Exodus 17:1-16 Exploring the Passage

Below are some preliminary questions to assist in the study of this passage. For a comprehensive study of the passage, download the Study Guide (PDF download).

1. What is Israel’s next stop on their way to the Promised Land? See Exodus 17:1 (printed below) How does this stop compare with such previous stopping points as Marah (Exodus 15) and the Wilderness of Sin (Exodus 16?)

The entire congregation of the children of Israel set out from the wilderness of Sin, traveling from place to place as Jehovah commanded. Then they camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. (Exodus 17:1)

Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they came to the wilderness of Shur. For three days they traveled through the wilderness without finding water. (23) When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of that place, because it was bitter. That is why it was called Marah. (Exodus 15:22-23)

Then they set out from Elim and the whole congregation of the children of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, located between Elim and Sinai. They arrived there on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departure from Egypt. (2) The whole congregation of the children of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. (3) The children of Israel said to them, We wish that we had died by Jehovah’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat around the pots of meat, when we ate bread and were full. You have brought us into this wilderness in order to kill this whole assembly with hunger! (Exodus 16:1-3)

When we come to Exodus 17 we find the children of Israel journeying down into the extremely barren and mountainous wilderness of the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Here we find them encamped at a place called Rephidim, a place where there was no water. Since departing Egypt for the Promised Land of Canaan, Israel has encountered numerous trials, and now they face yet another trial, this one more severe than the previous. The waters of Mara (Exodus 15) were bitter, even to the point of being undrinkable, but at least there was water, there was a resource (bitter water though it was) with which the Lord could work and change into sweet water. In the Wilderness of Sin (Exodus 16) there was no bread and they had used up their provisions; but, if need be, they could have begun to slaughter their cattle for food. But now, at Rephidim, they encounter their most severe trial to date: there is no water; there is nothing at all down here.

2. How does Israel react to this situation? See Exodus 17:2-4 (printed below)

The people quarreled with Moses and said, Give us water so that we may drink! And Moses said to them, Why do you quarrel with me? Why are you testing Jehovah? (3) The people thirsted for water there; and they grumbled against Moses, saying, Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, was it in order to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst? (4) Then Moses cried out to Jehovah, What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me! (Exodus 17:2-4)

The people quarreled with Moses (verse 2). At Marah they murmured against Moses, there was a tremor of unrest (Exodus 15:24); in the Wilderness of Sin the whole congregation murmured, now there was a rumble of discontent (Exodus 16:2); here at Rephidim there is open hostility against Moses, they are almost ready to stone him (Exodus 17:4). Furthermore, we read that the people make a demand: Give us water (verse 2). It is no longer a legitimate question, as was posed at Marah, “What shall we drink?” nor is it an appeal, it is a defiant demand. Their demand is defined by Moses as a tempting and testing of the Lord (verse 2)—it is one thing to humbly petition the Lord for our needs (our Lord teaches us to pray to our heavenly Father, “Give us this day our daily bread” Matthew 6:10), but it is quite another thing to defiantly make demands of Him.

3. What does the Lord do for His people? See Exodus 17:5-6 (printed below)

Jehovah said to 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 River. Now go. (6) I will stand before you there by the rock at Horeb. You are to strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink. So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. (Exodus 17:5-6)

The Lord offers Himself as their Servant (verse 6). “I will stand before you…by (or, upon) the rock”—the Hebrew phrase frequently denotes the attitude and posture of a servant standing before his master, (Commentaries on the Old Testament, The Pentateuch, Vol.2, Keil and Delitzsch, p.77). Then the Lord sacrifices Himself for their sake (verse 6). The Lord instructs Moses, “You are to strike the rock, and water will come out of it” (note Isaiah 53:4, “Surely he has borne our afflictions and carried our sorrows; but we regarded him as one who was stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted as an evildoer.”)

4. Following the Lord’s miraculous provision of water, what happens next to the children of Israel? See Exodus 17:8 (printed below) and also Deuteronomy 25:17-18 (printed below)

Then the Amalekites came and fought against Israel in Rephidim. (Exodus 17:8)

Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. (17) 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. (Deuteronomy 25:17-18)

As Israel breaks camp in this rugged wilderness of Rephidim, just after the Lord has graciously supplied them with water, they are attacked by the Amalekites. Here was a cruel attack by a heartless, merciless enemy: the Amalekites struck the rearmost portion of Israel, attacking the weakest and the most feeble; attacking Israel when they were faint and weary, having no fear of God (Deuteronomy 25:17-18). Who were the Amalikites? They were a fierce nomadic tribe living in the desert wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula. Amalek was the grandson of Esau (Genesis 36:12)—Esau was the twin brother of Jacob (Israel)—whose descendants became the archenemy of Israel. What we find here is no mere squabble between two nomadic tribes, no mere dispute over land and water. On the contrary, what is involved here is nothing less than that spiritual warfare that traces it’s origins back to Jacob and Esau, and back to the distinction God made between “the offspring of the woman” (i.e., the redeemed) and “the offspring of the serpent” (i.e., the world of unconverted mankind under the dominion of the devil) (cp. Genesis 3:15).

5. How are the children of Israel delivered from their enemies? See Exodus 17:9-13 (printed below)

Moses said to Joshua, Choose men for us and go out to fight against the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands. (10) So Joshua did as Moses instructed him and fought against the Amalekites, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went to the top of the hill. (11) As long as Moses held up his hands, Israel prevailed; but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites prevailed. (12) When Moses’ arms grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held up his hands—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady until sunset. (13) So Joshua defeated Amalek and his people with the sword. (Exodus 17:9-13)

Moses orders Joshua to select combat troops from Israel’s ranks and meet the Amalekites in battle. Moses goes to the top of the hill and, with the staff of God in hand, lifts up his arms in intercessory prayer to the Lord on behalf of Joshua and the Israelite warriors. As long as Moses held up his arms the Israelites prevailed, thereby indicating that the victory is won by the power of the Lord in response to intercessory prayer (cp. Philippians 1:19; speaking of his present ordeal, the apostle Paul testifies, “I know that, through your prayers and the help provided by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the result of all this will be my deliverance.”)