While wandering in the wilderness, Israel not only faces challenges from nature (Exodus 16:1-8, 9-36, 17:1-7) but also from new military rivals. The nascent nation’s first battle comes when the Amalekites ambush them at Rephidim (Exodus 17:8).
Presumably between gradual attacks, Moses instructs Joshua to piece together a makeshift army with the assurance that he would remain perched atop a hill holding the staff of God (Exodus 17:9). The Bible records that Moses’ posture was the deciding factor in a seesaw daylong battle (Exodus 17:11).
So it came about when Moses held his hand up, that Israel prevailed, and when he let his hand down, Amalek prevailed. (Exodus 17:11 NASB)To ensure that Moses’ hands remain raised, he is propped up on a stone and realizing that six hands are better than two, Aaron and Hur hold his hands prostrate (Exodus 17:12). Israel wins the battle (Exodus 17:13).
The narrator leaves much to the imagination. Though both will play prominent roles later in the Exodus story, Joshua and Hur enter the biblical text for the first time with no introduction. The Amalekites also appear as a people for the first time (Genesis 14:7, 36:12). Not only is no introduction given them but no reason is given for their assault.
John Goldingay (b. 1942) speculates:
Exodus gives no reason for the attack. Perhaps they thought they could appropriate the Israelites’ flocks and herds. Living in the wilderness south of Canaan, perhaps they felt threatened by the Israelites’ advancing their way. Greed, resentment, and fear have often fueled anti-Semitism. But Exodus gives no reason and this underlines the link between the mystery of hostility to Israel and the Jewish people that has been a recurrent aspect of Israelite and Jewish experience. (Goldingay, Exodus and Leviticus for Everyone, 73)The Amalekites, presumed to be a hostile nomadic tribe, are traditional enemies of Israel and they simply enter the story donned in their customary black hats (Judges 6:3-4; I Samuel 15:1-9, 27:8). They serve almost as stock characters in the Bible and are not referenced outside of it. The Israelites would later remember the attack as a cowardly affront to a vulnerable people (Deuteronomy 25:17-18). In appearing from seemingly out of nowhere, the text captures the unexpectedness of the attack felt by the original victims.
Perhaps the passage’s most glaring omission is that no explanation is given as to how Moses’ flagging equates to victory. The reader is left to speculate as to what he is doing or saying while raising his arms and why he is positioned high above the battlefield.
John I. Durham (b. 1933) notes that Moses’ position is conducive to his activity:
The reason for Moses’ position on the brow of the hill can be seen in what he does during the battle. Moses lifted his hands, in symbol of the power of Yahweh upon the fighting men of Israel, surely, but in some miraculous way Moses’ upraised hands became also conductors of that power. (Durham, Exodus (Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 3), 236)Military historian Richard A. Gabriel (b. 1942) does not find Moses’ isolation irregular for a military commander:
Here we see the ancient dictum that commanders must be seen by their soldiers to be effective. Egyptian pharaohs were always portrayed as leading their troops in battle, as was Alexander. Caesar, it was said, wore a red cloak so his men could easily identify him during battle, and both George S. Patton (who seriously contemplated wearing a red cloak!) and Irwin Rommel were both known for their presence on the battlefield in plain sight of their soldiers. (Gabriel, The Military History of Ancient Israel, 82)The real question is not Moses’ placement but what his actions symbolize -what is he doing with his hands? Many explanations have been posited.
Brevard S. Childs (1923-2007) explicates:
Both Jewish and Christian commentators have been quick to assume that Moses’s stance was that of prayer. What else would he be doing? However, there is no indication whatever in the text which would confirm this. No words are spoken, but the battle is decided simply by the raising and lowering of his hands. The same effect results from Moses’ stance even when his weary arms are physically supported by others. Hugo Gressmann [1877-1927] and Georg Beer [1865-1946] have described the scene as magical, with Moses playing the role of cult magician. Additional parallels from the Ancient Near East have been suggested...Without discussing at length the validity of these extra-biblical parallels, certainly the Old Testament offers the closest parallel in the figure of Balaam (Numbers 22:1ff). He is hired to curse Israel, and the point of the narrative turns on the automatic effect of a curse (or a blessing) which, once it has been unleashed, continues relentlessly on its course. In Exodus 17 the hands are the instruments of mediating power, as is common throughout the Ancient Near East...This amoral element of the unleashing of power through an activity or a stance is still reflected in the story. Nor can it be rationalized away, as already in the Mekilta, by assuming that Moses’ role was essentially psychological. His uplifted hands encouraged the Israelites to exert themselves fully, whereas without the encouragement they slackened in battle. (Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary (The Old Testament Library), 314-15)Nahum M. Sarna (1923-2005) admits:
The significance of this gesture is unclear. The hand, often the symbol of action and power, is also the instrument of mediation. The expression “the laying on of the hands” exemplifies this idea. Moses’ action might therefore be interpreted as a sort of mysterious focusing of super natural power on Israel. If so, it is noteworthy that Moses is here presented as being subject to ordinary human frailties, in possession of no superhuman or innate magical powers. Another interpretation, highly plausible, is that of Rashbam, according to which Moses held up a standard bearing some conspicuous symbol that signified the presence of God in the Israelite camp. (Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, 95)Peter Enns (b. 1961) summarizes:
Some commentaries suggest this is some sort of “magical” feat” performed by Moses, perhaps some power emanating from the staff. Others assign to Moses’ gesture a psychological explanation, that his raised hands are a sign of encouragement to the troops. Neither explanation seems satisfying...But can a better explanation be found?... No proposed explanation is problem-free. This problem is a classic example of what interpreters run into when attempting to explain a cryptic text. (Enns, Exodus (The NIV Application Commentary), 348)Moses has raised his hands previously to produce miraculous results but not for an extended period (Exodus 9:22, 10:12, 14:16). Many have looked to the staff for answers as it is now called the “staff of God”, a term that has not been used since the item’s introduction in Exodus 4:20.
J. Gerald Janzen (b. 1932) describes:
Up to this point Moses’ use of the staff has been a simple matter of raising it and accomplishing the result, whether sign, plague, parting of the waters, or water from the rock. But this time the struggle is drawn out, to the point where Moses becomes so tired that from time to time he has to lower his arms...Interestingly...when Moses gets tired, the help does not come directly from God, but through Aaron and Hur, as each one supports one of Moses’s arms after seating him on a stone. What is this symbolism, of Moses seated on a stone, holding up his and God’s staff, and supported on both sides by Aaron and Hur? (Janzen, Exodus (Westminster Bible Companion), 122)As Moses intervenes for the people and Aaron and Hur raise Moses’ hands, not their own, it is not surprising that many interpreters have seen this passage as an image of intercessory prayer.
Maxie D. Dunnam (b. 1934) comments:
The soldiers on the field of battle were not determining the issue of victory by themselves, but the intercessors on the mountain were playing an integral role. See that beautiful picture of those intercessors on the mountain in your imagination?...It’s a stirring picture—a picture of the Lord’s intercessor. (Dunnam, Exodus (Mastering the Old Testament), 214)Many popular books on prayer prominently feature this story. In Too Busy Not To Pray, Bill Hybels (b. 1951) writes:
More than any other biblical passage, one story in the Old Testament has persuaded me that prayer yields significant results. It is found in Exodus 17:8-13...Moses stretches his arms toward heaven again and brings the matter to the Lord...Moses discovered that day that God’s prevailing power is released through prayer. (Hybels, Too Busy Not To Pray, 18-19)In his book on intercessory prayer, Dutch Sheets (b. 1954) analyzes:
The victory was not decided by the strength or power of Israel’s army. If this had been the case, they would not have faltered when the staff was lowered. Nor was it a morale thing – they weren’t watching Moses for inspiration while in hand-to-hand conflict! An unseen battle in the heavenlies actually decided the outcome on the battlefield. And when the rod, representing the rule or authority of God, was lifted by the authorized leader of Israel, Joshua and the army prevailed. In other words, it was not power on the battlefield – though it was necessary – that was the deciding factor, but authority on the mountain. Authority is the key issue; power never had been. (Sheets, Intercessory Prayer: How God Can Use Your Prayers to Move Heaven and Earth, 190)While the mechanics of how Moses’ arms correlated to victory are speculative, the text is clear that they did. In Israel’s first battle as a nation, the focus is on the hill, not the battlefield. The direction off stage upstages the actors on the stage. In modern sports terms, the camera is focused on the fans changing their posture or switching to their rally caps as it is the deciding factor in the contest. No exploits on the battlefield are remembered; only the result is recorded: victory.
How long can you hold up your arms? What would a national leader in Moses’ era have been expected to do during battle? Who is most responsible for the Israelites’ victory at Rephidim? Whose part in the story do you most relate to: the warriors, Aaron/Hur, Moses, Joshua? Who can you prop up spiritually when they are weakened? Who is praying for you? Where is God in this story?
God is not explicitly involved in this text. William H.C. Propp (b. 1957) acknowledges:
Unlike the previous wilderness episodes, Moses responds to the crisis without seeking divine instructions, at least so far as we are told. But he gives God proper credit in the end. (Propp, Exodus 1-18: A New Translation with Notes and Comments (Anchor Bible), 617)Terence E. Fretheim (b. 1936) adds:
After Amalek starts the battle, the initiative for the defense of Israel is taken entirely by Moses, demonstrating the leadership role he has assumed. God does not become the subject of a sentence until Exodus 17:14 but is not uninvolved in the prior verses. (Fretheim, Exodus (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 192)Despite not being referenced categorically, in Moses’ actions, there is little doubt that the battle is God’s. Douglas K. Stuart (b. 1943) comments:
Exodus 17:11 does not teach the efficacy of “prayer without ceasing” but rather the fact that Israelite holy war was God’s war. God reinforced this in the consciousness of Moses, Aaron, and Hur as well as the Israelite army by correlating the position of the staff with the fortunes of the army. It was important that the Israelites understand unmistakably that the only reason they could win against the Amalekites was that God was fighting for them, giving them the victory. The staff functioned in the case of this battle just as it had in the case of the plagues. As long as the staff of God was raised high, just as in the miraculous plagues and the miracle of the water from the rock immediately preceding, God’s decisive role was properly acknowledged symbolically and the army prevailed. When the staff was lowered (because Moses grew tired, as Exodus 17:12 makes explicit), “the Amalekites were winning.” Thus the staff portrayed God’s sovereignty in the consequences of battle. (Stuart, Exodus (The New American Commentary, Vol. 2), 398)Thomas B. Dozeman (b. 1952) concludes:
The circumstances indicate that the power to wage holy war resides in the magical staff of God, not in Moses, and certainly not in Joshua or the Israelite warriors. The staff of God, is like a lightning rod at the summit of the hill channeling power down to the Israelites in the battle. When the antenna is down, the power ceases. The eventual weakness of Moses even to raise his arms underscores further that the power in the battle does not reside with him but with God. (Dozeman, Exodus (Eerdmans Critical Commentary), 395)Victory did not rest in Moses’ hands, but rather in the hands that they represented.
If Moses is a conduit of God’s power, why is he himself weakened in channeling it (Exodus 17:12; Mark 5:30)? Does God still decide wars today? What do you need to relinquish and place into God’s hands?
“I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God's hands, that I still possess.” - Martin Luther (1483-1546)