“And Moses said unto Joshua, Choose us out men, and go out, fight with Amalek: to morrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in mine hand.” (Exodus 17:9)
This is the first record of Israel taking up the sword to fight their enemies after leaving Egypt. But didn’t God, shortly after the Exodus, promise to “fight” for them?
“The LORD shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace.” (Exo 14:14)
This promise was made when Israel was threatened by the Egyptian army just after leaving Egypt. That dramatic victory should have assured them of God’s promised protection but faith came hard for them. Incredibly, within a short time, they were thinking that God was out to kill them:
“And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moses, and said, Wherefore is this that thou hast brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?” (Exo 17:3)
God does not force His presence on anyone. With that kind of attitude from the people, God could not bless as He would have liked to. His presence and protection had, shortly before, been dramatically evident and yet they said:
“… Is the LORD among us, or not?” (Exo 17:7)
That lack of faith enabled their enemies to have unprotected access. The next verse says:
“Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim.” (Exo 17:8)
Note what happened next:
“And Moses said unto Joshua, Choose us out men, and go out, fight with Amalek: to morrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in mine hand.” (Exo 17:9)
The question is: did God tell them to do that or did the idea come from Moses perhaps with encouragement from others who were questioning whether God was with them or not (verse 7)? God will provide the solution to our problems when we ask Him in faith:
“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.” (James 1:5-7)
These people were definitely wavering in their faith. They did not ask and God did not answer so they were left on their own to do as they thought best. Moses, no doubt influenced by His earlier military training, started giving orders.
Why did Moses position himself on the top of the hill with the rod of God in his hand? Was he perhaps there as the general to command the army of Israel? Was he taking God’s role (rod) into his own hands? Was he using the rod as a signaling device to direct the army of Israel? There is definitely some speculation in those questions but it does not say “Moses held up his hand to heaven.” There is no obvious indication that God was directing the battle on behalf of those people who even doubted if He was with them. In spite of that, it seems that the battle went well for Israel:
“And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.” (Exo 17:13)
Or did it go well? Was it a good result? From that point on, Israel relied almost without exception on the sword rather than on God’s protection. The Old Testament is so filled with wars that we assume it was God’s plan for them but there are serious problems with that concept.
Was Israel Even Meant to See War?
Let’s go back a little and ask how Israel even had swords or other weapons? God had promised that He would bring them into the Promised Land:
“And I will bring you in unto the land, concerning the which I did swear to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for an heritage: I am the LORD.” (Exo 6:8)
“And it shall be when the LORD shall bring thee into the land of the Canaanites, as he sware unto thee and to thy fathers, and shall give it thee,” (Exo 13:11)
It seemed His plan was to give them the land and that they would not even need to see war:
“And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt: But God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red sea: and the children of Israel went up harnessed out of the land of Egypt.” (Exo 13:17-18)
God said driving out the Canaanites would be accomplished without their having to fight to possess the land that God proposed to give to them.
“I will send my fear before thee, and will destroy all the people to whom thou shalt come, and I will make all thine enemies turn their backs unto thee. And I will send hornets before thee, which shall drive out the Hivite, the Canaanite, and the Hittite, from before thee.” (Exo 23:27-28)
It is interesting that nature itself, in the form of hornets would accomplish this.
Also, God was proven to be correct in His estimation of the reaction of the people to seeing war – that they would be in danger of wanting to return to Egypt. While it was not recorded right after the battle with Amalek where Israel was the victor, it was the reaction not long after when they faced another foe – the reported giants that the spies had seen in the land:
“And all the congregation lifted up their voice, and cried; and the people wept that night. And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron: and the whole congregation said unto them, Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would God we had died in this wilderness! And wherefore hath the LORD brought us unto this land, to fall by the sword, that our wives and our children should be a prey? were it not better for us to return into Egypt? And they said one to another, Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt.” (Num 14:1-4)
Does “Harnessed” mean “Armed”?
The passage above used the word “harnessed” (Hebrew chamush; Strong’s H2571) which, in its other three uses, was translated in the KJV as “armed” or “armed men.”
Some translations of Exo 13:18 say the Israelites left Egypt “ready for battle.” Really? They acquired weapons and military training between the time Pharaoh gave them permission (after midnight) to leave and the morning when they left Egypt? Scripture says what they did get from the Egyptians:
“And the children of Israel did according to the word of Moses; and they borrowed of the Egyptians jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment:” (Exo 12:35)
The word “borrowed” is an incorrect translation. It should be more like “asked” or, as the KJV marginal note says, “demanded.” Verse 36 says they got what they asked for. It did not include weapons and it is unlikely the Egyptians would have given them such.
A careful examination of the word translated as “harnessed” in Exo 13:8 and as “armed” or “armed men” in its other three uses shows that it more likely means in formation; in some organized manner. “Battle array,” as some versions translate it, does not seem appropriate to a large group of people including women and children and flocks and herds fleeing from Egypt.
When Israel was stuck between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army, they expected to die, not fight:
“And when Pharaoh drew nigh, the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and, behold, the Egyptians marched after them; and they were sore afraid: and the children of Israel cried out unto the LORD. And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? Is not this the word that we did tell thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness.” (Exo 14:10-12)
Moses’ message of assurance was that they would not have to fight:
“And Moses said unto the people, Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will shew to you to day: for the Egyptians whom ye have seen to day, ye shall see them again no more for ever. The LORD shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace.” (Exo 14:13-14)
God moved the pillar of cloud between the Israelites and the Egyptians (Exo 14:19-20) because He was protecting them.
How Did Israel even Obtain Swords?
Here is a clue:
“Thus the LORD saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the sea shore.” (Exo 14:30)
The Israelites had already demanded jewels and gold of the Egyptians, likely as at least part payment for all of their labor. Now they had the opportunity to spoil the Egyptian army of their weapons. Israel chose to take the swords and that determined much of what followed in their history:
“… all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” (Matt 26:52)
Moses himself had military training as a prince in Egypt and easily took on the role of directing the “army” of Israel when he should have laid the situation before God. We might easily assume that people such as Moses and various prophets always did God’s will but that is far from the case. See documentation of the sins of the prophets including Moses.
We need to be careful to not assume God was always involved in what His people Israel did. They took many actions at their own initiative and even situations where God gave some direction were often examples of Divine accommodation.
A Key Concept
It is very important to have this understanding of the choice Israel made to take weapons and use them in their defense instead of relying totally on God’s promises. It helps in having a right understanding of the character of God when one encounters passages that many take to be saying that God wanted them to fight and kill their enemies. He did not.
Read a more-detailed study of Israel Choosing the Sword at https://characterofgod.org/israel-chooses-sword/