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Throughout their history, the Jews have had many nations and groups of people that have hated them. Some persecuted them and even took them to war. Today, we are going to spend some time looking at the very first war against the Jews. We want to look at who attacked them, how they were attacked, how they defeated their enemy and what lessons we can learn from this event. There are a lot of lessons for us from this war.
We are in the Book of Exodus, the second book of the Bible. The book begins with the Jews in slavery in Egypt but describes God’s redemption of His people. He led them out of their bondage miraculously but when they left Egypt they entered the wilderness. Over two million of them were in the wilderness.
God led them every step of the way. The Jews have a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night but God not only led them, He tested them. They encountered some problems (like we face today). Some of them were serious problems, life threatening problems.
They could not find any food to eat. They could not find any water to drink. God provided for them in the wilderness. He gave them bread out of the sky. He gave them meat to eat and he gave them plenty of water. In this passage, they encounter another problem. This one was new. They never faced it before.
A Shocking Attack
Out of nowhere, they are suddenly attacked without warning. “Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim” (17:8 ESV). Israel had never been attacked before. They didn’t have an army and had never fought a war before. They never did any fighting in Egypt. Now they are attacked and they have to fight back.
So Moses said to Joshua, “Choose for us men, and go out and fight with Amalek” (17:9 ESV). Moses put Joshua in charge of the army. It is the first mention of Joshua in the Bible. We are told absolutely nothing about him. This is the man who will take over when Moses died.
Here we find out that he was the commander of the army. He had to pick some people to fight and he did not pick everyone. He picked only certain people who were young, strong and good at hand-to-hand combat. They had to take up swords and defend themselves. There are many Christians today who believe it is always wrong to go to war. They are called pacifists. Whole denominations believe this.
They believe that all war is immoral. If you believe that, you do not believe the Bible. Moses told them to go to war. It was the right thing to do. Moses did not tell them to turn the other cheek. He told them to fight back. Jesus told people to turn the other cheek but he was talking to individuals, not nations. That is not an instruction for the state.
A Strange Enemy
The Jews were attacked here for the first time and they were attacked by the Amalekites. (17:8). The Egyptians were the first anti-Semites in biblical history. They enslaved the Jews but the Amalekites were the first to war against them. Who were the Amalekites? Amalek was one of the grandsons of Esau, who was Jacob’s twin brother.
Amalek was just like his ancestor Esau. Esau was a profane man and Amalek has no fear of God. Esau wanted to kill his brother Jacob in the Book of Genesis and now his descendants are violent, heartless and godless. The irony here is that the Amalekites were descendants of Abraham. The ones who first attacked the Jews attacked them was related to them. They were attacking cousins.
Things have not changed much today. Where do you find most of anti-Semitism in the world right now? You find it in the Middle East with many Muslims who hate the Jews and even talk about wiping them off of the map. Many of the same Muslims are descendants of Abraham through Ishmael. They are related to the Jews. Some things never change.
A Shocking Attack
There were several things shocking about this attack. We would not know about how bad the attack was from Exodus 17 but Deuteronomy 25 gives us some of the details.
Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God. (25:17-18 NIV)
Four words can be used to describe this attack. It was INTENTIONAL. It was an accidental killing. It was UNPROVOKED. It was COWARDLY. It was also BARBARIC.
This was an ambush. The Jews were not attacked from the front but from the back. The weak and weary were attacked, instead of the strong. They slaughtered the elderly, women and children. We know from Samuel that their sword made women childless (I Samuel 15:33).
This is very relevant for the day in which we live. The Amalekites were the first terrorists. There are not any more literal Amalekites. They are all dead but they still exist today in a different form. ISIS uses some of the same military tactics that the Amalekites used, which preyed on the weak.
They blow up a bus of innocent civilians or bombing a hospital. They targeted the helpless and defenseless. Terrorist attacks are all cowardly. They specifically target people who are unarmed and cannot fight back. Their attacks try to kill the maximum number of people. Like the Amalekites, they have no sense of conscience.
They can chop a man’s head off and have no remorse feeling at all. The only difference between the Amalekites and modern-day terrorists is that terrorists today use religion to justify their atrocities (which makes it even worse). They call on the name of God at the very time they commit barbaric acts.
This passage tells us what God thinks of terrorism. Notice how the chapter ends. It ends with a prediction of divine judgment. There are two great promises regarding Amalek.
One promise is that “the LORD will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation” (17:16 NIV). That is something that you do not want to have. You want God for you, not against you. Another promise is that God “will completely blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven” (17:14 NIV).
That prediction has been literally fulfilled. They have been wiped off of the map. When was the last time you walked on the street and bumped into an Amalekite? They do not exist anymore but the Jews are still around today. I am one of them. In fact, they are still a nation today thirty-five hundred years later.
The Method of Victory
How did the Jews win this battle? This was a group of former slaves. They were not trained fighters. They had no experience in combat before. They had never been to war before. How did they win? They had a rather unusual strategy of combat.
This is a rather strange picture. This battle was fought on two levels. It is fought at two locations. Joshua and his soldiers fought Amalek IN THE VALLEY. Moses, Aaron and Hur went UP ON A HILL.
The old men were on the hill above. They were too old to fight a literal battle. They engaged in spiritual combat. They used SPIRITUAL WEAPONS. The young men were in the valley bellow engaging in physical combat. They used PHYSICAL WEAPONS.
In order to win this war, they needed two things. They needed the SWORD and they used the ROD. They had to do both to win. The sword would not do any good without the rod. The rod would not do any good without the sword. It took both the sword of Joshua and the prayer of Moses to defeat Amalek.
You say, “This is a great story but what does it have to do with me?” This story is not just ancient history. There are a lot of lessons that we can learn from this one battle.
Applications from this Battle
1. This story tells us something about our enemy.
What did we learn about the Amalekites here? They are extremely dangerous. They attacked without warning. They attacked the weakest link. All of those things are true of our enemy. Our enemy is like a roaring lion who seeks about whom he may devour (I Peter 5:8). He attacks us without warning.
The enemy also attacks us in our weakest areas. We all have a weakness and when we are tempted, we are not tempted in our strong points but in our weak points. Samson was the strongest man in the Bible. He was the biblical Superman. No one could defeat him. He had incredible strength.
It was supernatural strength. It wasn’t natural. It didn’t come from weight-lifting. He killed a lion with his bare hands. He tore it in half. A lion was no match for a man full of the Holy Spirit but this strong man had a weakness. He liked to visit prostitutes.
God commissioned him to destroy the Philistines but he fell in love with a few of them. Samson had a weakness and the Philistines exploited it. Satan tempted Jesus in his weakness. You say, “That is impossible. He did not have any weaknesses”. What his Jesus’ first temptation in the wilderness? He was tempted to turn stones into bread after he had fasted for forty days. We will be tempted in our weakest areas as well.
2. This story tells us something about conflict
There are some battles we will have to face. Moses said to Joshua, “Choose for us men, and go out and FIGHT with Amalek” (17:9 ESV). That is interesting. God did NOT fight for them.
He fought for them when the Egyptians came after them. And Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today…. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent” (14:13, 14).
He could have fought for them again. Now God could have fought for them. He could have commanded fire to come down from heaven and destroy the Amalekites but he didn’t. There are some battles that they had to face and there are some battles that we have to face. The Apostle Paul says “fight the good fight of faith” (I Timothy 6:12).
He describes the Christian life as a faith or battle that has to be fought. He clarifies it in Ephesians 6. It is not just a battle against people but against “against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (6:12 NIV). It is a spiritual battle.
3. This story tells us something about success
The Hebrews won the battle that day but this victory was not won by human efforts alone. It took more than a great military strategy to defeat Amalek. It took more than a great military commander and great soldiers to win this battle. This battle was not won on the battlefield but on the mountain.
We see that in Exodus 17:11. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. (NIV). There was a direct link between Moses’ body movements on the mountain and the outcome of the battle in the valley.
What is going on here? This was not magic. To win this victory, the Jews had to totally depend on God. That is why Moses held his hands in the air. It symbolized his dependence on God. God was the one who gave the victory. They fought and won the battle as they were under the banner of God. The Bible says “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the LORD” (Proverbs 21:31 NIV).
Anytime, we fight an important battle or try to do anything for God, we cannot rely on our own strength. Our strength comes from God. Psalm 20:7 says, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (NIV). Jesus said, “apart from Me, you can do NOTHING” (John 15:5). Paul said, “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Ephesians 6:10) and not in your own strength.
4. This story tells us something about God.
God hates terrorism. The Bible mentions six things that God hates in the Book of Proverbs. One of the things that God hates is this. God HATES “hands that shed innocent blood” (6:17). He judged the Amalekites for what they did. They paid a price for this barbaric act. They not only went after the Jews. The text says that their “hands were lifted up against the throne of the Lord” (17:16)
God is a defender of His people. He is also a defender of the defenseless. Psalm 10:14 says, “But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted; you consider their grief and take it in hand. The victims commit themselves to you; you are the helper of the fatherless” (NIV). Psalm 68:5 says, “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling” (NIV).
5. This story tells us something about our roles
This is very interesting. Everyone had to a role to play in this battle. Everyone was needed. The women and children needed the men to go out and fight the battle. The old men needed the young men. The young men needed the old men up on the hill.
They needed Moses holding up the rod but Moses needed the help of two other men to help him to his job. He was the only one who could hold up the rod. The three of them did not take turns and hold it up. Moses had to do it but he needed help doing it. No one did everything, not even Moses.
Aaron and Hur had to help him. Moses was eighty years old. His arms got tired. Joshua had a role as well. He had to pick out the soldiers and lead them out to battle. All of us are needed in the body of Christ. We all have a role to play. We have different roles. Some are out on the battlefield.
Some are in the valley and some were on the hill. Some other people were at home taking care of the kids when all of this happened. The Bible says, “All of you together are Christ’s body, and each one of you is a separate and necessary part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27 NLT).
Look at your hands. There are seven billion people on the planet. No other person on the planet has your fingerprint. It is unique. No one else has your unique DNA. God has given you unique gifts he has not given to any other person. D.L. Moody said, “There is no man living that can do the work that God has got for you to do.” When we die, there will be nobody exactly like us.
6. This story tells us something about prayer
There is something that we can learn about prayer from this story. Now technically, prayer is not mentioned at all in this story. If you read Exodus 17, Moses prays one time and it is at the beginning of the chapter. The Jews grumble against Moses and he cries out to the Lord (17:4). Here, he does not cry out to the Lord. He just lifts up his rod but that is a picture of total dependence on God.
It is a picture of holy hands lifted up in prayer. It is a picture of intercessory prayer. Intercessory prayer is not when you pray for yourself. It is when you pray for others. That is what Moses is doing here. It shows the power of prayer. That is what decided who won this battle. Victory was wrought on the hill of prayer, not on the field of battle.
What else do we see here? It is hard work. Moses got tired doing this. Prayer should be hard work. It should be intense. Jesus prayed so hard that he sweat great drops of blood. Most of us do not sweat at all when we pray. Colossians 4:12 says, “Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured” (NIV)
7. It tells us something about memorials
After they are defeated, Moses does two things. First, he writes down a record of the victory in a book. Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua” (17:14). It is the first mention in the Bible of any writing in the Bible. Moses is the first one in the Bible who does any writing. Moses is told to preserve the history of what happened by writing it down.
When I was in my twenties, I was looking at different seminaries to attend. I visited Princeton Theological Seminary. I did not end up going there but I got a chance to talk to Bruce Metzger in his office. Metzger was the top New Testament Greek scholar in the world at that time. During our conversation, he mentioned an old Chinese proverb, which I never forgot.
The proverb says “the faintest ink is more powerful than the strongest memory.” No matter how strong your mind you, you always need to write things down, because it is so easy to forget things. When God does something amazing in our life, He wants us to remember it. One of the best ways to remember something is to write it down. Moses wrote it down. He also built an altar to celebrate the victory (17:15).
The altar is named “The Lord is My Banner” (17:15). Moses gave God the credit for the victory. He does not give the credit to the soldiers who fought or to his great general Joshua. All of the credit for the victory went to God alone.
This victory was to be remembered historically and ceremonially. We do the same thing with our Lord’s death. We remember it in Scripture as we read it. We also remember his death in the Lord’s Supper as we partake of the bread and the cup.