Joshua and Amalek
Twenty-ninth Sunday of the Year. Fr Nicholas Crowe reminds us that prayer is our weapon against every enemy.
We heard in our first reading that Amalek came and waged war against Israel. The biblical scholars tell us that Amalek was a nomadic tribe that lived on the borderlands between the desert and the Promised Land. Its not hard to imagine why the sudden arrival of Israel in their territory might have concerned these people. Where resources are scarce, a new competitor represents an existential threat to the community. It is not surprising, then, given the circumstances, that the Amalekites might try and drive Israel away before the people of God could establish themselves.
Yet, over the centuries, Christian and Jewish thinkers have perceived a deeper significance to Amalek’s ancient struggle with Israel. As the first enemy to attack the Israelite people after their escape from slavery in Egypt, Amalek came to be understood as a symbol or a sign of every enemy of God’s people, every danger, force, idea, or group that might seek the destruction of God’s children. Thus our first reading has been understood to recount more than just a fight between competing nomadic tribes in the desert: it is an image of a more profound struggle between the People of God and the forces of evil that seek our destruction both communally and individually.
It is significant, then, that our first reading describes Moses sending a young man named Joshua, son of Nun, to lead Israel into battle. The English names ‘Joshua’ and ‘Jesus’ are in fact different versions of the same name in Hebrew: ‘Yeshua’ was a common alternative to ‘Yehoshua’. Indeed, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew bible which was very familiar to so many of the first Christians even translates Joshua’s name as ‘Iesous’ – ‘Jesus’. The first Greek speaking Christians would therefore have read this text and seen that a man called Jesus led Israel into battle against Amalek; a man called Jesus overcame this first enemy of Israel that was a symbol of all that is evil; and a man called Jesus symbolically anticipated the victory of Jesus Christ over sin and death on the cross. Jesus (Joshua) son of Nun conquered Amalek, the symbol of all that is evil in a battle in the desert. Jesus, Son of Mary, Son of God conquered the reality of evil through his death, resurrection and ascension. Jesus Christ conquered not just ‘Amalek’, a symbol of evil, but sin and death itself.
This victory of Christ is shared with us through our Baptism, and yet it is at the same time still to be fully accomplished in our lives. Jesus Christ has given us the victory, yet for now we still find ourselves in a struggle against the sin of the world and our most powerful weapon in this fight is prayer.
We heard in our first reading that the first Jesus, Joshua, gains the upper hand in the battle against the Amalekites as long as Moses prayed with his arms stretched out in the sign of the cross. In our Gospel reading, the widow never tired of demanding justice from the unjust judge and so she too was ultimately vindicated. Both readings point us to the utmost importance of persevering in prayer. If our life is a struggle, we must know that in Jesus the victory has already been won. To be in the struggle is to be winning the struggle because we rely not on our own strength but on the cross of Christ. As long as our hands are raised in prayer, then in this life or the next we will share in Christ’s victory.
Image: detail from ‘Victory O Lord!’ by John Everett Millais (public domain)