Chapter seventeen of the Book of Exodus ends with a description of the barbaric attack of the Amalekites against the most vulnerable Israelites and the aftermath of that attack. Though the Amalekites were defeated, the heinousness of their assault will be perpetually remembered and it shall remain an Israelite duty to remain at war with any Amalekite survivors from generation to generation. Chapter eighteen begins with an account of the reunion of Moses with his family, including his father-in-law Jethro. The sequence of events is bewildering if there is any semblance of continuity in the biblical narrative. To put it differently, what is the connection between these two narratives?
The late Professor Umberto Cassuto of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem suggests that the answer lies in a later biblical narrative. Before carrying out his mission of destroying the Amalekites in his day and finally obliterating them, he offers the Kenites the opportunity to separate themselves from the Amalekites and save their tribe from disaster (I Samuel 15:6). The Kenites withdrew, averting their annihilation. Jethro, according to the Book of Judges (1:16) is a Kenite. So it is entirely understandable that the Kenites would have been sympathetic to the Israelites, being connected by ancestral marriage.
When the traditional stories concerning the generation of the wilderness came to be written, Cassuto contends, “the section narrating the episode of Jethro, who belonged to the tribe of the Kenites, was placed in juxtaposition to that of Amalek, in order to emphasize the fundamental difference between the attitudes of the two tribes towards the children of Israel…” In other words, while the Amalekites sought to destroy the Israelites, the Kenites embraced them.
So it is, it seems, throughout Jewish history. There are those who wish to do us harm and there are those who wish us well. The hope is that there will be more of the latter than the former.