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Bible Commentaries

Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Exodus 17

Verses 1-7

Water From the Rock (Exodus 17:1-2.17.7 ).

The children of Israel leave the wilderness of Sinai and encamp in Rephidim. Its site is uncertain. There they find themselves without water. Considering the continual shortage of water in the wilderness when they were not at oases or wells, a situation which they must have become used to, this comment must be taken to mean that they had reached a desperate state. Their mouths were parched, their water skins were dry, they were dehydrating and they saw no hope of finding water. And once again they murmur. And they turn to Moses their only hope. Behind all their belligerence lies the confidence that they have that Moses can somehow do something. Their only hope lay in deliverance from Yahweh.

Moses is therefore told to take the elders of Israel with him to a place which Yahweh will show him, and then Yahweh will stand before them on the rock in Horeb and when he smites the rock the water will flood out so that all may drink. All we are then told is that Moses did so. But we note that the emphasis is not on the provision of water but on the fact that the people tempted God, asking whether He was among them or not.

So the children of Israel have now been tested by water three times. Firstly after their first three days when there was no water (Exodus 15:22), secondly at Marah, where it was bitter (Exodus 15:23), and now here at Rephidim, where there was again none. Yahweh’s testings are always complete. Note that the people first ‘strove with Moses’ (Exodus 17:2), and then ‘murmured’ against Moses (Exodus 17:3). It would appear that the situation lasted for some time and that the people were getting more and more belligerent (Exodus 17:4).

a They journey by stages to Rephidim where there is no water, and the people wrangle with Moses and ask him to give them water, at which Moses asks, ‘why do you wrangle with me? Why do you put Yahweh to the test?’ (Exodus 17:1-2.17.2).

b The people thirst for water and murmur against Moses saying, ‘Why have you brought us from Egypt to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?’ (Exodus 17:3).

c Moses cries to Yahweh and asks what he must do, as the people are ready to stone him (Exodus 17:4).

d Yahweh tells him to pass on before the people with the elders of Israel and the staff with which he smote the river (the Reed Sea) and go forward (Exodus 17:5 a).

c For Yahweh will stand on the rock in Horeb, and Moses must smite the rock, and then water will come out that the people might drink (Exodus 17:5 b).

b ‘Moses did so’, that is, he obediently smites the rock in the sight of the elders of Israel and water comes out (Exodus 17:5 c).

a And he call the name of the place Massah (‘testing’) and Meribah (‘striving’) because of their striving, and because they had tempted Yahweh asking whether He was with them or not (Exodus 17:7).

Note in ‘a’ that the people wrangle with Moses and Moses asks why they put Yahweh to the test, while in the parallel he names the place Massah and Meribah because that is what they people did. In ‘b’ there is a contrast between a disobedient people crying out in anger and distress, certain that they will die, and the confident Moses doing what Yahweh has commanded him which results in life-giving water for the people (assumed from the narrative). In ‘c’ Moses cries to Yahweh and in the parallel Yahweh answers him. Instead of stoning him, they will drink. Central to the narrative is that Moses goes forward into the barren wilderness, taking the unbelieving elders of Israel, and the mighty staff with which the waters of the Reed Sea had been parted. On the one hand is fear on the other is power. In this will the whole problem be rectified.

Exodus 17:1

‘And all the congregation of the children of Israel journeyed from the Wilderness of Sin by their stages according to the commandment of Yahweh, and pitched in Rephidim. And there was no water for the people to drink.’

The journey towards Sinai continued. Prior to reaching Rephidim they passed through Dophkah (possibly meaning ‘smeltery’, a reminder of the copper workings found in a number of places in South-central Sinai) and Alush (Numbers 33:12-4.33.13). Neither can be specifically identified. And then they reached Rephidim. A regular feature of such a wilderness journey is shortage of water, especially for so large a group. Thus in order to be mentioned the situation here must have become desperate. Their waterskins were empty and their mouths were parched. It is not said at this stage that their cattle and sheep needed water. They could survive far longer without it.

“Rephidim.” The site of Rephidim is not certain although the Wadi Refayid in south west Sinai has been suggested. The fact that these sites are unidentifiable is a striking feature of their accuracy. Had a later writer invented the journey the places would have been identifiable.

However Exodus 17:6 speaks of ‘the rock in Horeb’ to which the elders go from Rephidim. It is thus fairly close to Mount Sinai (Horeb and Mount Sinai are almost interchangeable terms, although the former refers to a slightly wider area). Compare how Exodus 18:5 describes being ‘at the mount of God’, that is Mount Sinai

Exodus 17:2-2.17.3

‘For this reason the people strove with Moss and said, “Give us water that we may drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you strive with me? Why do you put Yahweh to the test?” And the people thirsted for water. And the people murmured against Moses and said, “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?”

Because their situation was getting desperate the people came to Moses in their desperation, crying out for water. But Moses too was parched and thirsty, yet he struggled on with confidence in Yahweh. Thus he challenged them as to their lack of faith. They too should share his confidence.

“Why do you strive with me?” The word means ‘to wrangle, to engage in controversy’. It was clear that they were in a very angry mood, even ready to attack him (Exodus 17:4) and he challenged what they were intending to do in order to diffuse the situation. Why were they doing it? he asked. The situation was not his fault. It was a consequence of desert journeying. They knew the position as well as he did and he possibly felt that they should have shown the same resilience as he did.

“Why do you put Yahweh to the test?” But worse he pointed out to them that what they were really doing was challenging Yahweh. They should have been continuing on in confident faith waiting for Yahweh to act on their behalf, not blaming His representative. It was Yahweh that they were really confronting. Let them remember with Whom they were dealing. Compare Exodus 15:25; Exodus 16:4. There Yahweh had ‘proved’ them, now they were ‘proving’ Yahweh They had clearly not learned their lesson from those incidents.

“And the people murmured against Moses.” The controversy has now resulted in incipient rebellion. Their feeling are growing stronger.

“And the people thirsted for water.” The repetition shows that the shortage continued and grew worse. There they were in that excessively hot, barren place with water supplies run out. Their children and cattle were crying out for water, and in their desperation they were beginning to feel that death was inevitable (compare Exodus 16:3; Numbers 16:13). And they accused him of being responsible for it. If he had not brought them out of Egypt they would never have been in this situation. They forgot the joy they had had in their deliverance. What good was that if they now died of thirst?

Exodus 17:4

‘And Moses cried to Yahweh saying, “What shall I do to this people. They are almost ready to stone me?”

Moses himself was getting desperate, not at the shortage of water but because of the angry belligerence of the people. And he cried to Yahweh for help, possibly in the Tent where the covenant tablets of his fathers were held, or in front of the cloud which represented the presence of God.

Exodus 17:5

‘And Yahweh said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, and take with you the elders of Israel. And take in your hand the staff with which you smote the Nile, and go. Behold I will stand before you there on the rock in Horeb, and you will smite the rock and water will come out of it so that the people might drink.” And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.’

Yahweh answers Moses. This time Moses must take not only Aaron, but also all the elders of Israel. They too must now become involved in the finding of solutions that they might learn to trust in Yahweh. Note that on the one hand he has with him the weak and trembling elders, and on the other the mighty staff of God. The contrast is striking. On the one hand fears, on the other the perfect answer. But only Moses was aware of it.

“Take in your hand the staff with which you smote the Nile.” There the staff made the water undrinkable. Now it was to be used to provide drinkable water. It was not just a staff of judgment but one of mercy to those who followed Yahweh. The staff was the symbol of Moses’ authority and its use therefore confirmed his position before the elders and the people. Yahweh is here revealed as the great controller of waters.

“I will stand before you there on the rock in Horeb.” This would seem to have been a rock reasonably well known to Moses from his previous time in the area, and he had possibly heard stories of water coming from the rock. We are probably to see here that the cloud will move over this famous rock to denote Yahweh’s presence. Horeb is closely connected with Mount Sinai, and to some extent equated with it. Thus they were to go close to Sinai.

And Yahweh would stand there on it. All the elders would see was a barren rock, but Moses would know that Yahweh was there. Although it may be that the cloud descended on it. Either way Horeb was to be the place of Yahweh’s blessing.

“And you will smite the rock and water will come out of it.” The limestone rocks in the area absorbed water and it has been known for water to come from such rocks when they are knocked. But in this case the particular rock must have been over a large spring in view of the amount of water that came from it.

The actual carrying out of his assignment is described in a sentence, ‘and Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.’ The mentioning of the elders as witnesses suggests a recognition of the importance of having such witnesses to what happened, which suggests a contemporary narrative. They would inform the people of all that had happened.

Notice that no attempt is made to bring out a miraculous element. What is considered important is not that it was a miracle but that it was Yahweh Who provided water for His people after they had challenged why He had done nothing and had put Him to the test. He had provided water at Marah (Exodus 15:25), He had provided water at Elim (Exodus 15:27), now He provided water at Horeb (Exodus 17:6).

Exodus 17:7

‘And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah because of the striving of the children of Israel and because they tested out Yahweh saying,. “Is Yahweh among us or not?” ’

Moses was clearly very concerned at the behaviour of the people and he expressed this concern by applying two names to the area (he is not said to have done this in other places so it is clearly seen as significant). This was possibly because there were two prominent landmarks to which he gave each a name. One he called Massah, which means ‘tempting, proving’, and the other he called Meribah, ‘chiding, striving’. These would be forever a symbol and reminder of the behaviour of the people. They were to be a monument to rebellious doubt and lack of faith.

“Is Yahweh among us or not?” This was not the doubt of unbelief but the muttering of rebellion. They saw His cloud. But what use was that, they asked, if He did not provide for them? In other words they were disgruntled at the way He behaved.

Note for Christians.

Paul likens the rock from which the water flowed to Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4) Who provides His people with living water (John 4:10; John 4:14-43.4.15; John 7:37-43.7.38). He does not there mean that the rock was literally Christ (any more than baptismal water was from the Red Sea) but that the water from the rock came from the same source as the living water we receive through Christ, from the heart of God Himself. Thus just as the people of Israel drank water from the rock, so we can drink spiritual water from Him.

End of note.

Verses 8-16

A Sudden Attack From an Unexpected Foe (Exodus 17:8-2.17.16 ).

Up to this point the problems of the journey have been physical problems arising from the environment, but now the children of Israel are reminded of other dangers, the dangers arising from people who resent their presence. This would seem not just to be a raiding party but a determined attack to prevent their progress. A sub-tribe of Amalekites had no doubt spotted them and reported their presence and their large numbers, to the wider elements of the Amalekites, who were Bedouin tribesmen and who would see this area as their territory, and under invasion. The Bedouin roamed widely in the semi-desert seeking pasturage, food and water. They were fierce warriors and very independent. This was probably an amalgamation of a number of their sub-tribes for a determined attack No doubt they also hoped to gather much spoil. It does not mean that they had permanent residence in this area.

a Amalek come and fight with Israel in Rephidim (Exodus 17:8).

b Moses tells Joshua to select men to go and fight with Amalek (Exodus 17:9 a).

c On the next day he will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in his hand (Exodus 17:9 b).

d Joshua did as Moses had commanded and fought with Amalek (Exodus 17:10 a).

e Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill, and whenever Moses held up his hand Israel prevailed, but when he let it down Amalek prevailed (Exodus 17:10-2.17.11).

e Moses hands were heavy with tiredness and they put a stone under him and he sat on it. Then they supported his hands, one on one side and the other on the other, and his hands were heavy until the going down of the sun (Exodus 17:12).

d Thus Joshua discomfited Amalek with the edge of the sword (Exodus 17:13).

c Yahweh tells Moses to record what happened in a written record as a memorial and remind Joshua of it constantly, that He would blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven (Exodus 17:14).

b Moses built an altar and named it, ‘Yahweh is our banner’ (Exodus 17:15).

a Moses says, ‘Yahweh has sworn. Yahweh will have war with Amalek from generation to generation’.

Note that in ‘a’ Amalek come and fight with Israel in Rephidim, while in the parallel Yahweh will continually war with Amalek from then on. They had been foolish to interfere with His people. In ‘b’ Joshua has to select men to fight with Amalek, and in the parallel Yahweh is their banner. In ‘c’ Moses stands on the top of the hill with the staff of God in his hand, and in the parallel Yahweh tells Moses to record what happened in a written record as a memorial and remind Joshua of it constantly, that He would blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven. Moses’ intercession had been so effective that it has reached even into heaven, and into future generations yet to come. In ‘d’ Joshua fought with Amalek, and in the parallel he discomfited them with the edge of the sword. In ‘e’ the raised hand of Moses causes Israel to prevail, whereas when it falls Amalek prevail, while in the parallel his hands are successfully supported by Aaron and Hur all day (so that Israel finally prevail).

Exodus 17:8

‘Then came Amalek and fought with Israel in Rephidim.’

The short terse phrase ‘then came Amalek’ stresses the unexpected and surprise nature of their attack. The Amalekites had connections with the sons of Esau from whom they possibly took their name (Genesis 36:12). (‘All the country of the Amalekites’ in Genesis 14:7 may be a scribal updating of a previous description. Alternately Esau’s son’s name may have been taken from Amalek).

They are described by Balaam in Numbers 24:20 as ‘the first of the nations’ and he forecast their destruction. This probably means the first of the nations to attack the children of Israel after they left Egypt, or the first to attack them on their reaching Kadesh (Numbers 14:45). Or it may suggest an admiration for their nomadic way of life seeing them as nearest to the lives of the ancients.

This verse probably refers to their first attack, for in Deuteronomy 25:17-5.25.19 we are told that the first that the children of Israel knew of their presence was when they attacked the rear of the party, where the weakest and most feeble were found, at a time when they were all weary. It would leave them stunned and apprehensive. This treacherous behaviour ensured the Amalekites’ later condemnation.

“In Rephidim.” The rock from which the water came was in Horeb. But at this point only the elders had been to that rock. Thus this attack may well have taken place when the elders returned from the rock and when the people started off to move there to take advantage of the water (the Amalekites attacked the tail of the caravan). The final movement of the children of Israel to Horeb to take advantage of the water from the rock is not mentioned, it is assumed, and by Exodus 18:5 they are encamped ‘at the Mount of God’ in Horeb. We have seen previously how sometimes Yahweh commanded something and its occurrence was then assumed. But before that they have to deal with this menace.

Exodus 17:9

‘And Moses said to Joshua, “Choose us out men and go out and fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” ’

It is possible that the Amalekites, having made their presence felt and having realised the largeness of the numbers they were against, then approached and demanded that the children of Israel turn back, with the warning that if they did not do so they would be attacked again in force. But whatever the case Moses, having no doubt sent out spies to ascertain the source of the attack, recognised that the large force they had detected meant that they had a fight on their hands. Joshua may well have been one of those spies.

The Amalekites were not to know that the children of Israel were inexperienced warriors. But in fact they were so, for we must remember that the children of Israel had done no fighting either before or since being delivered. There can, however, be little doubt that Moses would have ensured that they had some military training while on the journey, for it would have been folly not to have done so. And he was presumably aided in this by Joshua whom he no doubt found to be a willing pupil, and who was a ‘young man’ (Exodus 33:11). It was the young men who would have been most willing to do the military training and there were no experienced older men to assist with it (although their numbers may have included ex-mercenaries). Moses may well have been the only one trained to handle arms, unless possibly they had with them some Israelites who had been mercenaries, or some ex-mercenaries were included in the ‘mixed multitude’ of Exodus 12:38.

Thus we should not be surprised to find such a young man being given the responsibility of leading the troops. The fact that he is mentioned without introduction need also not surprise us. His name is at this point simply mentioned as the one chosen to select the best fighters, whom he would know from training, and to lead the attack, possibly because he was the spy who reported back on the situation. It was only later that he received a permanent appointment, although he may even by this stage have been in charge of the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 33:11). Besides the incident was specifically recorded in writing (Exodus 17:14) and the compiler probably copied this down without addition. At the time it was first recorded Joshua would be the hero and would need no introduction. He would be known to all.

“Joshua” is sometimes called Hoshea (Numbers 13:8 - dropping the Yah prefix). He is later called a young man and becomes the servant (aide-de-camp) of Moses (Exodus 33:11).

“I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” Once more Moses’ staff is called ‘the staff of God’ (compare Exodus 4:20). It was the sign that Moses’ authority came from Yahweh. Thus it demonstrated that Yahweh would fight for them. Note Moses confidence, ‘I will stand’. It would not be long before he would have to sit. The battle was to be longer than he expected, and his confidence in his own strength was too great. But the fact that he was there with the staff of God would be a huge confidence booster to Joshua.

Exodus 17:10-2.17.11

‘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. And so it was that when Moses held up his hand Israel prevailed, and when he let down his hand Amalek prevailed.’

The length of the battle emphasises the size of the Amalekite forces, and the inexperienced Joshua with his inexperienced troops had a real fight on their hands. Meanwhile Moses went with Aaron and Hur to the top of the hill, probably so that he could be seen by his troops. This incident reminds us how old he was. We tend to forget that he was now an old man. Hur is mentioned again along with Aaron in Exodus 24:14 (see also Exodus 31:2) which emphasises his authoritative position.

“And when Moses held up his hand Israel prevailed.” This was, of course, with the staff of God in his hand. This was no doubt seen as because this ensured the assistance of Yahweh. But there can be no doubt that such a belief would have given the troops new life whenever they saw it. And when his hand fell the reverse would be the case. They were not seasoned fighters like the Amalekites and their only hope lay in their larger numbers, and in Yahweh.

Note the description of the battle - ‘Joshua -- fought with Amalek’, then ‘when Moses held up his hand Israel prevailed’, then ‘when he let down his hand Amalek prevailed, then - ‘Joshua discomfited Amalek’. It is made quite plain Who was the source of the victory.

Exodus 17:12-2.17.13

‘But Moses’ hands were heavy, and they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. And Aaron and Hur held 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. And Joshua mowed down (Hebrew ‘prostrated’) Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.’

This brings out the genuineness of the account. Moses was not seen as a superhuman figure but revealed as a weary old man unable to last out the day, simply because it was so. This was a contemporary record. Yet his importance comes out in that without him the battle would have been lost. Inexperienced troops need such incentives as he provided if they are to succeed in a tough battle. They needed to know that Moses and the staff of God were in action.

The lifting up of the hand was the sign of entering into a solemn oath (Genesis 14:22; Exodus 6:8; Exodus 17:16) and the raising of both hands may have symbolised the fact that Moses was calling on the throne of Yahweh for Him to be faithful to His covenant oath. But the final idea is clear. All depended on Yahweh.

The length of the battle emphasises the size of the Amalekite force, but in the end they were ‘prostrated’ before Israel. Their superior experience could not combat the size of the opposing Israelite force when its morale was maintained by knowing that Yahweh fought for them. God wrought for them but He also expected them to fight for themselves.

The battle would be an important lesson for the future. It gave them their first experience of victory, and it let them know that with Yahweh fighting for them they were invincible. They had seen it against the Egyptians but now they experienced it in live battle. The next time this would make them stronger.

Exodus 17:14

‘And Yahweh said to Moses, Write this for a memorial in a document, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the remembering of Amalek from under heaven.’

The instruction to write the details of what had happened is given because Yahweh wants His covenant concerning Amalek to be read and reread to Joshua. This confirms the practise, which we gathered from an examination of Genesis, that important covenant documents were written out in this way ‘for a memorial’, with the reading out of the covenant to those involved in view.

“For a memorial.” To act as a constant reminder.

“I will utterly blot out the remembering of Amalek from under heaven.” The crimes of Amalek were firstly, that they were the first to attack the children of Israel after they left Egypt, and secondly, that they did so in a cowardly way, attacking the weakest and most helpless of Yahweh’s people. We are constantly reminded throughout the Old Testament of Yahweh’s great concern for the weak and helpless, the widow and the orphan and suchlike.

Exodus 17:15-2.17.16

‘And Moses built an altar and called the name of it Yahweh-nissi (Yahweh is my banner) and he said, “Truly with a hand to the throne of Yah I swear, ‘Yahweh will have war with Amalek from generation to generation’.” ’

The altar would be built for the purpose of offering sacrifice, and we note that Moses is said to have built it (been responsible for its building) and not Aaron. Moses was still looked to as the tribal priest. Its name was ‘Yahweh is my banner’. This may look back to his activity on the hilltop with the idea that his staff was like a banner, although the parallel in the analysis also connects it with the going into battle, but its main meaning is that Yahweh will always go with Israel into war as their banner, in this case against Amalek.

“Truly with a hand to the throne (or ‘to the banner”) of Yah I swear.’ The Hebrew is uncertain. The word translated throne (kes) is not known elsewhere but can be taken as another form of kisse (throne). The raising of the hand was a strong form of oath (Genesis 14:22; Exodus 6:8). However Hebrew n is very similar to k and in context we may possibly read ‘nes’ (as in Exodus 17:15) meaning banner suggesting a very early copying error. But we are always loath to suggest such errors without evidence.

“Yahweh will have war with Amalek.” There would be no lasting truce with the Amalekites. They had proved their treacherous nature by their actions here. They dwelt ‘in the land of the south’ (Numbers 13:29 compare Genesis 12:9 where this means the Negev) and would cause further trouble to the children of Israel when they were at Kadesh, an oasis in the south lands. They were a constant problem to Israel when Israel was weak (Judges 3:13; Judges 6:3-7.6.5; Judges 6:33; Judges 7:12; Judges 10:12) and Samuel sought their destruction on the grounds of what had happened here at Rephidim which possibly patterned contemporary behaviour (1 Samuel 15:0). The remnant of the Amalekites were finally destroyed at their stronghold in Mount Seir in the days of Hezekiah (1 Chronicles 4:43).

“From generation to generation.” The blotting out was not to take place immediately. It would be a process through a number of generations.

Note for Christians.

In this passage the people of God were attacked by an enemy after they had been saved from Egypt and were on their way to live under the Kingly Rule of God. From that point of view they can be seen as a type of the Christian, who is saved from ‘the world’ and is a pilgrim on his way to the heavenly Kingdom of God. For the assault of evil on the people of righteousness has been true in all ages, and never more so than in our spiritual warfare today. And the way of deliverance is the same in all cases. It is through trust in God, and standing firm against the enemy. It is especially interesting here that the general who saved the people was called ‘Yahweh is salvation’ or ‘Yahweh saves’.

We may note here that technically Moses did not pray. He did not need to pray. His confidence in Yahweh was such that he knew that all that he had to do was indicate Yahweh’s presence as there on their behalf, and Yahweh would do the rest. Prayer would only have been necessary if Israel had sinned. We also need to learn that sometimes it is not prayer that is required, but confidence in God. There comes a time when prayer is not necessary because we already have God’s promise. Then instead we may praise in confident expectancy of what He will do. It was said of Praying Hyde that he gave up much of his time to praise because he found that it was the more effective in bringing down the blessing of God.

End of note.

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Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Exodus 17". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/exodus-17.html. 2013.