B'Shalach - Ex 13:17 - 17:16

Shemot/Exodus 17:12   And the hands of Moshe were heavy ... and Aharon and Hur supported his hands ... and his hands were steady


The success of the Israelites in defeating the Amalekites who "came and fought with Israel at Rephidim" (Shemot 17:8, JPS), seems to depend on Moshe, who has gone up on a hill overlooking the battle - "on the top of the hill, with the rod of G-d in my hand" (v. 9, JPS) - keeping his hands in the air. The narrative tells us that "whenever Moshe held up his hand, Israel prevailed; but whenever he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed" (v. 11, JPS). But Moshe, who is in his eighties, is getting tired: the staff is heavy and no-one can stand with their hands outstretched for even a couple of hours. Perhaps he had tried one hand at a time to ease the strain on his arm and shoulder muscles, but now he needs some physical support to keep both hands up in the air. Aharon and Hur stand on either side of him to hold his arms up, so that Israel will prevail and win the battle.

The word 'hands' appears three times in this verse - "the hands of Moshe" and "his hands" twice - so it seems that the focus on Moshe's hands is significant. What Is ...

Targum Onkelos: An early (1st-2nd Century CE) translation/paraphrase of the Torah into Aramaic; attributed to a Roman convert to Judaism, Onkelos; used in Babylonian synagogues during the Talmudic era
Targum Onkelos changes the last phrase of the text to "his hands were spread in prayer", while Who Is ...

Rashi: Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105 CE), French rabbi who wrote commentaries on the Torah, the Prophets and the Talmud, lived in Troyes where he founded a yeshiva in 1067; focuses on the plain meaning (p'shat) of the text, although sometimes quite cryptic in his brevity
Rashi says that, "Moshe had his arms spread heavenward in faithful and proper prayer." The What Is ...

The Mekhilta: The earliest known halakhic midrash or commentary on (parts of) the book of Exodus; formally named for Rabbi Ishmael and therefore set around 100-135CE, it was redacted some years after his time; quoted many times in the Bavli Talmud as "Rabbi Ishmael taught ..."
Mekhilta brings an anonymous comment that "Moshe's hands were heavy at that time, he felt like a man with two jugs full of water hanging on his hands." What Is ...

Pesikta Rabbati: A collection of midrashic discourses for special Shabbats and festival days compiled and organised during the ninth century (around 845 CE) although reaching back to biblical times; probaby called "Rabbati" - the larger - to distinguish it from the earlier Pesikta de Rab Kahana; the two share some common material, but the later collection has a much wider range of readings and homilies
Pesikta Rabbati is more forthcoming: "Rabbi Joshua said: The hands of Moshe were weighed down by the multitude of Israel's sins, for Israel had [just] said mistrustfully: 'Is the L-rd among us or not' (Shemot 17:7). Rabbi Abbahu explained that Moshe's hands were as heavy as though two weighty jugs of water hung on them. According to Rabbi Berechiah the priest who cited Rabbi Abba, the Holy One, blessed be He, said: Moshe's hands weigh heavy with Me. They received the Torah, they received the Tablets of the Covenant, they received the Ten Commandments, they brought ten plagues upon Pharaoh, they divided the Red Sea, then led Israel into it" (Pesikta Rabbati 12.8).

What was Moshe doing with his hands? Based on verses 7 and 11, the Who Is ...

The Rashbam: Rabbi Samuel ben Asher (1085-1174 CE), a grandson of Rashi; lived in Northern France; worked from the plain meaning of the Hebrew text even when this contradicted established rabbinic interpretaton
Rashbam says that "Moshe held up the staff and waved it like a flag." Who Is ...

Abraham Ibn Ezra: (1089-1167 CE), born in Tudela, Spain; died in the South of France after wandering all around the shores of the Mediterranean and England; a philosopher, astronomer, doctor, poet and linguist; wrote a Hebrew grammar and a commentary on the Bible
Ibn Ezra suggests much the same: "a signal, like the one who holds the flag in battle." The Who Is ...

Ramban: Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman of Gerona or Nachmanides (1194-1270 CE), Spanish rabbi, author and physician; defended Judaism in the Christian debates in Barcelona before making aliyah
Ramban, on the other hand, takes the word , which is usually translated as 'truth' or 'faithfulness', to mean 'steady', saying "His hands remained steadily uplifted. The usage is similar to 'a fixed provision for the singers' (Nehemiah 11:23, ESV), meaning unchangeable and 'a peg in a secure place' (Isaiah 22:23, ESV), meaning sure and strong." The Rashbam adds, "this understanding [of steady] is correct. It is used similarly in "His steadfast love" (Psalm 100:5, JPS), and "lasting plagues" (D'varim 28:59)." As Moshe held up his hands, he became physically tired, so that his hands and arms dropped, so Aharon his brother and Hur1 stand - one on each side - and hold his arms up. The ancient rabbis say that "Aharon brought the merit of priesthood and Hur brought the merit of kingship (Hur was a descendant of Judah, from whom David's dynasty was to come)" (Pesikta Rabbati 12.8).

As well as laying hands on the head of a sacrifice to convey identity, the Hebrew Scriptures show that hands were used in many ways. In the list of blessings that would flow to those who obeyed HaShem, Moshe told the Israelites: "The L-RD will open to you his good treasury, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season and to bless all the work of your hands" (D'varim 28:12, ESV), while the Psalms show a liturgical function: "I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands" (Psalm 63:4, ESV) and "Come, bless the L-RD, all you servants of the L-RD, who stand by night in the house of the L-RD! Lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the L-RD!" (134:1-2, ESV). This can be seen in action as a component of worship among the people after the return form Babylon: "Ezra blessed the L-RD, the great G-d, and all the people answered, 'Amen, Amen,' lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the L-RD with their faces to the ground" (Nehemiah 8:6, ESV).

By the time of Yeshua, laying hands on someone had become a sign of blessing - "Children were brought to Him that He might lay his hands on them and pray" (Matthew 19:13, ESV) - and healing: "My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay Your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live" (Mark 5:23, ESV). In this way, Yeshua restored sight to the blind - "Yeshua laid His hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly" (8:25, ESV) - and cured all sorts of sicknesses: "When the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to Him, and He laid his hands on every one of them and healed them" (Luke 4:40, ESV). Later still, in the book of Acts, laying hands on someone conveyed authority and ordained them for service in the kingdom - "they set [the deacons] before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them" (Acts 6:6, ESV) - and was the way the anointing and gifts of the Ruach were bestowed: "When Sha'ul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying" (19:6, ESV).

Rav Sha'ul reminded Timothy of the gifts and calling of ministry that had been imparted to him through the laying on of hands, and called for everyone to return to using their hands in prayer and worship: "I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling" (1 Timothy 2:8, ESV). In a Mediterranean climate and environment where everyone would have used their hands for emphasis, as gestures while bargaining, as tools of rhetoric and argument, this was a radical step: to lift hands towards G-d, simply and quietly in prayer. As the Psalmist reminds us: "Who may ascend the hill of the L-rd? He who has clean hands and a pure heart" (Psalm 24:3-4). As people clean their hands and lift them to G-d, so they are able to enter His presence.

Then as now, holding your hands up - physically and spiritually - is tiring; it takes a lot out of you - people get tired. The same problem that affected Moshe during Israel's battle against the Amalekites affects us too. The writer to the Hebrews encourages his readers: "Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed" (Hebrews 12:12-13, ESV). If we are to hold the flag of the kingdom, and wave the banner of Yeshua high in the air so that it may be a rallying point and an encouragement for others, we will experience fatigue and we will need help in keeping our hands up and standing firm.

Though it is important to pray for people and place hands on them for healing, and it is also important to encourage people to raise their hands and use their bodies to engage in worship, this isn't a call for either. This is about what the Hebrews writer meant, pointing back to Moshe on the top of the hill being supported by Aharon and Hur. The life of a believer can be hard going and we all get tired; we all let our guard down and - over time - we all droop and lose our edge. This is the moment when our Amalekites - the devil, the enemy of our souls - start to overcome us in the battle in the same way as the Amalekites fighting Joshua. Like the Israelites, we need to "lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the L-RD, who made heaven and earth" (Psalm 121:1-2, ESV). We need to lift our eyes to Yeshua, the one who is always standing with His arms outstretched as He was on the cross, and allow Him to strengthen us and give us new energy, impetus and enthusiasm for the fight in which we are engaged every day of our lives.

But there is more; we are part both of the wider Body of Messiah and our local congregation and fellowship. Whether leaders or laity, congregations or individuals, we all need to help others and we all need to be helped. So here are the questions we need to ask ourselves and each other: who is holding your hands up? Whose hands are you holding up? Rav Sha'ul urged the Galatian believers to "bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Messiah" (Galatians 6:2). We are to lift someone else's hands and arms when their burden is too heavy and their arms are sagging under the weight. When our arms and knees have drooped under the load we are carrying, others are to support us in turn. This is one of the practical ways in which we show that we "have love for one another" (John 15:12) and are being "built together into a dwelling place for G-d by the Spirit" (Ephesians 2:22, ESV).

1. - Some traditions record that Hur was Moshe's brother-in-law, the husband of Miriam; others claim that Hur was Moshe's nephew, the son of Miriam.

Further Study: Romans 15:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:14-15; John 13:34

Application: Are you weak and heavy laden? Are your hands failing under the strain of the load you bear? Then ask the L-rd for others to hold you up and support you. If you are strong and unburdened, then you should look around and ask the L-rd who He wants you to help who is struggling or could just do with a hand.

17:39 07Feb17 Judith C: We were just talking about God's Hand protecting and holding us up then I read your drash. Thank you for this beautifully timed commentary.

© Jonathan Allen, 2017



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