Monday, January 30, 2012

Moses and Amalek - An Icon of the Church

Exodus 17:8-13
8 1 At Rephidim, Amalek came and waged war against Israel.
9 Moses, therefore, said to Joshua, "Pick out certain men, and tomorrow go out and engage Amalek in battle. I will be standing on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand."
10 So Joshua did as Moses told him: he engaged Amalek in battle after Moses had climbed to the top of the hill with Aaron and Hur.
11 As long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek had the better of the fight.
12 Moses' hands, however, grew tired; so they put a rock in place for him to sit on. Meanwhile Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other, so that his hands remained steady till sunset.
13 And Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.

1[8] Amalek: the Amalekites were an aboriginal people of southern Palestine and the Sinai peninsula. Cf Numbers 24:20


What is blocking a lot of people with their relationship to the church.
The number one problem I have found when talking to people outside the church and trying to get them to think about religion is the problem of religion and violence.

All of this has been exacerbated by the events of September 11, where some religious people performed this great act of violence. It stirred up a very old idea, namely that religion is irrational and therefore violent. If religious people disagree with each other and they can't make good arguments about their point of view, all they can do is fight.

Well, people who are influenced by this view now go back through the Bible and what do they find?
They find lots of examples of violence in the Bible where God seems to be commanding all sorts of terrible things. Many atheists know these passages very well. They can run right to them. Even for people inside the church this is a serious problem.

What do you do with these texts that seem to be pretty dire and pretty violent. God or God's people doing terrible things.

Let me give you one perspective on this.

Here is the principle.

The whole Bible, for a Christian, should be read from the standpoint of the Book of Revelation and I mean now a particular image within the Book of Revelation (Rev 5)

Up in the heavenly court and we see the Scroll which is sealed with seven seals.
The Scroll stands for the Scripture. You might say too it stands for all of history.
It is sealed with seven seals. That means it can't be read yet.
The question is heard then "who will open this Scroll?" and there appears a Lamb, a wounded Lamb and He is able to open the seals. Who is the wounded Lamb, standing as though slain?

That is Christ, the Son of God, the crucified Lord.

The point is, it is in light of the crucified Christ that we properly read the whole Bible. He is the one that opens the seals to the whole of Scripture.
That is why the worst thing you can do is take a passage out of context and say "that is what the Bible says".
The whole of the Bible should be read through the lens of the non-violent, crucified and risen Christ.

With that in mind lets go to a reading in the Book of Exodus that has to do with a battle between the Israelites and the Amalekites.
This is the period where the Israelites are making their way out of Egypt and they are coming toward the Promised Land but they are facing opposition.
It says "in those days Amalek came and waged war against Israel. Moses therefore said to Joshua "pick out certain men and tomorrow go out and engage Amalek in battle".
The passage ends this way "and Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword"

A lot of opponents to religion know this passage and say "who is this God who is commanding basically this genocide against the Amalekites. Who are these so called holy people who are engaging in this war?"

Let's read it though in light of the Book of Revelation. Let's read it in light of Christ crucified.

Amalek, like the Philistines, like the Egyptians, like the Assyrians, like the Babylonians, like the Greeks and like the Romans stand in the Bible for all those powers that are arrayed against God.
Don't think of Amalek here primarily as an ancient middle Eastern tribe.
I mean if this is just a story about a skirmish against ancient middle Eastern people, why should we be bothered listening to it.
It is in the Bible precisely because it is teaching us a profound spiritual lesson.

Amalek, like all the other opponents of Israel, stand for hatred, violence, self absorption, racism.
It stands for all those powers that are arrayed against God.

What is the command from God?
You must eliminate this power.
You must engage Amalek in battle and destroy him.
Now you know what comes to mind is in a few books later in the Bible we have the command of Yahweh to Saul to put the ban on, again mind you, the Amalekites.
Putting the ban on someone meant you kill every man, woman, child and animal.

Why is Yahweh mad at Saul? Because Saul didn't put the ban, but kept some of the Amalekites for himself and in fact he kept the king of the Amalekites Agag.
Samuel the prophet comes forward. He's bitterly angry with Saul and then it says he hacked Agag to pieces.

Again, people will say what is this terrible violent text doing in the Bible and why is God it seems countenancing this activity.
Again, you have got to read it in light of the Book of Revelation.
You have got to read it in light of Christ crucified, who opens the Seals.

The Amalekites in that Saul storey stand for the same thing. They stand for all those powers that are arrayed against God.
What is Saul doing in that story?
He is not seriously engaging evil, rather he is playing with it.
You see friends, this is a really important theme.
Very often in our struggle with evil, we play around with it.
We battle it to some degree but then we keep a little bit for ourselves.

That is exactly now symbolically speaking what Saul is doing with Agag the king of the Amalekites. He is keeping a little bit of evil for his own purposes.

I will give you a couple of examples.
Suppose you go to your doctor and he has diagnosed cancer and you go in for surgery.
The doctor afterwards says "Don't worry about it, I got in there and I got about 90% of the cancer out"
Would you be satisfied with that?
Would you be happy with that?
Of course, not. 90%? I want you to eliminate the cancer because the cancer is going to come back.

Suppose a husband came to his wife and says "Honey I love you so much and our marriage is going so well and I want you to know that I am faithful about 85% of the time"
Would she be happy with that?

There are certain forms of evil and disfunction that simply have to be eliminated. They have to be opposed.
Saul put the ban on the Amalekites.
Now read it symbolically.
If it was an ancient story about an old battle, who cares?
But it is about us now.

Suppose somebody is in a 12 Step program struggling with alcoholism and they say to their sponsor "I am doing great I only take one drink a week", would he be happy with that.
No. You have got to eliminate alcohol from your life.
You have to put the ban on it.
You have got to hack it to pieces.

You can't play around with it.

So Israel battling it's enemies. Yahweh commanding Israel to put the ban on their opponents is not a capricious cruel act on the part of God.
It is a profound and sobering spiritual truth.

You see friends, that is the battle of the church up and down the ages.
That is the church's task.
We are the New Israel.
We must battle Amalek up and down the ages, which by the way is precisely what you find in the Book of Exodus.
That mysterious line "Israel must battle Amalek up and down the ages" (Exodus 17:16)

You see why would we be talking about this if it is an ancient middle eastern tribe? Who would care?
We are not battling some ancient middle eastern tribe but we are indeed, we today now, the New Israel we are battling hatred and violence and darkness and self absorption.

And our task must be of that of Moses and Saul, although Saul didn't obey that command.
We must put the ban on it.

With all this mind to look back on this story it starts opening up all sorts of interesting ways.
Moses says to Joshua, "pick out certain men and engage Amalek in battle

Well who are these now?
Think in terms of the church today.
There are certain people who are out there directly involved in the battle. Directly involved in the struggle.
They are battling against injustice, against hatred, against self absorption etc..
People directly involved in the battle.

But then we hear that Moses goes up on the hill and he holds his hands up in prayer and as long as he is holding his arms up the battle goes well.

Who is he?
All those members of the church now who are engaged in prayer.
Who supports the direct battlers, who supports the soldiers in their struggle but all those "prayers" in the church. I mean monks, I mean sisters, I mean priests, and I mean lay people who are dedicated to prayer.

But then we hear that Moses arms grow tired and so Aaron and Hur come along to assist Moses and they hold up his arms so that the battle goes well.
Who are they?

Well, who supports people in their prayer?
Think of all the donors and all the benefactors who make the work of monasteries and convents possible.
Who are these but those who are holding up the arms of the church as it prayers for those directly involved in the battle against Amalek.

You see friends, this is an icon of the church. It is a picture of what we are doing here and now.
So don't be put off by these ancient texts that seem at first blush so problematic especially in our post September 11 world with all this religious violence.
Think of it now in terms of the spiritual struggle.

Friends reread these text in light of the Book of Revelation, in light of the Lamb standing as though slain who opens the seals and then in your own way, according to your gifts and your own state of life enter in to this great struggle against Amalek and God bless you.

Source: Word on Fire - Fr Robert Barron
Sermon 510 - Moses and Amalek - An Icon of the Church

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