The Story Behind the Name

As Israel became familiar with YHWH in their everyday lives - as they came to understand His character and see the way He cared for them, they began to describe Him in terms of their experiences with Him. These “names” are often memorials to specific situations; sometimes altars built out of gratitude and named to commemorate the tangible intersection of God with the people who did life with Him. These names were not an attempt to replace YHWH as God’s name; they just helped to tell the story of how God continued to reveal Himself.

JehovahNissi is the name of an altar Moses built after an early and unexpected battle in the wilderness. Israel was fresh out of Egypt and completely exhausted when the Amalekites snuck up from behind and surprised them with an attack meant as a call to battle.

The story is found in
Exodus 17:8-15. But it will make a lot more sense if we go back and try to uncover what makes this name so significant for Moses and for Israel.

First, let’s go back 70 or 75 years to when Moses was between 5 and 10 years old. Have you ever thought about what it was like for Moses to grow up enmeshed in the Egyptian culture? Even though he was born to Hebrew parents, he grew up in the palace of Pharaoh’s daughter, schooled in the language and belief system of Egypt. Part of the JehovahNissi story makes me wonder if Moses played imaginary battle games like kids today play Star Wars and superhero games. Did young Egyptian boys run around with pretend swords and shields? Did they stand on nearby hills holding up make believe ensigns – wooden poles that served as a signal to the fighting army below? Pictures and carvings of ancient Egyptian ensigns topped with images representing various deities are prolific in archaeological findings. These gods or goddesses often represented a source of power that ensured the victory in Egypt’s war efforts. Archaeology seems to suggest that ensigns played an important role in the outcome of a battle.

Interestingly, the first century historian Josephus wrote about a time when Moses led the Egyptian army to victory in a battle with Ethiopia. This story, which is not part of the Biblical record, would have occurred when Moses was around 40 years old, just prior to the time he left Egypt the first time. I wonder if Moses had real-life experience leading an army, Egyptian style? Is it possible he had hands-on experience with an ensign?

Did Moses ever think about what an ensign that represented the God of his people, the Israelites, would be like? When he grew up would there ever be a day when the Hebrew people were free from slavery in Egypt and would need their own ensign? How would it look? How would it represent their God? Who would get to hold it up?


OK. Keep those thoughts somewhere accessible in the back of your mind for a few minutes while we jump back to Moses as an 80-year-old man and the few months just before the JehovahNissi story.

One of the things I love about God’s story is the way that ordinary things in the hands of ordinary people become extraordinary demonstrations of God’s presence right in the middle of our messy lives. Drinks of water become engagement parties (
Genesis 24); flour jars and oil jugs become bottomless receptacles for God’s provision (I Kings 17); sack lunches become buffet lunches for thousands (John 6:9); and in Moses’ story a weathered shepherd’s staff becomes an ensign. There is something truly profound about the way God uses the commonplace pieces of our lives to tell His story. The ordinary shepherd’s crook that Moses held in his hand when he first met YHWH at the burning bush was about to become a symbol of the extraordinary power of the presence of God.

You remember that Moses had been reluctant to say the least, when God told him to go back to Egypt and lead Israel out. Moses didn’t think he had what it took to be that kind of a leader. He wasn’t a public speaker. He did not have answers for all of the possible questions he might get asked. He did not have credibility with the people he was supposed to lead. What if the Israelites didn’t believe that he really had a conversation with their God? What if they just thought he was nuts?

So he asked God, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The LORD did not appear to you’?” (
Exodus 4:1)

And instead of answering in long paragraphs or telling Moses again with words that He would surely be with him, God asked Moses what he had in his hand.

“A staff,” he replied. (
Exodus 4:2)

“Throw it on the ground.” (
Exodus 4:3)

So Moses did. He threw his ordinary staff on the ground and the thing became a snake. Not a squiggly little cute one I’m guessing because the Bible says that Moses ran from it. Let’s just say that when Moses was standing with his arm bent a little, his hand resting on the top of his staff, the distance between his hand and the ground was a little over 3 ½ feet, maybe 45 inches or so. Add another 15 inches for the shape of the crook at the top and you have a five-foot snake the diameter of a very sturdy tree branch. It was scary.

Then God told Moses to go pick it up by the tail. And at this point how can you not do what God is telling you to do? He just turned your staff into a python.

“So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand. “This,” said the LORD, “is so that they may believe that the LORD, the God of their fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has appeared to you.” (
Exodus 4:5)

God didn’t turn Moses’s staff into a magic stick. The staff wasn’t all of a sudden more powerful than it was a few minutes ago. The power that turned the staff into the snake was God’s alone. The staff was becoming a representation of the power of YHWH. When Moses gathered up his family to head back to Egypt the Bible says that he took “the staff of God in his hand.” (
Exodus 4:20) The ordinary staff was becoming the staff of God.

The staff continued telling the story of the presence and power of God. Like concentric waves created by a stone thrown into a pond, the reputation of the staff spread to larger and larger audiences over the next days and weeks. First there was Moses’s older brother Aaron, sent ahead by God to accompany Moses on his return trip to Egypt. Long lost brothers reunited – 80 and 83 years old - stood together on the mountain of God and watched in awe as the staff turned into a snake. God was changing Israel’s story. When they returned to Egypt Moses and Aaron gathered the Hebrew leaders together and told them all that YHWH had said, demonstrating again the signs from God. The circle of believers was rippling outward. The leaders of Israel believed and their hope was stirred.

Soon it was Pharaoh and his court that witnessed the power of God through the staff. God’s staff–turned-snake ate the staff-snakes of Pharaoh’s magicians. When the staff of God was held out over the Nile River the water turned to blood. Word spread throughout the country to both Egyptians and Israelites as the Power behind the staff released frogs and gnats into every open and hidden space in Egypt. From the royalty of the palace to the commoner in his field to the straw-gathering brick-making neighborhoods of the Hebrew slaves, there was not anyone in Egypt untouched by the God of the staff.

You know what is crazy and brilliant at the same time? How every time God did something huge and horrible with the plagues in Egypt Pharaoh’s first reaction was to relent and give into God and let Israel go, but he kept changing his mind. And every time Pharaoh changed his mind he gave God another opportunity to do something big again. By the time the 10th plague was over and Pharaoh couldn’t wait for Israel to leave Egypt, the reputation of the power and strength of the God of Israel had begun to extend beyond the boundaries of Egypt. And the next time Pharaoh changed his mind he pulled open the curtain on a scene that has been retold and replayed hundreds of thousands of time since. Barely grieving the loss of his first-born son, Pharaoh and his chariots headed out toward the fleeing Israelites – and the Red Sea.

From a strategic point of view, camping by the Red Sea was like a really bad Chess move. Israel was trapped. They either had to fight the Egyptians who had all sorts of armor which they didn’t have, or try to run away laden with babies and kids and cows and the plunder they had gotten from their Egyptian neighbors as they were leaving Egypt, or swim. There wasn’t really a good option. So when the rumble of Pharaoh’s horses began to vibrate the desert floor of their camp and the best of Egypt’s chariots could be seen barreling towards them, the Israelites were terrified.

Of course it wasn’t a game of Chess. No matter how much stronger or bigger or more clever anyone thought Pharaoh’s army was Egypt was not going to win this game. Being trapped between a sea and an army was exactly where God wanted Israel to be. He is the one who led them there. He wanted to be their only hope.

For God, the win was making Himself known. When Pharaoh thought for sure he had the win and Israel was sure there was no way out, God said to Moses: “Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground.”(
Exodus 14:16)

No one in Israel got their feet muddy. God stood between Israel and Egypt all night long. The Israel side was light, even though it was nighttime, as more that a million Israelites loaded down with stuff trekked through the sea on dry ground. On the other side there was darkness and confusion as the chariot wheels jammed and the Egyptians knew that YHWH was fighting for Israel.

When Israel had safely crossed over God told Moses to stretch out his hand one more time, and the water of the sea rushed back and drowned the Egyptian army.

The staff from Moses’ old life as a shepherd was becoming a recurring and familiar reminder of the presence and care and deliverance of YHWH for the people he loved.


For as long as they could remember the children of Israel felt like their story was being dictated by the Pharaohs of Egypt; now they were coming to know the real author of their story.

Of course, knowing YHWH in one situation does not necessarily translate into trusting Him in another. There is a learning curve. As much as it might seem like a Red Sea experience would be a long-term endorsement for the reliability of God, Israel needed frequent reminders of God’s faithfulness. The desert was unsettling. They did not stay in one place for long. When the food from Egypt ran out God sent manna. When they came upon bitter water God purified it and made it drinkable. Sometimes Israel was thankful beyond belief, but the gratefulness was short-lived, interrupted by new difficulties.

The last stop before Mount Sinai was a place called Rephidim, the setting for the JehovahNissi story. Just shy of 3 months after leaving Egypt, Israel arrived at Rephidim only to discover that there was no water. They were pretty much in the middle of nowhere and thought they would die of thirst. Their kids were thirsty. Maybe it was the kind of thirst where kids cry but don’t have tears. They do not want to walk; they just want to be carried. Their little bodies go limp.

It’s one thing to be frustrated because your own needs seem to be neglected, but when your kids’ needs aren’t being met – I’m talking about basic life stuff like water – frustration and anger surface and more often than not we start to complain and look around for someone or something to blame.

Really Moses? We are stopping here and there is no water? Are you trying to kill us?

This time Moses thought they might stone him to death. A bunch of exhausted moms passionately fighting for the lives of their children was not the kind of fury 80-year-old Moses chose to deal with alone.

“Then Moses cried out to the LORD, ‘What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.’
“The LORD answered Moses, ‘Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.’ So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel.” (
Exodus 17: 4-6)

Can you imagine? Water from a rock? How did God even think of that? I LOVE that about Him. It would have been an amazing story if He had given them water from a source that is supposed to give water – a well or a spring or something - but a water fountain to quench the thirst of over a million people gushing out of a rock? I wish I could have had a sip! And splashed it on my face and filled cups for all of the kids dancing in the fountain. What God did was beyond impossible – no one had the chance to look back on that day and say maybe it was just coincidence or an unexpected act of nature. It was only God. He was reminding Israel again that they could count on Him for anything.

What if one of your true childhood memories was of the day when you were so thirsty that you thought you were going to die and God gave you water out of a dry lifeless rock?

That is the background for the story behind the name JehovahNissi. Israel was homeless. They hadn’t adjusted to wilderness living yet. They had no idea how long they would be living out of tents and gathering their food from the ground every morning. They were still transitioning from the known life of slavery in Egypt to the unknown life of freedom in the wilderness. They were also transitioning from living life wondering about God to living life with God. Over and over, God was meeting their needs and the staff was becoming an ever-present reminder of His presence.

The Israelites were at a low point both mentally and physically when the Amalekites made their surprise attack. Weary and worn out, some lagged behind barely able to keep up. According to Josephus, the stories of Israel and the acts of their God were becoming well known to neighboring nations and it was decided that Israel should either be enslaved or destroyed. In an unprovoked, unfair act of war the Amalekites went after the Hebrew stragglers. The descendants of Amalek were bullies. They attacked those who were the weakest and most vulnerable, not paying attention to or caring a whit about the rules of warfare.

Who were the Amalekites anyway? They were descendants of Esau. Do you remember him? He was Jacob’s (Israel’s) twin brother. Esau was the older twin and by rights should have received the birthright and a first-born blessing from their father Isaac. But Esau sold his birthright to Jacob one day for a bowl of lentil soup when he was too hungry to think, and later on lost his dad’s blessing to Jacob as well. One of Esau’s grandsons was Amalek. (
Genesis 36:1 and 12) Were the Amalekites (descendants of Esau) still holding the birthright story and the blessing scandal against the Israelites (descendants of Jacob) these hundreds of years later?

There were times when God completely obliterated the enemy while Israel stood back and watched. Other times God called them to pick up their weapons and fight.

“Moses said to Joshua, ‘Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.’ So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill.” (
Exodus 17: 9-10)

Armed with the Egyptian weapons that had washed up onto the shore of the Red Sea, Joshua led the army out to combat. Up on the hill above the battle Moses held up the ensign. When Moses grew weary Aaron and Hur gave him a stone to sit on and supported his arms, one man on each side, so that the staff was held high. The battle wavered back and forth all day. When Moses’ arms were up Israel was winning and when his hands were down they were losing. That was the only thing that made a difference. Israel could not attribute the ultimate success of the battle that day to their new superior weapons or the brilliant strategy of Joshua as their leader or the inefficiency of the enemy. The victory belonged to the God of the staff. When their eyes were fixed on Him as the source of their deliverance they prevailed.

For Israel, the staff of God reminded them of the rescue and deliverance that they were learning to know in God alone. When Israel needed a
nec, a place to focus in the middle of a battle against an unsuspected enemy, God said, “Look to Me.” He wanted them to remember what He had done in impossible situations before. God wanted Israel to develop a pattern of trusting in Him. When Joshua and the Israelite army were on the ground fighting the Amalekites they looked up to the mountain and saw the staff of God in Moses’ hands and they remembered the frogs and the gnats and the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army drowning and water from a rock. It gave them hope. If the God who did impossible things before was on their side, He certainly could intervene and give them victory over these guys.

At the end of the day Israel won. Joshua and the army on the battlefield, Moses and his friends and the ensign on the hill.

Who would have thought that a humble shepherds’ staff would become an ensign in God’s story? The unassuming tool that Moses carried around in his everyday life to tend sheep became the symbol that pointed people to God’s presence. Israel was learning to practice the presence of God. And that made all of the difference in their lives.

Offering honor and gratitude to the One who gave the victory, Moses built an altar and called it JehovahNissi.

YHWH my Ensign.

Next: JehovahNissi - Going Deeper