From the Book of Exodus:

Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some men for us and go out; fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. 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. And Joshua defeated Amalek and his people with the sword.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Exodus 17:8-13 (NRSV) – May 3, 2014.)

Illustration from Die Bibel in Bildern by Julius Schnorr von CarolsfeldAt first blush, this just feels like another unbelievable story of religious ritual and “magic hands.” It fits neatly into the pattern of war stories one finds in the Torah that are attributed to the Deuteronomist. For that writer, the Hebrews’ victory in battle always depends not on military preparation, strength of arms, or fighting skill, but on ritual exactitude — perform a religious ritual properly and you win, flub it and you lose.

I recall reading rabbinic commentary, however, that puts a different spin on the story. According to the rabbis, there was nothing “magic” or even particularly noteworthy about Moses’ hands; they were simply a reminder to the Hebrew fighters below to put their faith in God. When they looked up to see Moses’ hands raised, they looked to heaven, trusted in God, and prevailed; when his hands were down, they failed to do so.

When I was in seminary, there was a practicum in liturgics, basically a class on how to do the ritual of the Eucharist. We called it “magic hands.” Our instructor, Dr. Louis Weil, repeatedly advised us to be aware of our hands, to be aware that the congregation would focus upon them and any movement we made, and therefore to make few gestures, but make every gesture one that would not distract the congregation from their worship. I am reminded of Dr. Weil’s instruction by this story.

I’m also mindful that Moses didn’t do this alone. If Aaron and Hur hadn’t been there to hold up Moses’ hands, whether “magic” in themselves or simply a motivational banner to the warriors, the battle would have gone otherwise. The story is a reminder of the importance of community and, for community leaders, of the importance of those with whom they work. No one does the task of leadership alone.

This, too, reminds me of the tradition of the Eucharist that holds that a priest alone cannot say the Mass; he or she must be accompanied by at least one other person: Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Mt 18:20) I am told that in some Orthodox traditions, there must be, in addition to the priest, at least one deacon and one lay person so that the fullness of the church is represented. (That would be impossible in my congregation; as much as I would like to have a vocational deacon or two in our midst, there is none.)

So I think this is a story of more than “magic hands,” more than a story of winning through proper religious ritual. If there is any magic in the hands of leaders, it is found in both the power to which those hands point and in the support on which those hands depend.


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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.