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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 17

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


Two events are recorded in this chapter: (1) Water from the Rock (Exodus 17:1-7); and (2) the repulsing of the Amalekites (Exodus 17:8-16). There is a remarkable likeness in the record of these episodes, despite the radical differences.


The danger (Exodus 17:1-3). The danger (Exodus 17:8).

The deliverance (Exodus 17:4-6). The deliverance (Exodus 17:9-13).

The memorial names (Exodus 17:7). The memorial names (Exodus 17:15-16).

Massah-Meribah. Jehovah-nissi.

This strange likeness in the events could be the reason for Moses’ placing them side by side at this point in his record. We have already noted that a chronological sequence was not always followed. Some support for such a conclusion comes from the fact that Joshua was still considered “a young man” (Exodus 33:11) almost forty years afterward, but he was the military commander here. Of course, another explanation might be found in the question of just how old, exactly, would have been a “young man” in the eyes of Moses at the time when Moses was about 120 years of age! If, in this first recorded military engagement with Joshua as Commander, he had been the age of Alexander the Great at the beginning of Alexander’s career (about 30), then, Joshua’s age near the time of the entry into Canaan would have been 69 or 70, and it is not hard to see why Moses (age 120) would have referred to him as a “young man.” No matter how the passage is viewed, there is no reason whatever for rejecting any part of it, or for ascribing it to a later “editor” or “redactor.”

The allegation that, in this narrative, “Moses is old and feeble,”(F1) is not acceptable. Watch any of the strongest athletes struggle with their inability to hold up both hands even for a single hour. How blind is the view that even the youngest and strongest could have done what Moses needed help to do here. And besides, Moses never became old and feeble. See Deuteronomy 34:7 - “Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died: his eye was not dim, nor was his natural force abated.”

Verse 1

“And all the congregation of the children of Israel journeyed from the wilderness of Sin, by their journeys, according to the commandment of Jehovah, and encamped in Rephidim: and there was no water for the people to drink.”

“By their journeys” From the list given by Moses in Numbers 33:12-13, it is clear that there are omitted here the two stations of Dophkah and Alush. It should also be remembered that Israel was not deployed in a single camp, despite the consistent use of the singular camp. By the very nature of providing tenting for 2,000,000 people, there would have been numerous “camps,” spoken of collectively as “the camp.”

“According to the commandment of Jehovah” Israel was guided by Jehovah by means of the pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. When the pillar stayed, they remained; when it moved, they moved.

“Rephidim” This word means “resting place.”(F2) The exact location of the particular places mentioned in this chapter is impossible to determine, but Rephidim was somewhere in the vicinity of Horeb, because it was there that God provided the water they needed.

Verses 2-3

“Wherefore the people strove with Moses, Give us water that we may drink. And Moses said unto them, Why strive ye with me? wherefore do ye tempt Jehovah? And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moses, and said, Wherefore hast thou brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?”

This is the second of three episodes in which the water problem was dominant. The first was at Marah (Exodus 15:22-25), and the third was at Meribah near Kedesh (Numbers 20:10-13).

“Give us water” The ugliness of this demand is amazing, the demand being, in effect, an outright rebellion against Moses, including actually a threat of stoning him (Exodus 17:4). Israel appears here in a very dark and sinful mood. Their sin consisted of:

(1) their demand of a mortal man (Moses) only what GOD could give;

(2) their failure to pray to God;

(3) their demand for water, not in the form of an humble petition, but in the terminology of arrogant unbelief;

(4) their false accusations against Moses, alleging that he had a design of killing them all with thirst; and

(5) their refusal to believe that the problem could be solved. This is an excellent picture of that “evil heart of unbelief” (Hebrews 3:12) which persistently manifested itself throughout the whole period of Israel in the wilderness. Significantly, the N.T. writers have abundantly warned Christians against falling into the same sin.

Moses faithfully did what Israel should have done; he laid the situation before God in prayer (Exodus 17:4).

“The people strove with Moses” The word for “strove” here actually means “quarreled.”(F3) “Rebelled” is also very closely akin to the meaning here. The name Meribah given to this event also means “quarreled.”(F4)

Verses 4-6

“And Moses cried unto Jehovah, saying, What shall I do unto this people? they are almost ready to stone me. And Jehovah said unto Moses, Pass on before the people, and take with thee of the elders of Israel, and thy rod, wherewith thou smotest the river, take in thy hand, and go. Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel”

“I will stand before thee there upon the rock” “The smitten Rock beautifully illustrates the death of Christ, resulting in the outpoured Spirit because of an accomplished redemption.”(F5) Apparently, Christ himself had this event in mind when he spoke of the stream of “living water” flowing forth from himself (John 7:37-39). This bringing of the water from the rock was called by Jamieson, “The greatest of the miracles of Moses, because it was done without ostentation and in the presence of a few chosen witnesses.”(F6) We should also allow the opinion of Jamieson that the rock here was smitten at such a height and in such a position with reference to the lower valleys where the hosts of Iael were deployed that the mighty issue of the waters provided water for Israel throughout the years following this event. This also has the utility of explaining why there were no recurring water shortages for Israel until they came to Kedesh in the far northern part of the Sinaitic peninsula.

“Upon the rock in Horeb” “Horeb is a term used interchangeably with Sinai”,(F7) however, here, “It stands for some peak other than Sinai in the same range.”(F8)

Verse 7

“And he called the name of the place Massah, and Meribah, because of the striving of the children of Israel, and because they tempted Jehovah, saying, Is Jehovah among us or not?”

The two names given by Moses to this place are seized upon by Bible critics as the basis of multiple sources, combined accounts, and the usual cavil one meets in that type of “analysis.” What is so unusual about two names? Besides that, the reason for each name is here stated by the sacred author. Is not Jerusalem called Mount Zion? Christ visited a place called both Dalmanutha and Magadan (Matthew 15:39; Mark 8:10). Hebron was known also as Kiriath-arba. Beersheba was known by two designations: “The Well of the Oath,” and “The Well of the Seven.”(F9)

The dual events commemorated by these names were: (1) Israel’s tempting or “proving” of God, or rather, of God’s proving them; and (2) the quarrelsome rebellion against Moses involving a threat of stoning. Both needed to be memorialized, and so they were: “Massah means to test or prove, and Meribah means quarreling or dissension.”(F10)

“Is Jehovah among us or not…?” In this rebellions outburst, the subtle shift had taken place in the sinful hearts of men which actually pervert the truth “that we are the Lord’s,” making it to be, “the Lord is ours!” The rude and rebellious demands of Israel were most sinful and unbecoming a people so recently redeemed from slavery, but it should be remembered that long years of slavery had left their mark upon the minds and hearts of that people. In their dreams and imaginations of freedom, they had somehow overlooked the price and requirements of freedom. Free men should not expect that God will exempt them from every hardship. “They thought incorrectly that it was God’s business to see to it that His people were rendered marvelously immune to the hazards of existence, time, accident, and environment.”(F11) And yet, are not Christians today sometimes tempted to doubt the providence of God because of hardships encountered in the way of life?

Verses 8-10


“Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim. And Moses said unto Joshua, Choose us out men, and go out, fight with Amalek; tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in my hand. So Joshua did as Moses had said to him, and fought with Amalek: and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill.”

“Amalek” Who were the Amalekites? Amalek was the son of Eliphaz and the grandson of Esau (Genesis 36:12; Genesis 36:16). In this place, Amalek is used as a collective noun to describe all of his descendants. These people fulfilled all that should have been expected of the posterity of the profane Esau. They were thoroughly pagan and identified with the gross sensuality of Canaan. They were a kindred race to Israel, which should have incited them to pity, but, on the contrary, they viciously attacked the straggling rearward of the host of the Chosen People at a time when they were exhausted and weary (Deuteronomy 25:18). As signified in the memorial name chosen for the episode, the Amalekites deliberately lifted up their hand against the “throne of God,” and sought to thwart His purpose regarding Israel.

As to why the Amalekites attacked Israel, the fundamental reason lay in the fact that Amalek did not fear God (Deuteronomy 25:17-18). There was also that old long-standing feud between Jacob and Esau. Then, in addition, it is possible that the Amalekites feared Israel’s moving in on pasture lands which they coveted for themselves.

“And Moses said unto Joshua” See the chapter introduction regarding this first mention of Joshua in the Bible. He was either quite a very young man at this time, or this episode is not recorded in chronological sequence. It is of no great importance as to which is the case, for Moses might easily have done it either way. Joshua was an Ephraimite who became, in time, the successor of Moses and successfully carried out the conquest of Canaan.

The name Joshua was originally Hoshea or Oshea (Numbers 13:8). He was the son of Nun, “and the tenth in descent from Ephraim (1 Chronicles 7:23-27).”(F12) The appearance of the tenth generation here corroborates the passage of a full 400 years (actually 430) for the sojourn of Israel in Egypt. About forty years after the event here, Moses changed Joshua’s name to Jehoshua (shortened to Joshua) which in Greek becomes Jesus. Moses, writing Exodus at a time near the end of the wilderness period would naturally have used the more familiar name in this passage. If Moses did not insert it here, then some other inspired writer, such as Ezra, or even Joshua himself might have done so. We shall meet with Joshua again in the episode of sending out the spies in Numbers 13.

“And Hur” This is the first mention of a man of this name in the Bible. Josephus states that he was the husband of Miriam.(F13) Rawlinson mentions another Jewish tradition that he was “the son of Miriam.”(F14) In either case, that would have been somewhat of a family gathering on the top of that hill! Hur was the grandfather of Bezaleel, “the great sculptor and artificer of the tabernacle (Exodus 31:2-5), and belonged to the tribe of Judah (1 Chronicles 2:18-20).”(F15)

Verses 11-12

“And it came to pass, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed; and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands were heavy; and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat thereon; and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun.”

“Held up his hand” “Hands (plural)” are mentioned in Exodus 17:11; and from the fact of Aaron being on one side and Hur on the other, it would appear that both hands were held up. The Septuagint (LXX), in fact, translates plural “hands” in both Exodus 17:10 and Exodus 17:11. Moses’ inability to continue all day with hands uplifted is no proof whatever that, “Moses was old and feeble.”(F16) That is not what this text says. (See the chapter introduction for further comment on this.) Esses has an excellent word on the spiritual import of this event, as follows:

“As long as our hands are lifted up in praise, in worship, in thanksgiving, no matter what the circumstances, the Lord and His people will prevail. But the minute we put our hands down and stop praising God, the enemy overcomes us. In all things we have to praise God and give thanks to Jesus Christ.”(F17)

Several views are expressed as to whether or not Moses was praying with his hands uplifted, and, although no mention of it is made, it is difficult to suppose that he was not praying. “Lifting up hands” in prayer is mentioned in both the O.T. and the N.T. (Psalms 28:2; Psalms 63:4; and 1 Timothy 2:8). It was not the prayers of Moses, however, that God commanded, but the lifting up of “the rod of God.”

The fact of God’s requiring Moses to do something here (keep his hands up all day) that no man, no matter how young and strong, could possibly do unaided shows that God’s great purposes for His people cannot be achieved through the efforts of leaders alone. They must be supported and aided by others.

A very discerning comment on this event was made by Dummelow: “Moses praying on the hill while the people are fighting in the valley is an emblem (or type) of Christ interceding in the heavenly places for his people struggling upon earth (Hebrews 4:14-16).”(F18)

Verses 13-15

“And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. And Jehovah said unto Moses, Write this for a memorial in a book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: that I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven. And Moses built an altar, and called the name of it Jehovah-nissi.”

“Joshua discomfited Amalek” Josephus described this victory as a near-total slaughter of the Amalekites, only the coming of night preventing their utter destruction. He also recounts the capture of vast quantities of supplies and booty of all kinds. He also explained the relative peace enjoyed by Israel during the ensuing stay in the wilderness as having been due to this great victory which “terrified the neighboring nations.”(F19) Certainly, there was some excellent reason why the next attack of Israel by the Amalekites came nearly forty years afterward, and why as Rahab said, “The fear of you has fallen upon all of us” (Joshua 2:9).

“Write this for a memorial in a book” The Hebrew text in this place has THE book, and any Hebrew scholar will allow that this is indeed a permissible rendition, nor is it invalidated by the fact that the vowel points were not added by the Hebrews until after 500 A.D.(F20) The fact is they did add them; and there were the strongest reasons why they made it read THE book. As Orlinsky said:

“The Hebrew always writes in the book… an oject being conceived as definite in the Hebrew, not only because it is already known, or has been mentioned before, but also because it is taken for a particular purpose, and so made definite in the speaker’s or writer’s mind.”(F21)

“The book” is also given as an alternative reading here in the Cross-Reference Bible of 1910.(F22) We accept this rendition as correct, there being no reason whatever for rejecting it. Rawlinson’s comment is:

“The original has `write this in THE book.’ It is clear that a book already existed, in which Moses entered events of interest, and now he was divinely commanded to record in it the great victory over Amalek, and the threat uttered against them.”(F23)

And does anyone have to be told what that book is? It is the Pentateuch! The allegations of scholars like Honeycutt that the instruction in Exodus 17:14 with regard to perpetual enmity against Amalek “reflects the conflict between Israel and the Amalekites during the times of the monarchy,”(F24) overlook the truth that if that had been so, there would have been no need to “rehearse all this in the ears of Joshua!” (Exodus 17:14).

“And Moses built an altar, and called the name of it Jehovah-nissi” The purpose of every altar is that of offering sacrifice, and although no sacrifices are mentioned here, it may be assumed that offerings of thanksgiving were made to God. The bestowal of a special name emphasizes the significance and importance of the event memorialized.

“Jehovah-nissi” This is usually interpreted as, “The Lord my Banner,” but there appears some doubt of this, since the Septuagint (LXX) rendered it, “The Lord is My Refuge,” and Josephus translated it, “The Lord the Conqueror.”(F25)

Verse 16

“And he said, Jehovah hath sworn: Jehovah will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.”

The alternative reading is preferable here as explained by Rawlinson:

“Because the hand of Amalek was against the throne of the Lord… `Because’ i.e., `in attacking Israel, Amalek had, as it were, lifted up his hand against God on His throne; therefore should there be war against Amalek from generation to generations.”(F26)

Some Bible students have trouble with the idea that God would, without mercy, blot a whole people out of existence, but this should be understood in the light of what those peoples had become. Again and again, God has destroyed whole nations, cities, or even the whole world in the case of the Flood, because it had become absolutely necessary for the continuity on earth of the knowledge and worship of God.

Was this threat against Amalek fulfilled? Indeed, yes. Centuries later, during the reign of King Saul, God sent that monarch with a commission to destroy utterly the Amalekites, but Saul did not obey, because of which disobedience he was rejected as King of Israel. He saved King Agag alive, and presumably some of the king’s posterity. That it would have been far better for Saul to have obeyed is seen in the fact that in later generations, Haman the Agagite (Esther 3:1) actually plotted and very nearly carried out the murder of the whole Jewish race. God never ordered the destruction of any man or any people except upon the holy principle of what was necessary for the fulfillment of the purpose of God for the redemption of mankind.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Exodus 17". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/exodus-17.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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