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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 17

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

Verse 1


(1) The children of Israel journeyed from the wilderness of Sin.—The route by which Rephidim was reached is very uncertain. From El Markha there are three modes of reaching the Wady Feiran, where Rephidim is placed by most critics. One route (the shortest) is from the northern part of El Markha by Wady Shellal and Wady Magharah, where there was an important Egyptian settlement. This the Israelites would probably have avoided. Another, from the central part of El Markha, leads through the Wady Seih Sidreh to Magharah, and would, therefore, have been equally inconvenient. The third is circuitous, but has the advantage of being very open, and therefore suitable for a vast host. It passes through the whole of El Markha, and then, skirting the mountain, enters Wady Feiran at its south-western extremity. The probability seems on the whole to be that the Israelites pursued this last route.

After their journeys.—We find from Numbers 33:12-13, that Rephidim was reached from the wilderness of Sin by three journeys—from Sin to Dophkah, from Dophkah to Alush, and from Alusb to Rephidim. The distance by the route which we have supposed the Israelites to have taken is about fifty miles.

Rephidim means rests, or resting-places, and is an appropriate name for the central part of the Wady Feiran—the most fertile spot in the whole peninsula, where there is usually abundant water, rich vegetation, and numerous palm-trees. (Lepsius, Tour from Thebes to Sinai, pp. 21, 37; Stanley, Sinai and Palestine, pp. 40, 41.) According to Dean Stanley, “the oldest known tradition of the peninsula” identifies Rephidim with Paran—the seat of an early bishopric—undoubtedly the same word with Feiran.

There was no water.—Though Feiran is usually watered by a copious stream, there have been occasions when the brook has been dried up. Graul found it dry in March, 1858. (Stanley, p. 40, Note 3.)

Verse 2

(2) The people did chide.—Water is scanty along the route by which we have supposed Rephidim to have been reached. Such a supply as the people may have brought with them from Elim would have been exhausted. They would have looked forward to Rephidim both for their immediate necessity and for replenishing their water-skins. They would be suffering both from thirst and disappointment. The needs of their children and their cattle (Exodus 17:3) would be an aggravation of their pain. They would see no hope in the future. Under the circumstances we cannot be surprised at their “chiding.” Nothing but a very lively faith, or an utter resignation to the will of God, could have made a people patient and submissive in such an extremity.

Give us water.—It was not faith that spoke in these words, but wrath. They had no belief that Moses could give them water, and were almost ready to stone” him (Exodus 17:4).

Verse 3

(3) To kill us.—This was no exaggeration. Thirst kills as surely as hunger, and more quickly. Whole armies have died of it. (Herod. iii. 26.) Ships’ crews have perished of it on the ocean, with “water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.” Unless a supply could somehow or other have been provided speedily, the whole people must have been exterminated.

Verse 4

(4) They be almost ready to stone me.—Heb., Yet a little and they will stone me. On tumultuary stoning, see the second Note on Exodus 8:26.

Verse 5

(5) Go on before the people.—The people were probably in no condition to move. They were exhausted. with a long day’s march—weary, faint, nerveless. Moses and the elders, who probably journeyed on asses, would have more strength.

Take with thee of the elders—as witnesses. Each miracle had an educational value, and was designed to call forth, exercise, and so strengthen the faith of the people.

The rock in Horeb must necessarily designate some particular rock of the Horeb region already known to Moses during his previous stay in these parts. It cannot possibly, however, have been the traditional “rock of Moses” in the Seil Leja, under Ras Sufsafeh, since that rock is a long day’s journey from the site of Rephidim, near which the miracle must have been performed. (See Stanley, Sinai and Palestine, pp. 46-48.)

Verse 7

(7) Massah means trial, or temptation, being formed from the root used in Exodus 17:2 (“Wherefore do ye tempt the Lord ?”) It is the word translated by “trial” in Job 9:23, and by temptation” in Deuteronomy 4:34; Deuteronomy 7:19; Deuteronomy 29:3, and Psalms 95:8.

Meribah means chiding, or quarrel, and is from the root rub, or rib, translated “chide” in Exodus 17:2, and rendered elsewhere generally by “strive,” or “contend.” The name Meribah was given also to the place where water was again produced miraculously by Moses striking the rock (Numbers 20:13.) It is this latter “Meribah” to which reference is made in Deuteronomy 33:8, and Psalms 81:7, and which is called by way of distinction in Deuteronomy 32:51, “Meribah-Kadesh.”

Verse 8

(8) Then came Amalek.—The Amalekites had not been previously (except in the anticipatory notice of Genesis 14:7) mentioned as a nation. Their name marks them for descendants of Amalek, the grandson of Esau (Genesis 36:12; Genesis 36:16); and it would seem that they early became the predominant people in the Sinaitic peninsula. Balaam speaks of them as “the first of the nations” (Numbers 24:20); and though we do lot meet with the name in the Egyptian records, yet it is probable that they were among the hostile nations whom we find constantly contending with the Egyptians upon their north-eastern frontier. Though Edomitesn they are always regarded as a distinct race, and one especially hostile to Israel (Exodus 17:16). Their present hostility was not altogether unprovoked. No doubt they regarded the Sinaitic region as their own, and as the most valuable portion of their territory, since it contained their summer and autumn pastures. During their absence in its more northern portion, where there was pasture for their flocks after the spring rains, a swarm of emigrants had occupied some of their best lands, and threatened to seize the remainder. Naturally, they would resent the occupation. They would not understand that it was only temporary. They would regard the Israelites as intruders, robbers, persons entitled to scant favour at their hands. Accordingly, they swooped upon them without mercy, attacked their rear as they were upon the march, cut off their stragglers, and slew many that were “feeble, faint, and weary” (Deuteronomy 25:17-18). They then encamped in their neighbourhood, with the design of renewing the struggle on the next day. It was under these circumstances that Moses had to make his arrangements.

Verse 9

(9) Moses said unto Joshua.—This is the first mention of Joshua. He was an Ephraimite, the son of a man called Nun, and the tenth in descent from Joseph (see Note on Exodus 6:16), in the prime of life—about 45 years old—and probably known as possessing military capacity. His actual name at the timo was Hoshea, which might have been viewed as a good omen, since the word meant “Saviour.” Moses afterwards changed his name to Jehoshua (Numbers 13:16), which became by contraction Joshua. We find him, later in Exodus, acting as Moses’ personal attendant, or “minister” (Numbers 24:13; Numbers 32:17; Numbers 33:11), accompanying him to the top of Sinai, and placed by him in charge of the first “Tabernacle.” Afterwards he, with Caleb, was the only one of the spies who brought back a true report of Canaan. (Numbers 14:6-9.) His choice as leader to succeed Moses resulted naturally from his antecedents, and is related in Numbers 27:18-23.

Choose us out men.—The weakness of Israel was in its unwieldy numbers. Moses saw this, and, after deciding that he was himself unfit for battle, and passing the command on to Joshua, made the one suggestion that a select body of troops should be employed against the assailants. The advice was good, and “Joshua did as Moses had said to him” (Exodus 17:10).

I will stand on the top of the hill.—A particular “hill” was no doubt meant—a “hill,” and not a mountain. But the exact scene of the battle is too uncertain to make it possible to fix on any one particular eminence.

Verse 10

(10) Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up.—Moses, we know, was eighty years of age (Exodus 7:7); Aaron was eighty-three; Hur, the grandfather of Bezaleel (Exodus 31:2), the architect of the Tabernacle, can scarcely have been less. Unfit for battle themselves, they felt it was by prayer and intercession that they could best help forward a good result, and so withdrew themselves from the actual conflict to a place where they could command it.

Hur.—According to Jewish tradition (Joseph., Ant. Jud., iii. 2, § 4) Hur was the husband of Miriam, and so the brother-in-law of Moses and Aaron. He was a descendant of Judah through Pharez and Hezron. (1 Chronicles 2:3-20.) Moses left him joint regent with Aaron When he ascended up into Sinai (Exodus 24:14).

Verse 11

(11) When Moses held up his hand . . . Israel prevailed, &c.—In order to teach the lesson of the value of intercessory prayer, God made the fortunes of the fight to vary according as Moses “held up his hand,” or allowed it to sink down. It is not probable that the Israelites were directly affected by the bodily movements of Moses, or indeed could discern them, but Moses, Aaron, and Hur were struck by the fact that the fluctuations in the battle coincided with the motions of Moses’ hands.

Verse 12

(12) Moses’ hands were heavy.—Moses writes with a clear remembrance of his feelings at the time. His hands, long stretched to heaven, grew weary, “heavy,” feeble; he could no longer raise them up, much less stretch them out, by his own muscular energy. They sank down, and dropped by his sides. If the battle was not to be lost, it was necessary to find some remedy. Apparently, Aaron and Hur bethought themselves of an effective remedy, none being suggested by Moses.

They took a stone.—Partly to give him a certain amount of rest, but, perhaps, mainly to enable them the better to sustain his hands. The fact is one of those “little” ones, which none but one engaged in the transactions would have been likely to have been acquainted with. (See “Introduction,” § 5)

Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands.—Left to himself, Moses had become exhausted both mentally and bodily, and when his hands dropped, had ceased to pray. Sustained physically by his two companions, his mind recovered itself, and was able to renew its supplications and continue them. The result was the victory.

Verse 14

(14) Write this for a memorial in a book.—Heb., in the book. That “book” existed long prior to Moses is implied in his quotation of them (Genesis 5:1; Numbers 21:14), and has of late years been abundantly proved by the discoveries made of Egyptian papyruses dating from a time long anterior to the Jewish lawgiver. The expression used in the present place, if it may be trusted,[59] “the book,” is remarkable, and seems to imply that a book already existed at the date of the engagement, in which God’s dealings with His people were entered from time to time. (See Introduction to Speaker’s Commentary, vol. i., p. 1.) This book was probably the germ of the existing Pentateuch, which was composed in many portions, and at intervals, as occasion arose.

[59] Bĕsêpher, “in a book,” and bassêpher. “in the book, differ only in the pointing, which, resting solely on tradition cannot be entirely depended on. The LXX. omit the article.

I will utterly put out the remembrance of Amalek.—The extermination of Amalek, here prophesied, was afterwards laid as a positive command upon the Israelites (Deuteronomy 25:19), and was accomplished in part by Saul and David (1 Samuel 14:48; 1 Samuel 15:7; 1 Samuel 27:8; 1 Samuel 30:17; 2 Samuel 8:12), but finally and completely in the reign of Hezekiah (1 Chronicles 4:43). Amalek’s sin was, that after all the signs and wonders which had shown the Israelites to be God’s peculiar people, he braved God’s displeasure by attacking them (Deuteronomy 25:18). To this audacity and contempt of Jehovah’s power he added a cruel pitilessness, when he fell upon the rear of an almost unarmed host, at a time when they were “faint and weary.”

Verse 15

(15) Moses built an altar.—Primarily, no doubt, to sacrifice thank-offerings upon it, as an acknowledgment of the Divine mercy in giving Israel the victory. But secondarily as a memorial—a monument to commemorate Israel’s triumph.

And called the name of it Jehovah-nissi.—Jacob had named an altar “El-Elohe-Israel” (Genesis 33:20); but otherwise we do not find altars given special names. When an altar was built as a memorial, the purpose would be helped by a name, which would tend to keep the event commemorated in remembrance. Jehovah-nissi—“the Lord is my banner”—would tell to all who heard the word that here there had been a struggle, and that a people which worshipped Jehovah had been victorious. It is not clear that there is any reference to “the rod of God” (Exodus 17:9) as in any sense the banner” under which Israel had fought. The banner is Jehovah Himself, under whose protection Israel had fought and conquered.

Verse 16

(16) Because the Lord hath sworn that the Lord will have war with Amalek.—Heb,, because (his) hand is against the throne of Jehovah, (there shall be) war to Jehovah with Amalek, &c. The Hebrew can scarcely be said to be “obscure.” It gives plainly enough the sense which our translators have placed in the margin. Amalek, by attacking Israel, had lifted up his hand against the throne of God, therefore would God war against him from generation to generation.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Exodus 17". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/exodus-17.html. 1905.
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