Amalek is another Pharaoh. When the nations around Egypt heard that Yahweh had thrown down Pharaoh, they trembled and were afraid (e.g. Ex. 15:14). But like Pharaoh who hardened his heart at the sight of Yahweh’s might, Amalek is undeterred. And like Pharaoh, he goes after the weakest members of the congregation when they are at their weakest at Rephidim (17:1, 8, Dt. 25:18).
The Text: Amalek was one of the descendents of Esau (Gen. 36:12), and down through the centuries the Amalekites are cruel and vicious enemies of Israel (e.g. Dt. 25:18, Jdg. 6:3, 1 Sam. 30:3, 2 Sam. 1:10-13, Est. 3:1, 9:24). The rod of Moses is once more highlighted: the same rod that was turned into a serpent, struck the Nile, parted the Red Sea, and has just struck the rock (17:5-6) is now lifted up for battle with the Amalekites (17:9-11). Several new characters are introduced into the story by name that we only know from later in the story: Hur and Joshua (17:10). While the congregation has repeatedly been called the “armies” of God before (Ex. 6:26, 7:4, 12:17, 41, 51), this is the first battle in the traditional sense of the word, except the narrative puts much of the focus on Moses on the hill with his hands and rod (17:11-12). After Amalek has been defeated, the Lord instructs Moses to write this story in the book as a memorial (17:14), and then Moses builds an altar which seems to be a sort of visual/active memorial, describing the whole scene as “Yahweh is My Banner” (17:15). The same word for “banner” is used to describe the ensign/pole that held the bronze serpent aloft for Israel’s healing (Num. 21:8-9). Recalling the staff in Moses’ hand as the one turned into a serpent, it is striking that this sign – Moses holding that staff aloft – is described as Yahweh is My Banner. Ultimately, Isaiah says that this is what will arise from the root of Jesse (Is. 11:10-12). And when the Lord restores Israel, she will become a banner, an ensign for the peoples (Is. 49:22, 62:10).
God Remembers; God Fights
The fact that this conflict with Amalek continues from “generation to generation” during the time of the judges (Jdg. 6-7), the reign of Saul (1 Sam. 15) and David (1 Sam. 30, 2 Sam. 1), and even down to Esther (Est. 3:1ff) is a reminder of the covenant promises of God. God keeps His covenant and defends His people (Ex. 17:15-16). Jesus is the captain of the armies of God, and He came not to bring peace but a sword (Mt. 10:34, Rev. 1:16, Rev. 19:15, cf. Lk. 22:36). Therefore, when Christ our God leads us into battle, we must not grow weary in doing good (Gal. 6:9, 2 Thess. 2:13). He does not lead us into battles we cannot win (1 Cor. 10:13, Js. 1:13).
Yahweh Our Banner
What is particularly striking about the battle scene described as “Yahweh is My Banner” is that the “Banner” is an old man whose arms grow weary. It is only after he is seated and his arms are supported by Hur and Aaron that the outcome of the battle is certain (17:12). This previews the next chapter where Moses appoints a number of men to assist him (Ex. 18). Just as Jethro will say that the load of judging is too heavy for Moses alone (18:18), so here, holding the serpent-rod aloft is too heavy for Moses alone. It is an altar of worship that stands as a memorial of this fact, just as our worship is a weekly reminder that we cannot stand alone either. It is only as we support one another that we become an ensign to the people, the Banner of God for the world, and every Pharaoh is defeated.