Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Exodus 17

Verses 1-3

MARCH TO REPHIDIM WANT OF WATER,Exodus 17:1-7.

1.From the wilderness of Sin — The plain of Murkha. See Introductory Note, (1,) on chapter 16.

After their journeys — Or, rather, breaking up places — stations in the desert — implying that there were stations between Sin and Rephidim. Two of these, Alush and Dophkah, mentioned in Numbers 33:12-14, are not as yet identified with any known localities, but were probably in Wady Feiran.

According to the commandment of the Lord — Literally, the mouth of Jehovah, who regulated their halting places by the pillar of cloud. Moses had lived forty years in this wilderness, and must have had much knowledge concerning its thoroughfares, springs, and oases, which would be of the highest value to him in conducting Israel. How much of this guidance was in this way natural, and how much supernatural, it is impossible to determine.

Rephidim — The last station mentioned before the “Desert of Sinai,” though other halting-places may have intervened. Here their progress was contested by the Amalekites. In Wady Feiran, where now we suppose the main body of Israel to have been, we find precisely such a spot as would be certain to be held by a tribe of the desert, and where they would be likely to dispute the passage of this great thoroughfare through their territory. At the northern base of Mount Serbal is a large fertile tract, “the paradise of the Bedouin,” with springs and palm groves, extending for miles along the valley, where, if anywhere in the whole peninsula, the Amalekites would be encamped, holding the wells, and cutting off the advance of an invading host. Israel was thus obliged to halt in a dry part of the wady, before reaching the oasis, and was not able to get to the springs. Thus there was no water for the people to drink. All the members of the “Sinai Expedition,” except Mr. Holland, agree in identifying this spot with Rephidim. Holland locates it farther along, at a pass leading into Wady es Sheikh. A rocky hill, from six to seven hundred feet high, overlooks this palm grove from the northern side of the valley, called Jebel (Mount) Tahuneh. On this hill, in the early Christian ages, stood a church and a bishop’s residence, while a settlement called Paran, whose name survives in the modern Feiran, clustered among the palms below. The walls of an ancient convent still stand on a mound in front of this hill, originally built of dressed sandstone, but repaired with rude stones from Serbal. Stanley says that “the oldest known tradition of the peninsula is, that Rephidim is the same as Paran.” If so, this hill, Jebel Tahuneh, is without doubt the one on which Moses prayed during the conflict with Amalek. (Palmer’s Desert of the Exodus, pp. 158, 276.)

Verse 4

4.What shall I do — There was now another mutiny, as in the Desert of Sin, but apparently more dangerous, for Moses regards his life as in peril. Yet, though himself in as great perplexity as the people, he consults Jehovah in simple faith, and meekly bears the threats of the insurgent crowd.

Verse 5

5.Thy rod — The rod which brought death to Egypt is to bring life to Israel; the power which made the life-giving Nile a channel of loathsome death is to bring from the dry rock waters of life. So, ever, the same truth is “to the one a savour of life, to the other a savour of death.”

Verse 6

6.I will stand before thee — In the pillar of cloud.

In Horeb — The name of the mountain cluster, or district, towards which Israel was now advancing. The Sinai peak, or mountain of the law, was one of the summits of this cluster.

In the sight of the elders — Chosen witnesses who could bear record to the reality of the miracle. In endeavouring to rationalize away this miracle, men have imagined arrangements of rocks and fountains, etc., more miraculous far than anything in the narrative.

Palmer’s account of a rock and its accompanying tradition, at this place, is interesting. He says: “It is a significant fact that in Wady Feiran, immediately before the part of the valley where the fertility commences, I discovered a rock, (a large mass of granite fallen from the wady wall,) which Arab tradition regards as the site of the miracle. This rock, which has never before been noticed by travellers, is called Hesy el Khattatin, and is surrounded by small heaps of pebbles, placed upon every available stone in the immediate neighbourhood.” It will be noticed that this is a totally different rock from that shown by the monks of St. Katharine as the Rock of Moses. That is near their convent at Jebel Musa, and is a large, cubical block of red granite, traversed obliquely from top to bottom by a seam of finer materials, twelve or fifteen inches wide, which contains several horizontal crevices, which are shown by the monks as the mouths from which the water gushed. (Robinson, Olin.) But it is wholly impossible for Rephidim to have been at Mount Sinai; and the monks, in forming their traditions, seem to have been wholly careless, if not ignorant, of the Scripture narrative. They have simply grouped all the holy sites within easy walking distance of their convent.

The allusion which the Roman historian Tacitus makes to this miracle, as well as to the exode and wandering of the Israelites, is most instructive, as showing what confused ideas the most enlightened Romans had of Hebrew history, and also what a deep impression this miracle made, even upon the heathen world. Having stated that the Egyptian king drove the Israelites into a vast desert, he says: “While the others were stupefied with grief, Moses, one of the exiles, advised them not to look for help to gods or men, seeing that they now were abandoned by both, but trust him as a celestial leader, who had first helped them in their present missions. To this they agreed, and began their random journey, ignorant of every thing. But nothing exhausted them so much as the want of water. And now they had thrown themselves down over all the ground, near unto death, when a herd of wild asses came from feeding, and went to a rock overshadowed by a grove of trees. Moses followed them, conjecturing that there was grassy soil there, and opened great sources of water, (largas aquarum venas operit. ) This was a relief, and, after journeying continually for six days, they on the seventh drove out the inhabitants, (allusion to the Jewish week and Sabbath,) and obtained the lands in which their city and temple were dedicated. They consecrated, in the most holy place of their temple, an image of the animal who saved them from their thirst, and their wandering(!)” — TACITUS’ History, 5: 2-5. And in this way history is written by one of the most famous of historians!

Verse 7

7.Massah Temptation.

Meribah — Strife.

Verse 8

CONFLICT WITH AMALEK,Exodus 17:8-16.

8.Then came Amalek — The Amalekites were a nomadic people of whom we find the first trace in the life of Abraham, (Genesis 14:7,) who seem to have been pressed westwards into Southern Palestine and the Sinai Peninsula, from the shores of the Persian Gulf, by the advance of the Assyrian empire. (Knobel’s Volkertafel. ) There are now found in the desert primitive remains of tombs, stone circles, and archaic sculptures, which are referred to this people. Stone huts of the beehive form, seven to ten feet high, with well-made door-openings two feet square, made of rubbed stones, are also found in various parts of these deserts, and are assigned by many antiquarians to the Amalekites. (See cut on opposite page.)

This tribe, or nation, now held the great thoroughfare from Egypt to Palestine by Wady Feiran and Akabah. We have already seen that the Philistines held the northern thoroughfare along the Mediterranean shore, by Gaza and the maritime plain, so that collision with the one or the other of these nations was inevitable. This was now their first conflict with this wide-spread people, who harassed them at intervals through all the period of the Judges, who were signally defeated by Saul, and finally destroyed by David. 2 Samuel 8:12. This was chiefly a guerrilla warfare, the Amalekites blocking the steep, narrow passes against the advance of Israel, and harassing their flanks and rear. Deuteronomy 25:18. At Rephidim, however, three miles above the rock just described as the rock of Moses, in the Arab tradition, the Wady Feiran broadens out into a plain which extends up into two branch valleys along the flanks of the lofty Mount Serbal. The conical hill Tahuneh, above described, commands a full view of this plain and of these branch valleys, between which rises the jagged front of Serbal. (See cut on opposite page.)

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The only objection worthy of notice which is made to locating this conflict before Tahuneh is thatxodus 19:2, states that when Israel departed from Rephidim they "camped before the mount," Sinai, which is more than a day's march from the oasis ofFeiran. But Mount Sinai is not stated to be the next station after Rephidim, and the itinerary of Numbers xxxiii shows, as we have already seen, that several intermediate stations are omitted in the Exodus narrative. Dophkah and Ahesh, between the Desert of Sin and Rephidim, find no mention here. Of course those who (like Knobel, Keil, Murphy) suppose that the Israelites went to Sinai by the Debbet er Ramleh, place Rephidim somewhere in that sandy plain. See Introduction to chap. 16.

Verses 9-13

9-13.Moses said unto Joshua, Choose us out men — Moses’s great successor, the second leader of Israel, and the type of the great Redeemer both in name and in office, now first abruptly appears before us. His name was originally Hoshea, (or Oshea,) which means Help, or Deliverance; but it was changed by Moses, (Numbers 13:16,) probably after this victory over Amalek, into Jehoshua, or Joshua, by the addition of the Memorial Name, JAH, thus making it mean, JAH (is) DELIVERANCE or SALVATION, the JEHOVAH SAVIOUR. This name is rendered Ιησους in Greek, in English JESUS, the “Name which is above every name,” before which one day “every knee shall bow.” Joshua was an Ephraimite, the son of Nun, and was now about forty years old. See note on Matthew 1:1. He was the military leader of Israel under Moses’s direction through all the desert sojourn, and now in this, his first recorded expedition, is ordered to pick a body of warriors to carry on the main battle with Amalek in the plain and valleys of Rephidim.

With the rod of God in mine hand — He calls his rod “the rod of God,” for all the wonders wrought by it were revelations of God’s power, not of his. This rod he was to elevate as a standard, a symbol of God’s presence with Israel. It was the rod that had smitten the Nile, and the Red Sea, and the rock of Meribah; and the sight of it would inspire the warriors of Israel with a consciousness that Jehovah was their real leader in this their first conflict with heathen powers. The gesture was at the same time an act of prayer, as he stood on the hill, above the battle, pointing heavenward with “the rod of God.”

Aaron and Hur — This Hur is said by Josephus to have been the husband of Miriam, and identical with the Hur who was the father of Uri and grandfather of the artist Bezaleel. Exodus 31:2. Moses was thus accompanied by his near kinsmen — his brother and the husband of his sister — as he went up into the hill to inspire Israel and plead with God.

When Moses held up his hand — The hand that held the rod. It will be noticed that the word hand is used in the singular. We are not to think of him as kneeling, with both hands stretched to heaven in prayer, as the scene is generally represented in paintings. At first he stood, raising the rod first in the right hand and then in the left, until he became weary; then he sat upon the stone which Aaron and Hur put under him, Aaron on the one side helping him keep the rod raised, and Hur on the other. Had both hands been constantly elevated, and Aaron and Hur thus constantly employed in staying them up, they would soon have become as weary as he; but they relieved each other in this toil. Elevating the hands is not essential to prayer; and the Scripture nowhere represents success in prayer as dependent upon any posture or gesture: but continuance in prayer and faith was essential to success, and the elevated rod was the symbol of this continuance. Aaron and Hur not only stayed up his hands, but his heart, blending their prayer with his. When, through weariness, Moses ceased to exercise and inspire faith, the battle turned against Israel; but by the help and sympathy of his brethren he was strengthened to continue his spiritual struggle till Amalek was defeated. The leader chosen by God, whom they had just been ready to stone, and the rod, which was the symbol of Jehovah’s power, were thus shown to be essential to Israel’s success. Here also is beautifully shown the divine-human partnership in fulfilling the plans of Providence. The rod of Moses and the sword of Joshua were both essential to the victory over Amalek; the prayer upon the hill and the battle upon the plain were both necessary to Israel’s success. Joshua could not have conquered unless Moses had prayed and inspired prayer; he could not have kept up this spiritual struggle without the help of his two brethren; yet his soul would have wrestled in vain unless Joshua had fought. The battling host was victorious only while struggling both in earth and heaven.

Verse 14

14.Write — This is the first time that this word occurs in the Bible. Until quite recently the existence of the art of writing in the time of Moses was frequently disputed by the opponents of revelation; but it is now settled that the Phenicians, whose alphabet was the same as that of the Hebrews, practiced writing at least as early as the time of Moses. The best idea of the form of the letters can be obtained from the fac simile of the famous Moabite stone discovered in 1868, which contains an inscription of Mesha, king of Moab, (2 Kings 3:4, which see,) vaunting his victories over Omri, king of Israel, in the tenth century B.C., the oldest alphabetic inscription as yet known. (“The Moabite Stone,” by Dr. Ginsburg, London, 1871.) Writing is here spoken of as if familiar to the Israelites, and it will be noticed, not mere monumental writing, as of a few words upon a stone, but in a book, upon papyrus, which denotes much advancement in the art.

In a book In the (well-known) book; our translation improperly omits the article. (Gesenius, Gr., § 109, 3, Rem. 1; Ewald, Lehrb., § 277, a.) It was the book wherein was kept the record of this wonderful history, wherein all God’s statutes were written down. It was doubtless the book used by Moses, or his scribes, in the composition of the Pentateuch, if not the Pentateuch itself.

In the ears of Joshua — Because he was to be the military leader, and to execute this commission upon Amalek.

I will utterly put out — Literally, wiping I will wipe out; fearfully graphic words. Amalek was a nation which had “filled the measure of its iniquities,” and God appointed Israel to blot it from being.

Verse 15

15.Built an altar — The first of which we have any record since the time of Jacob. How consistent is this action with the unique and peculiar national character that was now beginning to be developed! Other nations would have built a monument to Moses or Joshua; but the Hebrew leader builds an altar and calls it JAHVEH-NISSI-JAHVEH My Banner. The reason of this is now given.

Verse 16

16.Because the Lord (JEHOVAH) hath sworn — An obscure and much disputed verse. It is quite generally conceded that “throne” here should be read “banner,” as in Exodus 17:15, כס being some copyist’s error for נס, which could very easily take place, especially as the word is nowhere else found. (Mich., Vater, Houbig., Ges., Knob.) The “because” shows that this verse gives a reason for the name of the altar, and the literal rendering would then run thus: And he said, [the name is Jehovah, my Banner,] Because the hand [of Israel is] on the banner of JAH, [there shall be] war from Jehovah with Amalek from generation to generation; that is, till he is blotted out. That is, Jehovah has reared up a standard against this heathen people, on which standard Israel has laid its hand, as Moses on this eventful day laid his hand upon the rod of God, and that standard shall not fall till Amalek is blotted out. Amalek, called by Balaam the “beginning of peoples,” most ancient among nations, the first foe of the covenant people, is the type of universal heathenism, which shall fall before Jehovah’s banner; and that banner shall not droop in the hands of his true Israel — the rod will not sink on the mount, nor the sword drop on the field — till all his foes are “wiped out” from under heaven. The Jehovah-Saviour “must reign till he hath put all enemies under his feet.”

 

 

 

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Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Exodus 17". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/exodus-17.html. 1874-1909.