In Exodus 17:8-15, we seem to have a picture of intercessory prayer. The Israelites have just left Egypt and miraculously crossed the Red Sea when they are attacked by the Amalekites. Joshua musters and leads an Israelite army, but Moses, Aaron, and Hur go up a hill. Israel wins the battle as long as Moses holds up his hands, but they start to lose whenever he lowers his hands. He gets tired, so he ends up sitting on a stone, with Aaron and Hur holding up his hands, until the enemy is overcome.
This is a curious story.(1) In the first place, it stands alone. Though the Israelites take the field as a ragtag band of former slaves, this victory appears to have no lasting impact on their military strategy. Even when they are defeated in later battles (e.g., Number 14:45; Joshua 7), we don’t read of anyone saying, “It’s because we forgot to station someone on a hill with hands upraised.”
Moreover, on the face of it, the story doesn’t quite make sense. There are three men; why can’t they take turns lifting their hands? With 20-minute shifts, Moses would have a 40-minute rest break every hour. Aaron, after all, has been the human agent in some of the signs and plagues (Exodus 7:9-10, 12, 19-20; 8:5-6, 16-17), and he will be high priest. Why does it have to be Moses’ hands?
A Staff of Authority
So I went back to the text, and noticed a couple of points I had forgotten. Before the battle, Moses announces that he’ll stand atop the hill with the staff of God in his hands (Exodus 17:9). The staff isn’t mentioned again, but its presence would help to explain why his hands grow heavy.
This staff is the one Moses used as a shepherd. When God called Moses, He asked, “What is that in your hand?” (Exodus 4:2). It represents the natural authority Moses had developed. For in the Old Testament, that is what happens: God takes a man as he is and empowers him for service. The Law can’t change what’s in him. So when the Lord tells Moses to throw his staff on the ground, it becomes a snake, and he flees from it (4:3); there is sin inside. God shows him how to master it, for a time: take it by the tail and it becomes a staff. But there is an uneasy relationship between the calling and the vessel — just as, in a central symbol, Moses wonders how a woody bush can burn and not be consumed. This is the great question for Israel under the Law: Can the divine Presence, aflame with holiness, rest upon and dwell among stiff and dried out men? Won’t fallen humanity inevitably be consumed (33:3, 5)?
The staff is used in five of the ten plagues (Exodus 7:19-20; 8:5, 16-17; 9:23; 10:13); it becomes a sign of the authority of Moses and of God. At the Red Sea, Moses is told to lift his staff and stretch out his hand to divide the waters (14:16, 21). Presumably, he must hold the staff for some time, and not just wave it once, but we don’t read that he grows tired as in the battle. When we assert the Lord’s authority over nature, it yields, but men resist.
Later, the staff gets Moses into trouble. Told to take the staff but merely speak to a rock in order to obtain water, he instead strikes the rock with the staff, twice. He is rebuked for not trusting, and told that he will not enter Canaan (Numbers 20:7-12; contrast Exodus 17:5-6). Natural authority not only becomes burdensome and weary; it also oversteps.
Echoes of Empty Hands
Yet the battle with Amalek is won. Moses’ actions do establish some small precedents:
- He sits on a stone, a rich symbol of Christ. The stone of stumbling (Isaiah 8:14; Daniel 2:34-35, 45; Zechariah 12:3; Romans 9:32-33; 1 Peter 2:8), the stone rejected by the builders, becomes the cornerstone (Psalm 118:22; Isaiah 28:16; Luke 20:17-18; Acts 4:11; Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:4-7). Moses rests on the intercessory work of Jesus.
- Like Jesus, Moses is on a hill, lifted up. But Jesus is also Joshua, down on the plain in the heat of the battle. When Moses raises his hands, he is flanked by two men who support him. When Jesus’ arms are stretched out, He dies between two sinners (Matthew 27:38) who can’t support themselves or Him; He is “numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).
- After the battle, Moses sets up an altar and declares a new name for God, Jehovah Nissi, The Lord Is My Rallying Standard — because, he says obscurely, hands were lifted to His throne (Exodus 17:15-16). This may be echoed in Isaiah 11:10-12, where the Root of Jesse stands as a banner and nations rally to Him, while the Lord stretches out His hand to gather His remnant. Moses acknowledges that the Lord Himself acts to rally His people. “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself,” says Jesus (John 12:32, NIV). Like Moses, He summons our weakness, invites our weariness, solicits an offering of empty hands; “crucified in weakness” (2 Corinthians 13:4), He lays in the dust our strength and boasting (1 Corinthians 1:25-31).
- This is almost the first time in the Bible when we read of prayer with upraised or outstretched hands. Abraham lifted up his hand to the Lord to make an oath (Genesis 14:22). Moses and Aaron have stretched out their hands (with or without the staff) over areas to be judged: Egypt’s waters (Exodus 7:19; 8:5-6) and land (8:16-17; 10:12-13), and the sky over the land (9:22-23; 10:21-22). Here, though, Moses lifts up his hands to God, toward His throne. He has done this before only once, asking the Lord to end a plague (9:29, 33).(2) The posture is an expression of utter dependence upon God, and at the same time it extends His authority — not man’s — over the situation.
- Finally, in this passage we see the very first Biblical occurrence of an important Hebrew word, emunah: faithfulness, steadfastness, truth.(3) Aaron and Hur hold up or stay Moses’ hands so that they are emunah, steady. They help him become faithful.
Lifting Up Holy Hands
In the New Testament, we don’t have many staffs — the disciples are even told not to carry them (Matthew 10:10 and Luke 9:3; contrast Mark 6:8). But in 1 Timothy 2:8, Paul says, “I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing” (NIV). Holy hands: the Greek word for holy isn’t the usual hagios, set apart, but hosios: righteous, undefiled, gracious. Our hands become holy, in part, as we empty them, laying down the staff of authority, ability, strength, pride. Paul asks us to pray without the strong passion of anger, and also without disputing or “reasoning,” relying too much on the intellect. Such men(4) sound more than a little detached, rather like the Old Testament image of watchmen on the wall (Isaiah 62:6-7; Habakkuk 2:1).
How can we lift up holy hands in prayer? I suggest that, like Moses, we need to be still and rest on Jesus. Empty our hands: let go of anger and authority; don’t rely on our own understanding. Our words are not the most important thing; sometimes what counts is that we persevere in an attitude of complete dependence on God.
And, finally, we can help each other to become faithful. The most vivid impression that I took away from this study is that I need to pray specifically for the prayer lives of others, especially the intercessors and the busy. I may never become a watchman on the walls, but I can help to steady someone’s hands.
(1) If we fail to be struck by this incident, it may be because it is part of an incredible sequence. Readers sometimes complain that the Biblical narrative is dull and repetitive, but the stories are bursting with signs and symbols that have shaped our culture and our expectations. We overlook them only because they are so familiar. In Exodus alone, we have the slaughter of the innocents, the virtuous lie of the midwives, the baby in a basket, the burning bush, the Name I AM, bricks without straw, the plagues, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, palpable darkness, Passover, the blood of the lamb, the destroyer, the spoiling of the Egyptians, the ransoming of firstborn sons, the pillars of cloud and fire, the parting of the Red Sea and the overwhelming of Egypt’s chariots, Jehovah Rapha (The Lord Who Heals You), manna, water from the rock, the Ten Commandments, the Tabernacle and the Ark, the golden calf, the cleft in the rock, the veil over the radiant face, and the great cloud of glory, among much more. Shakespeare and Dickens are not so fertile in powerful images within so small a space.
(2) The verb used in Exodus 9:29, 33 is paras, to spread out. According to Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984, 1996), Old Testament section, 242, the word first occurs in this passage. “Such stretching of the hands probably reflected the characteristic posture of prayer in the Bible.” It is used, for instance, to describe the prayer stances of Solomon (1 Kings 8:22, 54; 2 Chronicles 6:12-13) and Ezra (Ezra 9:5); compare Job 11:13; Psalm 143:6; Isaiah 1:15. The verb does not appear in Exodus 17.
(3) See Vine’s, Old Testament section, 75-76.
(4) In 1 Timothy 2:8, Paul seems to be thinking primarily of males, since the next verse states his intention for women. Other passages (e.g., 1 Corinthians 7:5; 11:5; Luke 2:36-37) clearly show women engaging in intercessory prayer. Paul’s point here may be that men often have more difficulty emptying their hands.