A Pepper Grinder Post

Look at Me Driving, Daddy!

I noticed a slightly odd Bible passage lately. It's from Exodus, from the time period after God parted the sea to allow the Israelites to escape the Egyptians, but before God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. It records the first time the children of Israel had a battle after escaping from the Egyptians. Here's my translation of Exodus 17:8-13.

The Amalekites came and fought with the Israelites at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, "Choose some men and go out to fight the Amalekites tomorrow. I will stand at the top of a hill with the staff of God in my hand." So Joshua did what Moses had said and fought the Amalekites, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to a hilltop. Whenever Moses lifted up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but when he rested his arms, the Amalekites were winning. Moses's arms got tired, so they took a stone and put it under Moses and he sat on it, and Aaron and Hur each held up one of Moses's hands, so that his hands were steady until sunset. So Joshua defeated Amalek and its people with the sword.

At first glance, this doesn't seem so strange. Some group of something-ites attacks Israel and gets defeated with God's help. The part that seems odd is the old guy up on a hill with a stick in his hand. Did J.K. Rowling somehow slip into the Old Testament? Is the gentleman overlooking the battle Albus Dumbledore with his wand, helping the Order of the Phoenix defeat the Death Eaters? Nope. Even the most liberal scholars would put the date for the writing of the book of Exodus WAY before 1965, when Rowling was born. But why would God choose a way of helping the children of Israel that seemed so ... magical?

One thing that is clear to me is that what Moses did doesn't qualify as magic. The fascination with magic is that it is supposed to provide a way for people to control things they can't normally control. You learn the right magic spell, and you can make something happen, as long as you say the right words and do the right thing. There's none of this humiliating dependency on God; you are in control.

Desert MountainMy reason for saying that this passage doesn't fit with the magic pattern is a very simple one--it doesn't get repeated. If Moses and the Israelites thought they had found the magic action that would allow them to defeat their enemies, why didn't they do the same thing in Numbers 21 when they were attacked by Arad, or later in the chapter, by the Amorites? Why didn't Joshua, instead of wasting all that time marching around Jericho and blowing trumpets, just find a hill and a stick (and maybe a stone and two helpers in case his arms got tired) and let the Israelites have at it?

The simple answer is that Moses KNEW that the victory did not come because of the specific thing he did, but because he had obeyed God. This means that it fails the test for magic, because Moses was not in control. In future battles, Moses and leaders who were truly following the Lord, tried to get in touch with God and find out what he wanted them to do, rather than saying the right magic words or doing the right special action.

This is not to say that the Israelites never succumbed to the temptation of magical thinking. One of the prime examples is in 1 Samuel, chapters 4-7. Israel goes out to fight the Philistines and suffers heavy casualties on the first day of fighting. "Why didn't the Lord help us?" they wonder. Rather than go with the correct response of seeking God and repenting, they pounced on the easy answer--the magical one. We need the Ark of God (what my youngest daughter's children's Bible called, "God's holy box"). They brought the Ark of the Covenant into the camp and the Israelites gave a great shout of excitement, and the Philistines quaked with fear. Now everything would work out for the Israelites, they had done the right spell.

Or ... NOT. To give the condensed version of some chapters I absolutely adore, the wicked sons of Eli who were carrying the Ark got killed, the Ark got captured by the Philistines, and the Israelites suffered a doubly devastating defeat. Then God demonstrated to both the Israelites and the Philistines that he was more than capable of taking care of himself, thank you very much.

What the Israelites were trying to do was a special flavor of magic. It isn't the agnostic or deistic magic of Harry Potter, where there is no God actively involved, at least not in any clear way we can see. It is the type of magic where God is real and powerful, and we are trying to control his power.

I do not think that I am alone in being tempted to do this. I pray in some way or do a certain thing, and the event I was dreading goes well. Guess what I'm going to want to do the next time I'm in a similar situation?

Magical thinking is especially evidenced in the Christian community by the way we pray. We tell God what we would like him to do for us (usually using a special kind of phrasing and vocabulary that we don't use when talking to other people), and then we say the magic words, "In-Jesus's-name-amen." Now God MUST do as we have asked! In some parts of the Christian community, there are additional "spells" that we can use, such as "claiming" the thing we are asking for.

Don't get me wrong, I think God does at times give people a gift of assurance that he will answer a certain prayer. I think when we pray with this God-given assurance, we WILL get what we ask for. But note the difference between this type of assurance and the way faith is sometimes used. In the case I'm talking about, the person asking is in tune with God. He is asking what God wants him to ask. This is totally different from someone trying to work up feelings of "faith" to make God do as "commanded."

I think that often at the heart is our desire to get what we want. As good Christians, we know that God is all-powerful and that it is wicked to seek spiritual power apart from God, so we may try to find ways to control God. The very communication that should be drawing us closer to God can become a means to manipulate him.

Now where was I? Oh yeah, I was saying why I did not think that what Moses did in Exodus 17 was magic. But, if it wasn't magic, why DID God make an 80-plus-year-old man hold his hands in the air all day?

Child DrivingI don't know if they still make these, but did you ever see those little plastic steering wheels and dashboards that you can put in front of a toddler in a car seat? I can just picture some delighted child saying, "Look at me driving, Daddy!" (You were wondering where that blog title was going to come in, weren't you?) To us, there is no doubt that we are controlling the car, but think about it from the kid's point of view. He sees us move the steering wheel and make the car go where we want it to go. Now he has his own steering wheel--doesn't it make sense that his works the same way?

Having a child think he is steering a car is kind of cute, but it wouldn't be such a good thing if he got the idea that he could drive now and decided to take the minivan for a spin unassisted. In the same way, I believe God wants his people to KNOW who is in control, and that it is not us.

It is incredibly easy for me, when something I did went well, to think that I did it. In the same way, I can imagine the Israelites winning the battle with the Amalekites and starting to think that they were quite the impressive warriors. If my life were a shampoo bottle, I sometimes think that the instructions would read, "Bless, humble, repeat." It seems as though God needs to remind me over and over and over that my success is due to his kindness, not to my ability.

In the episode described in Exodus 17, God was heading this kind of pride off at the pass. How can you feel proud of your fighting prowess when you remember the times you and your buddies were getting creamed simply because the old guy on the hill was resting his arms?

What God had Moses do was not some kind of magic, but a concrete reminder that, without God, they could do nothing.


*Photo Credits: desert mountain by , child driving from .