During the Passover Seder, Jews recite the following verse from Jeremiah 10:25: “Pour out your wrath on the nations that do not know you and on the families that do not call your name; For they have devoured Jacob; they have devoured him and consumed him and have laid waste his habitation.” Jeremiah is hardly the only prophet to call divine wrath down upon the pagans. Obadiah writes, “For as ye have drunk upon my holy mountain, so shall all the heathen drink continually, yea, they shall drink, and they shall swallow down, and they shall be as though they had not been.” (Obadiah 1:16) For the Greeks, non-being is a paradox; for the Jews it is a curse, for nothing is more terrible than to be forever cut off from the Source of Being.
Apropos of Obadiah, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik mentions a Hebrew explicative used by Orthodox Jews, yemach shemo, “may his name be erased,” as in “My grandparents left Germany before Hitler, yemach, shemo, came to power.” Heinrich Heine’s grandmother said it in colloquial German: Nicht gedacht soll seiner werden (roughly, “there shall be no thought of him”). Heine called this phrase “the flower of malediction,” for to a people so dedicated to the remembrance and continuity of life, nothing seems worse than the erasure of memory.
All these derive from Exodus 17:4, in which God says, “I will utterly put out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven,” and commands Moses, “Write this for a memorial in a book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua,” that is, make a special effort to remember to the erase the memory of Amelek. That is yet another example of how characteristic Jewish humor derives from the Hebrew Scriptures. Later (I Samuel 15:3) God instructs King Saul through the prophet Samuel to exterminate the entire tribe. When Saul allows his army to loot the Amalekite cattle rather than to kill the tribe, he is excoriated by Samuel. Once a year, Jewish congregations read these passages from Exodus and I Samuel in tandem, and call aloud the divine injunction, “Do not forget!” Jews, to be sure, do not wish to kill their enemies as a general rule. Jonah evades his mission to preach repentance to Nineveh—the Assyrian city that despoiled the northern kingdom and dispersed its ten tribes—because he wants to see it destroyed. When Nineveh repents and is saved, Jonah sulks. God chides him for his indifference to the city’s innocent children as well as domestic animals.
All this sounds harsh by modern standards. Many modern Jews regard this material with distaste. Many Christians suppose that a New Covenant of love has superseded the allegedly vengeful world of the Old Testament. Did not Jesus say, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you”? (Matthew 5:45-46) That there is a difference between Christianity and Judaism is obvious. But the underlying identity is even stronger.
Either way, Amalek must die. The Jews are instructed to kill off the tribe of Amalek, while every Christian must kill the Amalekite within him. Christianity wants each individual member of the tribe of Amalek to die to this world and be reborn into the nation of Israel, Amalek’s most hated enemy. Christian converts from the pagan nations still carry their Gentile nature within them. To say that a Christian must be converted every day is to say that the Christian must kill this inner Amalekite every day. It is the Jew who converts the inner pagan inside each Christian, wrote Franz Rosenzweig, by which he meant that absent the living people of Israel, the Israel of the Spirit into which Christians hope to be adopted too easily becomes an abstraction.
“Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life,” says Jesus (John 12:25). Self-sacrifice is the price of eternal life. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, and therefore himself, was the foundation of God’s Covenant with Abraham and his descendants. God’s love removes us from the altar; a ram substitutes for Isaac so that Abraham may live, and in Christian doctrine, Jesus of Nazareth sacrifices himself for all of mankind. To be a Jew is to continue the life of Abraham; to be a Christian is to die to this world and be reborn in the spirit into the life of Abraham. As Henri de Lubac puts it:
To St. Paul the Church is the People of the New Covenant. Israel according to the Spirit takes the place of Israel according to the flesh; but it is not a collection of many individuals, it is still a nation albeit recruited now from the ends of the earth, “the tribe of Christians,” says Eusebius, for instance, “the race of those who honor God.”
In practice, to be sure, Christianity has been far more tolerant of pagan remnants lurking in the hearts of Christians than its doctrine demands—just as the Biblical Hebrews were more tolerant of the historical Amalek than God demanded. In both cases, excessive tolerance had catastrophic results. Neo-paganism laid its cuckoo’s eggs in Christianity and hatched them in the form of the national movements that would fight for dominance in Europe and leave the formerly Christian continent a secularized hulk. It is petulant for Jews to blame Pius XII for failing to save more of them when he could not even save (for example) Polish priests from the Nazis. But it is entirely fair for Jews to remonstrate with Christians for having failed to suppress pagan elements that fostered anti-Semitism.
That is why the harsh demands of the Hebrew Scriptures to rid the world of heathen enemies continue to be holy words for Christians. The battles of ancient Israel—the Exodus from Egypt, the wandering in the desert, the crossing of the Jordan and the conquest of Canaan—remain stations on the spiritual journey of every Christian. Christianity invites Gentiles to worship the God of Israel—not the Gentile peoples, but those among the Gentiles who are reborn of the Spirit into the “tribe of Christians,” the “People of the New Covenant.” The historical life of Israel is the inner life of the Christian. That great difference and great identity separates and unites the two revealed religions. But in either case, Amalek must die.
David P. Goldman is a writer in New York.