Yahweh has tested the people whom he delivered, to see what they’re made of, and the results were pretty ugly. How can they walk with this powerful Lord of glory?
Observation of Exodus 17:8-16
Most repeated words: Amalek (8 times), hand (7x), Moses (7), Joshua (4), Lord (4)
- When the word “hand” is used, 6 cases refer specifically to the position of Moses’ hands (Ex 17:9, 11, 12).
- The last instance states the rationale for the memorial altar (Ex 17:16). Because hands are so prominent in the episode, this concluding statement must play a significant role to help interpret the passage.
Ex 17:9 is the first mention of Joshua in the Bible. He has no introduction or explanation (as in Num 11:28 or even Ex 24:13), but the text assumes you already know who he is.
Notice the setting. We’re still at Rephidim (Ex 17:8), near the water-ejecting rock of Horeb (Ex 17:1, 6), also known as the mountain of God (Ex 3:1, 18:5). Another name for this mountain is Sinai (Ex 19:1).
- Because of how close Rephidim is to Sinai/Horeb, it is likely that, while the battle rages on the plain, Moses, Aaron, and Hur have ascended a low slope of Mount Sinai itself (called simply “the hill” in Ex 17:9, 10).
God took Israel through the Red Sea so they wouldn’t see war (Ex 13:17). Yet war has now come upon them (Ex 17:8).
- God could easily plague Amalek, block them with his cloud, or destroy them outright, as he did with Egypt.
- Yet he expects Israel to take up arms to fight (Ex 17:9).
Famously, the fight goes well when Moses’ arms are raised. It falters when his hands fall (Ex 17:11-13). This wavering is central to the narrative’s tension and climax.
The structure is not complicated:
- The fight comes to Israel – Ex 17:8.
- How Israel fights and wins – Ex 17:9-13.
- Why Israel must always remember this fight – Ex 17:14-16.
Interpretation of Exodus 17:8-16
Some possible questions:
- Why does God require Israel to fight, instead of dealing with Amalek himself?
- Why does it matter that this battle is close to Sinai, or that Moses holds his hands up from that mountain?
- Why does the narrator not introduce Joshua?
- Why does the battle hinge on the position of Moses’ hands? Does he have magic powers?
My answers (numbers correspond to the questions):
- Of course, the Lord’s motives in such situations mostly remain mysterious to us. However, we can conclude at least that he wanted them to experience something worth memorializing from generation to generation (Ex 17:14). Perhaps my other questions and answers will help me understand why.
- Moses did all his wonders in Egypt with his staff (Ex 4:17), which acquired its connection to the signs while Moses was first on Mount Sinai/Horeb (Ex 4:2-4). Moses now brings that staff back onto the same slopes (Ex 17:9). And this staff of Moses never shows up again. (Later staff-incidents involve a different staff – Num 17:2-3, 20:8-9). In other words, Moses’ hands take the staff back to the mountain, having done the signs and having accomplished the redemption he set out to do. His hands will soon trade the staff for a new tool to carry—tablets of stone written with the finger of God (Ex 31:18). In short, with this battle so close to Sinai, we’re given further foreshadowing of the people’s need for God’s law to prosper them.
- The climax clearly states that “Yahweh is my Banner” (Ex 17:15). The narrator wants us to see Moses waving the flag of Yahweh, his only God, king, and commander. While Joshua will become and important figure later, for now, he’s just an extra. He must decrease so Yahweh can increase. The people who are undeserving of a relationship with Yahweh (Ex 15:22-17:7) still have hope if their hope, their boast, their joy, their allegiance, and their banner is none but Yahweh, God of gods.
- The raising of Moses’ hands pictures “A hand upon the throne of Yahweh!” (Ex 17:16). On the mountain of God, he grasps the throne of God, signifying the deepest trust and most public proclamation of Yahweh as Israel’s God. Israel does not deserve a relationship with Yahweh, yet by hoping in him and not letting go, marvelous things happen. Note: Moses has his hands raised, on the mountain of God, with the help of two men, “one on one side, and the other on the other side” (Ex 17:12). As long as those hands are raised, grasping Yahweh’s throne and picturing trust in Yahweh, the battle succeeds. I can’t help but wonder whether there is a connection to the cherubim on the mercy seat in Ex 25:19-22, “One cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end…The cherubim shall spread out their wings above…There I will meet with you.” The ark of the covenant certainly represents God’s throne (1 Sam 4:4, Ps 99:1, Is 37:16, etc.). Perhaps the cherubim are like Moses, with hands perpetually raised to demonstrate trust and mediate blessing to the people. I wouldn’t give my life for that connection, but the verbal similarities are enough to warrant consideration.
Train of thought:
- God’s redeemed people can’t avoid hard times.
- They will succeed only when they trust Yahweh as the only God.
- Remember to wave Yahweh’s flag forever.
Main point: Your highest and most public loyalty must be to Yahweh your God.
Connection to Christ: Jesus proclaimed the Father as his only God when he faced his most severe trials (Matt 26:39, 27:46). Those who proclaim public loyalty to Christ will never regret it (Matt 10:32-33).
My Application of Exodus 17:8-16
Whose flag do I wave? Where do I find my basic identity, and where do I pledge my highest allegiance? My job? My ethnicity? My marital status? My children? My accomplishments? My ministry? My writing?
This is not a one-time decision, but something I must consider many times every day. Am I willing to publicly fly the flag of Jesus Christ, Son of the Father, King of kings and Lord of lords?
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