When the Israelites left Egypt, they only knew how to be slaves. They did not know how to be an army or to fight; in fact, God did not take them on the shortest route to their final destination through the land of the Philistines, as He chose not to give them an opportunity, upon seeing war, to change their minds and run back to Egypt. [Exodus 13:17]

For the first couple of days after their liberation, God had the Israelites wander from place to place as though they were lost. When Pharaoh heard this, he, with his horsemen, his officers, and all the chariots in Egypt, went after them. “The Israelites looked up; there were the Egyptians thundering after them.  They were terrified and cried to the Lord for help.”  [Exodus 13:10-11]

Why, Moses, did you bring us here? Would it not have been better to stay in Egypt? they asked. Moses told them not to fear, to stand firm and see the Lord’s deliverance. And when God moves, He does so both to show the Egyptians that He alone is God, and at the same time, to convince the Israelites that He would fight for them.

“And when the Israelites saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore, and witnessed the wondrous power the Lord had unleashed against the Egyptians, the people were in awe of the Lord, and they believed in Him and in Moshe His servant.” [Exodus 14:30-31]

Without this assurance, it is unclear how long the Israelites would have had the courage to continue on.  Although they left Egypt with weapons [Exodus 13:18], they remained an inexperienced and untrained army, but had just witnessed, on their behalf, the destruction of what may have been the strongest army in the area.

“Then at Refidim, Amalek came and attacked Israel.” [Exodus 17:8]  There does not appear to have been any reason for this attack and we do not know whether any Israelites were killed or taken captive. It appears that the attack came out of nowhere and was unexpected, but obviously it required an active response. But unlike the matter of the Egyptians, in the matter of the Amalekites, the Israelites themselves were also called upon to fight. God was not going to do it alone this time; it became a team effort:

“Moshe said to Yehoshua (Joshua), ‘Choose men for us, and go out and do battle against Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand,’ Yehoshua fought the Amalekites as Moshe had directed him while Moshe, Aharon and Hur climbed to the top of the hill. Whenever Moshe held his hand high, the Israelites prevailed, but whenever he let his hand drop, the Amalekites prevailed. But Moshe’s hands grew heavy. So they took a stone and placed it under him and he sat, while Aharon and Hur held up his hands, one on each side, so that his hands held true until sunset. And Yehoshua overcame Amalek and his people by the sword.” [Exodus 17:9-13]

To defeat Amalek Moses had to provide direction, and bring in God’s presence, Yehoshua had to select the Israelites to go into battle with him, and to command his newly formed army, and Aaron and Hur were needed to provide support to Moses. And it took all day to achieve the victory. It is never a short battle.

So Amalek was defeated (and perhaps killed). But this is not the end of the story:

“Then the Lord said to Moshe, ‘Write this as a memorial on a scroll, and commit it to Yehoshua’s ears: I will erase the memory of Amalek, utterly, from under the heavens.’ Moshe built an altar and named it ‘The Lord Is My Banner,” saying, ‘There is a hand on the Lord’s throne.” The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.’” [Exodus 17:14-16]

If Amalek was already defeated:

  1. why was it important to write on a scroll (presumably for the future generations), and to make sure Yehoshua understood, that God would erase even the memory of Amalek?
  2. What does the name of the altar mean? and
  3. If Amalek was killed, and if his memory was to be erased, why does it say that The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages?

Here are some thoughts:

Amalek was the grandson of Esau. Perhaps Esau never did forgive Jacob for stealing his blessing and taking his birthright, and this was passed on through the generations.

It is not an accident that this initial battle with Amalek occurred almost immediately (probably less than a month) after the Israelites were finally set free to serve their Lord. They had begun the transition from being a family/tribe into a nation that would establish the knowledge of the ONE God and the knowledge of a moral code by which we are to live, and also the establishment of the nation to be a blessing to all nations. If someone hates God, what better way to waylay these plans than to destroy the nascent nation before it could take off?

Although Amalek was a specific individual, the spirit of Amalek, which hates God and the people chosen by God, periodically rises up. Erasing the memory of Amalek may mean that God would erase the particular attempt to destroy what God was doing with His people at the particular time, since God and His purposes will continue. But beyond that, and more to the point, anyone or any entity attempting to destroy God’s people and God’s purpose will himself/itself be erased.  This can be seen to have occurred more than once in that every attempt to destroy the Jews has been defeated, and each entity that has tried to do so no longer exists.  By writing it down, it confirms that every erasure of such individuals and entities is actually recognized to be an act of God. By making sure that Yehoshua understood, this provided him with the assurance that by following God he would be sure to prevail (and if Amalek had not actually been killed in the battle, the assurance was that he would eventually die). This is something that those coming against Israel and the Jews today would be well advised to remember.

Building an altar to God after the victory is not unusual. What is interesting is the name and the comment Moses makes. The Lord is my Banner has also been translated as the Lord is my Test or the Lord is my Miracle.  Perhaps another way to understand it would be that the Lord shall provide a way for me to overcome, or a way of escape from what is otherwise determined to kill me or stop me from being successful in what God would want me to do. As to the hand on the Lord’s throne this may be an oath by the Lord to continue to wage war against this spirit of Amalek.

And finally, each generation of Jews has found that there is someone who hates them and would kill them for little or no reason.  But it is not the Jews that are hated; it is their God. It reminds me of when the prophet Samuel complained to God when the people wanted a king, that they were rejecting him.  God pointed out that they were not rejecting Samuel, but that they were rejecting God Himself.

 

Translations are from The Koren Tanakh (The Magerman Edition, published by Koren Publishers Jerusalem, 2021)