Reflection on Exodus 17

Exodus 17:8-13 (the Hebrew Bible reading Oct 17th) is a venerable old tale, if not a nonviolent one.  Freshly liberated by YHWH (with an assist from nature) from Pharaoh’s imperial straightjacket, Moses and his refugee community have commenced their wilderness sojourn.  They are having to re-learn primal lessons of subsistence gathering and dependence upon God’s creation (the “bread and water miracles” of Ex 16-17 are old Bedouin tricks).  Amidst this comes the very first resistance to their journey, as they are attacked by Amalekites, a contemporaneous nomadic tribe of raiders that was presumably far more adept at desert skirmishing than the Israelites.  So commences the first of what will be innumerable battles with various inhospitable groups in the course of Israel’s liberation struggle.
But this is also the first of many military parodies in the biblical narrative, full of magic and humor.  This suggests that this is an archetypal story which seeks to teach something much deeper than armed struggle.  Moses stands over the combatants on a hill, magical staff in hand; whenever his arms are raised, the battle goes Israel’s way, but whenever he tires and lets his arms fall, it goes to the Amalekites (Ex 17:8-11).  So Moses’ companeros figure out a way to keep his arms high, propping him up on either side (vv. 12f).  It is a beautiful old story about holding each other up through the wearying battles for justice.
Now as a pacifist I prefer to re-imagine this Moses story in terms of the image of Art Gish of Christian Peacemaker Teams standing in front of an Israeli tank to prevent it from destroying a market in Hebron’s Old City, his arms outstretched in 2003.  Gish, a veteran Church of the Brethren activist, lived up to the CPT’s slogan “Getting in the Way.” The photo (which you can find by Googling images of Art Gish) became famous when it was distributed by the Associated Press around the world.  It’s appropriate to think of Gish, not only because he looks like Moses, but because he passed away in a tragic accident this year.  (See the memorial article at: 8/9/peacemaker-put-love-enemies-action/?print=1).  It is up to us now to keep our arms raised to prevent injustice.  Because let’s be clear: though we embrace nonviolence, we are nevertheless still fighting Moses’ war with all the forces that would cut short the journey of liberation.
This reading is about our movement’s vocation to keep each other’s arms up—to resist “compassion fatigue,” burn-out and all the other things that wear us down in this long struggle.  And that echoes the first lesson I learned in the movement, back in 1976, when I was “apprenticing” at the Jonah House peace community in Baltimore under Liz McAlister and Phil Berrigan.  Their row house in the ghetto was pretty sparse in terms of interior decorating, but the message on one old faded and torn poster on the first floor wall burned itself into my consciousness: “The most apostolic duty of all is to keep one another’s courage up.”