This great battle is no random occurrence and neither is the struggle with our sinful nature. Israel had once more been delivered by their Creator and had been given water from the rock. Amalek then came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. It is not uncommon to encounter spiritual attacks following great spiritual blessings, but the Lord can use these attacks to keep us from trusting the gifts rather than the Giver.[i]
In this passage it is obvious that there was enmity between Israel and the Amalekites, but why was that? Amalek was the grandson of Esau (Genesis 36:12) and the Amalekites were a nomadic and violent people to be found in the Negev and Sinai regions. The Edomites also descended from Esau and they were bitterly hostile towards Israel (cf. Obadiah 1-21). Exodus 17:-8-16 recalls the first time the Amalekites fought Israel, though Deuteronomy 25:17-19 sheds light on this.
“Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you were coming out of Egypt,how he met you on the way and attacked your rear ranks, all the stragglers at your rear, when you were tired and weary; and he did not fear God.Therefore it shall be, when the Lord your God has given you rest from your enemies all around, in the land which the Lord your God is giving you to possess as an inheritance, that you will blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven. You shall not forget.”
Later in 1 Samuel 15 King Saul fought King Agag and defeated his army though Saul spared him. Samuel was frustrated with Saul’s partial obedience and killed King Agag himself. Samuel instructed Saul that the kingdom would be taken from him and given to someone better, David. Some of the Amalekites escaped and took the Israelite women captive so David attacked and managed to recover all those that the Amalekites had taken away.
In the book of Esther it was Haman the Agagite (a descendant of the Amalekites) who was determined to destroy all the Jewish people in the Medo-Persian empire. Esther petitioned King Ahasuerus and the Jewish people defended themselves and the gallows that Haman intended to hand Mordecai on were instead used on him. Their sorrow was turned into joy and that is where we derive the Feast of Purim and the rest we say, is history.
Moses, Joshua and Messiah
This passage includes the first mention of Joshua in the Bible and Moses chose him to choose men to fight Amalek. In Numbers 13:8 and 13:16 we discover that Moses changed his name from Hoshea to Joshua. “Hoshea” means “salvation” and “Joshua” means “The Lord is salvation.[ii]” How apt! Joshua is a close Hebrew equivalent of Yeshua (Jesus) and it is ultimately the Lord, not Joshua that saved them.
Meanwhile Moses was stationed on the top of the hill with the staff of God in his hand. This rod was not a magician’s wand but merely an instrument used in Exodus 4:2 and thereafter to perform miracles. Neither Moses nor his rod could save the Israelites, but the God of the Israelites would once more deliver them. Today we should respect and listen to our teachers who teach the congregation but it is the Lord in whom we trust.
Notice at this point in Israel’s history, Joshua is initially mentioned and significantly Aaron and Hur accompany Moses. In the next chapter, Moses heeds the voice of his father-in-law, Jethro and appoints seventy able men to enable him to judge Israel rather than performing the task single handed. Joshua fought the battle on the ground, Moses raised his hands (with help from Aaron and Hur), though the Lord brought the victory.
When Moses lifted his hands, Israel prevailed, yet when he let down his hand the Amalekites prevailed. The Targum Onkelos recalls that “His hands remained an expression of faith (as he prayed) (were spread in prayer) until sunset.”[iii] Several commentators have remarked on the psychological aspect of the equivalent of having a flag raised to inspire the soldiers. Rashbam writes, “it is a psychological axiom that when the warriors see their flag held aloft they are inspired with additional cause. When they cannot see their flag being held aloft they interpret this negatively and are liable to flee from the battlefield.”[iv] Tur HaAroch more accurately writes, “He did not want the people to think that their victory had been due to the visibility of Moses’ staff during the battle, but that it was exclusively due to the help of HaShem, without which the staff would not have proven effective at all.[v]
This is the real battle that takes place in the form of prayer, praise and looking to the Lord. Some of my secular Jewish friends will remind me that Israel has a formidable defence force and they are correct. Yet even over the last century and in times of old their miraculous survival is chiefly due to the God of Israel.
Messiah is still greater since He is both Moses and Joshua to His people excepting His hands never grow weary. [vi] Again, Messiah is both for us, like Joshua the Captain of Salvation who fights our battles and like Moses, who ever lives, making intercession above so that our faith in Him never fails.[vii]
War with the Amalekites
Joshua defeated Amalek and his people with the sword (Exodus 17:13). To our modern sensitivities some find this difficult to stomach and either ignore this or pay little attention to it. However we must consider the immediate context that the Israelites resided in. Many of the nations surrounding Israel, did unspeakable acts, sacrificed children through fire to Molech, were incredibly violent, committed depraved acts and some were insistent in their desire to wipe Israel of the face of the earth.
Furthermore we must remind ourselves concerning the character of God. The God of the Bible is a God of love but is absolute in His attributes and is also just, true, righteous and holy. Exodus 15:3 reminds us, “The Lord is a Man of war; the Lord is His name.” Sometimes we forget that the Lord is to be approached with reverence and awe and that He is an all- consuming fire.
Amalek and his people rebelled against the Lord and His people continually and it is a solemn and serious matter to be consistently and purposefully rebelling against God. The Amalekites as foretold are no more. Also, where is the great Egyptian Empire now? Ezekiel 29:13-16 tells us that they will never be a great empire again. Where is the Assyrian Empire? The Lord has future plans for Israel, Egypt and Assyria (Isaiah 19:18-25) but it is interesting to see how the Bible prophecies are fulfilled as history is written in advance. Where are the Babylonians and their Empire now? Where is the Greek Empire of the Roman Empire now?
Jamieson, Fausset and Brown insightfully comment on this passage.
“If the bloody character of this statute seems to be at variance with the mild and merciful character of God, the reasons are to be sought in the deep and implacable vengeance they meditated against Israel (Psalm 83:4).[viii]
If we read Psalm 83:3-8 it becomes evident that a number of nations conspired against Israel in an effort to annihilate them and they had to defend themselves. This helps us to understand why Israel were at times, frequently at war. A memorial was made in God’s word and He was faithful to keep His word and preserve His people.
“They have taken crafty counsel against Your people, And consulted together against Your sheltered ones. They have said, “Come, and let us cut them off from being a nation, That the name of Israel may be remembered no more.” For they have consulted together with one consent; They form a confederacy against You: The tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites; Moab and the Hagrites;
Gebal, Ammon, and Amalek; Philistia with the inhabitants of Tyre; Assyria also has joined with them; They have helped the children of Lot. Selah”
Who or What is on Your Banner?
Moses built an altar and called it the Lord is my banner. Who or what is on your banner? Someone may support Spurs, Arsenal or Chelsea and they will wear the shirt, scarf or hold up a banner in support. Others can see what side you are on and to whom you belong. When it comes to spiritual matters and who you trust in, who or what is on your banner? Someone who has repented of their sin and recognises that without the Lord they can do nothing and who trusts in Him can say, “The Lord is my banner.”
For someone who trusts in Jesus the Messiah they will have a continual war with Amalek but in a spiritual sense as the flesh wars against the Spirit. This will continue until they die or until they meet our Lord. The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation and the battle is continual. The challenge for the believer is to become more like the Lord in their conduct and character and to imitate Him in their ways. The Lord has given the believer the Holy Spirit to convict them of sin, to teach them and guide them into all truth and to trust in the Lord and not in themselves. They can then truly say, “The Lord is my banner”!
[i] Warren W. Wiersbe The Wiersbe Bible Commentary (David C. Cook, 2007; Colorado Springs), p175
[ii] Ibid, p176
[iii] Targum Onkelos on Exodus 17 https://www.sefaria.org/Onkelos_Exodus.17.12?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en
[iv] Rashbam on Exodus 17 https://www.sefaria.org/Rashbam_on_Exodus.17.12.1?lang=bi
[v] Tur HaAroch on Exodus 17 https://www.sefaria.org/Rashbam_on_Exodus.17.12.1?lang=bi
[vi] George Williams Williams Complete Bible Commentary (Kregel, 1994; Grand Rapids), p53
[vii] Matthew Henry Matthew Henry’s Concise Bible Commentary (Moody Press; Chicago), p84
[viii] Jamieson, Fausset & Brown Jamieson Fausset & Brown’s Bible Commentary (Zondervan, 1961; Grand Rapids), p69