God proclaims, “I will utterly annihilate Amalek from under heaven.” We meet Amalek again later in the Torah, where God commands the Jewish people to kill the entire tribe of Amalek: “When the Lord your God grants you safety from your enemies around you… completely destroy the memory of Amalek from under heaven” [Deut. 25:19]. And the imperative to annihilate Amalek refers not only to the tribe’s male combatants, but also to innocent Amalekite women and children: “Attack Amalek and destroy all that belongs to him. Spare no one, but kill men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and assess alike!” [I Samuel 15:3].
This biblical imperative became codified Jewish law, as did the commandment to exterminate all members of the seven Canaanite nations: “You shall not let a soul remain alive” [Deut. 20:16]. Not relegated to ancient history, these commandments apply in principle forever — even today.
The call to kill all members of the Amalekite and Canaanite nations violates the norms of a moral, just war, which dictate that innocent civilians cannot be legitimate targets. And as a people, we know tragic horror of genocide that seeks to exterminate all people of a group or the same genetic background.
Could the Jewish people ever become “a holy people” when obeying the commandments to commit genocide against the Amalekites and Canaanites?
This troubles us moderns, but it also vexed the Talmudic and medieval rabbinic authorities. None of them could live with the Torah commanding Jews to act immorally, and they showed remarkable creativity in shaping the correct way for us to understand these imperatives.
These rabbis believed that the entire Torah text was Divine, but they did not hesitate to engage in bold interpretation. Because they had keen moral sensitivities, the rabbis of the Talmud solved the problem of Jews killing innocent Amalekites or Canaanites by declaring that the ancient Assyrian ruler Sennacherib “co-mingled the nations that he vanquished” [Yadayim 4:4/Berachot 28a]. If so, it is impossible to identify anyone positively as a Canaanite or Amalekite. This effectively rendered the problematic commandments inoperative, telling Jews not to act according to their plain meaning.
Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn, “The Angst Over Annihilating Amalek”, The Jewish Week (10 January 2014), 45.