:30–32). God’s kindness leads sinners to repentance; but those who refuse to repent store up wrath for themselves (Rom 2:4–5). Letting unrepentant criminals off the hook would not be a manifestation of divine mercy. It would be an act of divine injustice, allowing evil to persist unchecked in the world.

Christians who have been taught to “love the sinner and hate the sin” may find this form of divine justice harsh. As Solzhenitsyn rightly noted, the line separating good and evil passes not through states, classes, or political parties, but “right through every human heart.” Since we are all sinners in need of forgiveness and redemption, should we not be merciful towards the sins of others?

The principle is certainly sound in most cases. But it has its limits. For what is a society to do when certain individuals or groups, like Amalek—or Hamas—become so thoroughly depraved that they drag entire nations into chaos?

Hamas: A modern-day Amalek?

The parallels between Amalek and Hamas—which stands for “Islamic Resistance Movement” in Arabic but fittingly means “violence” in Hebrew—are uncanny.

As Amalek—the descendant of Esau—was a distant relative of Israel, so Hamas members—Arab descendants of Ishmael—are distant relatives of the Israelis. As Amalek was consumed with hatred against ancient Israel, so Hamas is consumed with hatred against modern Israel. As Amalek cut down the stragglers who could not defend themselves, so Hamas slaughtered with unspeakable cruelty the weak who could not defend themselves. They raped and killed young girls. They murdered entire families in cold blood and burned many alive. They executed parents in front of their children. They kidnapped babies and Holocaust survivors.

Hamas’ brutality is not new. It has been on the path of jihad since its inception, with its declared goal being not the establishment of a Palestinian state but—like ancient Amalek—the annihilation of Israel. Does Israel have any other viable choice but to destroy it first?

Hamas and the Palestinians

Netanyahu did not characterize all Palestinians as Amalek, and Israel has stated repeatedly that it is not at war with all Palestinians, many of whom are tragic victims of the war. It is well-known that Hamas cynically exploits Palestinian civilians, using them as human shields while Hamas leaders live an opulent life abroad.

Nevertheless, it is disturbing to witness a widespread “spirit of Amalek” in Palestinian society at large. Rabid anti-Jewish incitement, including teaching Palestinian children to hate Jews from the youngest age, has been well documented for decades. The pro-Palestinian slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine must be free” is nothing other than a genocidal chant calling for the obliteration of Israel.

And according to recent polls, a vast majority of Palestinians (75%) still support Hamas and approve of their October 7 murder spree. Indeed, on that horrific day, crowds of “ordinary Palestinian civilians” celebrated the mass slaughter of Israelis, even beating the bodies of dead civilians being paraded in the streets of Gaza.

One is tempted to believe those Palestinian leaders who boast that they “love death like our [Israeli] enemies love life.”

No herem warfare

Despite the anti-Jewish hatred and incitement in Palestinian society, Israel is waging war against Hamas, not against Palestinian civilians. Israel has enough firepower to annihilate Gaza in one day. It could have carpet bombed Gaza and ended the war on October 8—but it didn’t. Instead, it launched a slow, costly, and dangerous ground invasion, with the aim of releasing all hostages, ending Hamas’ rule over Gaza, and restoring security in the region.

There is no moral equivalence in this conflict: Israel abides by the laws of war; Hamas does not. While Hamas seeks to maximize Israeli civilian casualties, Israel goes above and beyond to minimize them, warning civilians to stay away from military targets and opening humanitarian corridors enabling them to evacuate to safe areas.

Herem warfare—the indiscriminate killing of civilians—is never a acceptable moral option today. The only side that actively engages in it is Hamas (and its jihadist allies)—not Israel. According to the original Hamas Charter, “so-called peaceful solutions… are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement” and “there is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad” (Art. 13). Precisely for this reason, Israel must defeat and destroy Hamas.

Authentic mercy and justice

As Adam Smith has said, “mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent.” Allowing Hamas to survive is neither merciful nor just. It is cruel to both Israelis and Palestinians. A premature, long-term ceasefire would only work in Hamas’ favor, enabling it to regroup, prepare new terror attacks, and continue to sow misery and death among all peoples in the Holy Land and beyond its borders.

This does not mean that we should take pleasure in the war. We can simultaneously rejoice over the destruction of evil—‘for the good of all humanity’—and mourn over the loss of innocent lives on both sides.

History has shown that the Bible is right about Amalek. Evil regimes cannot be placated or appeased. They must be defeated. Just as there could be no negotiation or compromise with the Amaleks of the past—the Nazis, Al Qaida, or ISIS—there can be no negotiation or compromise with Hamas today. It must be defeated and destroyed.

Only with the elimination of Hamas can the Middle East take a small step towards the vision of future peace envisioned by the prophet Isaiah:

Violence (Hebrew hamas) shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise. (Isa 60:18)

Dr. André Villeneuve is Associate Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. He obtained his Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and his Licentiate in Sacred Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Commission in Rome. He is the author of Divine Marriage from Eden to the End of Days (2021), and the director of Catholics for Israel.