Understanding the Old Testament

The Attack at Rephidim

(All quotations are from the New American Standard Bible translation)

We begin this story in 1 Samuel 15:3, where the Lord instructed Saul, the king of the Israelites, to “ ‘go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’ ” That instruction has its roots in Exodus 17:8-13, which describes Amalek’s attack on the Israelites at Rephidim.

Amalek was a grandson of Esau, Isaac’s eldest son and Jacob’s brother, so the Amalekites may well have been descendants of Isaac and Esau. They lived in southern Canaan and the Negev desert (see Numbers 13:29, 14:25, and 14:43-45), and probably in the nearby Sinai Peninsula as well. So they undoubtedly regarded the Israelites as a potential threat to their water and food supplies.

Because the Amalekites consistently allied themselves with Israel’s enemies, they were a constant thorn in the Israelites’ side. (See, for example, Judges 3:13, 5:14, 6:3, 6:33, 7:12 and 10:12.) That was probably a factor in God’s instructions to Saul, but there was much more.

The Amalekites’ attack against the Israelites at Rephidim, as described in Exodus 17:8-13, angered the Lord. In Deuteronomy 25:18, Moses reminded the Israelites that Amalek “ ‘attacked among you all the stragglers at your rear when you were faint and weary.’ ” It was a cowardly act. Those stragglers would have consisted primarily of the very old, the very young, the infirm, and perhaps many women. These would not have been able to keep up with the main body of the Israelites, and could have offered little or no resistance against the Amalekite warriors.

The Amalekites’ vile tactics so angered the Lord that He ordered the Israelites to “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” once they had conquered the promised land. (See Exodus 17:14 and Deuteronomy 25:19.) King Saul would be God’s instrument to carry out that order. He failed, by the way, and a remnant of the Amalekites would survive until at least the time of Hezekiah, who was king of Judah from about 728 to 696 B.C. (See 1 Chronicles 4:41-43.)

Amalek’s attack at Rephidim failed when Moses sent Joshua to lead a counter-attack. This led to the inspiring story of Aaron and Hur supporting Moses’ arms, for the Israelites were victorious in the battle only so long as Moses could keep his arms lifted. (See Exodus 17:11-13.)

Questions to ponder or discuss: Saul was king of Israel in about the late 11th century, B.C., which was approximately 250 to 400 years after the time of Moses (depending on when you believe the Exodus occurred). How do you feel about God punishing the Amalekites for the misdeeds of their distant ancestors? Would it affect your answer if you knew that the Amalekites had not changed their ways in the meantime?

Copyright 2017 by Don Davidson

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