The stories in this week's reading may seem disjointed, but in fact they form a single unit. A modern editor, looking for a groovy chapter title, might have called the collection, "Ancient Israel's Bipolar Moment." Or, even more flippantly, "Hands Up!"
Let's start with the end. In the middle of the desert, after crossing the Red Sea and solving their immediate food and water problems, the Israelites are attacked by marauding Amalekites. God tells Moses to stand on a mountaintop, holding his staff up in the air for hours, as Joshua leads the forces to battle in the valley below. "When Moses held up his hand," we are told, "Israel prevailed; and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed." In the end, Aaron and Hur hold up Moses' hands until nightfall, and Israel wins.
What's going on here? In isolation, the story is pretty hard to parse. But the stories that precede it are filled with precisely the kinds of radical mood swings that remind us of the raising or lowering of Moses' hands in the Amalek story. It is almost as though the Amalek war is a metaphor for everything Israel has gone through—and will continue to face in its long journey across the desert.
Our reading begins with God telling Moses of His plan to lure Pharaoh's forces into pursuit of the Israelites. By leading the Israelites south rather than on a direct route to Canaan, He will trick the Egyptians into thinking that the Israelites are lost. Pharoah takes the bait and gives chase with six hundred chariots. The Israelites, with the Egyptian hordes behind them and the sea before them, begin to panic. "Because there were no graves in Egypt," they carp, "have you taken us away to die in the wilderness?" Moses, who has not yet learned to be patient with this people, snaps back at them: "The Lord shall fight for you, and you shall hold your peace."
Holding out his staff as a sign of spiritual reversal, Moses splits the sea and leads Israel across. Pharaoh's legions fall into the trap, chasing them into the sea and finding their own graves therein. Israel, having enjoyed God's miraculous salvation, sings a glorious song praising God's prowess. It is the still-famous "Song of the Sea." Miriam comes out afterwards, with her timbrels and women dancers. All of Israel is on a high.
And then they collapse again. The Israelites are hungry, and they take it out on Moses: "Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we ate our fill of bread." God responds patiently, raining down manna from heaven and sending mass quantities of quail across the desert for the Israelites to eat. Moses and Aaron tell them that this should really put their murmurings to rest.
It doesn't. They get thirsty. They again assail Moses. So, God tells him to take his staff and strike the rock, ceremoniously spawning a miraculous fountain of drinkable water. Moses called the place Massa ("tester"), "because they tempted the Lord, saying, 'Is the Lord among us, or not?'"
Only then do we reach the war with Amalek, with Moses on the mountain, staff in the air. After the Israelites' victory, God declares that "I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under the heaven . . . because the Lord has sworn by his throne that the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation."
This is serious stuff, made all the more bizarre by two facts. First, we haven't yet heard any reason why Amalek is so evil (the bit about their attacking our old and weak people comes later). Second, the text seems to make a connection between the external war and the Israelites' internal demons, which they have already begun to fight.
The text seems less bizarre if we remember that this story is also a metaphor for all the others. That eternal internal conflict, we come to understand, is, just like the Amalekite war, "from generation to generation." The internal conflict, too, responds to swings in success and failure, depending upon our ability to see the raised hand at the top of the mountain. We need to see that staff, that banner of victory, in our own hearts.
This is, in fact, a central theme that we've carried with us since the story of Cain and Abel. There, God tells Cain, "Don't you know that if you do well, great. If you don't do well, sin crouches at the door—but you may rule over it." Cain fails, tumbling into the abyss of self-loathing and sin and killing his own brother. But the possibility of self-redemption was always there.
So is it with the intensive oscillation between euphoria and steamy resentment, represented by Moses' impact on the battle in the valley below and, indeed, by all the other stories we read this week. The possibilities of the human spirit are endless, and they depend on us, then as now.
David Hazony is author of The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life (Scribner, 2010).
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