April 3, 2016

Exodus 17 & The Battle with Amalek

A Brief Commentary

Exodus 17:

[1] All of the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the LORD, and camped at Reph’idim; but there was no water for the people to drink. [2] Therefore the people found fault with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you find fault with me? Why do you put the LORD to the proof?” [3] But the people thirsted there for water, and the people murmured against Moses, and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?” [4] So Moses cried to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” [5] And the LORD said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel; and take in your hand the rod with which you struck the Nile, and go. [6] Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, that the people may drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. [7] And he called the name of the place Massah and Mer’ibah, because of the faultfinding of the children of Israel, and because they put the LORD to the proof by saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”

[8] Then came Am’alek and fought with Israel at Reph’idim. [9] And Moses said to Joshua, “Choose for us men, and go out, fight with Am’alek; tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in my hand.” [10] So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Am’alek; and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. [11] Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered hand, Am’alek prevailed. [12] But Moses’ hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat upon it, and Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and one on the other side; so his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. [13] And Joshua mowed down Am’alek and his people with the edge of the sword.

[14] And the LORD said to Moses, “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Am’alek from under heaven.” [15] And Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The Lord is my banner, [16] saying, “A hand upon the banner of the LORD! The LORD will have war with Am’alek from generation to generation.”

Chapter 17 begins with a multifaceted narrative that sets the stage for the Israelite perspective at that particular leg of their story. The people were already worn down from the laborious journey and had already “murmured” against Moses at every hardship: because of thirst at Marah (Exod 15:24) and again because of hunger in the wilderness of Sin (16:2). Now they complain against Moses again out of thirst at Reph’idim (17:3).

It would seem at this point that the Israelites are given the character of complaining children. Although the needs of food and water are obviously dire and necessary for their survival (and one would hardly blame them for complaining at a lack of these things), it is presented as though Moses under the guidance and protection of Yahweh has led them so far out of bondage and danger, but yet their faith still wanes at every bump in the road and the Israelites continue to put both of them (Moses and Yahweh) “to the proof” (17:7). Without the reader’s knowledge of what is to come in future chapters, the Israelites do not know what lies ahead and, in effect and as a people, are children that need to be pushed along to maturity.

Picking up directly from the most recent proof of Yahweh being “among them” (17:1-7), Israel is faced with their first external adversary and must come of age. Since we might assume that Moses is now an old man and will not do any fighting of his own or directly interject into a battle with the same wonders that were wrought during the escape from Egypt, he has Joshua choose the “men” out of the people to fight their own first real battle (17:8). While this is prominently a coming of age for the Israelites, they are, of course, not alone as Yahweh still guides them and Moses is a visual sign of his presence as they begin to stand on their own two feet.

Am’alek is obviously a formidable foe, if not also a greater number of fighters, but the reader may justifiably ask himself at this point on behalf of the Israelites, “is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen 18:14). Apparently, though, this time Yahweh shows his help to them through the strength and perseverance of men. This perseverance is shown in three instances: through the fighting men in the thick of battle, of whom we can imagine at least some perished by Am’alek’s forces in his prevailing moments (Exod 17:11); through Aaron and Hur, who stood with Moses to ensure his hands remained lifted (17:12); and in Moses himself who became “weary” holding his arms up over the course of the long battle.

There is, perhaps, an additional element here of the prefiguration of spontaneous prayer and its implications, since we are given no prior conversation in which Yahweh instructs Moses on what to do as in previous instances where instruction was explicit at virtually every step. In such a case, though, we may be forced to unjustly attempt an interpretation of the author’s use of narrative structure into what may seem like an otherwise unmentioned lesson from Yahweh to Moses on the use of the powers he granted his access to.

After victory is attained it is, in a way, not unfairly attributed to Joshua (17:13) “mow[ing] down Am’alek… with the edge of the sword” (i.e., by the strength of men). However, the commemoration of the victory is more properly, “The Lord is my banner” (17:15), showing that although the battle was physically won by the hands of the Israelites, it was ultimately achieved under the “banner” of Yahweh’s help (and could not have been so achieved without it). This banner (symbolically the “rod” of verse 17:9) tells us that with “a hand upon” the strength of God (17:16) that we can persevere any obstacle, but without this banner we may succumb to the powers of a temporal enemy “too mighty” for us (Ps 18:17-18).