Meditations in Exodus: 57. Learning to Fight
Ex 17:8 The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim.
Now so far in Israel’s travels away from Egypt towards Sinai we have seen them struggling with shortages of water and food and have suggested that throughout this time what is going on is the Lord teaching them to learn to trust Him. So far all the ‘difficulties’ arose in the minds of the Israelites and resulted in them grumbling and complaining. Now we have something completely different.
We need to hold the big picture – that Israel are being taught things in the desert by God while He is taking them to Sinai. We noted much earlier that He had instructed Moses not to go by the short route to Canaan because that would have mean conflict with the powerful Philistines, but now we find another group forcing themselves on Israel.
The group in question is the Amalekites. Now Gen 36:12 tells us that Amalek was a grandchild of Esau, Jacob’s brother. Esau of course had always felt that Jacob had robbed him of his birthright and that hostility seems to have come down the family and is now seen in the people called the Amalekites, cave dwellers. Many years later just before they entered the land, Moses had spoken of this time: “Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and cut off all who were lagging behind.” (Deut 25:17,18) That gives us an interesting insight into their tactics. Israel were weary having been walking through the desert of the Sinai Peninsular for over a month and the elderly (inferred) and the weak were lagging behind when these desert dwellers came and attacked them and took advantage of their weakness and vulnerability.
Now we must assume that what Moses said in Deuteronomy was purely the start of the conflict with the Amalekites who dashed in, picked off the weak at the end of the crowd and dashed back into the hills. Their presence suggested that this could be an ongoing irritation and so Moses starts to make preparations to meet them when they come the next day: “Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.” (v.9) So the strategy for dealing with this enemy attack was for Joshua to take “some of our men” to go out and meet and fight the Amalekites. Some of the men recognizes that only strong and capable men need go so that women, children and the elderly can remain in the camp.
Now there doesn’t seem any instruction from the Lord to Moses in this situation and Moses, almost instinctively it seems, remembers what he did in Egypt and how he held out the staff of God’s authority and God acted. So that is what he is going to do here in this situation tomorrow.
“So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning.” (v.10,11) This is intriguing. As long as he held up the staff Joshua prevailed but when the lowered his tired arms, the Amalekites prevailed. So how did they deal with this? “When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up–one on one side, one on the other–so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.” (v.12,13)
Now why did it work like this? Surely the Lord could have dealt with the Amalekites Himself and surely it wouldn’t have to depend on Moses holding up the staff? Two things: first, the Lord clearly wants the Israelites to learn how to defend themselves and so He doesn’t intervene and deal with the enemy Himself. Second, the picture of the staff being held out is to convey a message – Moses has the authority and as long as he continues to exercise it, they will prevail over their enemies, but he must continue to exercise it and in that it will be recognized it is God’s authority and it has effect.
Now I have only ever heard preachers speaking about Moses’ activity being one of prayer, but there is no reference to prayer in this passage. Whenever Moses held up his staff in Egypt, it was an act instructed by the Lord and it opened the door for the Lord to act. So, yes, prayer is the obvious conclusion or application, if you like, but actually it is more about recognising authority.
When David came against Goliath (1 Sam 17) his big emphasis was on his relationship with the Lord. When Moses held up the staff he didn’t pray but simply held up the staff as an act of obedience and as a sign of his relationship with the Lord. So yes we can pray and that is the obvious way to express this authority, but if it is prayer it is not much of petition as of authority, declaring the truth of who they were.
In Acts when the early church prayed after persecution (see Acts 4:24-30) they first of all declared the Lord’s greatness (v.24) and how His sovereign will had been carried out (v.25-28). It was only then did they ask for the Lord to intervene and equip them (v.29,30). They lined themselves up with the will of God so they knew they had the authority to ask for action from heaven – and they got it!
So, yes, it is about prayer but it is more about knowing who our God is, who we are and therefore knowing the authority we have to stand against the enemy and ‘stand’ here often means ‘resist’. In the spiritual warfare verses of Eph 6 the apostle Paul said, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph 6:12) and when he instructs us to put on our armour it is that “you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” (Eph 6:13b) Jesus has bought us an inheritance through his work on the Cross and so when the enemy tries to challenge us and ‘pick us off’, we are to resist and stand against him as we pray and we declare the truth.
These Amalekites would be a thorn in Israel’s side again and again, because they are living out their history as the rejected side of the family (rejected by God because He knew what Esau and his subsequent family would be like), and so the Lord warns Moses about them and their future: “Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” (v.14) To make a prophetic statement about this, a ‘mark in the sand’ if you like, “Moses built an altar and called it The LORD is my Banner. He said, “For hands were lifted up to the throne of the LORD. The LORD will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation.” (v.15,16) i.e. let’s make sure we don’t forget this. Let’s create a memory to help us. It is good to create memories to anchor truths in our lives.