by Father Mike Stubbs
Onvarious officiations — ranging from a football game to an Eagle Scout court of Honor — a color guard will march in, bearing the flag, to begin the proceedings.
That practice recalls the importance of the flag in pre-modern warfare. The flag would lead armies into battle. Troops would rally around the flag as they fought. As long as the flag was still flying high, the soldiers would feel encouraged. Remember the words of our national anthem: “Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
In Sunday’s first reading, Ex 17:8-13, the Israelites are fighting with the Amalekites. Throughout the battle, Moses holds up his hands in prayer, to encourage the Israelite soldiers. But he is not empty-handed. As he tells Joshua: “I will be standing on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.”
It is the same staff that Moses wielded to work the 10 plagues against the Pharaoh of Egypt. It is the same staff that Moses used to split the Red Sea in two, so that the Hebrews could pass through as they fled the Egyptian army. it is the same staff that Moses uses to strike the rock in the desert, to make it flow with water.
The staff is a sign of God’s power and a sign of the special connection that Moses has with God. It is a conduit to God. That connection makes Moses the perfect person to intercede to God on behalf of the Israelites.
Moses holds up the staff during the battle, much as in later times the flag would be displayed for the soldiers to view. As long as they are able to see it, they are encouraged to fight well: “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.”
After Israel’s victory over Amalek, a monument is erected to commemorate the event: “Moses also built an altar there, which he called Yahweh-nissi, for he said, ‘The Lord takes in hand his banner; the Lord will war against Amalek through the centuries.’” The word “Yahweh-nissi” means “The Lord is my banner” in Hebrew (Ex. 17:15). Evidently, the banner which Moses refers to is the staff that he held up during the battle.
In later Jewish tradition, Amalek becomes synonymous with evil. Moses’ words assure us that God will continue to fight against evil. But it is our task to hold up the staff of prayer, just as Moses did.