The trip to Sinai starts off with the complaining continuing. We saw the theme of grumbling before the salvation in the Sea of Reeds/Extinction and here we see it again. It is important that it is directed at God and His anointed (Moses) because you will see the same thing happened to His anointed one (Jesus). It all began back when Moses killed the Egyptian and tried to break up a fight amongst the Hebrews. But that grumbling response of the Hebrews was in stark contrast to the reception that Moses had from Jethro’s daughters when he saved them (Exodus 2:11-20). In this section we will see Jethro again. This time his reception is in contrast to the grumbling nation of Israel but even more in contrast to the Amalekites. Amalek was the son of Esau’s concubine (see our discussion of Genesis 36:12).
The verse after the Song of Miriam mentions that Israel had gone for three days without water in the desert (Exo 15:22). When they finally found water it was bitter (Exo 15:23). So the people grumbled against Moses (Exo 15:24). God turned the bitter water into sweet water. God had Moses throw a log into the water and then the water became sweet (Exo 15:25). This is a picture of the gospel movement from death to life. It is the movement from diseased to healed. The LORD tested them (Exo 15:25). He tells them that if they listen to Him (literally ‘listen to the voice of,’ which is an idiom for obey) then he will not visit them with the diseases he brought on Egypt (Exo 15:26). Thus if they disobey the plagues will fall upon Israel. This eventually happened and ultimately happened for Christ.
To summarize — grumbling about water, God tested them.
Then theme of grumbling continues as the word tells us, “And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness” and they accused Moses and Aaron of bringing them into the wilderness to starve when they were full back in Egypt (Exo 16:2-3). They have a selective memory.
And the LORD tested them to see “if they will walk in [His] law or not” with “bread from heaven” (Exo 16:4). On the sixth day they got a double portion but the first five days of the week they would get a day’s portion. Since they have accused Moses and Aaron of brining them into the wilderness to starve, Moses tells them that this bread from heaven will show that the LORD brought them out of Egypt and into the wilderness. Moses tells them that they have been grumbling against the LORD. He says, “For what are we, that you grumble against us?” (Exo 16:7). Meat in the evening and bread in the morning will show them that grumbling against Moses and Aaron is really grumbling against the LORD (Exo 16:8). And they got quail in the evening and bread from heaven in the morning. They called the bread from heaven “manna” meaning, “What is it?” because they did not know what it was (Exo 16:15).
The manna was a test because when they tried to keep some left overs they bred worms and stank (Exo 16:20). God was training them to trust Him for their daily bread. And the double portion on the sixth day did keep for the seventh day without going bad so that they could keep Sabbath. It is instructive that they were required to keep Sabbath before the giving of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments was a summary of the law from creation. But that first Sabbath after the Exodus Event they went and tried to gather manna and the LORD said, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws?” (Exo 16:28). It is significant that the manna tasted sweet like wafers made with honey because the Promised Land was a land flowing with milk and honey. Thus the manna was a reminder to them of where they were going and of God turning the bitter water sweet. And they kept some manna as a reminder to all generations.
To summarize — grumbling about food (complaint that they were brought into the wilderness to starve), God tested them.
The next chapter begins with the same grumbling: “the people quarreled with Moses” about water to drink (Exo 17:2). And they again accused him of bringing them into the wilderness to kill them — this time with thirst. Moses asks them “Why do you test the LORD?” (Exo 17:2). Here Moses brings water from the rock by striking the rock where the LORD was standing.
To summarize — grumbling about water again (complaint that they were brought into the wilderness to die of thirst), Israel tested God (Exo 17:2 and 17:7).
This is something we see in the gospels as Satan and then the elders and chief priests, etc., all tested Jesus. It is instructive that Moses notes that the people are ready to stone him (Exo 17:4). And because the wilderness wandering began and ended with water coming from a rock (see Numbers) the tradition arose that the rock followed them in the wilderness. Paul tells us, “the Rock was Christ” (1 Cor 10:4). This is not a stretch since we call God our Rock all of the time. Paul says that these examples were written down for us “for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11). The lesson is that we should not grumble in our wilderness wandering but know “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it (1 Cor 10:13). And this Paul ties into idolatry and the Lord’s Supper. We are in the wilderness with one big difference — we are not under God’s wrath (compare Psalm 95 and the quote of Psalm 95:7ff in Hebrews 3:7ff).
The other part of this section shows us the contrast between the Amalekites and Jethro. In Exo 17:8, the Amalekites came and attacked but in Exo 18:5-7 Jethro comes and greets. In both Exo 17:9 and 18:25 men are chosen for a specific task. In Exo 17:12, Moses sits on a stone and in Exo 18:13 he sits to judge. Both activities are said to commence on the next day and last all day until evening (Exo 17:12; 18:13-14). And in both Exo 17:12 and 18:18 Moses is said to be tired, with help provided in each instance. See Enns commentary, 367).
The judgment of the LORD on the Amalekites is a total ban — “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (Exo 17:14). See our comments on Genesis 36:12. Jethro blessed the LORD and showed that he had learned the lesson of the plagues and Exodus event saying, “Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods” (Exo 18:11).
At this point Moses had to tell the people the law of God and how it applied to particular situations, he was deciding every case brought before him and Jethro saw that he would get burnt out quickly. So Jethro wisely suggested this: “warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do” and then appoint judges (who “hate a bribe”) to decide the easier cases (Exo 18:20-21). This is the climax of the transition to the giving of the law before they arrive at Sinai. The theme of testing Israel has carried the idea throughout this section.