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A Bible Story of Community: Moses and the Amalekites

By William H. Mueller

The Amalekites then came and attacked Israel at Rephidim. (Exodus 17:8)

We may believe the Quaker Testimonies were invented out of the blue by Friends. However, they are expressions of a vital core of the religious life of every human being. Thus, we find these same testimonies in the earliest writings of the Judeo-Christian tradition. An example is the story of Moses and the Amalekites (Exodus 17:8-16). In this story, the Israelites have safely left Egypt and are on the way to Mt. Sinai when they are attacked in the desert.

We may be tempted to skip over the story, regarding it as another piece of obscure Israelite history one must put up with in “getting through the Bible.” If we were to, there is an important message we would miss: This
story is a testimony of community.

Historically speaking, Amalek and his brigands bothered the stragglers of the Exodus (New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 1990, p. 51). This may account for Moses’ seemingly lackadaisical response to the attack. He tells his general, Joshua: “Pick some men and tomorrow morning go out and engage Amalek” (Exodus 17:9).

But the general needs help, and not just military aid. Moses, accompanied by his brother Aaron and another Israelite named Hur, ascend a hill to watch. During the engagement Moses raises God’s staff, a sign asking for God’s help in the battle. Soon he tires, and letting down his arms for a rest, he notices that the battle, which has favored the Israelites thus far, begins to turn against Joshua. As long as he keeps his arms raised, Joshua is getting the best of Amalek, otherwise the Israelites are in trouble. What to do?

The solution is to bring out a stone upon which Moses sits, while Aaron on one side and Hur on the other, hold Moses’ arms aloft. “Thus his arms remained unwavering till sunset, and Joshua defeated Amalek, putting their people to the sword (Exodus 17:12-13).”

What is the message? God is represented by the staff, a sign of God’s power, a kind of magic wand. God alone is not enough, nor is a view of God as magic. Moses is God’s representative, prophet and minister. He alone is not enough, nor is the view that we are to leave our religious efforts to others who are somehow imbued with the courage and motivation that “we” could never hope to have. Aaron and Hur step in, symbolically completing what is necessary for doing God’s work on earth. Great things in human affairs cannot be done without community.

It is notable that what Aaron and Hur “do” is not much, nor does it call for any special talent. Nevertheless, their small contribution is critical in the life of the Israelites at this moment. I can’t help but think this story has to be what prompted Jesus to declare thousands of years later: “For where two or three meet in my name, I am there among them (Matthew 18:20).”

After Amalek’s defeat, there is a dedication and the place named, Yahweh Nissi meaning, “Lay hold of Yahweh’s banner! Yahweh will be at war with Amalek generation after generation (Exodus 17:15-16).”

Wait a minute! Amalek has just been defeated, his people “put to the sword”. Why should God have to do battle with him again, generation after generation? Notwithstanding other references to the Amalekites in Israel’s history, is there another lesson?

Supposing Amalek is not a desert brigand yielding a sword in some long-ago time and place, but our internal willfulness that daily interferes with our ability to see our true selves and destiny, the willfulness that can threaten the gathered community of God? Will we lay down our egos and find that quiet place, guided to unity by a “still small voice (1 Kings 19:12-KJV)? Will we sit together and hold one another up, while we wait trustingly for a way to open? It may not come soon. Moses sat there from morning till sunset, and Aaron and Hur held him during that time, faithfully and evidently without flinching or succumbing to boredom.

Yes, Amalek will have to be challenged generation after generation. The story reassures us that we will meet the challenges that try to divert us from mission and right living when we faithfully seek the help of God through prayer and meditation, and find clearness with the help of that of God in others. And when challenges come to our meetings we will find unity when we trust in God’s wisdom to find way forward together, in community.

Unless otherwise indicated, Bible quotations from New Jerusalem Bible, 1985; KJV-King James Version.

William H. Mueller is a member of St. Lawrence Valley Friends Meeting in Potsdam, NY (Allowed Meeting under the care of Ottawa Monthly Meeting).