Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
Want of Water at Rephidim. - Exo 17:1. On leaving the desert of Sin, the Israelites came למסעיהם, "according to their journeys," i.e., in several marches performed with encampings and departures, to Rephidim, at Horeb, where they found no water. According to Num 33:12-14, they encamped twice between the desert of Sin and Rephidim, viz., at Dofkah and Alush. The situation of Rephidim may be determined with tolerable certainty, partly from Exo 17:6 as compared with Exo 18:5, which shows that it is to be sought for at Horeb, and partly from the fact, that the Israelites reached the desert of Sinai, after leaving Rephidim, in a single day's march (Exo 19:2). As the only way from Debbet er Ramleh to Horeb or Sinai, through which a whole nation could pass, lies through the large valley of es-Sheikh, Rephidim must be sought for at the point where this valley opens into the broad plain of er Rahah; and not in the defile with Moses' seat (Jokad Seidna Musa) in it, which is a day's journey from the foot of Sinai, or five hours from the point at which the Sheikh valley opens into the plain or er Rahah, or the plain of Szueir or Suweiri,
(Note: Burckhardt, p. 799; v. Raumer, Zug der Israeliten, p. 29; Robinson's Palestine, pp. 178, 179; De Laborde, comment., p. 78; Tischendorf, Reise i. p. 244.)
because this plain is so far from Sinai, that the Israelites could not possibly have travelled thence to the desert of Sinai in a single day; nor yet at the fountain of Abu Suweirah, which is three hours to the north of Sinai (Strauss, p. 131), for the Sheikh valley, which is only a quarter of a mile broad at this spot, and enclosed on both sides by tall cliffs (Robinson, i. 215), would not afford the requisite space for a whole nation; and the well found here, which though small is never dry (Robinson, i. 216), neither tallies with the want of water at Rephidim, nor stands "upon the rock at (in) Horeb," so that it could be taken to be the spring opened by Moses. The distance from Wady Nasb (in the desert of Sin) to the point at which the upper Sinai road reaches the Wady es Sheikh is about 15 hours (Robinson, vol. iii. app.), and the distance thence to the plain of er Rahah through the Sheikh valley, which runs in a large semicircle to Horeb, 10 hours more (Burckhardt, pp. 797ff.), whereas the straight road across el Oerf, Wady Solaf, and Nukb Hawy to the convent of Sinai is only seven hours and a half (Robinson, vol. iii. appendix). The whole distance from Wady Nasb to the opening of the Sheikh valley into the plain of er Rahah, viz., 25 hours in all, the Israelites might have accomplished in three days, answering to the three stations, Dofkah, Alush, and Rephidim. A trace of Dofkah seems to have been retained in el Tabbacha, which Seetzen found in the narrow rocky valley of Wady Gn, i.e., Kineh, after his visit to Wady Mukatteb, on proceeding an hour and a half farther in a north-westerly(?) direction, and where he saw some Egyptian antiquities. Knobel supposes the station Alush to have been in the Wady Oesch or Osh (Robinson, i. 125; Burckhardt, p. 792), where sweet water may be met with at a little distance off. But apart from the improbability of Alush being identical with Osh, even if al were the Arabic article, the distance is against it, as it is at least twelve camel-hours from Horeb through the Sheikh valley. Alush is rather to be sought for at the entrance to the Sheikh valley; for in no other case could the Israelites have reached Rephidim in one day.
As there was no water to drink in Rephidim, the people murmured against Moses, for having brought them out of Egypt to perish with thirst in the wilderness. This murmuring Moses called "tempting God," i.e., unbelieving doubt in the gracious presence of the Lord to help them (Exo 17:7). In this the people manifested not only their ingratitude to Jehovah, who had hitherto interposed so gloriously and miraculously in every time of distress or need, but their distrust in the guidance of Jehovah and the divine mission of Moses, and such impatience of unbelief as threatened to break out into open rebellion against Moses. "Yet a little," he said to God (i.e., a very little more), "and they stone me;" and the divine long-suffering and grace interposed in this case also, and provided for the want without punishing their murmuring. Moses was to pass on before the people, and, taking some of the elders with him, and his staff with which he smote the Nile, to go to the rock at Horeb, and smite upon the rock with the staff, at the place where God should stand before him, and water would come out of the rock. The elders were to be eye-witnesses of the miracle, that they might bear their testimony to it before the unbelieving people, "ne dicere possint, jam ab antiquis temporibus fontes ibi fuisse" (Rashi). Jehovah's standing before Moses upon the rock, signified the gracious assistance of God. לפני עמד frequently denotes the attitude of a servant when standing before his master, to receive and execute his commands. Thus Jehovah condescended to come to the help of Moses, and assist His people with His almighty power. His gracious presence caused water to flow out of the hard dry rock, though not till Moses struck it with his staff, that the people might acknowledge him afresh as the possessor of supernatural and miraculous powers. The precise spot at which the water was smitten out of the rock cannot be determined; for there is no reason whatever for fixing upon the summit of the present Horeb, Ras el Sufsafeh, from which you can take in the whole of the plain of er Rahah (Robinson, i. p. 154).
From this behaviour of the unbelieving nation the place received the names Massah and Meribah, "temptation and murmuring," that this sin of the people might never be forgotten (cf. Deu 6:16; Psa 78:20; Psa 95:8; Psa 105:41).
The want of water had only just been provided for, when Israel had to engage in a conflict with the Amalekites, who had fallen upon their rear and smitten it (Deu 25:18). The expansion of this tribe, that was descended from a grandson of Esau (see Gen 36:12), into so great a power even in the Mosaic times, is perfectly conceivable, if we imagine the process to have been analogous to that which we have already described in the case of the leading branches of the Edomites, who had grown into a powerful nation through the subjugation and incorporation of the earlier population of Mount Seir. The Amalekites had no doubt come to the neighbourhood of Sinai for the same reason for which, even in the present day, the Bedouin Arabs leave the lower districts at the beginning of summer, and congregate in the mountain regions of the Arabian peninsula, viz., because the grass is dried up in the former, whereas in the latter the pasturage remains green much longer, on account of the climate being comparatively cooler (Burckhardt, Syr. p. 789). There they fell upon the Israelites, probably in the Sheikh valley, where the rear had remained behind the main body, not merely for the purpose of plundering or of disputing the possession of this district and its pasture ground with the Israelites, but to assail Israel as the nation of God, and if possible to destroy it. The divine command to exterminate Amalek (Exo 17:14) points to this; and still more the description given of the Amalekites in Balaam's utterances, as גּוים ראשׁית, "the beginning," i.e., the first and foremost of the heathen nations (Num 24:20). In Amalek the heathen world commenced that conflict with the people of God, which, while it aims at their destruction, can only be terminated by the complete annihilation of the ungodly powers of the world. Earlier theologians pointed out quite correctly the deepest ground for the hostility of the Amalekites, when they traced the causa belli to this fact, "quod timebat Amalec, qui erat de semine Esau, jam implendam benedictionem, quam Jacob obtinuit et praeripuit ipsi Esau, praesertim cum in magna potentia venirent Israelitae, ut promissam occuparent terram" Mnster, C. a Lapide, etc.). This peculiar significance in the conflict is apparent, not only from the divine command to exterminate the Amalekites, and to carry on the war of Jehovah with Amalek from generation to generation (Exo 17:14 and Exo 17:16), but also from the manner in which Moses led the Israelites to battle and to victory. Whereas he had performed all the miracles in Egypt and on the journey by stretching out his staff, on this occasion he directed his servant Joshua to choose men for the war, and to fight the battle with the sword. He himself went with Aaron and Hur to the summit of a hill to hold up the staff of God in his hands, that he might procure success to the warriors through the spiritual weapons of prayer.
The proper name of Joshua, who appears here for the first time in the service of Moses, as Hosea (הושׁע); he was a prince of the tribe of Ephraim (Num 13:8, Num 13:16; Deu 32:44). The name יהושׁע, "Jehovah is help" (or, God-help), he probably received at the time when he entered Moses' service, either before or after the battle with the Amalekites (see Num 13:16, and Hengstenberg, Dissertations, vol. ii.). Hur, who also held a prominent position in the nation, according to Exo 24:14, in connection with Aaron, was the son of Caleb, the son of Hezron, the grandson of Judah (Ch1 2:18-20), and the grandfather of Bezaleel, the architect of the tabernacle (Exo 31:2; Exo 35:30; Exo 38:22, cf. Ch1 2:19-20). According to Jewish tradition, he was the husband of Miriam.
The battle was fought on the day after the first attack (Exo 17:9). The hill (גּבעה, not Mount Horeb), upon the summit of which Moses took up his position during the battle, along with Aaron and Hur, cannot be fixed upon with exact precision, but it was probably situated in the table-land of Fureia, to the north of er Rahah and the Sheikh valley, which is a fertile piece of pasture ground (Burckhardt, p. 801; Robinson, i. pp. 139, 215), or else in the plateau which runs to the north-east of the Horeb mountains and to the east of the Sheikh valley, with the two peaks Umlanz and Um Alawy; supposing, that is, that the Amalekites attacked the Israelites from Wady Muklifeh or es Suweiriyeh. Moses went to the top of the hill that he might see the battle from thence. He took Aaron and Hur with him, not as adjutants to convey his orders to Joshua and the army engaged, but to support him in his own part in connection with the conflict. This was to hold up his hand with the staff of God in it. To understand the meaning of this sign, it must be borne in mind that, although Exo 17:11 merely speaks of the raising and dropping of the hand (in the singular), yet, according to Exo 17:12, both hands were supported by Aaron and Hur, who stood one on either side, so that Moses did not hold up his hands alternately, but grasped the staff with both his hands, and held it up with the two. The lifting up of the hands has been regarded almost with unvarying unanimity by Targumists, Rabbins, Fathers, Reformers, and nearly all the more modern commentators, as the sign or attitude of prayer. Kurtz, on the contrary, maintains, in direct opposition to the custom observed throughout the whole of the Old Testament by all pious and earnest worshipers, of lifting up their hands to God in heaven, that this view attributes an importance to the outward form of prayer which has no analogy even in the Old Testament; he therefore agrees with Lakemacher, in Rosenmller's Scholien, in regarding the attitude of Moses with his hand lifted up as "the attitude of a commander superintending and directing the battle," and the elevation of the hand as only the means adopted for raising the staff, which was elevated in the sight of the warriors of Israel as the banner of victory. But this meaning cannot be established from Exo 17:15 and Exo 17:16. For the altar with the name "Jehovah my banner," and the watchword "the hand on the banner of Jehovah, war of the Lord against Amalek," can neither be proved to be connected with the staff which Moses held in his hand, nor be adduced as a proof that Moses held the staff in front of the Israelites as the banner of victory. The lifting up of the staff of God was, no doubt, a banner to the Israelites of victory over their foes, but not in this sense, that Moses directed the battle as commander-in-chief, for he had transferred the command to Joshua; nor yet in this sense, that he imparted divine powers to the warriors by means of the staff, and so secured the victory. To effect this, he would not have lifted it up, but have stretched it out, either over the combatants, or at all events towards them, as in the case of all the other miracles that were performed with the staff. The lifting up of the staff secured to the warriors the strength needed to obtain the victory, from the fact that by means of the staff Moses brought down this strength from above, i.e., from the Almighty God in heaven; not indeed by a merely spiritless and unthinking elevation of the staff, but by the power of his prayer, which was embodied in the lifting up of his hands with the staff, and was so far strengthened thereby, that God had chosen and already employed this staff as a medium of the saving manifestation of His almighty power. There is no other way in which we can explain the effect produced upon the battle by the raising and dropping (הניח) of the staff in his hands. As long as Moses held up the staff, he drew down from God victorious powers for the Israelites by means of his prayer; but when he let it fall through the exhaustion of the strength of his hands, he ceased to draw down the power of God, and Amalek gained the upper hand. The staff, therefore, as it was stretched out on high, was not a sign to the Israelites that were fighting, for it is by no means certain that they could see it in the heat of the battle; but it was a sign to Jehovah, carrying up, as it were, to God the wishes and prayers of Moses, and bringing down from God victorious powers for Israel. If the intention had been the hold it up before the Israelites as a banner of victory. Moses would not have withdrawn to a hill apart from the field of battle, but would either have carried it himself in front of the army, or have given it to Joshua as commander, to be borne by him in front of the combatants, or else have entrusted it to Aaron, who had performed the miracles in Egypt, that he might carry it at their head. The pure reason why Moses did not do this, but withdrew from the field of battle to lift up the staff of God upon the summit of a hill, and to secure the victory by so doing, is to be found in the important character of the battle itself. As the heathen world was now commencing its conflict with the people of God in the persons of the Amalekites, and the prototype of the heathen world, with its hostility to God, was opposing the nation of the Lord, that had been redeemed from the bondage of Egypt and was on its way to Canaan, to contest its entrance into the promised inheritance; so the battle which Israel fought with this foe possessed a typical significance in relation to all the future history of Israel. It could not conquer by the sword alone, but could only gain the victory by the power of God, coming down from on high, and obtained through prayer and those means of grace with which it had been entrusted. The means now possessed by Moses were the staff, which was, as it were, a channel through which the powers of omnipotence were conducted to him. In most cases he used it under the direction of God; but God had not promised him miraculous help for the conflict with the Amalekites, and for this reason he lifted up his hands with the staff in prayer to God, that he might thereby secure the assistance of Jehovah for His struggling people. At length he became exhausted, and with the falling of his hands and the staff he held, the flow of divine power ceased, so that it was necessary to support his arms, that they might be kept firmly directed upwards (אמוּנה, lit., firmness) until the enemy was entirely subdued. And from this Israel was to learn the lesson, that in all its conflicts with the ungodly powers of the world, strength for victory could only be procured through the incessant lifting up of its hands in prayer. "And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people (the Amalekites and their people) with the edge of the sword" (i.e., without quarter. See Gen 34:26).
As this battle and victory were of such significance, Moses was to write it for a memorial בּסּפר, in "the book" appointed for a record of the wonderful works of God, and "to put it into the ears of Joshua," i.e., to make known to him, and impress upon him, that Jehovah would utterly put out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; not "in order that he might carry out this decree of God on the conquest of Canaan, as Knobel supposes, but to strengthen his confidence in the help of the Lord against all the enemies of Israel. In Deu 25:19 the Israelites are commanded to exterminate Amalek, when God should have given them rest in the land of Canaan from all their enemies round about.
To praise God for His help, Moses built an altar, which he called "Jehovah my banner," and said, when he did so, "The hand on the throne (or banner) of Jah! War to the Lord from generation to generation!" There is nothing said about sacrifices being offered upon this altar. It has been conjectured, therefore, that as a place of worship and thank-offering, the altar with its expressive name was merely to serve as a memorial to posterity of the gracious help of the Lord, and that the words which were spoken by Moses were to serve as a watchword for Israel, keeping this act of God in lively remembrance among the people in all succeeding generations. כּי (Exo 17:16) merely introduces the words as in Gen 4:23, etc. The expression יהּ על־כּס יד is obscure, chiefly on account of the ἁπ λεγ. כּס. In the ancient versions (with the exception of the Septuagint, in which יה כץ is treated as one word, and rendered κρυφαία) כּס is taken to be equivalent to כּסּה (Kg1 10:19; Job 26:9) for כּסּא, and the clause is rendered "the hand upon the throne of the Lord." But whilst some understand the laying of the hand (sc., of God) upon the throne to be expressive of the attitude of swearing, others regard the hand as symbolical of power. There are others again, like Clericus, who suppose the hand to denote the hand laid by the Amalekites upon the throne of the Lord, i.e., on Israel. But if כּס signifies throng or adytum arcanum, the words can hardly be understood in any other sense than "the hand lifted up to the throne of Jehovah in heaven, war to the Lord," etc.; and thus understood, they can only contain an admonition to Israel to follow the example of Moses, and wage war against Amalek with the hands lifted up to the throne of Jehovah. Modern expositors, however, for the most part regard כּס as a corruption of נס, "the hand on the banner of the Lord." But even admitting this, though many objections may be offered to its correctness, we must not understand by "the banner of Jehovah" the staff of Moses, but only the altar with the name Jehovah-nissi, as the symbol or memorial of the victorious help afforded by God in the battle with the Amalekites.