Summary: God is our Banner, and He will grant us victory!
Jehovah Nissi - God Our Banner
When our soldiers go to war nowadays, we have a lot of technology to help us. Every soldier knows where he is thanks to GPS. He can speak with his fellow soldiers instantaneously via radio. He can single-handedly attack and destroy entire buildings with explosives or air strikes. He can travel many hundreds of miles in just a few hours using modern transportation equipment, and can communicate with loved ones back home almost as easily as if he was stationed down the street from his own house (even though he may not be allowed to).
This is a relatively recent development. Even in wars as recent as World War II and Vietnam, soldiers did not have some of these abilities. Things were even more primitive thousands of years ago. One of the most well-known examples is the Roman Empire.
When the Roman Empire went to war, it rarely looked like we see in the movies. Their uniforms didn’t match. Most of their soldiers were pulled in from conquered regions, and wore either civilian clothes with makeshift armor strapped to their chests or simply wore the uniforms of their own fallen nation. Sometimes they didn’t even speak the same language! There was no radio and no GPS. In the chaos of a battle, the soldiers found it difficult to know who exactly they were fighting! Only one thing was able to keep some sort of order during all of the commotion -- the Imperial Standard.
A standard is really nothing more than a flag, banner, or even a simple pole with some sort of shiny object affixed to the top. I’m sure you’ve seen this in movies -- a long pole, sometimes with a red banner hanging off of it, with a golden eagle or spearpoint at the tip that glitters and flashes in the sun. Sometimes it would even have the Roman emblem of “SPQR” in gold lettering. This let the soldiers know where the rest of their own army was, which was important for many reasons. First, it’s extremely difficult to use any sort of tactics if you don’t know where you are and where your enemy is. Secondly, it lets you know where safety resides -- if you’re near your standard, you are “home”.
Each legion, century, or cohort would get their standard awarded to them by the Emperor himself. You couldn’t just get any long stick, shove a shiny bit of metal at one end, and say that you were a Roman Legion! Standards were special, and were treated with respect.
War worked very similarly in the Old Testament. Turn with me to Exodus, chapter 17, starting with verse 8. At this point in the book of Exodus, the Israelites have been wandering for quite some time. They’ve already experienced the miracle at Marah that we discussed two weeks ago, where God turned the bitter water sweet. They’ve already experienced God’s provision of manna. And, at the beginning of this chapter, they complain about not having enough water to drink, so God again provides a miracle. They finally get on their way again when they are suddenly attacked by the Amalekites.
“8The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim. 9Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.” 10So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. 11As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. 12When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. 13So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword. 14Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven.” 15Moses built an altar and called it The Lord is my Banner.”
The Amalekites were not just some random tribe of desert dwellers who decided the Israelites were easy pickings -- they were descendants of Esau. If you remember the story in Genesis, Esau was Jacob’s older brother. Jacob was then renamed Israel, and fathered an entire nation. The Amalekites were literally cousins to the Israelites! People like to say that family helps family, but in this case family was the enemy.
There are several things that stand out to me about these verses. First, look at verse 9 -- Moses tells Joshua to “choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites”. Just some of their men! I can see Moses now. He gets word that the Amalekites are attacking, and he just sighs, calls Joshua over, and tells him to just take some guys and just deal with it.