Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable

Exodus 17

Verses 1-7

3. The lack of water at Rephidim17:1-7

Again the Israelites complained because there was no water to drink when they camped at Rephidim (cf. Exodus 15:24). At Marah there was bad water, but now there was none.

". . . the supreme calamity of desert travellers [sic] befell them-complete lack of water." [Note: Cassuto, p201.]

Rephidim was near the wilderness of Sinai ( Exodus 17:1; cf. Exodus 19:2; Numbers 33:15) and the Horeb (Sinai) range of mountains ( Exodus 17:6).

The Israelites" grumbling demonstrated lack of faith, since God had promised to supply their needs ( Exodus 17:2). They wanted Him to act as they dictated rather than waiting for Him to provide as He had promised. This was how they tested or challenged the Lord (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:10). It was proper for God to test them ( Exodus 15:25; Exodus 16:4), but it was improper for them to test Him in the sense of trying His patience.

"One of Moses" most characteristic and praiseworthy traits was that he took his difficulties to the Lord ( Exodus 17:4; Exodus 15:25; Exodus 32:30; Exodus 33:8; Numbers 11:2; Numbers 11:11; Numbers 12:13; Numbers 14:13-19 et al.)." [Note: Kaiser, " Exodus," p406.]

By using his staff ( Exodus 17:5) Moses proved that God was still enabling him to perform miracles as he had done in Egypt. He still had divine regal authority, and the power of God was still with him. The elders apparently accompanied Moses as representatives of the people since the whole nation could not get close enough to witness the miracle.

Horeb may refer to the mountain range at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula ( Exodus 17:6; cf. Deuteronomy 1:2; 1 Kings 19:8) also called Sinai. This is the traditional site, but I question it (cf. Deuteronomy 33:2; Galatians 4:25). Wherever the Horeb range may have been, Moses struck the rock somewhere near these mountains. [Note: See Aviram Perevolotsky and Israel Finkelstein, "The Southern Sinai Exodus Route in Ecological Perspective," Biblical Archaeology Review11:4 (July-August1985):26-41.]

"Massah" means "testing" or "proof," and "Meribah" means "murmuring," "dissatisfaction," or "contention" ( Exodus 17:7). Except for Joshua 9:18 and Psalm 59:15, all the other references to grumbling in the Old Testament occur in six chapters of the Pentateuch: Exodus 15, 16, 17, and Numbers 14, 16,, 17. [Note: Kaiser, p398.] The first name commemorated the Israelites" testing of God and the second name their quarreling with Moses. They failed to believe that the Lord was among them as He had promised He would be.

"In our own time the same demand is made, the same challenge repeated. Men are not satisfied with the moral evidences of the Being and providence of God, they point to the physical evils around, the hunger and thirst, the poverty and misery, the pollution and self-will of our times, crying-If there be a God, why does He permit these things? Why does He allow suffering and sorrow? Why does He not interpose? And then, when the heavens are still silent, they infer that there is no God, that the sky is an empty eye-socket, and that there is nothing better than to eat and drink, because death is an eternal sleep." [Note: Meyer, p196.]

God had assured the Israelites in Egypt that He would bring them into the Promised Land ( Exodus 3:8; Exodus 3:17; Exodus 13:5; Exodus 13:11). Consequently all their grumbling demonstrated a lack of faith. This second instance of complaining about lack of water was more serious than the first because God had provided good water for them earlier in the desert ( Exodus 15:25).

Verses 8-13

Moses used "Amalek" to represent the Amalekites, as he often used "Israel" for the Israelites ( Exodus 17:8). The Amalekites were a tribe of Semites. They had descended from one of Esau"s grandsons ( Genesis 36:12) and had settled in the part of Sinai the Israelites now occupied. They also inhabited an area in southern Canaan (cf. Genesis 14:7). They evidently opposed Israel in battle because they felt Israel was a threat to their security.

This is the first biblical reference to Joshua ( Exodus 17:9). Moses selected him to lead Israel"s warriors. Moses" staff was the means God used to accomplish miracles for Israel and to identify those miracles as coming from Himself (cf. Exodus 17:5, et al.).

Hur was the son of Caleb ( Exodus 17:10; 1 Chronicles 2:19; not the Caleb of later fame in Numbers and Joshua) and possibly the grandfather of Bezalel, the architect of the tabernacle ( Exodus 31:2, et al.). Josephus said he was the husband of Miriam. [Note: Josephus, 3:2:4.] He was an important man in Israel (cf. Exodus 24:14).

"Moses went to the top of the hill that he might see the battle from thence. He took Aaron and Hur with him, not as adjutants to convey his orders to Joshua and the army engaged, but to support him in his own part in connection with the conflict. This was to hold up his hand with the staff of God in it. To understand the meaning of this sign, it must be borne in mind that, although Exodus 17:11 merely speaks of the raising and dropping of the hand (in the singular), yet, according to Exodus 17:12, both hands were supported by Aaron and Hur, who stood one on either side, so that Moses did not hold up his hands alternately, but grasped the staff with both his hands, and held it up with the two." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 2:79.]

"Moses lifted his hands, in symbol of the power of Yahweh upon the fighting men of Israel, surely, but in some miraculous way Moses" upraised hands became also conductors of that power." [Note: Durham, p236.]

Moses" actions suggest that he was engaging in intercessory prayer, though reference to prayer is absent in the text. The emphasis is on the rod that Moses held in his hand, the instrument of God"s power.

"The lifting up of the hands has been regarded almost with unvarying unanimity by Targumists, Rabbins, Fathers, Reformers, and nearly all the more modern commentators, as the sign or attitude of prayer. ... The lifting up of the staff secured to the warriors the strength needed to obtain the victory, from the fact that by means of the staff Moses brought down this strength from above, i.e, from the Almighty God in heaven; not indeed by a merely spiritless and unthinking elevation of the staff, but by the power of his prayer, which was embodied in the lifting up of his hands with the staff, and was so far strengthened thereby, that God had chosen and already employed this staff as the medium of the saving manifestation of His almighty power. There is no other way in which we can explain the effect produced upon the battle by the raising and dropping ... of the staff in his hands.... God had not promised him miraculous help for the conflict with the Amalekites, and for this reason he lifted up his hands with the staff in prayer to God, that he might thereby secure the assistance of Jehovah for His struggling people. At length he became exhausted, and with the falling of his hands and the staff he held, the flow of divine power ceased, so that it was necessary to support his arms, that they might be kept firmly directed upwards ... until the enemy was entirely subdued." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 2:79-81.]

"The significance of this is that Israel"s strength lay only in a continuous appeal to the Lord"s power and a continuous remembrance of what He had already done for them ..." [Note: Gispen, p169.]

"Why do you fail in your Christian life? Because you have ceased to pray! Why does that young Christian prevail? Ah, in the first place, he prays for himself; but also, there are those in distant places, mothers, sisters, grandparents, who would think that they sinned, if they ceased to pray for him, and they will not fail to lift up their hands for him until the going down of the sun of their lives!" [Note: Meyer, p202.]

This battle was more important than may appear on the surface.

"As the heathen world was now commencing its conflict with the people of God in the persons of the Amalekites, and the prototype of the heathen world, with its hostility to God, was opposing the nation of the Lord, that had been redeemed from the bondage of Egypt and was on its way to Canaan, to contest its entrance into the promised inheritance; so the battle which Israel fought with this foe possessed a typical significance in relation to all the future history of Israel. It could not conquer by the sword alone, but could only gain the victory by the power of God, coming down from on high, and obtained through prayer and those means of grace with which it had been entrusted." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 2:81. Cf. Zechariah 4:6; John 15:5.]

What was the immediate significance of this battle for Israel? Israel learned that God would give them victory over their enemies as they relied on Him.

"Jehovah used the attack of Amalek on Israel, at the very beginning of their national history, to demonstrate to His chosen people the potency of intercession. The event reveals a mighty means of strength and victory which God has graciously afforded His people of all ages." [Note: D. Edmond Hiebert, Working with God: Scriptural Studies in Intercession, p57. All of chapter5 of this excellent book deals with Exodus 17:8-16.]

Verses 8-16

4. The hostility of the Amalekites17:8-16

Whereas the Israelites had feared the possibility of having to battle the Egyptians ( Exodus 14:10), they now did engage in battle with the Amalekites.

"The primary function of this section in its present location is the demonstration of yet another proof and benefit of Yahweh"s Presence with Israel. The occasion for the demonstration this time is an attack from the outside instead of an internal complaint. The result, however, is once again an undeniable supernatural intervention of Yahweh.... Yahweh is present, when the need arises, to fight alongside and even on behalf of his people." [Note: Durham, p234.]

Verses 14-16

This is the first of five instances in the Pentateuch where we read that Moses wrote down something at the Lord"s command (cf. Exodus 24:4; Exodus 24:7; Exodus 34:27; Numbers 33:1-2; Deuteronomy 31:9; Deuteronomy 31:24). [Note: Kaiser, " Exodus," p409.] Clearly Moses could write, which some critics of the Bible have questioned.

God promised the eventual destruction of the Amalekites to strengthen Joshua"s faith in God"s help against all Israel"s enemies ( Exodus 17:14). Later God commanded him to exterminate the Amalekites after he had conquered Canaan ( Deuteronomy 25:19). The Bible mentions the Amalekites for the last time in 1 Chronicles 4:43 when a remnant of them perished in Hezekiah"s day. Some commentators have identified Haman, called an Agagite in the Book of Esther, with the Amalekites. [Note: E.g, Hyatt, p183.] Agag was evidently an Amalekite name or title (cf. 1 Samuel 15:32-33). There is serious question, however, that Haman was a descendant of the Amalekites, as some of the better commentaries on Esther point out.

The altar commemorated God"s victory and self-revelation as the One who would provide victory for Israel against her enemies ( Exodus 17:15). The banner was a flag that the victor could raise over his defeated foe.

"The sight of Moses so blessing Israel and judging Amalek would symbolize Yahweh, by whom all blessing and all cursing were believed to be empowered; thus the altar was named not "Moses is my standard," or "The staff of Elohim is my standard," but "Yahweh is my standard."" [Note: Durham, p237.]

God set Himself against the Amalekites because they set themselves against His people and His purposes through them ( Exodus 17:16). [Note: On God"s use of war against His enemies, see Craigie, The Problem . . ., and John Wenham, The Goodness of God.]

"The battle between Yahweh and Amalek will continue across the generations because the Amalekites have raised a hand against Yahweh"s throne, that Isaiah, they have challenged his sovereignty by attacking his people." [Note: Durham, p237.]

"In Amalek the heathen world commenced that conflict with the people of God, which, while it aims at their destruction, can only be terminated by the complete annihilation of the ungodly powers of the world.... Whereas he [Moses] had performed all the miracles in Egypt and on the journey by stretching out his staff, on this occasion he directed his servant Joshua to choose men for the war, and to fight the battle with the sword. He himself went with Aaron and Hur to the summit of a hill to hold up the staff of God in his hands, that he might procure success to the warriors through the spiritual weapons [sic weapon] of prayer." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 2:78.]

"I am convinced beyond any doubt that virtually all advances for Christ come because of believers who understand and practice prayer." [Note: R. Kent Hughes, Living on the Cutting Edge, p11]

In all the crises the Israelites had faced since they left Egypt, God was teaching them to look to Him. They should do so for deliverance from their enemies (at the Red Sea), for health and healing (at Marah), and for food and guidance (in the wilderness of Sin). They should also do so for water and refreshment (at Massah-Meribah) and for victory over their enemies in battle (at Rephidim). He was teaching them how dependent they were on Him and that they should turn to Him in any and every need (cf. John 15:5).

Once again the Lord provided for His people, continued to provide for them, and proved His presence again to Israel and to Israel"s enemies. [Note: Durham, p238.]

"The present narrative in Exodus 17 appears to have been shaped by its relationship to the events recorded in Numbers 21:1-3, the destruction of Arad. The two narratives are conspicuously similar. Here in Exodus 17, the people murmured over lack of water and Moses gave them water from the rock ( Exodus 17:1-7). They were attacked by the Amalekites but went on to defeat them miraculously while Moses held up his hands (in prayer?). So also in the narrative in Numbers 21, after an account of Israel"s murmuring and of getting water from the rock ( Exodus 20:1-13), Israel was attacked but miraculously went on to defeat the Canaanites because of Israel"s vow, which the narrative gives in the form of a prayer ( Exodus 21:1-3).

"The parallels between the two narratives suggest an intentional identification of the Amalekites in the Exodus narratives and the Canaanites in Numbers 21:1-3." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., pp279-80.]

Sailhamer charted the parallel literary structures of the two incidents similar to what follows.

A Manna and quail ( Exodus 16:4-34)

B 40 years ( Exodus 16:35)

C Water from the rock ( Exodus 17:1-7)

D Joshua, the next leader ( Exodus 17:8-13)

E Battle with the Amalekites ( Exodus 17:14-16)

A" Manna and quail ( Numbers 11:4-34)

B" 40 years ( Numbers 14:21-22)

C" Water from the rock ( Numbers 20:1-12)

D" Eleazar, the next priest ( Numbers 20:23-29)

E" Battle with the Canaanites ( Numbers 21:1-16) [Note: Adapted from ibid, p278.]

5. The friendliness of Jethro the Midianite ch18

As a Midianite, Jethro was a descendant of Abraham, as was Amalek. Both were blood relatives of the Israelites. Nevertheless the attitudes of the Amalekites and Jethro were very different, though Midian as a nation was hostile to Israel. Set next to each other in the text as they are, the experiences of Israel with Amalek and with Jethro illustrate two different attitudes that others held toward Israel. These differences have characterized the attitudes of outsiders toward God"s elect throughout history. [Note: Cf. Kaiser, " Exodus," p408.]

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Exodus 17". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/exodus-17.html. 2012.