Text: Ex. 17:8-16
Now Amalek came and fought with Israel in Rephidim. And Moses said to Joshua, “Choose us some men and go out, fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in my hand.” So Joshua did as Moses said to him, and fought with Amalek. And Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. And so it was, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed; and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands became heavy…
Today we are continuing our series through the book of Exodus. Having left Egypt now, Israel is moving through the Wilderness towards Sinai before they will wander some more and then finally enter the Promised Land. Some of this material is a bit obscure. Other parts strike us as morally questionable, such as the various commands to entirely wipe out the Canaanite tribes. Our text this morning shows us the beginnings of one of those, as it shows the war with the Amalekites the promise to eventually annihilate them entirely. What should we think about it today?
I’ve heard some rather creative attempts over the years. One time I read a church newsletter which allegorized the whole thing. It said, “Anyone who has ever battled with alcoholism or addiction knows what it’s like to conquer their enemies. Who are the Canaanites in your life?” Now, let me just say, that is not a good use of hermeneutics. No, the Israelites really did fight these tribes—it was real history—and we shouldn’t try to spiritualize it away. But it was also tied up to its time in history, particularly the history of Israel becoming a sacred nation and preparing the land for the temple. So it was real history, but it’s not “ordinary history” or something that we should ever try to repeat.
And in fact, as we read through this story today, I’d like to show you that the main point really isn’t that Israel fought so bravely and that we should therefore fight hard ourselves. No, the point is that Israel was unable to win the battle on their own and was totally dependent on God. More than this, they needed an earthly mediator to invoke God’s blessing, and while they had one, Moses, he was imperfect and needed help of his own. This points us to our own need for a mediator and for one who is greater than Moses. We need a mediator who can invoke God’s blessing for us for eternity and who will never grow weary or tired. That’s the big point, as it presses us past just this one story and into the future of God’s redemptive plan. This morning we will see how Moses points us to Christ, and how the war with the Amalekites shows us our need for God’s perfect grace.
As we said last week, we are almost at Mt. Sinai now. Israel is camping near Sinai, drinking the water for the rock, and preparing to meet God. Suddenly, they are attacked by the Amalekites. This is a sneak attack, from the year, and Israel’s weakest and most vulnerable are killed.
Now who are the Amalekites? They are one of the tribes who lived around the land of Canaan. They aren’t the same as the Philistines, and they aren’t said to be giants like some of the other tribes are, but they are still generally associated with those “bad guy” tribes. If you look back to the book of Genesis, you will see that the Amalekites are descendents of Esau, and so their might be some lingering rivalry there (Gen. 36:12). Most likely, however, they are just nervous about such a large group of people passing near their land and are engaging in a pre-emptive strike.
This story is mentioned in Deut. 25:17-19. There it explains that the Amalekites attacked “the stragglers… who were tired and weary.” It emphasizes that the Amalekites “did not fear God, and so the idea is that the Amalekites are particularly dishonorable. They were trying to undercut Israel so they could maintain their worldly power and dominance. For this action, they are punished with the promise of total destruction. God consigns them to the ban, the holy-war destruction that is to come. And as an immediate response, Israel rallies its soldiers, led now by Joshua (who is the mentioned here for the first time, Ex. 17:9-10), and goes out to battle.
Moses’ Raised Hands
Now, for a war story, this text really doesn’t go into much detail about the fighting. It tells us that Joshua led the army, it tells us that the battle went back and forth, and it tells us that it lasted all day. But really, the focus is not on the human armies but on Moses and how he is able to get the victory from Israel from God.
The main action is described in these words: “And so it was, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed; and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed” (Ex. 17:11). A few verses earlier we were told that Moses climbed up on a hill and took his rod with him. This is the same rod that Moses has been using throughout the Exodus story, the rod which turned into a snake, which brought the plagues, which parted the waters, and which struck the rod. That means that the action of the rod is really God’s action. Moses is, somehow, interacting with God, and when his hands go up, God’s blessing is given to Israel. When his hands fall, the blessing is withheld.
The battle rages all day, “until the going down of the sun” (Ex. 17:12). During the course of that time, Moses’ arms get tired, and they droop. But this causes God to withhold His power, and therefore Israel begins losing whenever this happens. So Aaron and Hur jump into action to help Moses. They each take an arm and offer support. This way, Moses’ arms can stay up for the duration of the battle. And thus, Israel is victorious.
What’s Going on Here?
Now, what’s going on here? At the end Moses says, “The Lord is my banner” (Ex. 17:15). Because of this, some have thought that Moses’ rod was acting like a banner, and that when it was raised, it encouraged the people of Israel to fight harder. But this can’t be correct, because Moses is way up there on the hill. I doubt the Israelite soldiers even saw him, and it’s pretty far-fetched to think that their inspiration would automatically rise and fall with Moses’ hands.
No, it isn’t Israel that’s looking to Moses’ rod. It’s God! God is viewing Moses’ rod much like He views His other covenant memorials and much like He will view future items in the tabernacle like the sacrifices or the ephod. God sees Moses’ rod raised high and responds by blessing Israel.
What this means is that Moses is acting like a sort of priest between the people and God. He is their intercessor, their mediator. They “go through him” in order to get to God and receive the blessing to win their battle. This is preparing us for the tabernacle and temple system which is to come.
Now, was God absolutely bound to this sort of thing? No. After Israel gets into the Promised Land, they try to manipulate God’s blessing with the Ark of the Covenant. They think if they bring it out with them to battle, then they’ll definitely win, no matter the state of their own righteousness or faithfulness. And when they do that, in 1 Sam. 4, God pulls away from the Ark. Israel loses.
No, it’s not magic. It’s not automatic. But, at least for a time, God does use this priestly system to work His power through Israel. He’s doing it to teach us a lesson, to help us see our need for Him, using earthly pictures and teaching aids. Moses is really a kind of symbol of God for Israel.
But the lesson that God is teaching here is also that the situation is incomplete. Notice that even Moses is weak in the flesh. He cannot keep his hands raised forever. This intermediary is incomplete. He needs help. And so Aaron and Hur offer that help. But anyone who thought about this for very long would understand that it’s a picture of strength in weakness. Yes, we need help from our friends and companions, but really, we need a greater mediator who isn’t going to grow weak and tired. We need a high priest who intercede perfectly, forever.
Israel wins the victory on this day, but they will be plagued by weakness and a degree of uncertainty for the rest of their history. In fact, they don’t even kill off the Amalekites entirely, and this comes back to bite them. The Amalekites become a reason for King Saul’s downfall (1 Sam. 15), and, interestingly, the man who reports the death of Saul to David happens to be an Amalekite (2 Sam. 1:13).
So this story is a picture of temporary victory within a larger context of uncertainty and incompletion. It shows us that this arrangement is not going to last, and remember, without it, Israel loses. So the people of God are going to need a greater mediator, one who can do the work perfectly and forever. The New Testament tells us who this is. Our greater mediator, our greater Moses, is the Lord Jesus Christ.
A Greater Moses
The New Testament book of Hebrews picks up on this theme, but in connection with the temple priesthood. It says that Christ came “with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands” (Heb. 9:11). “He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance” (Heb. 9:22). Christ came as our priest and mediator, and He definitely secured our victory through His death.
This was so much more than any earthly mediator could do. And “after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool” (Heb. 10:12-13). Christ’s work is done, and the battle is also done. We are just watching it play out over time, just as God has ordained it. But our victory is sure, as sure as Christ’s work.
So what we learn from the battle with the Amalekites is that God’s people can never win the holy war by their own power. It is not by strength of arms but rather by God’s mighty arm and strong right hand. And this was only ever demonstrated in part in the Old Covenant. The fullness of God’s saving power and effectual grace would only be revealed in the sending of His Son, Jesus. Thus, we are shown our need for Jesus Christ in order to defeat our enemies and be saved.
Is this a new sort of allegory? Aren’t I still asking us “who are the Amalekites in your life?” No, not exactly. You see, this isn’t an allegory for any and all problems that come our way. The Amalekites represent the enemies of the people of God, and they do so in a distinctly covenantal and religious way. Jesus comes to destroy these enemies. Yes, He will progressively stamp out the effects of sin, in all of its manifestations, but the first enemies we should think of are the Devil and our own sinful hearts. Those are the main enemies Christ defeats. After them, He defeats the forces of evil, including demonic powers and the power and influence of sin in the world.
This message is important for us today because the New Testament consistently says that the Christian Church is the new Israel. We are both passing through the Wilderness and taking conquest over the land, and so we will need divine aid for our holy war. And we have to see that this divine aid has come in and through Christ.
While sanctification and perseverance will feel like hard work—we’ll be with Joshua fighting in the ranks—we can’t fall into the assumption that it depends on our works. We can’t think it’s just about us getting disciplined or working hard enough or long enough. We have to remember that it only comes from God and through Christ’s intercession.
And so that means when you think about fighting hard, you should be thinking about prayer. You should take your struggle and burdens to the Lord. Rely on Him, consistently, to fight your battles.
As we fight, God fights for us. We have to remember this when we’re in the trenches. What you see on the ordinary, earthly level, is not where the major work is happening. It’s not the truly heavy lifting. God is the one who makes or breaks our progress, our salvation. And so you must rely on Him. If you struggle to understand how His grace is sufficient, consider the alternative. Without it, you would perish right away.
Indeed, God wants us to remain needy, in order to rely on Him. Not even Moses is enough. But He’s sent us Christ for our help. And so to look to God, let us look to Christ, “the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). He is our great and perfect mediator, and He is the one who secures our victory.
Let us pray.