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Biblical Archaeology and Literature

Cosmos and Chaos at the SBL Conference: The Kenites and the Amalekites

The Hun versus Lady Liberty (Recruiting Poster

With this post, I continue my examination of presentations at the ASOR and SBL conferences now with a focus on tribes. The Kenites and the Amalekites are not known by name in the archaeological record. Information about them derives from the biblical narrative. These two peoples are linked at two critical points in time. Both appear in the wilderness stories of the Exodus. The memory of those encounters is cited in the stories of Saul and David. In those stories they are remembered as the enemy people and as allied people to Israel. Given this dichotomy in cultural memory, one should keep in mind the ability of storytellers in poetry and prose to draw on these images to deliver their messages. When studying the Kenites and Amalekites to determine who they actually were, it is critical to keep in mind how the Israelites perceived them and used them within an Israelite storytelling context.


Yigal Levin, Bar-Ilan University The Role of Amalek in the Transfer of the Monarchy from Saul to David (S18-116 Book of Samuel: Narrative, Theology and Interpretation)

I was not able to attend this paper at SBL. At ASOR it is fairly easy to jump from one session to another but at SBL given the number of venues it all depends on LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. I chose not to rush to try to hear this paper especially since I expected to be able to get a copy of it which I did.

In 1 Sam. 15 Samuel, speaking in God’s name, commands Saul to attack and to totally annihilate the Amalekites, taking revenge for the Amalekites’ attack on Israel back in the days of the Exodus (Ex. 17:8-16; Deut. 25:17-19), thus “closing the account” left open for centuries. Saul, for whatever reason, does not complete the job, leaving the Amalekites’ sheep, cattle and king alive. God expresses his sorrow at Saul’s failure to fulfill his commandment, cuts off all ties with Saul, and eventually sends Samuel to search for a new king. This failing of Saul is repeated by the risen spirit of Samuel in 1 Sam. 28:18, as one of the reasons for Saul’s imminent death. Amalekites, however, also have a role to play in the actual rise of David, as Saul’s successor. In 1 Sam. 27:8 they appear as one of the desert tribes against whom David fights, paralleling their first appearance in 1 Sam. 14:48. In chapter 29, which takes place while Saul is fighting for his life on Mount Gilboa, Amalekites raid David’s camp at Ziklag, and are hunted down by David. And finally, in 2 Sam. 1, it is an Amalekite lad who brings news of Saul’s death to David, bragging that he had actually killed Saul, and also bringing Saul’s diadem and bracelet, the symbols of his reign, directly to David from Mount Gilboa. After David kills the lad, no Amalekite is ever mentioned again in the entire Deuteronomistic History. David, even without being told to do so, completed what Saul had failed to do, and had this proven himself to be fit to rule over Israel. This paper will examine the role assigned to the Amalekites within the Deuteronomistic History in general and the book of Samuel in particular, and especially as that of a test, one which Saul fails and David passes.

Levin locates the Amalekites southwest of Dead Sea based on Gen. 14:7. He then proceeds book by book from Genesis to Judges to identify the appearance of the Amalekites in the Israelite story. In Ex. 17, the encounter between the two peoples becomes a defining wilderness showdown important enough for Moses to write it as a memorial in a book. Levin describes the Amalekites as a perpetual and bitter nomadic enemy in the southern deserts.

When Levin continues his review of the Amalekite presence in the Books of Samuel, he notes a significant correlation. Amalek serves as a vessel or symbol of the transition of the monarchy from Saul to David. The Amalekite people or an individual Amalekite appear at key points in the careers of both kings. He notes that the building of the central sanctuary contingent on the Lord giving Israel “rest” from its enemies (Deut. 12:10). Joshua, David, and Solomon all know such rest, Saul does not.

One lesson from this presentation is that there are two Amalekites: there are the actual literal Amalekites in history and the metaphorical Amalekites within the Israelite cultural tradition. The actual literal Amalekites appear to have been a real wilderness people, possibly a rival of the Kenites, who had negative encounters with Israel in the time of Saul and David and possibly in the wilderness as well before Israel became a settled people.

The actual literal Amalekites then became a metaphor for chaos within the Israelite tradition. While Saul defeated the Amalekites, evidently his encounter could be interpreted as not being sufficient for a king in battle against the forces of chaos. By contrast, David was successful as the king defeating the forces of chaos. As Levin points out, an Amalekite brings David the news about Saul’s death:

And David said to the young man who told him, “Where do you come from?” And he answered, “I am the son of a sojourner, an Amalekite.” David said to him, “How is it you were not afraid to put forth your hand to destroy Yahweh’s anointed?” (2 Samuel 1:13-14)

The terminology here is loaded with cosmic significance: the sojourner versus the anointed. The author has skillfully delineated the battle between cosmos and chaos in just a few sentences. The Amalekite has disrupted the cosmic order so it should be no surprise that he will pay the price. Cosmos will be restored.

The exact same scenario plays out in Gen. 14 with the Elamites as the force of chaos. Again it is important to distinguish between the actual literal Elamites who were disrupters in the Babylonian world with the seizure of the statue of Marduk and who never physically reached the Levant with the metaphorical Elamites as a symbol of chaos. The author in the original version of Gen. 14 draws on the Elamite image as a disruptive people of chaos who seized the physical expression of the deity to deliver a message in Israel. Who restores order? Who restores cosmos? Who defeats the forces of chaos who had seized the physical expression of the deity? The answer is the warrior-shepherd-meaning-king of Hebron meaning David.  The audience knew who Abram, Lot, and the Elamites represented while we have to determine the meaning of the metaphors. 

The story would work just as well if instead of Amalekites or Elamites the authors had used Attila the Hun…except no one then would have understood the metaphor. During World War I, the Allies used the image and legacy of the Huns to recruit for the war effort (see the war poster). It was precisely at that time when Uncle Sam came to fore as the vigorous fighting symbol of America. While there really had been an “Uncle” Sam Wilson of Troy, New York, who supplied the American troops in the War of 1812, a century later that historical basis had been forgotten. Nonetheless, everyone knew the metaphor and what it signified. The same was true in ancient Israel when authors used Amalekites and Elamites in stories where Moses and Abram/David were the victors.

If you are not familiar with this metaphorical or allegorical form of communication, I refer you to the Star Trek Next Generation episode “Darmok,” where the Enterprise crew encounters a civilization that communicates through allegory. The story of Gilgamesh is used to bridge the communication gap. As an example, trying using the phrase “David and Goliath” to describe a situation (an image is worth a thousand words) to someone who is not familiar with that story. Biblical writers wrote metaphorically not historically so attempting to understand them literally is counterproductive.


With the Kenites, we turn to a people more closely aligned with Israel due to the tradition of the intermarriage between the Israelite founder and the daughter of a Kenite leader. It can’t exactly be called a tribal alliance (Ex. 4:24-26) since at the time Moses was a leader of a people of one person. Nonetheless, it does place the Kenites at the origin of the Israelite people and suggest why the Kenite genealogy was the first one developed in the Israelite narrative tradition.

Zev Farber, Project TABS – The Kenite Redaction: A Supplementary Approach to the Hovav and Kenite Accounts (SBL S19-117 Historiography and the Hebrew Bible)

Some of the Kenite traditions seem ancient and yet many of them were clearly added into the Bible at a later stage, as a redaction-critical analysis shows. Moreover, the editors make little effort to have the Kenite traditions cohere. Their eponymous ancestor appears in Genesis as the son of Adam and Eve and yet they are treated in most of the Bible as merely a small tribe of locals in Canaan. They are allies to Barak and Saul, and yet they live among Amalekites and are cursed by Balaam in Numbers and described as murderous and cursed in Genesis. In some texts, they are treated as synonymous with Midianites, in others they are associated with Canaanites, and yet they are also described as allies to the Israelites. How are we to understand the history of this group in Israelite mnemohistory and why do the redactors of the Enneateuch treat them in such a haphazard manner?

Farber certainly asks all the relevant questions regarding the Kenites. His presentation points out these issues rather than resolves them. He suggests that Cain should be considered the ancestor of the peoples of the Negev. They are allies to Israel but not Israel and are integrated into the Israelite narrative. But as Midianites they appear as both family and villains.

Here is where the link between these smiths and the Arabah copper-producers becomes important. The Deborah, Saul, and David stories tend to employ the term “Kenite.” The reference here is positive. I suggest that “Kenite” is the name by which Israel from Merneptah to monarchy knew the people – as anti-Egypt wilderness smith allies, some of whom joined Israel itself. For me, the Cainite traditions would not be part of the Israelite narrative unless some Kenites were part of the Israelite people.

Then there was a name change. In the time of Solomon and the development of trade with the Arabah Midianites, this new name to the Israelites became associated with the old name of the wilderness smiths. Unlike with Kenites, the Midian stories convey positive and negative images as Farber points out in his presentation. How come?

Imagine a book on American history with contributions on Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee by Unionists and Confederates. For non-Americans, I am referring to the two sides in the American Civil War/War of Northern Aggression (1861-1865) where Lincoln was the President of the Union and Lee commanded the Confederate armies. If one read a combined text one would find the names of both men but with completely divergent representations. The dichotomy is due to the presence of two different sources.

So it was in ancient Israel. “Midian” became a metaphor for the Mushite priesthood due to the legacy of the marriage of Moses to a Kenite woman now called Midian. A pro-Midian story such as Ex. 18 derives from a Mushite source: Israelite society should be organized based on the values of the Mushites. An anti-Midian story like the Gideon and Phineas stories derive from an Aaronid source: Israelite society should be organized based on the values of the Aaronids. Notice that the Zadokites (Gen. 14:18-20) are not directly part of this debate.

Biblical stories are more political in nature than historical, more metaphorical than literal. In other words, people, meaning the priests or political factions in modern terms, engaged in political polemics through storytelling and not op-ed pieces or essays. I did not realize that Kenites and Amalekites were used to tell stories of cosmos and chaos until I began to write this blog about the SBL and ASOR conferences and ended up combining them in a single post. If I had reported on the sessions I attended in the order in which I attended them, I may not have made this connection. Similarly the combination of the Edomite presentations from the last post and the Kenite one from this one enabled me posit that the reign of Solomon marks the turning point from the use of Kenites to Midianites in Israelite storytelling. I did know about Mushites versus Aaronids and metaphorical-political writing and enjoyed being able to apply that template to additional stories.

3 thoughts on “Cosmos and Chaos at the SBL Conference: The Kenites and the Amalekites

  1. Well done ! All I could think of is the sentence “Edom hoo achichah” and I forget who said it. Over the hundreds of years the Israeliites …as other “tribes” or “people:” had different governing similar features. forty years in the wilderness…whether true or not…was mass migration. A few years here, quite a few there. The Zulus.Mongols American Indians…Anglo Saxons..Vikings etc. etc.

    Many of these people had many changes of types of government. The wars of Benjamin.. The chaos of David Hamelech, his tragic predecessor and Czarist son. and the eeny meany miny moe after Omri and the split. I bet, Peter, we could spend a week…or a year…giving examples. “Oh temporae, oh mores!” the aeon of Rome! etc.etc. You did a great job. Thank lyou!

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