Hunting and pecking for clues is only fun if you think they’ll add up to something you like. I once created a treasure hunt for my kids that ended up being a bust because the surprise at the end wasn’t worth all the fuss it was.
I was afraid that’s where I was heading today, but boy, I’m glad to be wrong this time.
The Israelites are traveling from 430 years of slavery in Egypt to the land God’s promised to give them. They’ve had fears about finding enough food and water for 2 million-plus people, but God’s provided in the clutch and given them everything they need, despite their complaints.
God’s got a lot more in mind for them to learn than simply trusting him for basic necessities, but the lessons have to start somewhere, and they start here first. He plans to teach them how to live in relationship with him and with one another at a mountain retreat on the way to their promised land, complete with a heart stopping, earth shaking meet-and-greet. But just before they get to their Mt Sinai destination, the Amalekites strike, Ex 17:8.
These folks are descended from Amalek, the grandson of Esau, who was brother of Jacob (one of Israel’s patriarchs). They’re distant cousins who carry an old grudge against Jacob’s descendants because he tricked their ancestor, Esau, out of his birthright and then outright stole his father’s blessing. Family feuds push bitter roots deep, Ge 25:29-34; 27:19-35.
When Israel was “weary and worn out,” they attacked the rear where the stragglers would have been: the elderly, families with small children, those sick and weak. The act is so reprehensible to God, that after they fight them and win, he tells Moses to make a note–and to make sure Joshua, his military general, hears it–that he will personally “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” Later God tells them to do it, adding, “Don’t forget!” Ex 17:14; De. 25:17.
All of the supernatural events that Moses has participated in up to now have involved God’s specific instructions for what to do. He told Moses to strike the Nile River to turn it to blood, to take lambs’ blood and dab it on the doorframes of their homes, to hold the staff over the Red Sea as the east wind blows it wide open.
But when the Amalekites come, there’s no mention of God and his instructions. Moses makes the plan. He tells Joshua to choose some men and go fight the invaders, and he’ll watch from the top of a hill with Hur and Aaron “with the staff of God in my hands,” Ex 17:9.
I’m wondering why Moses makes the plan rather than God giving him one. And I wonder if it has to do with what happened at the Red Sea. When the Egyptians were coming fast and furious and the Israelites were backed against the water, Moses tells the people to be still and to watch God fight for them. Then he cries out to God, but God says, “Why are you crying out to me?…Raise your staff and stretch out your hand…,” Ex 13:15-16.
God’s message seems clear, “We’re a team. Grab your staff and lead!” So Moses holds the staff out over the Red Sea, and “all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land,” Ex 14:21-22.
Was it Moses’ holding the staff that parted the water? Or was it God who brought the east wind? It sounds like both: Moses and God working together to bring about this miracle in opening the sea. God could have done it all by himself. After all, he made the whole world; he doesn’t need anybody’s help to move a little water.
But God chooses to use the faith of this shepherd and his staff to lead a whole nation of frightened sheep. I’m reminded of Jesus who over and over tells the people he’s healed that their faith has saved them, and to go in peace. Their faith saved them? It was their faith in Jesus to save them. Jesus doesn’t save anyone who isn’t willing, Mt 9:22; Mk 5:34, 10:53; Lk 7:50, 8:48.
Moses’ leadership is more confident after the Red Sea, as we see in his plan for how to handle the Amalekites at Rephidim. Moses told the people to be still and to watch God fight for them at the Red Sea, but in Rephidim, he tells Joshua and his men just the opposite–to fight the Amalekites, Ex 14:13-14, 17:9.
There are times when trusting God requires us to be still and to watch what he will do. And there are others when we enter the fight alongside him. The Christian life is both a leaning-trust on God’s strength as well as a stepping-out-in-faith to do the hard stuff. The Holy Spirit guides us in how to finesse this, Ro 8:14.
Moses, Aaron, and Hur go to the top of the hill overlooking the fighting. As long as Moses keeps his hands raised, the Israelites win, but when his hands get tired and come down, the Amalekites win. So Aaron and Hur get on either side of Moses, each holding up a hand, and by sunset, Joshua and his men “overcame the Amalekite army with the sword,” Ex 17:10-13.
Moses said he’d hold the staff in both his hands, though normally, he held the staff in one. The only way I can think of for Moses to hold up his staff with both hands and still be able to see is to hold it horizontally. The Bible doesn’t actually say “horizontally,” but I’m guessing it’s in that position because of what Moses says next.
After they win, Moses builds an altar as a memorial for what God’s done. And he names it “The Lord is My Banner…For hands were lifted up to the throne of the Lord,” Ex 17:15-16. Moses here connects banner to hands lifted up, so I’m thinking he holds his staff horizontally, like a banner that’s held up on both sides.
But why hold it like that? Here are some possible reasons:
It would have been encouraging for those who fought to look up and see Moses standing up, his hands in the air with the staff. It would have reminded them of all the other times that God had come through for them when Moses held up the staff.
But he could have done that, simply by holding it up in one hand, since this is the way he’s used the staff before, Ex 8:5, 17; 14:16. Besides, Moses already said he would hold it in “my hands,” plural, Ex 17:9.
Some commentators say that raising hands was the posture of prayer in that day, so Moses was praying as he held up his hands with the staff, (http://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/exodus-17/). Moses’ raised hands could also be pointers to the God who’s available at all times through prayer. But standing was also a part of typical prayer posture, and Moses is sitting, which is not typical, nor is using the staff to pray, Ex 17:12, (http://fpcjackson.org/resource-library/sermons/the-lord-is-my-banner/).
While it’s certainly possible that Moses might have prayed as he sat there with his two hands in the air holding the staff horizontally, it’s not likely that he decided that day to start praying a new way.
Moses’ arms getting tired and needing support could demonstrate the kind of effort it takes to trust God continually. We get tired, too, but can be encouraged to trust God more by the folks who come alongside us and help us hold up our flagging faith. And while this is true, it doesn’t seem to be what this text is mainly about.
All of these are good options, but they feel a little more like morality lessons than the Bible’s gospel of gritty grace. And they don’t really make sense of the altar that Moses names, “The Lord is my Banner,” or why he holds the staff in both hands, or why Israel wins when Moses raises them up, but when he lowers them, they lose.
Something is rattling around in my head, but I can’t seem to grab it, so I grab the staff again.
God uses this staff to bring judgment on his enemies. But he also uses it to care for his people. The staff that brought plagues to Egypt also brought freedom to Israel. The staff that parted the Red Sea to let Israel through also brought it back together to drown the Egyptians. The staff that broke a hard rock in the wilderness brought water out of that rock for grumbly, thirsty people. God’s staff is one of both judgment and mercy.
Something connects, and I remember another place in God’s story where a piece of wood carries both his judgment and mercy–the cross. On the cross, God’s wrath against our sin was satisfied by Jesus’ death. It was judgment for him, but mercy for us.
I have a hunch, so I check my Holy Bible App and find this verse, “In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples, the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious,” Is 11:10. Paul writes that Jesus is the “banner,” the prophesied Root of Jesse that “will spring up, the one who will arise to rule over the nations; in him the Gentiles will hope,” Ro 15:12.
Jesus was—and is—the banner that all nations rally to. By his death, the door into God’s presence has been unlocked, the curtain torn, and all who want access can enter by faith in him, Jn 10:7, NASB; Mt 27:51. Moses didn’t know Jesus’ name, but he knows his people need a Savior who covers them from God’s judgment, who saves them from their enemies, who rescues them from their hungers and thirsts and unbelief.
Moses knows they deserve God’s judgment, and that unless God remembers mercy, unless he chooses to cover them with his banner–symbolized by the lifting of the staff that points to the One who would be lifted on the cross–they’ll be wiped out and lost, Ha 3:2; Jn 8:28; 1 Pe 2:24.
So Moses takes his staff, and he raises it up horizontally to the throne of heaven, reminding God Almighty of the Banner they need, of the One who would take God’s judgment on himself so that his people can always have God’s kindness instead.
Israel only wins when Moses raises the staff, because it’s only by the blood of the Banner-Jesus that they can ask for God’s help and be saved. Without him, they’re dead where they stand. As long as Moses’ arms are raised, God honors what Jesus would one day do—lift his hands on a cross to win for them God’s forever forgiveness and lavish love.
Jesus suffers God’s judgment on the staff of the cross so he can pour out his bloody mercy all over us.
over sin and shame,
and trying hard,
and being afraid.
Only in Jesus are we freed and saved.
[I’m surprised by all the references I found to the banner, who’s raised up and “unfurled against the bow…for those who fear [God],” Ps 60:4. He’s the banner, “raised on the mountain” and “on a bare hilltop” of Calvary, Is 13:2, 18:3. He’s the banner for “those at the ends of the earth,” who “beckon[s] the nations,” for the Father, Is 5:26; 49:22].
One of the Pharisees, an expert in the law of God, asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment. He says it’s to love God with all his heart, soul, and mind. And the 2nd is to love his neighbor as himself, “All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments,” Mt 22:40.
Then Jesus asks the Pharisees a question, “Who’s son is the Messiah?” “David’s,” they answer. Jesus asks how it is that David calls the Christ “my lord,” if he’s his son? They don’t reply, and they don’t ask him any more questions, Mt 22:41-45.
Jesus is tripping them up, and they don’t like it. His point? He’s claiming to be the Christ, descended from David. But he’s also claiming to be God himself. The passage he quotes is from a psalm David wrote, “The LORD said to my LORD; ‘sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet,'” Mt 22:44; Ps 110:1.
All the Pharisees want to do is catch Jesus blaspheming, so they can shut him up. But he shuts them up instead. Through the Scripture they pretend to be experts of, he tells them they’re to love him with all they’ve got.
Jesus turns to the crowds and tells them not to do what the teachers of the law and Pharisees do, because “they don’t practice what they preach.” They make the law of God too hard to keep, tying up “heavy loads” and putting them on “men’s shoulders,” rather than helping people understand God’s heart of love for them and his desire for their love in return, Mt 23:1-4.
“Everything they do is done for men to see.” They show off their religious devotion and wear special clothes. They take honored seats at parties and sit where everyone can see them in the synagogue. They feed on being publicly recognized as teachers, rabbis, and priests, Mt 23:5-7.
But they have only the appearance of faith, Jesus says, not the real deal, because “The greatest among you will be your servant.” Mt 23:11-12.
Status in God’s kingdom comes by humility, not by showing off. If the greatest commandment is to love God and others, what place do fancy clothes and long prayer tassels and special seating have to do with loving?
Jesus sets an impossibly high bar, to love God completely, but the Pharisees don’t think to take it to heart. They’re too busy scheming their next plan to catch him.
Humility is the way of leadership in God’s kingdom, because it’s the way of Jesus, who was “gentle and humble in heart,” Mt 11:29.
Do I grand stand or do I serve? Do I show off or do I focus on loving God? Only you can teach me how to go low and love rather than stand up for praise. Please do.
“My heart says of you,
‘Seek his face!’
Your face, Lord, I will seek….
Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord,”
Psalm 27:8, 14
I’m prone to try to figure out my troubles, but God’s words this week tell me to wait and stand firm, see and be still, and to pick up my staff (get going!) and trust, Ex 13:13.
In this psalm, I read seek his face…be strong…take heart…wait for the Lord. It sounds very much like the same thing. So I’ll seek and wait, do and rest. It’s easier for me to “do” than to “be,” but I’m kind of excited by the thought of watching you fight for me, Ex 13:13.
Fix my eyes on you.
My take away today is the relationship God offers–from Jesus, his Banner of love over me, to his summary of what God wants most, to humility as the way love shows up, to waiting for God, in-tune and in-touch. All of these pieces teach me about the relationship Jesus died to provide.
It’s a rush to know truths in my head and feel the joy of them in my heart. God’s words dig and sift, squeeze and teach, melt and help.
Besides his word, the best proof of God I know is the relationship he builds inside each of us. It begins with his love that calls us. Will we hear and believe, feel and see?