Exodus 17: Testing and Quarreling

Exodus 17: Testing and Quarreling

In our series through the Book of Exodus, we are in Chapter 17. 

Exodus 17:1–7 (CSB)

1 The entire Israelite community left the Wilderness of Sin, moving from one place to the next according to the Lord’s command. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.

2 So the people complained to Moses, “Give us water to drink.”

“Why are you complaining to me?” Moses replied to them. “Why are you testing the Lord?”

3 But the people thirsted there for water and grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you ever bring us up from Egypt to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”

4 Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What should I do with these people? In a little while they will stone me!”

5 The Lord answered Moses, “Go on ahead of the people and take some of the elders of Israel with you. Take the staff you struck the Nile with in your hand and go.

6 I am going to stand there in front of you on the rock at Horeb; when you hit the rock, water will come out of it and the people will drink.” Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel.

7 He named the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites complained, and because they tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

This may seem like a repeat from last week in Chapter 16 when Israel grumbled about water.  But that time it was because the water was bitter.  Undrinkable.  This time are in the Wilderness of Sin (in the southern portion of the Sinai Peninsula by the Red Sea), and they have no water.  This is a genuine need.

But the key part of the story is their reaction.  They quarrel with Moses.  The CSB says they “complained,” but the Hebrew word actually means to strive and contend.  A better rendition is “quarrel.”  They quarreled with Moses.

But Moses makes a connection that Israel didn’t.  He saw that their quarreling was actually with the Lord.  Was Moses right?  Maybe Moses was simply an inept leader who was lost in the wilderness and wasn’t paying attention to the need for water.

This is not the case.  The Lord was the One who actually led them to this place…to this moment of trial.  How do we know?  Ever since Israel had their backs against the Red Sea and the Egyptian army threatening to kill them the Lord was leading them everywhere they went…by a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire.  In fact, God is going to lead them this way for the next 40 years until they cross the Jordan River and finally enter the land of Canaan that God had promised to Abraham 700 years prior.

In the last paragraph of this remarkable book:

Exodus 40:36–37 CSB The Israelites set out whenever the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle throughout all the stages of their journey.  If the cloud was not taken up, they did not set out until the day it was taken up.

So let’s connect this back to Chapter 17.  Israel was wandering in the Desert of Sin and ended up in a place that has no water.  The Lord, by this pillar of cloud, was the One who led them to this waterless place.

“Aha!,” we say.  “We have found the culprit!  Now we know who to blame for our water shortage!”

It’s not Moses.  It’s the Lord.  Moses recognized this, and he told them so.

So now that we know whose fault it is that they have no water, we have to ask: 

  • Are they justified in their anger towards the Lord? 
  • Has the Lord somehow forgotten about their genuine needs? 
  • Does he truly not care? 
  • Has he really brought them out of Egypt to now make them die from thirst? 

Here is where we have to start connecting the dots.  To have concerns over real needs like water is quite appropriate and legitimate.  What is illegitimate…is Israel’s response of anger, panic, and bitterness.  They walked in unbelief.  Instead of talking to God in honest lament and prayer, the quarreled.  Complained.  Argued.  Where was their faith?

Red Sea Amnesia

They are quarreling against the Lord who saved them through the Red Sea just a short time earlier.  Perhaps only weeks earlier.  They simply didn’t believe God cares and that he has power to help them.  One way we could say this is that they have “Red Sea amnesia,” forgetting the remarkable, stunning rescue.  They forgot that powerful, astonishing, and life-changing deliverance from centuries of oppressive slavery.  How could they forget?  Doesn’t that seem incomprehensible to forget this great miracle of the Red Sea just a few weeks before??

But their problem is much deeper than simply being forgetful…as in, having a bad memory, like, “I forgot to stop at the store for the groceries.”  That’s not Israel’s kind of amnesia.  They had a severe rebellion underlying this memory problem.  They had a stubborn defiance of God.  They “tested” the Lord, in a manner of saying, “I don’t believe you, God, so prove it to me!” 

Because of their sinful, unbelieving hearts, they simply refused connect the dots from their knowledge of God and the stunning miracles he had performed to their current, real, troublesome situation.

What are some of the dots they didn’t connect?

  • They forgot the ancient promises to their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that were now coming true before their eyes.
  • They forgot the Lord’s words to Moses for them.  In Exodus 6:7, the Lord said, “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.
  • They forgot God’s strong judgment on unbelieving and idolatrous Egypt…judgment for cruel treatment of the people of Israel.
  • They forgot God’s remarkable deliverance of his people on dry ground thru the Red Sea.
  • Then, most recently, God’s provided water just shortly before this incident, turning bitter water into potable water. 

How could they not connect the dots to this current water crisis?  Did they simply desire a Vending Machine God?  “Life is hard, so let me push this button and pull this lever so that I can get what I want….immediately.”  Israel was not unlike children who are angry with their parents because life is hard.

Gospel Amnesia

Do we realize we do the exact same thing to God?  Each one of us is more like Israel than we would like to admit.   But instead of “Red Sea amnesia,” we have “gospel amnesia.”  What the Red Sea was to Israel, the gospel of Jesus Christ—and all of its eternal implications for us who believe—is to us…except the gospel is a better—MUCH better salvation than the Red Sea. 

One author counted more than 125 times in the OT where the Lord reminds Israel to look back and remember slavery in Egypt.  And remember how he rescued them.  And then, with that clearly in mind, to trust him and love him and obey him.

Surely 125 times—and even more— in the NT are we told to look back to our Red Sea—the gospel of Christ—and remember the slavery we once were under.  To remember that God delivered us from an eternity of cruel, oppressive bondage to our sin and the wrathful death we deserve.

Like Israel should have… we must connect the dots from:

  • the Incarnation of Christ
  • to his earthly ministry
  • to his sinless life
  • to his unjust death
  • to his powerful resurrection
  • to his stunning ascension into heaven
  • to his promised return in glory….

We must connect all of those to our present day circumstances.  To the joys and the trials we are encountering.

Under inspiration from the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul said,

Romans 8:32 NIV He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

If God has delivered you through your Red Sea, through the Son of God, how could he possibly forget you and not be gracious to you?  Tell me, how could God do this?  Like Israel, we traverse through a wilderness and experience measures of suffering— and we sometimes simply forget to connect the dots… the dots of what the Lord has done for us and to us…all through his Son.  We sometimes live in a place called Massah and Meribah.  A place called Testing and Quarreling.  Yet in all of this, God has not changed.   He remains the most Trustworthy Person we will ever know.

The Lord’s Mercy

As I reflect on this story, there are two things that I find remarkable:

  1. Israel’s unbelief just a short time after their rescue through the Red Sea.
  2. But even more, I find God’s response remarkable.  I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am somewhat: 

Look again at vs. 5-6.  Instead of the Lord judging them in wrath as they deserved, he quietly and kindly provides water for them.  I marvel at the Lord’s response of extreme graciousness, not responding in-kind to Israel.  Israel actually deserved wrath, but the Lord showed kindness repeatedly.  For any of us who think that God in the OT is always angry and wrathful, he does indeed frequently demonstrate righteous anger and wrath.  But if that’s all we see in the OT…if all we see is God’s anger and wrath… if I can be blunt… we are simply not reading and understanding our Bibles very well.  Over and over again in the OT over 1000 years, though people quarrel with and test the Lord like here in Chapter 17….though they scoff at him…though they turn to other gods, betraying their Creator and Savior… committing spiritual adultery….the Lord repeatedly shows remarkable patience and kindness.  God’s kindness is shown plainly and frequently from Genesis to Revelation.  And it is that kindness and grace that compelled him to send his Son into this world to become the Bearer of sin.  To become the Sacrificial Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world (John 1:29). 

God’s mercy is powerfully demonstrated in Exodus.  But the gospel reveals his mercy to its fullest extent. 


So what can we take from this brief story?  Surely we don’t want to be like Israel.  Stubborn, unbelieving, disobedient…. having a bad case of amnesia.  So how do we remember our Red Sea, that is, the work of Christ on our behalf?  How can we remember and not forget what Christ has done for us?  How can we cling to God in times of suffering and trials instead of accusing him of not loving us and ignoring us?

For those of us who have believed in Jesus Christ, we have something better than Israel had.  And we can live much differently than they did.  Why??

We can live better than Israel….but not because we are better.  We can live better than Israel because our salvation is better.  Our Red Sea called the gospel is better.  If you read the Book of Hebrews, it will all make sense. 

  • We have a better covenant, an eternal one, the New Covenant of Christ.
  • We have a better forgiveness, because it is thru the blood of the Lamb of God, Jesus.
  • We have a better high priest, Jesus, because he lives forever to intercede to the Father on our behalf.
  • We have the Word of God, and it’s better because we now have the full revelation of God, revealing God’s Son to us.
  • We have it better because all believers in Christ have Holy Spirit dwelling inside them.  God could not be any closer.
  • We have a better community called the church, the adopted, chosen, holy, beloved people of God. 

So how do we tap into all that is better?  How do we walk by faith in a better way than we see here in Exodus 17?

Here are three simple things.

  1. Be humble. 

You and I have the potential for amnesia just like Israel.  Let us not be proud and think we would never be like them.  All that we have is only because God is a gracious God.  All that we have is only because we are justified…declared righteous…in Jesus.  Only with humility will we say, “Surely the Lord is better to us than we deserve.”

In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul warns us not to be like Israel like they were in the next 40 years in the wilderness, full of idolatry and immorality.  And at the end of the warning… to guard us from thinking, “Oh, I would NEVER be like Israel,” he says in vs. 12,  “So, whoever thinks he stands, must be careful not to fall.

Paul is saying, “Be humble, not proud, lest you become like Israel.  Instead, rely on the Lord to help you to live for him with all your heart.”  Be humble.

  • Be people of this Book, and so cast off our amnesia.

Be people who read, meditate on, and discuss with others the faithfulness, power, and graciousness of God.   This keeps us from gospel amnesia.  Why?  Because in this Book the Lord recounts his constant display of power and holiness and justice. 

Read the stories of God’s faithfulness and power in the Gospels.  And in Exodus.  And in every other book.  Then trust in our God and obey him.

  • Be grateful. 

Instead of quarreling and grumbling….instead of showing contempt for and ignorance of God’s graciousness to us in Christ… let us cultivate a lifestyle of gratitude, giving thanks to him constantly for the extraordinary goodness and kindness he has shown.

Here are some ways to develop a habit of gratitude:

  • Spend time in prayer every day thanking God for his constant goodness to you….beginning with your salvation.
  • Make lists of how the Lord has been good to you, particularly in our Red Sea deliverance called the gospel.  Keep a journal of that goodness.
  • Talk about such things at the dinner table.  Something as simple as, “Name three things you’re grateful to God for.”
  • Read psalms of thanksgiving regularly.
  • Sing songs of thanksgiving and worship.

Let us become grateful people, and cast off our unbelief and so trust and obey our Great God. 

Lifted Hands (vs. 8-16)

Now let’s read the remainder of Chapter 17.

Exodus 17:8–16 (CSB)

8 At Rephidim, Amalek came and fought against Israel.

9 Moses said to Joshua, “Select some men for us and go fight against Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the hilltop with God’s staff in my hand.”

10 Joshua did as Moses had told him, and fought against Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill.

11 While Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, but whenever he put his hand down, Amalek prevailed.

12 When Moses’s hands grew heavy, they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat down on it. Then Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other so that his hands remained steady until the sun went down.

13 So Joshua defeated Amalek and his army with the sword.

14 The Lord then said to Moses, “Write this down on a scroll as a reminder and recite it to Joshua: I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek under heaven.”

15 And Moses built an altar and named it, “The Lord Is My Banner.”

16 He said, “Indeed, my hand is lifted up toward the Lord’s throne. The Lord will be at war with Amalek from generation to generation.”

It’s interesting that so soon after escaping Egypt that Israel encounters war.

First, we have to remember that the Lord was directing Israel by the pillar of cloud, so their encounter with Amalek was no accident.

Second, the Lord is revealing himself as a deliverer once again.  This time, though, he’s not delivering them from thirst or starvation but from enemies.

So in every way, we see that the Lord is carefully and powerfully leading and protecting and preserving his people.  This is one more story of dozens, if not hundreds, in the Bible where we see the heart of God:  He watches out for and protects his people.  We need to know God.  Not merely know facts about him, but to truly know him.  Stories such as this strengthen our faith as we learn and remember the heart and the power of God to fight for us. 

So who is Amalek?  They were a nomadic nation in the desert in this region.  They were descendants of Esau, who was the twin brother of Jacob, a.k.a., Israel.  So they were very distant relatives to the nation of Israel.

Why did Amalek want to fight?  We’re not told why, but it may be that this oasis, this land that Israel was camping in, was prize land, and the Amalekites were unwilling to share or even to negotiate.  They came out to fight to the death and kick Israel out.

How do we assess Israel’s response?  We have no words of unbelief or quarreling with God, so that’s a positive.

And then we read this unusual battle strategy:  Take a wooden staff and hold it in the air.  I’m sure the U.S. Army teaches this strategy to their officers today, right??  It’s easy:  get a stick and hold it up.  Works every time.

Seriously, though, why?  We’re not told, but it seems to me that the Lord’s purpose here was to show that the victory was his, not Israel’s.  The victory is won because God is a Warrior, not because Israel has great Special Ops forces.

Throughout Exodus, many times Moses’ staff represents the power and the presence of God.

  • The staff turned into a serpent
  • Parting the Red Sea
  • And now here lifted up in battle.

Moses lifting the staff up was a visible demonstration to the army that God was present and that his power was required for victory over enemies.  While we’re not told that Moses prayed….although Moses does say, “My hand is lifted up to the Lord’s throne…. We’re not told he prayed, but the action reminds me of prayer.   

Psalm 63:4 CSB So I will bless you as long as I live;  at your name, I will lift up my hands.

Moses’ action reminds me of this as we lift our hands to the Lord in prayer and worship. 

The battle was not won because of their great skill and power, but because God was fighting for them.

Ephesians 6:12 tells us that our warfare is not with flesh and blood but against demonic forces.  And the Lord promises us victory, but of a different kind….He promises victory in our souls over sin and deception.  And we fight, not with a staff, but with a sword, the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (in Ephesians 6:17).    

So even today, we take heart from Exodus 17 to know that, though the type of warfare has changed, the heart of our Warrior King, the Lord, will never change.  Yes, I know we want to avoid all battles.  We understandably want no enemies to ever bother us.  We want a trial free, peaceful life.  Really, what we want is paradise.  Heaven.  But until we arrive there by the grace of God given to us through his Son, Jesus, you and I are in a spiritual war.

But we do not lose heart.  We learn from Israel the very presence, power, and great love of God for the people of his Covenant.

I love Moses’ words back in Chapter 14 when the Egyptian army was pressing Israel’s backs up against the Red Sea.  The people were panicking.  But listen to what Moses told them: 

Exodus 14:13–14 CSB Moses said to the people, “Don’t be afraid.  Stand firm and see the Lord’s salvation that he will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians you see today, you will never see again.  The Lord will fight for you, and you must be quiet.”

I love those beautiful words.  May we remember and be strengthened.


From stories like today in Exodus 17, may we press on in faith and prayer…in worship and in the Word of God…as we grow in our knowledge of God…that we would cast off all amnesia….we would seek to truly know him and understand him….and then believe…that he is the God of all Provision, the Lord our Warrior.