Pastor Rich Knight
July 16, 2023
Exodus 17:8-13 – the setting is that the Israelites are in the wilderness. It’s two months after their escape from Egypt. Perhaps in the year 1445 BC. Amalek is mentioned in this passage. He was the grandson of Esau. Remember the Jacob and Esau story, where Jacob stole Esau’s birthright? So, it was natural that Jacob’s descendants and Esau’s descendants would have animosity against each other.
Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some men for us and go out; fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” So Joshua did as Moses told him and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’s hands grew heavy, so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on either side, so his hands were steady until the sun set. And Joshua defeated Amalek and his people with the sword.
The Amalekites became one of arch enemies of the Israelites. Exodus 17 records the first time they attacked the Israelites. The Amalekites were a nomadic people. They had a region that they moved around in, but they weren’t a nation like other nations – with cities and a capital. Their region was the desert south of what became Israel, toward the Sinai Peninsula.
We don’t know why they attacked the Israelites here. No reason is given. It may be that they felt threatened by this new large group of people who had wandered into the outskirts of their region.
Some commentators suggest they may have been protecting a well, crucial to their survival in the desert. We just don’t know for certain why they attacked, and the Israelites probably didn’t know either.
Life can be like that, can’t it?
Sometimes you can see the hardship, the struggles, and the battles coming, and other times, they take you by surprise. You’re just going through life day to day, when suddenly you’re blindsided and in a struggle that threatens your life to the core.
That’s why I’ve always appreciated Rabbi Harold Kushner’s point in When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner says there’s a randomness to suffering, a random distribution of suffering. Often there’s no pattern, no warning, no rhyme or reason. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. Those aren’t Kushner’s words. That’s Jesus in Matthew 5:45 – your Father in heaven . . . makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
There seems to be a randomness to suffering, to bad things happening. Perhaps God set it up this way so we’d be good for goodness’ sake, and not just to avoid bad things happening to us? I’ve mentioned before that even ministers can get cancer. It has to be this way – otherwise everyone would go into the ministry just to avoid cancer! And there’s not enough room up here for all of us!
So, bad things often just happen with no rhyme or reason. Battles just come upon us like it did to those Israelites in the wilderness.
To make matters even more challenging, the timing could not have been worse for the Israelites. 2 months into living in the desert The book of Deuteronomy recalls this incident, and it tells us that the Israelites were extremely tired and weary from their journey when the Amalekites attacked.
Surprise attacks often come at the worst moments, don’t they? You don’t have a flat tire when you’re out for a Sunday drive. You have one when you’re late to your niece’s wedding. Or, on your way to a job interview.
Illustration. I imagine you saw on the news the video of the man who stole a truck in Dorchester in broad daylight, not knowing there was a baby inside. Talk about bad timing! They took their eyes off their baby for just a few brief seconds tending to their other child on the sidewalk, still in its car seat. And in that short amount of time a guy jumps in the truck and drives off with the baby. Fortunately, within a few blocks a bit of his conscience returns and he drops off the baby on the sidewalk. But it’s a good illustration that bad things often happen at the worst times.
That’s the way it was with the Israelites. They were exhausted in the desert, and that when the surprise attack happens. Not only that, it was an extremely cruel attack. Deuteronomy says that the Amalekites attacked at the end of the line of the Israelites. They went after those who were lagging behind.Some commentaries suggest that this probably involved a fair number of elderly well as women with young children.
So, not only was it a surprise attack, it’s was also an extremely cruel surprise attack. – as if living in the desert wasn’t hard enough
Well, Moses comes up with a plan to handle the Amalekites. He asks his top general, Joshua, to select a battalion of men to fight, and then Moses tells him that he’ll be up on the mountaintop with his staff, calling upon God to strengthen them for the battle. And sure enough, when Moses held up his staff in the air, the Israelites prevailed. Some commentators suggest that he was holding out his arms, as a form of prayer. But Moses could only keep his arms in the air for so long. And when he needed to give his arms a rest, the Amalekites prevailed in the battle.
Life’s battles can wear out even the best of us – even the great Moses!
But the Beatles were right – we get by with a little help from our friends.
So, Aaron and Hur each take an arm to hold up.
They keep Moses’ arms in the air.
They’re strong for Moses when his strength is gone.
That’s what friends do!
They give us their strength.
They channel God’s divine energy into us.
They’re mediators of strength when we need it most.
I attended a funeral several years ago for the loss of a child. It was incredibly sad, but the priest said something that I’ll never forget. He said, “It’s only natural to ask, ‘Where is God?’ at a time like this.” Where is God? We ask. And then he looked at the parents and said, “God is here, because this room is filled with love for you. And the Bible says that God is Love. God is here in all the love that’s in this room for you. And that love will carry you through.”
In times of great loss, God often comes to us through the love and support of others.
Here are some take-homes from this story.
- Sometimes we need more than just God to help us through life’s battles.
Moses needed Aaron and Hur to hold up his arms. The Great Moses, who was on a first-name basis with God, who held regular get-togethers with God in the Tent of Meeting – even Moses needed human help!
Illustration. It’s like that story I always tell at Christmas time, where the little girl is scared during a thunderstorm, and her father tells her to pray to God. And she says, “I know God hears my prayers, but right now I need someone with skin on.”
Moses needed two people with “skin on.”
Sometimes we’re embarrassed to ask for help, or we feel like if we have faith, we can just make it through the toughest of circumstances on our own – but Moses couldn’t. Why should we think that we can?
- The other take-home is this: often helping someone who’s in a battle is not that complicated.
Setting Moses down on a rock and holding his arms in the air wasn’t that complicated – “Let’s see, how are we going to do this?” Sometimes helping others is incredibly complicated and multi-layered – but never underestimate the power of a hug, a kind word, a card, a note or even a text of encouragement.
Illustration. Don King was the custodian of our dorm in seminary. Don taught me as much about caring for others as my professors did. During my middle year of seminary, my Mom got very sick and then eventually passed away. It was a challenging time, to say the least. My Mom insisted I stay in school, so I basically commuted. I’d attend a class or two and then drive home to take care of my Mom. Don, would keep an eye out for me, and he’d seek me out, and he would always say this: “Just remember, Rich, I’m in your corner.”
That’s the message we need to convey to folks when they’re in the battle and we’re trying to help and support.
“I’m in your corner.”
Or, as folks say today, “I’ve got your back.”
Or, as Aaron and Hur each said to Moses, “I’ve got your arm!”
Think about it.