The mission of God in the exodus was that Israel, Egypt and the nations would know him. The story of the liberation of Israel is the story of the revelation of God.
If you ask the question, What was God doing in the Exodus and the wilderness? The answer is, Saving the world.
The wilderness section of text bridges the exodus and Sinai.
The language of the text draws on the exodus narrative and anticipates Sinai. At Marah, we hear the exodus theme, I am the LORD (15:26b). In the wilderness of Sin to remedy the lack of food with mana and quail, we read, You shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt (16:6b) and Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God (16:12b). In the battle with Amalek, Israel came to know the LORD as their banner (YHWH Nissi 17:15b). Representing the impact of the redemption of Israel on the Gentile nations, Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, confesses, Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods (18:11).
Time in the wilderness with God is necessary preparation for the further revelation of God Israel is to receive at Sinai. They have to come to know God and learn to live in his presence. So the language of Sinai is introduced into the text. At Marah, the LORD showed (yrh 15:25a) Moses a tree. The word showed in the same root as the word Torah, teaching or instruction. The LORD made them a statute and a rule (15:25b) and warned them to give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes (15:26). In the wilderness of Sin, the LORD tested them, whether they will walk in my law or not (16:4b). We are introduced to the Sabbath and hear the LORD’s complaint to Sabbath breakers, How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws? (16:28-29). Jethro gave Moses advice on how to administrate the statutes and the laws (18:16, 20).
By drawing on the language of the Exodus narrative and anticipating the Sinai covenant, Moses is showing us the relationship between the indicative and the imperative, that is, the story of gracious redemption and the command to obey. The God who redeems us, then commands us. With a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, he delivers us and then he begins to talk to us about living with him. So he talks to us about our lives, our activity, our money, our marriage, our service, our career, our devotion, our commitments, our health, our living, and our dying, until you see that there is no area of your life that can remain un-surrendered to him.
In the transition from Egypt to Sinai, we see a shift in the book in how God makes himself known. He makes himself known in his mighty redemptive acts that establish beyond question that he alone is God in the exodus, and then he reveals his holy nature and righteous character in his law.
But first the wilderness
The purpose of the wilderness is a time of training to know and trust God in a way that leads to obedience. In wilderness training, the LORD is fashioning a people who will obey him, and in so doing reflect his image faithfully in the world.i
The implication of these passages is that the people of God cannot be all God intends them to be apart from trial and suffering. These are the means by which the LORD trains his people.ii We learn in the wilderness that God uses difficulty to make himself known. The LORD’s concern to be known in the exodus is carried forward in the wilderness. The God who delivered Israel from Egypt is the same God who trains Israel and gives Israel the Law.iii
What can we learn about God in the wilderness?
God trains us to obediently trust him (15:22-16:36).
In this passage, the LORD tests Israel at Shur (15:25b) and at Sin (16:4b). In both cases, the testing is not God trying to figure out if Israel will trust him. Rather the Lord is fashioning a people who will know him and as a result trust and obey him. Testing provides an opportunity for Israel to know the LORD (15:26b; 16:6b,12b).
Testing at Shur
Three days after the crossing of the Red Sea, Israel is in the wilderness of Shur with no water (15:22b). This was the last thing they were expecting. They began to grumble (15:24).iv Their grumbling reveals a lack of trust. God knew their lack of trust before he tested them. He led them into the thirst at Shur to teach them to trust. Trust is essential because of who God is. He is The LORD (15:26b), who requires trusting obedience (15:25b-26).
We can be in one of two positions with God: trusting obedience or unbelieving rebellion. To be unbelieving will bring judgment like the Egyptians faced (15:26). To be believing leads to blessing (15:27).
The structure of the text shows that trusting obedience is what God seeks at Shur.v
Found no water (22)
They came to Marah (23-25A)
A statute and a rule (25b-26)
They came to Elim (27a)
Camped by the water (27b)
The LORD led them into crisis. Through his instruction, the bitter water was made sweet (showed is from the Hebrew root, yrh: teach, instruct, or Torah). The restoration of the waters reveal that God’s deliverance is not confined to Egypt but extends to the wilderness. He is the LORD their healer. He can provide an oasis in the desert. To enjoy that, however, they must obey in faith.
Testing at Sin
They again grumbled in wilderness Sin when they were hungry saying, Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger (16:2-3). It is absurd to think that God would bring them out of Egypt to let them die of hunger in the wilderness.
Their grumbling is directly related to lack of the knowledge of and trust in God. God led them into the hunger of Sin to train them that the same God who delivered them from Egypt is the same God who is with them in the wilderness. God would rain bread from heaven so that, they would know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt (16:6). The LORD heard their grumbling (16:9b,12a), revealed his glory and gave them meat and bread (16:7,10,12b), so that they would know that I am the LORD your God (16:12c).
Their grumbling revealed that they were not ready for Sinai. In the provision of mana, God was training them in obedience (16:4). They would gather only what they could eat that day, trusting the LORD to provide for tomorrow. Then on the 6th day, they would gather twice as much, so that there was no gathering on the Sabbathvi (16:5, 22-26). Some failed the test and tried to gather more (16:19-20). Some didn’t gather enough in the 6th day, so they went out to gather on the Sabbath (16:27). They would have to learn to trust and obey the LORD (16:28-30), so that they might rest in God (16:30).
Israel’s obedience or lack thereof is shown to be directly related to her trust in the LORD’s provision. They are being trained to trust and obey because God is about to reveal his holy nature and character.
We learn from these tests that the LORD brings us by design into situations which call for trusting obedience. Our problem is, like Israel, we have expectations of what life in God will be like. It is shocking to the new believer to find that life often gets harder not easier. We have a lot of problems in a life of faith that we did not have before we were believers. Some have the mistaken idea that the purpose of God is to make sure you have a fairytale life. In faith, we live life Coram Deo, in the presence of God. He is not present to give you a comfortable life but to make you holy.
This text is part of the background for Hebrews 12.vii God disciplines us because we are sons for our good that we may share in his holiness (12:10). It is training that yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness (12:11). This walk with God is so vital, for without holiness no one will see the LORD (12:14b). God has not brought us to Sinai, to the old covenant, to be made holy, but into the community of faith through the blood of Jesus the mediator of the new covenant. Right here in this context of the local church, we are trained in holiness. Don’t despise the community; don’t pull away; don’t hide your sin; don’t think because of difficulty that God is untrustworthy. Our crises are invitations to trust.
Persistent disobedience comes out of unbelief (17:1-7).
There is a shift in the text at this point. Rather than God testing Israel, they test God. Instead of the prior crises training them in faith and obedience, they are on a trajectory of unbelief.
When they moved to Rephidim, again there was a crisis with water. This time they quarreled with Moses (17:2). Their quarreling is equated with testing the LORD. Quarreling is a stronger word than grumbling. Their expressions of faithlessness are at a new level of severity. They quarreled and grumbled against Moses saying, Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst (17:3b)? Again this thinking is absurd. Such thinking comes from a lack of trust.
Moses complained to God, What shall I do with this people? The LORD told Moses to take some of the elders and his staff and the LORD would stand before him on the rock at Horeb (17:6). Horeb is Sinai. Moses’s staff represents the power of God. We have seen it at work in the exodus. Moses was to strike the rock with the staff with which he struck the Nile (17:5b), and water would come out if it (17:6). Keep in mind we are talking about a lot of water.
The name of the place was called Massah and Meribah because of their quarreling and testing (rib). Interestingly, their testing of the LORD consisted in saying, Is the LORD among us or not (17:7)? Unlike the first two tests is the absence of I am the LORD. There is simply Israel’s question, Is the LORD among us or not? That is just cold unbelief.
This wilderness generation was on a trajectory that leads away from trusting God. This trajectory of unbelief will get to the place of no return in the Numbers wilderness account (Num. 14:20-23).viii
Psalm 95 reflects on this event calling for responding to the LORD’s voice in faithful obedience, unlike the wilderness generation. The psalmist charges the wilderness generation with hardening their hearts, the same language used of Pharaoh in the exodus.ix The writer of Hebrews, drawing on Psalm 95, echoes the warning against a wicked, unbelieving heart (Heb. 3:12-13). The call is to trusting obedience to the word of the LORD (Heb. 4:11-12).x
The grumbling of 17:1-7 shows a trajectory that leads away from trusting God, and therefore toward disobedience. The lessons of Shur and Sin are not being learned.
Be careful that you don’t establish a pattern of unbelieving disobedience. Disobedience arises out of a lack of faith. Perhaps there is the one known sin that we will not turn away from. We rationalize it and justify it, which is nothing other than marking out that area of life and saying, “Off limits, God.” The pet sin you are hanging onto may be an indication that you are on a trajectory of unbelief, and your heart is hardened by its deceitfulness.
What is at stake is God’s mission of making himself known to the nations (17:8-18:27).
In 17:8-18:27, we have contrasting responses by the nations to God’s revelation of himself in the Exodus. God’s judgment on the Egyptians has shown what he will do to the nations standing in the way of his promise. The Egyptians, Amalekites, and Midianties show us that Israel is a nation surrounded by a wider world of nations.
The world in opposition to God (17:8-16)
First, the Amalekites represent a world that opposes God’s people. They failed to recognize the hand and plan of God in Israel’s life and destiny.xi
The account of the battle alternates between two scenes: Joshua and the Israelite army and Moses with Aaron and Hur on the hill. The story is written with the focus on Moses on the hill, not on the Israelite army. This focus communicates what is decisive in the battle, the power of God. This is a lesson that Israel has to learn. They cannot beat the Amalekites in their own strength. In their own strength, they cannot drive out the nations in Canaan. They must learn to trust God.
God does not give us assignments we can do. He gives us assignments where we have to trust. Moses said to Joshua, Choose for us 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 (17:9). Does that sound like a battle strategy? The reference to the staff is to put us in mind of the striking of the Nile with the staff of God or the parting of the sea. The water from the rock and the defeat of Amalek are miracles. Israel must know the LORD is My Banner. Moses was to write this down.
The battles we fight are not meant to display our ability but the power of God. We don’t need more ability; we need power. We want to operate in our strength; the LORD wants us to operate in our weakness. Our standard says, I am My Banner.
That is why too many Christians live powerless lives. Lives that never get traction. We keep tripping over the same old problems, sins, and excuses. We walk around worn out and haggard. We are too overwhelmed to serve, too overspent to give, too isolated to let anybody in, too defeated to fight, too discouraged to engage, too jealous to love, too self-absorbed to reach out, too tired to be consistent, and too uncommitted making it easy for the devil to dissuade us from gathering with the saints. Until we realize the LORD is our banner, we will continue in powerlessness. I don’t know about you, but I can’t go another day without power. Tomorrowxii is when the LORD’s power is seen.
What glorifies God, Israel overthrowing Pharaoh or God overthrowing him? Israel fighting in the valley or Moses with the staff of God lifted to the throne on the mountain? Israel had to learn the association between Moses’ uplifted hands and the defeat of the Amalekites. When the overpowering enemies of your soul start to lose hold in your life, you are knowing God as you Banner.
The world coming to know God (18:1-27)
In the person of Jethro, the world out there walked right into the center of Israel’s camp. Jethro heard all that God had done in bringing his people out of Egypt (18:1).xiii He represents more than the testimony of one individual. This text is about fulfillment of God’s goal in the exodus to be known (9:16). Some version of Jethro’s confession is what we heard repeatedly in Exodus 1-15, Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods (18:11). Jethro stands as an instance of the LORD’s missionary purpose in the exodus being realized.
The language of 18:12 is striking. Jethro brought burnt offerings and sacrifices to God, and Aaron all the elders of Israel came to eat bread with Jethro before God. He is welcomed into the fellowship of Israel! The shows us that the salvation of Israel is the salvation of the world, and the experiences of the redeemed are a testimony to the world.
Now we begin to the see the purpose of God in all the hardship that Israel endured. Moses told Jethro all the hardships that they had met along the way and how the LORD had saved them (18:8b). In other words, the LORD’s dealings with his people established a convincing testimony to the world, and this is part of the purpose behind them. Had God not led them through the desert, subjected them to disappointment at Marah, hunger at Sin, thirst at Rephidim, and assault by the Amalekites, they would have had nothing convincing to say to the world. The LORD works to a larger pattern than we can see at any given point.
In 18:13-27, Jethro instructs Moses in how the resolution of disputes and the teaching of the LORD’s statutes are to be carried out among the people. It is a practical measure that enables Israel to be governed under the law of the LORD. Communicating the law gets at the central thrust of the book of Exodus, the knowledge of God. The knowledge of God is available through the event of the exodus itself and in teaching and administrating his law. The law is the revelation of the righteous character of God. The theme of knowing God stays central in the book while the way that knowledge is communicated undergoes significant change.
i Blackburn, The God who Makes himself Known, 80-81.
iii Ibid., 79.
iv EBC, 398. All the references to grumbling in the OT, except for 2 (Josh. 9:18; Ps. 59:15), are in six chapters in the Pentateuch: Exodus 15,16,17 and Numbers 14,16,17.
v Motyer, BST, 69.
vi The Sabbath here becomes a test for faith generated obedience before the Sabbath is command in the Sinai covenant. The Sabbath will become the sign of the covenant (31:12-17). Here it is introduced to teach trusting obedience. In keeping the Sabbath, Israel was imaging God in the world to the world. Gathering on the first day of the week as the saints have done for 2000 years is a distinction that marks out the people of God.
vii Moses evaluation of the wilderness period is instructive: the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with mana, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD…. Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the LORD your God disciplines you (Deut. 8:2-5).
viii The wilderness crises of Exodus are mirrored in the Numbers wilderness account. Mana and quail (Ex 16:4-34; Num. 11:4-34), a reference to 40 years in the wilderness (Ex. 16:35; Num. 14:21-22), water from a rock (Ex. 17:1-7; Num. 20:1-12), introduction to Joshua, Moses’ successor, and Eleazar, Aaron’s successor (Ex. 17:8-13; Num. 20:23-29), and battle with Amalek and with Canaanites (Ex. 17:14-16; Num. 21:1-16).
ix Blackburn, 73. Harden: hzq (4:21; 7:13,22; 8:15; 9:12,35; 10:20,27; 11:10; 14:4,8,17); kbd (7:14; 8:11,28; 9:34; 10:1); qsh (7:3;13:15). The root in Ps 95:8 is qsh, the lest used root (73n13).
xi EBC, 408.
xii In Exodus, tomorrow is an indicator that something big is about to happen.
xiii That Moses would return to the Mountain of God is a promise made in 3:12 (cf. 3:1) and kept (18:5).