Translating the Bible: Israel’s War Against the Amalekites
After the people of Israel left Egypt, they traveled through the wilderness of Sin and journeyed by stages, going from place to place as the LORD commanded (Exodus 17:1). The wilderness of Sin is another name for the wilderness of Sinai.
When they arrived at Rephidim, the people complained to Moses because there was no water for them to drink. At the command of Yahweh, Moses struck the rock and water came out of it for the people to drink. After the people drank the water, Moses named that place Massah and Meribah. The word Massah means “Testing” and the word Meribah means “Complaining.” The place received those two names because in that place, the Israelites complained and they tested Yahweh when they asked, “Is Yahweh with us or not?” (Exodus 17:7).
While the people of Israel were at Rephidim, the Amalekites attacked Israel. The Amalekites and the Israelites have a common background: “The Amalekites are related to the Israelites through the genealogy of Esau (Gen 36:12, 16), making their attack all the more egregious” (Dozeman 2009: 393).
The attack of the Amalekites was unprovoked and their act of aggression forced the Israelites to go to battle against them. This was the first time Israel had to go to war since they left Egypt. When they departed from Egypt, Yahweh fought for them to protect them from the Egyptian menace. Now, Israel will have to fight to protect themselves.
As Israel prepared to battle, Moses summoned Joshua and commanded him to select a group of men to fight against the Amalekites. This is the first time Joshua is mentioned in the events related to the exodus from Egypt. Eventually, Joshua will become the leader of Israel after the death of Moses and the captain of Israel’s army as they enter the land of Canaan.
While Joshua prepared the fight against the Amalekites, Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the mountain to pray for the army (Exodus 17:10). Most translations translate the word gib‘ah as “hill.” However, since Yahweh told Moses he would be standing in front of him “on the rock at Horeb” (Exodus 17:6), it is possible that the place where the battle against the Amalekites took place was at the foot of “Horeb itself, the mountain of God. . . . the translation ‘hill’ does not adequately render the poetic word for mountain in v. 9 ” (Meyer 2005: 135).
Moses and Aaron were from the tribe of Levi; Hur was from the tribe of Judah. Hur’s son Bezalel was chosen by Yahweh to build the tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 31:2).
In the war against the Amalekites, the duty of Aaron and Hur was to help Moses as he stood on the mountain with his staff. “Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; so his hands were steady until the sun set” (Exodus 17:11–12).
Joshua and the army of Israel were able to defeat the Amalekites with the prayers of Moses, symbolized by the stretched hands of Moses holding the staff of God. Although the victory against the Amalekites was achieved by Joshua and the army of Israel, in reality, the victory against the enemies of Israel was achieved by the power of God symbolized by the staff of God in the hands of Moses.
The victory against the Amalekites was commemorated in two ways. First, God commanded Moses to write in a scroll his decision about the fate of the Amalekites, “the LORD instructed Moses, ‘Write this down on a scroll as a permanent reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will erase the memory of Amalek from under heaven’” (Exodus 17:14 NLT).
Second, Moses built an altar and named it Yahweh-Nissi, “Yahweh is My Banner” (Exodus 17:15). The altar was designed to celebrate Yahweh’s part in the victory against the enemies of Israel.
After Moses built the altar, he said, “Because the LORD hath sworn that the LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:16 KJV). In citing the word of Moses, I quote from the KJV because the Hebrew words describing what Moses said are not very clear and have been translated in different ways by English translations. As Childs wrote, “The difficulty of understanding the text of this verse has long been felt. It already appeared as a problem in the versions and continued to be debated throughout the subsequent history of exegesis” (Childs 2004: 311).
The Hebrew text reads as follows:
וַיֹּאמֶר כִּי־יָד עַל־כֵּס יָהּ מִלְחָמָה לַיהוָה בַּעֲמָלֵק מִדֹּר דֹּר
A literal translation would be as follows:
“And he said: a hand upon the kēs of Yah war to Yahweh against Amalek from generation to generation.”
The lifted hand upon the kēs of Yahweh means a solemn oath, “for oaths were often sworn by placing the hand in a significant place” (Meyer 2005: 135). To swear an oath with a hand on Yahweh’s kēs is to swear an oath on God’s name.
There are two difficult issues in what Moses said. The first issue is the kēs. To what is Moses referring when he mentions the kēs? The second issue is, who is making the oath? These two issues have been interpreted in different ways by English translators.
The Hebrew word kēs appears only in Exodus 17:16. Scholars differ on the meaning of the word. Childs, for instance, relates verse 16 to the YHWH nissî of verse 15. The Hebrew word for “banner” is nēs. Based on the etiology for the name of the altar, “Yahweh is my banner,” Childs writes, “The structural parallels offer a strong warrant for accepting the conjectural emendation by reading nēs for kēs, and thus completing the full etiological form” (Childs 2004: 312). Childs translates Exodus 17:16 as follows, “And he said, ‘A hand upon the banner of the LORD’” (Childs 2004: 310). Dozeman follows Child’s suggestion. He translates verse 16 as “And he said, ‘For a hand is on Yah’s banner’” (Dozeman 2009: 391). This view is also followed by the NRSV, the NAB, and the NJB: “A hand upon the banner of the LORD.”
Most translations reject this conjectural emendation. Most translations take the Hebrew word kēs as an abbreviated form of the word kissē’, a Hebrew word meaning “throne.” This view is adopted by the TNK, NIV, CSB, ESV, and many other translations.
The second issue is, who raises the hand in Exodus 17:16 to take an oath about the war against the Amalekites? Again, the translations differ on how they interpret the text.
The NRSV: “A hand upon the banner of the LORD. The LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.” The NRSV is neutral here; it does not say who takes the oath: “A hand upon the banner of the LORD.”
The KJV: “Because the LORD hath sworn that the LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.” The KJV says it was Yahweh who raised his hand to take an oath: “the LORD hath sworn.”
The NIV: “For hands were lifted up to the throne of the LORD.” The NIV is also neutral, but instead of one hand, the NIV has “hands.” Is the NIV referring to the two hands of Moses or the hands of the people?
The CSB: “Indeed, my hand is lifted up toward the LORD’s throne.” The CSB says that it was Moses who lifted up his hand to take an oath.
The DRA: “Because the hand of the throne of the Lord, and the war of the Lord shall be against Amalec.” The DRA says it was “the hand of the throne of the Lord,” whatever that means.
The LXX: “For with a secret hand the Lord wages war upon Amalec.” The LXX does not say that Yahweh took an oath against the Amalekites. Instead, the LXX says that Yahweh wages war against the Amalekites “with a secret hand.”
The NAB: “The LORD takes in hand his banner.” The NAB translation seems to indicate that Yahweh himself will carry his banner as he goes to war against the Amalekites.
The NJB: “’Lay hold of Yahweh’s banner.” The NJB seems to suggest that Moses is exhorting the people to “Lay hold of Yahweh’s banner.” The text is not clear whether the people are to take hold of Yahweh’s banner before the war or after the war.
The NLT: “They have raised their fist against the LORD’s throne.” The NLT says it was the Amalekites who “raised their fist against the LORD’s throne.” This is the reason for Yahweh’s war against the Amalekites, “so now the LORD will be at war with Amalek generation after generation” (Exodus 17:16 NLT).
Most people do not understand how hard it is to translate the Hebrew text into English. Since most Christians use only one translation of the Bible for their devotional time or for their personal study, they do not notice how translators struggle to make sense of a difficult Hebrew text so that it will make sense to the reader.
It is important to remember that these differences in translations do not affect the reliability of the biblical text in teaching about issues of faith, salvation, or an individual’s personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
No one should lose faith because the text is not clear who raised their hands to take an oath before God. The reliability of the Bible is not compromised if the English translations differ on the interpretation of one verse.
Now, my personal view of the text. In the Old Testament the Ark of the Covenant is called the throne of God. Since the Ark had not been built yet, I believe that it was Moses who lifted up his hand toward the altar he had built to celebrate the victory against the Amalekites. Moses took an oath and told Joshua that Israel should consider the Amalekites as the enemies of Yahweh, as Yahweh himself had declared, “the LORD said to Moses, ‘Write this as a reminder in a book and recite it in the hearing of Joshua: I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven’” (Exodus 17:14).
My view is not the final interpretation of this very difficult text. It is only a proposal that, in my opinion, explains the text without resorting to a conjectural emendation of the text.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Childs, Brevard S. The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
Dozeman, Thomas B. Commentary on Exodus. The Eerdmans Critical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009.
Meyers, Carol. Exodus. New Cambridge Bible Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2005.