Genesis/Exodus Week 13
“Survival in the Wilderness”: Exodus 14:1–19:25
Seattle Pacific University Professor of Old Testament
Read this week’s Scripture: Exodus 14:1–19:25
EnlargeManna and Quail
God solved Israel’s first wilderness problem: the lack of water (15:22–27). But when they encounter a second problem — the lack of food — amnesia sets in again. Instead of recalling how Moses had turned bitter water into sweet, they complain to Moses and Aaron. As bad as Egypt had been, at least they had three squares a day there.
Now they are about to die (16:1–3). The Lord responds to the need with the offer of heavenly bread, which will take care of Israel’s hunger. But the larger issue turns not on the lack of food, but on Israel’s acknowledgment of God (16:4). The Lord decides to address this more substantial lack.
We already get a hint at the religious context for the food that the Lord is about to supply. On the sixth day, the people are to gather twice as much as on the other days, which leads us to conclude that this is so that the Sabbath may be observed (16:5). If Israel thought they were in league with God primarily to get free lunches, they were about to be rudely awakened.
Moses and Aaron scold the people for complaining to them. They are only mediators, so Israel’s “beef” is with the Lord. The two men go on to say that, when the Lord provides food, Israel will know that it was the Lord who rescued them. God previously acted so that Egypt would know who the Lord is. Now God must act so that Israel will know. Thus, the supplying of food for Israel — meat in the evening and bread in the morning — is connected to the appearance of the Lord’s glory, which is an intense concentration of divine presence. This will accent God’s identity (16:6–12).
As promised, the food arrives: quails in the evening and a bread-like substance in the morning. The name of the latter derives from the Israelite question — “What is it?” — which sounds like Man(na) in Hebrew. Whatever its ingredients, Moses calls it divinely offered bread. God has become Israel’s caterer.
Underscoring the miraculous nature of what God was doing, whenever people gathered the food, they ended up with just the right amount. Anyone who collected much had nothing left over, and anyone who collected little had precisely enough (16:13–18). Because God’s supplying of these provisions is to call attention to Israel’s reliance on the Lord, people were not supposed to store food (except on the sixth day). When they disobeyed, the food went bad, which made Moses angry (16:19–21).
Israel’s journey with God involved more than having enough food. Their journey is spiritual and religious as well. This is why instructions pertaining to the seventh day, or Sabbath, are so important. On the sixth day, God will see to it that a double portion of food is available. This will enable Israelites to eat on the Sabbath, but not have to gather food, which would violate the need to rest.
Some people went out to collect food on the Sabbath but found none, which earned them a divine rebuke. In spite of the fact that the people are now in the wilderness — which suggests a place of danger and scarcity — God wants to attend to all their needs, not just physical ones. God’s feeding of God’s people has a crucial religious dimension. Observing the Sabbath is requisite even during an arduous wilderness trek (16:22–30). In fact, the Lord wants Israel to memorialize a sample of the food. In this way, future generations will appreciate what it meant to be fed by God in every sense of the word (16:31–36). In another context a psalmist has Israel pose the question: “Can God spread a table in the wilderness” (Psalm 78:19). The answer is a resounding “yes” (see Psalm 23:5).
Complaining at Rephidim; Water From the Rock
Somehow, no matter how many times the Lord comes through for the Israelites, they are inclined to doubt God’s immediate presence and ability. After the plagues, the parting of the sea, the provision of water, bread, and quail, why would Israel not be absolutely confident whenever they encounter difficulty? Yet the slightest adversity throws them. This time it is water again, or its lack, at Rephidim (17:1). As though they are devoid of memory, they demand water and murmur against Moses, accusing him of putting their lives at risk in the wilderness.
Exasperated, Moses is frustrated that Israel focuses on him, and he expresses his frustration to the Lord. The Lord meets this need, too, with nary a word of rebuke. Moses is told to take elders with him and strike a rock at Horeb with his now famous rod. The rock produces water. An object that is otherwise an impediment or simply an irrelevant part of the landscape becomes a source of life for God’s people. In other settings a rock will actually stand for God (Psalm 18:2, 31; 19:14; 28:1; 31:3; 62:2, 7; 71:3; 78:35; 89:26).
Still, in spite of this happy ending, Moses assigns two troubling names to the location, one which alludes to Israel’s demanding yet more proof of divine presence and ability (Massah) and one which speaks to Israel’s unbecoming criticism (Meribah). The wilderness is exposing Israel’s shaky faith (Exodus 17:2–7).
Battle With the Amalekites
With an abrupt change of pace, the next episode features a military encounter. But this is no conventional brush-up. The emphasis is still on divine power. Israel’s obstacle in this instance is Amalek, and Israel’s most important weapon is Moses’ rod. When Israel takes on Amalek, Moses, Aaron, and Hur position themselves on a hill. From there Moses holds up his hand while wielding the rod. As long as Moses’ hand is extended, Israel prevails.
The opposite is also true. So, as Moses’ hand tires, Aaron and Hur sit him down on a stone and prop up his hand. This makes Israel victorious (17:8–13). Clearly, this is no conventional military engagement and no ordinary weapon. Israel is entirely dependent on God. As a way of acknowledging this, the action is ritualized and memorialized (17:14–15).
Jethro Steps In
Moses’ father-in-law Jethro plays a crucial role in this segment of Israel’s wilderness journey. At first, Jethro sees to it that Moses is reunited with his family. After the Lord rescues Israel from Egypt, Jethro goes to see Moses with the latter’s wife, Zipporah, and his two sons in tow.
To be sure, a family reunion is pleasant enough, but the return of Moses’ family is evocative of much more. After all, Moses met Zipporah during flight from Egypt after his hopelessly bungled efforts on Israel’s behalf. Also, Zipporah saved Moses when an angry God was after him. Even the names of his two children allude to important stages in Moses’ life. The name Gershom calls attention to Moses’ having to live in exile — this name bespeaks failure. The name Eliezer stresses God’s delivering Moses from Pharaoh — this name connotes God’s making Moses successful (18:1–7). It is impossible to think of Moses’ family without thinking of Moses’ story, its ups and its downs.
A second feature of Jethro’s appearance at this point is the way he represents an outsider’s perspective on Israel’s deity. Jethro had heard of God’s mighty acts against Egypt (18:1). Moses tells the whole story to his father-in-law (18:8). Jethro rejoices in God’s efforts on Israel’s behalf. One might expect him to do this to be polite. But he goes much further. Jethro praises God for this, and confesses the singularity and superiority of the Lord, too. Fittingly, Jethro then worships the Lord and eats a type of sacramental meal with Moses, Aaron, and Israel’s elders (18:9–12). Jethro has become a convert.
As well, his presence within Israel pays handsome dividends. When he observes Moses engaged in the overwhelming process of adjudicating disputes among the Israelites and teaching them God’s laws, he concludes that this is too much for one man to handle. Not even Moses is capable of work on this scale. So Jethro proposes to Moses that he delegate authority to others to make the job more manageable.
Moses heeds the advice and greatly improves what had become an unwieldy procedure (18:13–26). This particular outsider greatly benefitted the Israelite community. Jethro returns home, having acknowledged Israel’s God and having helped significantly God’s elect people. For a welcome change, this is a wonderful success story in the wilderness.
EnlargeAt Mount Sinai
At last, the Israelites have come to the place where they are to prepare for the Lord’s provision of the law. This should not be thought of as civil law, or even as a state constitution. In Torah, the law is a response to the radical grace of God and speaks to the holy and ethical character of the people of God. This is why God’s awesome presence is so highlighted in this particular episode.
Israel has arrived at Sinai, and Moses has ascended the mountain when he hears God. The Lord briefly reminds Moses of Egypt’s destruction, Israel’s rescue “on eagles’ wings,” and the necessity of covenant obedience. Obedience will ensure that Israel continues as God’s own possession among the peoples. Israel’s position, we must not forget, will ultimately be used in behalf of all others. As the Lord says, “for all the earth is mine.” In this manner, Israel’s true vocation will be realized — Israel will be a kingdom of priests and a holy people (19:1–6).
When Moses relays to the people the divine word he received on the mountaintop, they happily respond in a most positive manner. Moses then informs the Lord of this superb response. Coming during the wilderness trip, when so often Israel’s response left so much to be desired, this is most encouraging. God’s response in turn is to appear in a thick cloud, indicating God’s concentrated presence, and allowing Israel to hear God speak to Moses. This will enhance Moses’ credibility as well as make the people realize even more the grandeur and majesty of their God (19:7–9).
But divine presence of this sort is not a casual matter. It requires serious preparation. Thus, the Lord tells Moses to consecrate the people and have them wash their clothes. Israel is to be both literally and symbolically clean. When the Lord finally appears, great care must be taken, for the presence of God on such an occasion is overwhelming, even frightening. Certain conditions must be observed on penalty of death (19:10–15). There are times when God’s presence is comforting, welcoming, and uplifting. This is not one of them.
Thunder, lightning, and a thick cloud are all expressive of God’s tremendous presence as experienced on the third day from when this event began. As we might have expected, the people trembled. Moses then brings the people out of their camp to meet God at the foot of the holy mountain. Often symbolic of the Lord’s presence, fire engulfs the site, which produces smoke. The mountain also quakes. Here God is depicted as utterly transcendent, all but unapproachable, powerful beyond imagination, and wholly other. Appropriately, when Moses speaks, God answers thunderously (19:16–19). This God would not be controlled, domesticated, or handled.
God comes to the top of the mountain and summons Moses. The Lord tells Moses to warn the people to keep their distance, as venturing too close could prove dangerous if not fatal. Moses even reminds the Lord that the people need to maintain a significant distance. Moses is then instructed to go fetch Aaron and return to the top with him. But the people and even the priests are not to come any closer (19:20–25).
This sets the context for the giving of the covenant law, which begins in chapter 20. Such a display of wholly otherness makes us realize how very significant is the giving of the Law. What follows are not civil rules, mundane regulations, or ethical admonitions. All of the Law and the requirements to obey it are reflective of the God who called and elected the ancestors, rescued Israel from bondage, took on the rival sovereignty Egypt and destroyed it, and now covenants with Israel while in the wilderness and on the way to the Promised Land. From there the mission eventually to bless all the families of the earth will continue. Nothing less than this is what God intends for this kingdom of priests and holy people.
Questions for Further Reflection: Exodus 14:1–19:25
- The wilderness is prominent in this and the previous section. What symbolic role does the wilderness play throughout Scripture? What do you make of the fact that Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes in the Gospels always take place in a wilderness?
- What should we conclude in light of the fact that, no matter how many times Israel is unfaithful or disobedient, God sticks with them?
- God’s presence is often pictured in appealing terms in Scripture. What is the significance of the way God’s presence is depicted in this material?
- Previously, Moses’ incompetence was reflected in Exodus accounts. By this stage, he has become a valued spokesperson for God. What do you make of this?
- What do you make of the many instances in which some event, activity, or practice is supposed to be memorialized and ritualized for later use by the community Israel?
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