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Exodus 17 - Commentary by Rev. John Schultz

2001-05-26; 14:30:53utc

Exodus 17

In this chapter we are given two dramatic accounts of God's dealing with Israel. Vs. 1-7 tells us about the water provision from a rock and vs. 8-16 about the victory over Amalek.

The story of the water from the rock has a special significance for me because the Lord used it to encourage me at a particularly difficult moment in my work on the mission field.

There are moments in our lives when we run into difficulty because of our disobedience. Israel's experience at Rephidim shows us that there can be moments when we face severe difficulties because of our obedience to the Lord. Vs. 1 tells us specifically that Israel's coming to Rephidim was a result of their obeying the command of the Lord. This point is of the utmost importance in our understanding of this Scripture portion.

Very often we misunderstand the nature of our problems. The Israelites thought that the problem was a lack of water. This turned out to be wrong. There was an abundance of water under the rock, but they were not aware of it. The real problem was that they doubted the presence of the Lord. We read in vs. 17, "they tested the LORD saying, 'Is the LORD among us or not?' " Most of our frustrations and problems are related to this kind of doubt. Jesus expressed the essence of sin on the cross when He cried: "'Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?'-- Which means, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' "[ 1 ] Sin has robbed us of our perception of reality. Jesus' experience of being forsaken by the Father happened when He carried away the sin of the world.

When we speak about the Lord's presence with us, we mean something different from God's omnipresence. In an objective way, God's presence fills the universe. But there is a sense in which we experience the presence of the Lord subjectively and enter into fellowship with Him. This presupposes a certain condition on our part, which has to do with the pardon of our sins and our being protected from the enemy. Israel had been under the protection of the blood of the Passover lamb ever since they left Egypt. When they tested the Lord in saying: "Is the Lord among us or not?" they tested this protection. They were actually at the point of withdrawing themselves from this protection. This may be the reason that the enemy could attack them in the rear, as we read in the second part of this chapter.

So what do you do when you find yourself without water as a result of your obedience to the Lord? The people of Israel took it out on Moses. We read that they quarreled with Moses. The KJV uses the word "chide" and the RSV says: "They found fault with Moses." Moses received the blame for this situation. God still had not re-entered the field of their vision. It wasn't even God's fault, it was Moses' fault. Moses' life was in danger because the people were at the point of wanting to stone him, according to vs. 4.

Withdrawing from God's protection through the blood of Jesus Christ over our lives severely damages human relationships. When the enemy gets his foot in the door, the unity is gone. If Israel had been aware of the presence of the Lord, they would have turned to Him to ask Him what the purpose of this test was.

We have seen before that God purposely brought the people into difficult circumstances to try them and to change their character. The impossible situation prior to the crossing of the Red Sea was one of those tests. The water at Marah was another test, and so was the hunger that preceded the provision of manna and quail. Israel could have gotten the point long ago had their eyes been open to the reality of their situation. But they did not know themselves; they did not know where they came from and where they were going.

The dialogue between the people and Moses should strike us as strange. We read in vs. 2: "So they quarreled 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?' " On the surface it seems that the request of the people is reasonable and that Moses shirks his responsibility by saying that it isn't his fault. Obviously, the argument is condensed and many more words were spoken than we read here. Moses must have reminded the people that God had taken care of them before in what were, seemingly, emergency situations. Therefore, they should turn to the Lord and ask Him for water instead of asking Moses. Moses' advice was rejected, and the people turned against him, at which Moses said: "You are putting the Lord to the test."

Again, the people uttered that horrible thought that it would have been better for them to stay in Egypt. They said to God, their Redeemer, that they never wanted to be redeemed; God forced them into it. God had given them life, but they could only see death.

As an answer to Moses' prayer, God ordered him to give the people water in a way that becomes an object lesson. We read in vs. 5 that the Lord answered Moses, "Walk on ahead 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." First of all, the miracle would be performed in the presence of witnesses. Some of the elders of the people were taken along. Then Moses had to walk ahead of the people in a rather demonstrative way; as if God is saying to Moses: "You are responsible! You are the leader of this nation." And finally he has to take with him the staff with which he struck the Nile. This is the staff that was called in ch. 4:20 "the staff of God."

The question arises why God singles out the striking of the Nile, which made the water turn to blood. Moses performed many other miracles with this staff, some of them more sensational. There must be a relationship between the bloody water of the Nile and the striking of the rock. The whole performance is heavy with symbolism. God could have let the water seep out of the rock without any striking, or just let the water run above the ground. It was important, though, that the rock be struck.

God said clearly to Moses: "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." In striking the rock, Moses actually struck God Himself. It is through the striking of our Lord Jesus Christ, that is through His crucifixion, that we may drink and receive the Holy Spirit. That is why Paul says in I Corinthians: "And [they all] drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ."
[ 2 ] When Jesus says to the Jews: "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him."[ 3 ] He stands in the shadow of the cross. The living water, the Holy Spirit, could only flow out of Him because He gave His life for us on the cross. And again Paul links the crucifixion to the coming of the Holy Spirit when he says: "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.' He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit."[ 4 ]

The striking of the rock elevates the whole incident of the people's thirst and their grumbling against God to the level of God's eternal plan of salvation. Israel's attitude is symbolic of man's attitude toward God. Man shakes his fist in God's face. God's answer is: "Strike Me." And in being struck, He saves us.

Israel's real thirst was not a thirst for water. "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?"
[ 5 ] Just as man does not live by bread alone so he does not live by water alone. The real food is the Word of God and the real thirst quencher is the Holy Spirit. We only realize what we thirsted for when we learn to drink from His reality.

Moses' attitude here is quite different from the incident when history repeated itself almost forty years later. When Moses stands again before the rock, the feeling of awe he must have had the first time had left him. He thought, erroneously, that the power to produce water from the rock was his own. We read in Numbers, "He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, 'Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?' "
[ 6 ] We should never lose sight of the cross. If God pours His power into our lives by the Holy Spirit, we must remind ourselves over and over again that it is because Jesus died for us.

The place where Moses struck the rock is called "Massah" and "Meribah," meaning "strife" and "testing." As we saw above, the Israelites put God to the test, but, also God put Israel to the test at the same time. We read: "In your distress you called and I rescued you, I answered you out of a thundercloud; I tested you at the waters of Meribah."
[ 7 ]

The incidents, both this one and the one in Numbers are referred to several times in Scripture. Moses reminds the people of them in his farewell speech in Deuteronomy. In the Psalms God says through David: "Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the desert."
[ 8 ] But one of the most moving references is in the book of Ezekiel, where the prophet describes his vision of the water that trickles out of the sanctuary and becomes a large river of life giving water. He says: "On the south side it will run from Tamar as far as the waters of Meribah Kadesh, then along the Wadi to the Great Sea. This will be the south boundary."[ 9 ] The water from the rock in the desert becomes the River of the Water of Life that flows from the throne of God. "Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb."[ 10 ]

Actually, the great miracle during the forty years Israel wandered in the desert is that there were only two times they were out of water. They must have found, most of the time, a water supply large enough to keep about two million people alive. Often, the greatest miracles are hidden in what we take for granted.

In the second part of the chapter, vs. 8-16, we read the account of the war with Amalek. This was the first war Israel ever fought. The Amelekites were descendants of Esau. According to Genesis, "Esau's son Eliphaz also had a concubine named Timna, who bore him Amalek."
[ 11 ] So the Amalekites were distantly related to Israel, both being the descendants of Isaac.

The account of the attack is rather sketchy in the book of Exodus. When Moses retells the history to the next generation in Deuteronomy, we get a clearer picture of what actually happened. He says there: "Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and cut off all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God. When the LORD your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land he is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!"
[ 12 ]

So, Israel must have started to move again at Rephidim, since Amalek attacked in the rear and cut off the people who were going slowly; probably the elderly ones among the people. It must have been a sly and treacherous attack. The Amalekites did not confront Israel because they were infringing on their territory. Their plan to prey on the weak ones explains why the Israelites were so furious and why God's reaction was so severe. When, years later, Israel arrived at the borders of Edom and they are refused passage, they respected the objection of the Edomites and circumvented their territory. Evidently, such was not the case with Amalek.

Amalek is the image of Satan, who attacks the children of God in the back, in the area where they are unprotected.

Presumably, the Amalekites took prisoners from among the Israelites. We do not read that they actually killed people. Israel seems to have been completely unprepared for this kind of war. It took them a day to mobilize their army. The instructions Moses gives to Joshua are for the next day. There seems to have been a naive attitude among the people, as if an attack like this could not happen to them. They marched through enemy territory, expecting to be able to go unopposed. It was in the desert the devil had perfected his policy of scourged earth. Hardly any life was possible and the creatures that lived there were poisonous, as we have seen. Israel's attitude parallels that of a young Christian who thinks that his way to glory will be a bed of roses and who is completely taken by surprise when the enemy strikes back.

The task to mobilize an army is given to Joshua. This is the first time Joshua is mentioned in the Bible. In ch. 33:11 he is called Moses' young aid. Originally his name was Hoshea,
[ 13 ] he was from the tribe of Ephraim. When Israel approached the borders of Canaan for the first time, about two years later, Joshua was among the twelve spies who were sent to survey the land. At that point we read that Moses changed his name from Hoshea to Joshua.[ 14 ] He must have been a very bright and promising young man, who was deeply devoted to Moses, and who loved the Lord with all his heart. We read in ch. 33:11 that "Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent." The name Joshua, or Jehoshua, means "Yahweh saves," or "Yahweh is salvation."

The story of the victory over Amalek is an object lesson on prayer. While Joshua and his army fought the enemy in the valley, Moses climbed the hill to pray together with Aaron and Hur. This prayer consists in the symbolic gesture of lifting up the staff of the Lord toward heaven. Vs. 11 tells us: "As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning." God could, of course, have wiped out Amalek without this prayer and without the use of any human agency, but He chose to use men to defeat the enemy. Had Moses not persisted in prayer Amalek would have won the war.

Prayer is one of the mysteries of the universe. We hardly understand how it works, and we often underestimate its importance. Prayer is our lifeline with God, and it is our weapon against the enemy. A sinner on earth receives salvation through prayer, and a saint in heaven glorifies God through it. Nothing happens without prayer.

This passage shows us that prayer can be teamwork. Moses was an old man in his eighties. Lifting up our hands above our head is one of the most tiring exercises we can perform. Within minutes the arms will start to tremble and weaken. How long Moses kept his hands up we do not know, but he must have started to weaken, since we read in vs. 11 that there were moments when Amalek was winning because Moses had lowered his hands. We learn from this that prayer is not a magic formula. Victory did not come automatically and instantaneously. It was persistent prayer that made the Israelites in the valley victorious. It was also not true that the army did not have to fight, but it wasn't their fighting that was decisive. Without the prayer of Moses there would have been no victory.

But why only Moses' prayer? Aaron and Hur probably knew how to pray also. But when Moses' hands grew weak, they did not take over his staff and continue his prayer; they supported Moses' arms. This makes Moses the ultimate prayer warrior and as such he becomes an image of the Lord Jesus Christ "[Who] is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them."
[ 15 ] This leads us deeper into the mystery of prayer. Prayer is ultimately the work of God. The only prayer that ascends to the throne of God is the prayer of Jesus Christ and prayers spoken in His Name. And it is the Holy Spirit who prays in and through us. As we pray we are mainly channels of the Spirit of God. The apostle Paul says: "In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express."[ 16 ]

Moses' prayer also shows us that victories on earth are won in heaven. In the book of Daniel we are given a glimpse of the power struggle that goes on in the heavenly realms. The angel Gabriel tells Daniel what happened when Daniel prayed for three weeks: "The prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia. .... Soon I will return to fight against the prince of Persia, and when I go, the prince of Greece will come."
[ 17 ]

Joshua gains a complete victory over the Amalekites. The RSV states it most dramatically in vs. 13, "And Joshua mowed down Am'alek and his people with the edge of the sword."

Then the Lord gives Moses instructions to document the incident. This is the first time in the Bible any written document is mentioned. God wanted future generations to know that the people of Amalek would be completely exterminated because of the attack on Israel. It took centuries before this written prophecy was fulfilled. When Saul became king of Israel, Samuel reminded him of the document. Evidently, during the times of the Judges, the document had been forgotten. Yet, we read of three incidents in the book of Judges when Amalek harassed Israel (ch. 3, 6 and 10).

The half-hearted way Saul went about the command to wipe out the memory of Amalek became his undoing. Samuel gives a dramatic account of the way Saul disobeyed the command in that he kept the king of Amalek alive and spared the best of the livestock. Samuel announces to him: "Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has rejected you as king."
[ 18 ]

It is difficult to evaluate the wars with Amalek from our human perspective. It is evident, though, that from God's viewpoint Amalek was more than a group of wild people who attacked the Israelites. Amalek was the personification of evil, an image of Satan himself. And the short war in the desert was a shadow of the cosmic struggle between light and darkness, such as the apostle John describes in Revelations. The fact that God uses human agencies in this struggle is amazing beyond comprehension. But John indicates that the victory over Satan is brought about by human beings. We read: "They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death."
[ 19 ] That is why Saul's disobedience was so serious. Saul had no idea what he was doing because he did not have the cause of the Lord on his heart. He was only concerned about himself and his image. In his reply to Samuel, Saul answers: "I have sinned. But please honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel; come back with me, so that I may worship the LORD your God."[ 20 ]

In vs. 15 we read: "Moses built an altar and called it The LORD is my Banner." The KJV renders the Hebrew without translation, saying: "And Moses built an altar, and called the name of it Jehovah-nissi." The building of an altar implies that a sacrifice was brought. This is the first time an altar is mentioned in the context of Israel's Exodus from Egypt. The bringing of a sacrifice against the background of this victory indicates that the war was won on the basis of the blood of the animal that was killed. Moses had lifted up his staff and acted out the prayer before the throne of God because one of God's creatures had died in the place of the people of Israel. The shedding of the blood brought about the victory. This links the event to John's commentary: "They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb."

Moses called the altar Jehovah-nissi which means, "The LORD is my Banner." If we try to picture the scene, we see a man sitting on a stone with a staff he lifts up to heaven. Of this simple stick he says: "The LORD is my Banner." Banners are ornate symbols of the honor of an army. In ancient conventional wars the loss of a banner meant the loss of honor. Nobody would think of using a staff and call it a banner. That would sound like a mockery. Moses' banner was an image of the cross and its shame. The cross was a mockery, but it was God's mockery of man's honor. God used a simple piece of wood to defeat His most powerful enemy. In the death of Jesus Christ on the cross God has become our Banner, our shame and our honor: Jehovah-nissi.

Guido Gezelle, the Flemish poet has written this beautiful short poem about God's banner:

"Life means carrying the banner of war which maybe torn,

soiled, almost slipping from our hands,

forward with courage through good and bad days.

Life is not peace or asking for a truce.

Life is carrying the banner of the cross into the hands of God."

The last verse of this chapter (vs. 17) is, evidently, hard to translate; the NIV renders it: "He [Moses] said, 'For hands were lifted up to the throne of the LORD. The LORD will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation.' " The KJV translates it: "For he said, Because the LORD hath sworn that the LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation." And the RSV again: "Saying, 'A hand upon the banner of the LORD! The LORD will have war with Am'alek from generation to generation.' " According to The Interlinear Bible, the literal text is: "A hand (is) on the throne of Jah war (is) to Jehovah with Amalek from generation to generation." Quoting the KJV, Adam Clarke comments on this verse: "This is no translation of the words ki yad al kes yah milckamah, which have been variously rendered by different translators and critics, the most rational version of which is the following: 'Because the hand of Amalek is against the throne of God, therefore will I have war with Amalek from generation to generation.' "

The main point of the verse is clear; that is that the LORD has declared war on Amalek and that this will carry on over several generations. As we have seen above, this war is an image of the cosmic war between God and Satan which is fought out in the lives of human beings. The different translations hinge upon the words "hands" and "banner." Since it was Moses who lifted up his hands toward heaven during the war, it would be logical to Moses' hand in this verse. Also, since the banner is an image of the throne we could probably use both words to translate the Hebrew kes.

There is always a danger that we read too much into verses that are not immediately clear. But, without wanting to press the point, we could say that if the banner of Moses, that is the staff of God, was an image of the cross of Christ, the cross and the throne are identical. The defeat of Amalek came ultimately through the death of Jesus Christ, that is through the blood of the Lamb.

It may not be clear whether it was the hand of Moses that held the banner up, as the KJV interprets it, that the hand of the LORD was lifted up in an oath, but, here again, the two would complement each other in one truth, that it is God's eternal immutable plan to eliminate sin from His creation and that He has chosen to use men in this process; men who are washed in the blood of the Lamb, and who testify to this by the word of their mouth and who are willing to give their lives for their Lord.
[ 21 ]

[ 1 ] Matt. 27:46

[ 2 ] I Cor. 10:4

[ 3 ] John 7:37,38

[ 4 ] Gal. 3:13-14

[ 5 ] Ps. 41:1,2

[ 6 ] Num. 20:10

[ 7 ] Ps. 81:7

[ 8 ] Ps. 95:8; see also Ps. 106:32

[ 9 ] Ezek. 47:19

[ 10 ] Rev. 22:1

[ 11 ] Gen. 36:12

[ 12 ] Deut. 25:17-19

[ 13 ] Num. 13:8

[ 14 ] See Num. 13:16

[ 15 ] Heb. 7:25

[ 16 ] Rom. 8:26

[ 17 ] Dan. 10:13,20

[ 18 ] I Sam. 15:23

[ 19 ] Rev. 12:11

[ 20 ] I Sam. 15:30

[ 21 ] See Rev. 12:11

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