Exodus 17

1 The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, travelling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 

Before we get into this study we perhaps need to check where the Israelites had got to.


Looking at the map again we see that Mount Sinai (alternatively referred to as Mount Horeb) is shown near the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. But note too, that the name on the map is followed by a question mark. That is because there are several peaks in the area and there are conflicting views as to which is the one.

But here we might have more problems. It was at Mount Horeb that Moses saw the Burning Bush when he was originally called to be the Israelites’ leader (Exodus 3:1). Here Moses will be given the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 9:8ff), and it was to here that Elijah fled (1 Kings 19:8). But whether it was the same peak in each case is not known.

However what we do know from the narrative is that Rephidim must have been near to Mount Sinai.

2 So they quarrelled with Moses and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’

Moses replied, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?’

3 But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, ‘Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?’

4 Then Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.’

5 The Lord answered Moses, ‘Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.’ So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the place Massah (testing) and Meribah (quarrelling) because the Israelites quarrelled and because they tested the Lord saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’

Oh dear, they don’t seem to have learnt do they? But thirst is something that will quickly override our rational thoughts and turn us into desperate people.

We might have hoped that by now their response might have been the same as Moses (v4) ‘Moses cried out to the Lord’. But it was not to be, and it seems that Moses’ concern was not so much their lack of water, but the lack of faith that the people still displayed. ‘What am I to do with these people?’.

Obviously Moses couldn’t take everyone, so the Lord simply suggested that the most influential people should go to witness yet another miracle. But Moses was also afraid for his life ‘They are almost ready to stone me’ (v4).

What did the Lord do about that?

Verse 6: ‘I will stand there before you’

Is that always the Lord’s response when we cry out to him in faith?

Note that in verses 6 and 7 there is no description of the actual miracle, how much water came out of the rock to satisfy the people and their animals, or whether this actually became a new river, flowing from the limestone rock, to supply them for days to come.

Why did Moses think that it was not important that he should record those details?

(I don’t know, but asking the question stimulated my thinking!)


Time to move on:

8 The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim.

Who were the Amalekites, where did they come from, and why should they attack the Israelites?

For some answers we need to go back to Genesis and the passage relating to Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac (Genesis 25:23-34). Here Esau sold his birthright to Jacob (later to be renamed Israel). Jacob also tricked Isaac into giving him ‘the blessing’ (Genesis 27:1-41).

Esau then seems to have deliberately set himself against his parents. Genesis 28:6-9  Now Esau learned that Isaac had blessed Jacob and had sent him to Paddan Aram to take a wife from there, and that when he blessed him he commanded him, ‘Do not marry a Canaanite woman,’ 7 and that Jacob had obeyed his father and mother and had gone to Paddan Aram. 8 Esau then realised how displeasing the Canaanite women were to his father Isaac; 9 so he went to Ishmael and married Mahalath, the sister of Nebaioth and daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham, in addition to the wives he already had.

We read in Genesis 36:2-3  ‘Esau took his wives from the women of Canaan: Adah daughter of Elon the Hittite, and Oholibamah daughter of Anah and granddaughter of Zibeon the Hivite – 3 also Basemath daughter of Ishmael and sister of Nebaioth.

And then Genesis 36: 12 Esau’s son Eliphaz also had a concubine named Timna, who bore him Amalek. These were grandsons of Esau’s wife Adah.

Esau, meaning ‘hairy’ was also called Edom, meaning ‘red’ – and that was the name that stayed with him, naming the nation ‘Edom’ and the people ‘Edomites’. His grandson Amalek branched out on his own and his tribe, the Amalekites, became nomadic raiders ranging throughout the Sinai Peninsula and even extending northwards into Canaan and Edom.


Deuteronomy 25:17-18 sheds a little more light on the attack of the Amalekites.

17 Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. 18 When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God.

It would appear that a raiding party attacked from the rear, picking off those who were ‘were weary and worn out   .   .   .   and    .   .   .   lagging behind’ and probably the raid happened towards the end of the day.

Their intention may have been to simply melt back into the desert and wait for another easy attack. But Moses was having none of it.

Exodus 17:9 Moses said to Joshua, ‘Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.’

Here we are introduced to Joshua (son of Nun, an Ephraimite. He was originally called Hoshea (Numbers 13:16) meaning ‘salvation’.

Joshua, or in Hebrew, Yehoshua means ‘Yahweh saves’. This became the Aramaic Yeshuah, and the current name ‘Jesus’).

What was the significance of the staff? Why not a sword?

The battle was the Lord’s. It had to be obvious that it was not to be man who had beaten the Amalekites. The ‘staff of God ’ had been used by God many times as a symbol of his power and to hold it aloft in the sight of all the Israelites would be a ‘visual aid’ reminding them who was actually fighting for them.

10 So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. 11 As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. 12 When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up – one on one side, one on the other – so that his hands remained steady till sunset. 13 So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.

Is it right that we should enlist the help of others in our stand for the Lord? Or should we trust the Lord to help us ‘go it alone’?

14 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven.’

(Some Bible names persist to this day, but not Amalek!)

Why was it vital that Joshua should know what was written on the scroll?

As he had been in the thick of the fighting he wouldn’t have seen what was going on with Moses, Aaron and Hur – he too must know that the victory was the Lord’s – not his.

15 Moses built an altar and called it The Lord is my Banner. 16 He said, ‘Because hands were lifted up against the throne of the Lord, the Lord will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation.’

(1 Samuel 15 describes their final destruction, and the rejection of Saul as king because he was disobedient, sparing the king and the best of the animals.)

Exodus 18

Read verses 1-12

1 Now Jethro, the priest of Midian and father-in-law of Moses, heard of everything God had done for Moses and for his people Israel, and how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt.

We do not know what god or gods Jethro worshipped as priest, but as we will see shortly, he is quick to recognise the Lord as greater than all the other gods (v11).

2 After Moses had sent away his wife Zipporah, his father-in-law Jethro received her 3 and her two sons. One son was named Gershom, for Moses said, ‘I have become a foreigner in a foreign land’; 4 and the other was named Eliezer, for he said, ‘My father’s God was my helper; he saved me from the sword of Pharaoh.’

We don’t know when Moses had sent his wife and children back to her father in Midian for her safety. It must have been after the episode in Exodus 4:24-26, and before he approached Pharaoh for the first time. (Otherwise Moses would not have needed to tell Jethro the details in v8). ‘he saved me from the sword of Pharaoh’ refers back to Genesis 2:15.

Moses had successfully led the people as far as Mount Sinai and Jethro had heard about it. Sinai was one of the places that the nomadic Midianite shepherds would graze their sheep (as Moses had done in his previous life – Exodus 3:1). So it would not be a problem for Jethro to bring Moses’ family to him there, and now would be a good opportunity for them to be reunited.

5 Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, together with Moses’ sons and wife, came to him in the wilderness, where he was camped near the mountain of God. 6 Jethro had sent word to him, ‘I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you with your wife and her two sons.’

Sending a runner ahead was a sensible precaution. He would return with details of where the people you wished to meet were actually camping, and it would also alert them that they were soon to receive visitors.

7 So Moses went out to meet his father-in-law and bowed down and kissed him. They greeted each other and then went into the tent. 8 Moses told his father-in-law about everything the Lord had done to Pharaoh and the Egyptians for Israel’s sake and about all the hardships they had met along the way and how the Lord had saved them.

9 Jethro was delighted to hear about all the good things the Lord had done for Israel in rescuing them from the hand of the Egyptians. 10 He said, ‘Praise be to the Lord, who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and of Pharaoh, and who rescued the people from the hand of the Egyptians.11 Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other gods, for he did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly.’ 12 Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and other sacrifices to God, and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat a meal with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God.

How encouraging to see Jethro’s immediate acceptance that ‘the Lord is greater than all other gods’, and his response in bringing sacrifices. How does his reaction compare to that of the Israelites at the start of this study?  

Now read verses 13-16

13 The next day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood round him from morning till evening. 14 When his father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he said, ‘What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand round you from morning till evening?’

15 Moses answered him, ‘Because the people come to me to seek God’s will. 16 Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and instructions.’

Whenever large numbers of people live together in close proximity, it will always eventually lead to disagreements. There was no legal system as yet, so people came to Moses as the only person they could trust to make good decisions. Actually, decisions that were in line with God’s will (Amazing, when the same people were so ready to grumble!).

It meant that Moses spent all day dealing with problems, but now God needed to spend time with him. So I don’t think that Jethro’s arrival just now was a coincidence.

Now read the rest of the chapter

17 Moses’ father-in-law replied, ‘What you are doing is not good. 18 You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. 19 Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. 20 Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave. 21 But select capable men from all the people – men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain – and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 22 Let them serve as judges for the people at all times, but let them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. 23 If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.’

24 Moses listened to his father-in-law and did everything he said. 25 He chose capable men from all Israel and made them leaders of the people, officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 26 They served as judges for the people at all times. The difficult cases they brought to Moses, but the simple ones they decided themselves.

Often it takes an outsider to recognise the obvious and to suggest a solution. It is true that others may have felt the same, but no-one had the authority to question the system that had arisen. It took a father-in-law to be able to do that!

27 Then Moses sent his father-in-law on his way, and Jethro returned to his own country.

The people had arrived at Mt. Sinai; a better legal system had been put in place, freeing Moses; Jethro could return home; a regular provision of food and water had been established; the news of the Amalekite defeat would soon spread to any others who might have contemplated attacking the Israelites, so there was now a time of guaranteed peace.

God now has something to say.

Exodus 15Exodus 19

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Exodus 17:1-16, 18:1-27 Water from  rock,  Amalekites defeated
(For Exodus 16 see Exodus 15)