Exodus 17:8-16: A Banner Day
In Exodus 17:8-16, Israel is still on its desert journey to Sinai. The crisis of this text is an attack by the Amalekites. Moses commanded Joshua to choose some men to go fight the Amalekites while he took the staff of God and stood atop the mountain. Joshua and company fought the Amalekites while Moses was on the mountain with his hands lifted up to God. Aaron and Hur were with Moses. While Moses' hands were lifted up, Joshua and company were winning. When Moses grew weary and dropped his hands, the Amalekites won.
Aaron and Hur soon caught on to the importance of keeping Moses' hands up. They got a rock for Moses to sit on and they each held up one of his hands. Moses was thus able to keep his hands up and by the end of the day Joshua defeated the Amalekites. Yahweh told Moses to be sure to write this event down and literally to "stick it in the ears of Joshua." He did so, and also built an altar to the LORD and named it, "The LORD is my Banner."
That Moses stood on top of the mountain with the staff of God in his hands is an important detail. This was the staff that God used to give Moses a sign that He was with him. Remember how at the burning bush God told him to throw it down – he did and it turned into a snake – and God told him to pick it up by the tail – he did and it turned back into his staff? No doubt you remember that when Moses threw this staff down before Pharaoh it turned into a snake that gobbled up all the staffs-become-snakes of Pharaoh's magicians. Recall again that Moses struck the Nile with this staff and it turned to blood. Moses stretched this staff out across the Sea and it parted, that Israel might cross on dry ground. Moses stretched this staff out over the divided Sea and it swallowed up Pharaoh's army. Moses struck the rock at Horeb with this staff and water gushed forth.
Now, with the Amalekites attacking, Moses’ act of taking God's staff in his hands communicated loudly to Joshua and all Israel that he was looking to Yahweh for victory rather than to Joshua's army. The events on the mountaintop, in correlation with the progress of the battle, would bear this out. Joshua defeated the Amalekites with the sword, but it was the staff of God in Moses' hands that made the difference.
When Moses' hands were up, Joshua was winning. When the hands dropped, so did the troops. Not being clueless, Aaron and Hur kept Moses' hands steady. Joshua and his army won. If you or I were telling the story and trying to figure out who to credit for the victory, most likely we would focus on Joshua and his military prowess. We would be interested in his courage, his strategy, and his leadership skills. Surely such things are the decisive elements of battle. We would be focused on the battle rather than the three men on top of the mountain.
But the Exodus storyteller has a different perspective, namely, that while Joshua and company were fighting the battle, it was Moses, Aaron, and Hur who made the difference in the battle. Amazing. The outcome of the battle came down to the seemingly irrelevant activity of three men who were not even in the battle, but up on a mountain out of the battle. It was not superior strategy, valor, technology, or might that decided the battle. It was three men keeping a pair of hands lifted up to Yahweh that made the difference between victory and defeat. This is what the LORD wanted to make sure got stuck in Joshua's ears. It was not his valiant fighting and remarkable leadership that brought victory, but a pair of weary hands lifted up to the LORD.
I tend to focus more on the battle - maybe I'm just at more of a Joshua stage in life, I don't know. But I think about the various ministries at our church, from the Friday night Table Ministry, to our Worship Team, to Vacation Bible School, to our regular services and all that goes on between. All those ministries are our battlefronts and it is easy to think that that is where outcomes are decided. I need to have it stuck in my ear that the difference is made by hands lifted up to the Lord.
I cannot help but think of the praying hands of Sister Tucker, Sister Glaze, Sister Greene, and Sister Whitmire, to name just a few. These latter two have gone on to be with the Lord. It scares me to think of pastoring a church without such saints who always keep a pair of hands lifted to the Lord, for according to this story it is their lifted up hands, hands that no longer are engaged in the tangible battle, that are the hands that decide victory. All of our ministries only have a prayer of a chance of being effective, no matter how we strategize and organize. May the Lord have mercy upon us if we ever reach a day when that prayer is not prayed, when no hands are being lifted up. It needs to be stuck in my ear again and again that lifted hands decide the battle.
When the battle had been won Moses promptly built an altar to the LORD and called it, "The LORD is my Banner." I've been thinking about that in terms of our "Star Spangled Banner." We pledge allegiance to our banner, the flag of the United States of America.
The other day I was playing golf (it was a special occasion, my brother-in-law was in town) on the navy golf course in Coronado. It was early Saturday morning and I was about to hit my 12th shot (3rd by preachers’ count) on a par 4. I heard some muffled music coming from some distant outdoor speakers but paid it no attention (concentration is the key to my game). I went ahead and hit my ball and started to continue after it when I noticed that everyone on the course was standing at attention. I then awoke to the fact that it was the National Anthem that was playing. I immediately stood at attention, hoping that no one noticed my blunder. We pledge allegiance to the banner of the United States. Stopping in the midst of a golf game is a small reminder of this pledge. Indeed, it is trivial when one considers how many Americans have given their lives in allegiance to this banner. Moses says, "The LORD is my Banner." His allegiance is to Yahweh and no other. Yahweh is the One to whom he lifts his hands.
Not only do we pledge allegiance to the flag, but the flag lays a claim on us. We notice this most directly today in taxes, but it wasn't that long ago that citizens were drafted into the armed services. To live under the Star Spangled Banner is to submit to the claims of this banner. Likewise, Moses is not only pledging allegiance to Yahweh by referring to Yahweh as his banner, he is also acknowledging that Yahweh has a claim on him. He owes it to Yahweh to serve Yahweh, for Yahweh purchased his freedom from Egypt. Yahweh claims Moses. Moses pledges allegiance to Yahweh.
If something ever happened to us on foreign soil, a hostage situation or something to that effect, what would be our attitude in regards to our banner? Uncle Sam better come after me and get me out of here! We expect an allegiance to us from our banner. As Moses' banner, Yahweh is committed to Moses. We have seen that Yahweh has ultimately never failed Moses. He brought him out of Egypt, saw him through the Sea and the desert, and now most recently through this battle with the Amalekites.
In a parade or when an army marches, where is the banner? In front. The banner goes before. Yahweh goes before Moses, making a way even when there is no way.
The question is, who or what is our banner? Who is your banner? Who is my banner? Is your banner truly worthy of being a banner? Again, we had better get an earful that the Lord is our Banner.
Joshua learned it well as he led Israel into the Promised Land. David heard it as he approached Goliath in the name of the LORD. King Hezekiah remembered it when the Assyrians had Jerusalem surrounded - and Yahweh sent the Assyrians home. But Israel did not always remember, did not always heed what the Lord put in their ear, and the result was defeat and eventual exile. If you drop your hands, if you hoist another banner, then your defeat is certain. But if you keep your hands up to the Lord, if you live under the banner of the Lord, then you will experience victory. You will not lose.
The Bible does not stop with the story of the victory over the Amalekites. Rather, it stops with the Book of Revelation, which also has much to do about battles and banners. Basically, John exhorts the church to hold fast to the banner of Christ in the face of mounting pressure to pledge allegiance to the banner of Caesar. He assures his congregations that those who remain faithful will be rewarded, that those who overcome will experience victory.
But John has a deeper understanding of overcoming than defeating the Amalekites or Romans. For John, overcoming may result in death at the hands of one's enemies. Christ as banner is no guarantee of a win - at least not by normal standards. Christ will save you from the second death, but not from the first. The one who overcomes is faithful to the banner of Christ even at the cost of one's life. The victory is that death is not the last word even though it gets spoken. Christ grants new life in the midst of death. Those who overcome, those who are faithful to Christ their banner, be it at the cost of their lives, will receive the crown of life. The Romans may attack and win, but they shall not ultimately prevail. The banner of Christ shall yet wave after all others have passed. Only Christ is worthy of our allegiance. Only Christ delivers in death.
Again, who is your banner? Hold fast to the banner of Christ. This is no guarantee of instant victory or most-desired outcomes. But it is the banner of the ultimately victorious. Christ will make a way for you; even in suffering and death Christ will breathe life.