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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Greenberg

Hebrew Names of God #7: ADONAI Nissi

ADONAI-Nissi, most often translated as the Lord is my banner, is found in Exodus 17:15. As with the other compound names of ADONAI that we have considered, the context in which the name is revealed is important for understanding its meaning. We pick up the narrative of Israel’s journey from Egypt to Canaan after they left Marah, the place of bitter waters where we meet HaShem as ADONAI-Rophe, and are camped at Rephidim. Once again there is a water shortage and they grumble. ADONAI tells Moshe (Moses) to take his staff, the same staff with which he struck the Nile, and, in front of the elders and the people, to strike the rock. Moshe obeyed and water gushes forth.

Immediately following this event, the Amalekites attack Israel. Deuteronomy 25:17-19 describes the battle in little more detail than Exodus. The Amalekites make a surprise rear attack on the famished and exhausted Israelites. They ruthlessly cut down the Israelite stragglers, meaning the elderly, the weak and the infirm. Israel was, thus, forced to fight its first defensive war for survival. Joshua leads the Israelite armies to battle, as Moshe commanded, while Moshe is on the top of the hill with his staff in his hand, and his hands raised to ADONAI. The problem is that Moshe, like any human, grows weary and can’t keep his arms raised continuously. So Moshe sits down on a rock, and Aaron and Hur hold up his hands until the sun goes down, and Joshua subdues Amalek and his army. Twice at Rephadim, Moshe’s staff is used as an instrument to bring about a sign or miracle (nes נס) of ADONAI. In fact, the word for miracle in Modern Hebrew is nes נס. Miracles are signs of the presence and power of ADONAI.

ADONAI is My Banner

As an expression of gratitude to ADONAI and as a memorial and witness to the miracle of the battle, Moshe named the altar ADONAI–Nissi (nes נס); ADONAI is my ensign, sign, banner or my miracle. In the ancient Near East it was common practice for armies to march into war with a standard (ensign, banner) that had a religious insignia emblazoned on it. The name ADONAI–Nissi signifies that ADONAI Himself is Israel’s banner. In Him rests all power, victory and miracles. It is not simply something He does, but it is who He is. Named altars in the Tanakh—Genesis 33:20 (The God of Israel is God), 35:7 (El Bethel) and Judges 6:24 (ADONAI–Shalom)—served as a place of worship and thank-offerings. No sacrifices were offered on named altars; they, with their expressive names, simply served as a dynamic memorial for Israel to remember the gracious acts of ADONAI among His people in all succeeding generations.

The significance of the victory is not in Moshe’s uplifted hands themselves, but in the staff lifted up in prayer as a sign (nes נס) signifying the presence of ADONAI among Israel. Moshe’s uplifted hands reflect an attitude of prayer. The staff lifted on high was not a sign (nes נס) for the soldiers, because they most probably could not see it in the heat of the battle. The upraised staff was a sign (nes נס) to ADONAI, carrying up, as it were, Moshe’s prayers and bringing down ADONAI’s victorious power.  

The rabbis point out the similarities between this verse in Exodus and Numbers 21:5-9 when ADONAI sent poisonous snakes among Israel because they grumbled against Him, and then, after they repented, commanded Moshe to put a poisonous snake on a pole (nes נס), so that when the people looked upon it, they would be healed. “Is it the hands of Moshe that makes [success in] war or breaks [success in] war? [No!] Rather, it teaches that whenever Israel would look upward and subjugate their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they would prevail; and if not, they would fail…And is it the snake that kills or [is it] the snake that [heals]? Rather, whenever Israel would look upward and subjugate their hearts to their Father in heaven, they would be healed; if not, they would be harmed.” (m. Rosh HaShana 3:8) The rabbis understand the lifting up of Moshe’s hands and the lifting up of Israel’s eyes on the pole (nes נס), as an act of prayer and subjugation of our hearts. We learn from this that when we keep our eyes on ADONAI and our penitent hearts lifted up in prayer, He will be our nes נס.

We will experience His strength to fight the battles in our lives to gain victory; we will be healed; we will remember all His mighty acts and be reminded that He is our ensign. He is ADONAI–Nissi, a continuous sign of the presence and miracle working power of ADONAI. •

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