Journey to Sinai
We left off at the account of Moses parting the sea to allow the people to cross on a dry sea bottom with a wall of water on both sides of the Israelites (Exodus 14:22). Once across, Moses raised his staff and the water covered and drowned the Pharaoh and his army who were pursuing the Israelites and chose to cross on the pathway that God had miraculously opened up for Moses and His chosen people. We finished by reading the song written by Moses and the response by his sister Miriam to celebrate God's great victory over Pharaoh and his army.
This moment of rejoicing was not long lived as the people were now faced with a trek in the wilderness to reach the land promised to them by God through Moses.
15God, furthermore, said to Moses, "Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, 'The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.' This is My name forever, and this is My memorial-name to all generations. 16Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, 'The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, "I am indeed concerned about you and what has been done to you in Egypt. 17So I said, I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Amorite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite, to a land flowing with milk and honey."'
- Exodus 3:15-17
I. Journey to Sinai – Exodus 15:22-18:27
A. The Lord Provides Water – Exodus 15:22-27
In this first passage, after the dramatic events that enabled them to be free from Egyptian slavery, we witness the beginning of God's dealing with the people. So far, His focus and miracles have been directed at the Pharaoh and his nation, and the Jews have been witnesses and benefactors of God's dealings with the Egyptians. In this section we have a summary of how God will deal with His chosen people and how He expected them to respond to Him.
22Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness and found no water. 23When they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore, it was named Marah. 24So the people grumbled at Moses, saying, "What shall we drink?" 25Then he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a tree; and he threw it into the waters, and the waters became sweet. There He made for them a statute and regulation, and there He tested them. 26And He said, "If you will give earnest heed to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in His sight, and give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have put on the Egyptians; for I, the Lord, am your healer." 27Then they came to Elim where there were twelve springs of water and seventy date palms, and they camped there beside the waters.
- Exodus 15:22-27
The first order of business was to find water for themselves and their animals. When they have traveled three days to a place where there should be water, they find that the water is bitter (Marah = Bitter = Salty).
Here is where we see a familiar pattern begin:
- The people immediately grumble and complain and direct their frustrations toward Moses, asking/demanding that he find a solution.
- Moses, to his credit, does not defend himself, or argue back with the people. He immediately cries out to God for help – something the people should have done.
- Moses had no power; he was only God's spokesman delivering messages from God to the people.
- The people overestimated Moses' power and authority. Their faith should have been in God, not Moses.
God answers Moses' prayer for help in one of two ways:
1. Practical knowledge
He teaches him a primitive way to desalinate water. The word "tree" (vs. 25) can mean a tree, brambles, or cut pieces. It turns out that wood charcoal from the Acacia trees (which were plentiful in that area) was useful in desalinating water thereby making it fit for drinking.
God could have miraculously transformed the bitter water into potable drinking water with Moses putting a tree/wood in the water as a symbolic gesture – just like the raising of his staff to divide the sea was symbolic and not the cause of the sea separating.
We are not sure which was the cause for the purifying of the water, however the point to remember for the people here was that they needed to make their needs as well as their fears known to God, not Moses. God was their leader and as He says in verse 26, their healer. Moses notes at the end of verse 25 that God summarizes the nature of the relationship He will have with His people from this time forward. In simple terms: If they obey Him, He will take care of them and protect them from physical illness and harm – He will be their healer.
As a practical demonstration of this promise, God through Moses leads them to a pleasant oasis in the wilderness with plenty of water, shade and fruit.
B. The Lord Provides Manna – Exodus 16:1-21
1Then they set out from Elim, and all the congregation of the sons of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departure from the land of Egypt. 2The whole congregation of the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The sons of Israel said to them, "Would that we had died by the Lord's hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger."
- Exodus 16:1-3
They left Egypt in a hurry without provisions for a long journey. They've been traveling about a month and are running low on supplies, not wanting to eat their breeding stock, which they will need when they arrive and settle in the Promised Land.
The familiar pattern of complaining against Moses begins, but this time suggesting that he, somehow, brought them into the wilderness to starve them to death. This demonstrates how quickly people can turn on their leaders when things go wrong.
Then the Lord said to Moses, "Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day, that I may test them, whether or not they will walk in My instruction.
- Exodus 16:4
Note that God again responds to Moses by summarizing what He will do (provide meat and bread miraculously) and the primary reason He will do this:
- Not only to provide daily food in a geographical area where there is no food available or to be grown (wilderness).
- He will also provide food in this way in order to test if the people will be obedient to Him.
In the following verses Moses records the Lord's instructions concerning the gathering of the manna, as well as Moses' exhortations to the people about their attitude:
1. The people were to gather each morning what they would need of the manna (manna means: what is it?) for the day according to the size of their family.
- 1 Omer (2 quarts) per person.
- If they collected more in order to stock up, the extra amount would spoil the next day.
- On the sixth day of the week (Friday) they were to collect enough for two days and in this case the extra collected would not spoil.
2. The Lord also covered their camp with quail in the evening for them to collect and cook/roast as a portion of meat.
3. Moses reiterates that their grumbling about food should not be directed at him or Aaron, but to God, and he also reminds them that God hears their grumblings and will answer them not with punishment, but with kindness by providing quail in the evening and bread (manna) each morning.
4. The manna looked like frost on the ground which appeared like coriander seed and tasted like a honey wafer, white in color.
- It could be ground up in order to bake into cakes or boiled to form noodles.
- It was designed to satisfy hunger, which it did each day for those who gathered it.
- Whatever was left uncollected on the ground melted away with the heat of the sun, however no matter how much was needed and collected, there was always enough – even on the day the people had to collect enough for two days.
C. The Sabbath Given and Observed – Exodus 16:22-30
22Now on the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers for each one. When all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, 23then he said to them, "This is what the Lord meant: Tomorrow is a sabbath observance, a holy sabbath to the Lord. Bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning." 24So they put it aside until morning, as Moses had ordered, and it did not become foul nor was there any worm in it. 25Moses said, "Eat it today, for today is a sabbath to the Lord; today you will not find it in the field. 26Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, the sabbath, there will be none."
- Exodus 16:22-26
The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt and as such worked seven days a week with no day off for worship of any kind. This is the first time that Sabbath (to cease or rest) is mentioned in the Bible in this context. The observance of the Sabbath is introduced in conjunction with the gathering of food in order to survive. In order to set the day aside as a special (holy) day God would provide enough manna on Friday so that two-days' worth could be collected and stored without spoilage.
Furthermore, there would be none available on the 7th day for gathering. This ordinance was established before the various commands for worship were given so at this point the purpose of the Sabbath was to introduce a day of rest from work.
27It came about on the seventh day that some of the people went out to gather, but they found none. 28Then the Lord said to Moses, "How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My instructions? 29See, the Lord has given you the sabbath; therefore, He gives you bread for two days on the sixth day. Remain every man in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day." 30So the people rested on the seventh day.
- Exodus 16:27-30
Of course, as they were used to doing, many of the people went out to search for manna on the Sabbath and found none. Perhaps they were lacking in faith, curious or wanted to hoard.
God speaks to the people through Moses explaining that the reason they were to collect two days' worth on Friday and bake or boil it on that day was because none would be available on the Sabbath day, because God wanted His people to rest and stay home on the Sabbath. None of the religions of that time featured a command from pagan gods to their worshippers to take a day of rest each week. The Israelites were unique in this regard.
In giving this command in conjunction with the way He provided food for His people – one day at a time and two days' worth on Friday to allow for a day of rest on a Saturday (Sabbath), God was teaching His people to depend on Him for their needs – even their most basic ones, food and rest.
Moses summarizes the episode by explaining the features of manna and that this miracle should be commemorated by placing some in a jar, which would eventually be placed in the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark would also hold the tablets of the commandments and rest in the Holy of Holies situated in the tabernacle.
He concludes by confirming that the Jews eventually accepted and followed these instructions about manna and the Sabbath day throughout their 40 years in the desert and stopped eating manna only when they arrived at the border of the Promised Land (an omer / 10th of an ephah = about 1 cup).
D. Water From a Rock – Exodus 17:1-7
If we look at the map, we note that God is leading Moses and the people to a specific place, Mt. Sinai, where He will give them a witness of His presence and power, as well as a key element of their identity as His people and that will be their moral code embodied in the 10 Commandments.
In the meantime, two other events take place that Moses records – one of which involves the people's constant need for water and how this need reveals this young nation's lack of faith.
1Then all the congregation of the sons of Israel journeyed by stages from the wilderness of Sin, according to the command of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim, and there was no water for the people to drink. 2Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, "Give us water that we may drink." And Moses said to them, "Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?" 3But the people thirsted there for water; and they grumbled against Moses and said, "Why, now, have you brought us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?" 4So Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, "What shall I do to this people? A little more and they will stone me." 5Then the Lord said to Moses, "Pass before the people and take with you some of the elders of Israel; and take in your hand your staff with which you struck the Nile and go. 6Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink." And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7He named the place Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the Lord, saying, "Is the Lord among us, or not?"
- Exodus 17:1-7
This was the fourth time the people quarreled with Moses:
- They blame him, when instead of releasing them at Moses' insistence, the Pharaoh increased their workload (had to gather their own straw for brick making).
- They complained when they were trapped between the sea and the Egyptian army.
- They blamed Moses and complained when they arrived at Marah and found the water bitter and undrinkable.
- They grumbled against Moses when in the Wilderness of Sin, they were running low on food and didn't know how they would be fed.
Of course, each time God, through Moses, would provide for them or make good on His promises and this time was no different. However, this time God wanted an additional witness to His response since the people doubted Moses and his assigned leadership from God. Disputing with Moses was tantamount to testing God Himself.
On this occasion God instructs Moses to bring the elders of the people with him to witness this miracle so they could report back to the people what God had done and they had seen with their own eyes, and not simply accept a report from Moses or Aaron. When everyone was in place, Moses struck the rock with his staff (the same staff with which he parted the sea) and the water flowed from the rock as source – enough to provide for all the people. Moses named the place Massah, meaning test, and Meribah, meaning quarrel. In essence the quarrel with Moses had been to settle the issue if God was really with them or not. Despite the miracle of the water from the rock, this question would be asked and answered in a variety of ways as their 40 years in the desert would show.
E. Amalek and Jethro – Exodus 17:8-18:27
Before the people arrive at Mt. Sinai and experience the important events which would be transformative in nature, two unrelated stories are inserted in Moses' narrative concerning the people's journey in the wilderness.
1. War with Amalek – Exodus 17:8-16
8Then Amalek came and fought against Israel at Rephidim. 9So Moses said to Joshua, "Choose men for us and go out, fight against Amalek. Tomorrow, I will station myself on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand." 10Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought against Amalek; and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. 11So it came about when Moses held his hand up, that Israel prevailed, and when he let his hand down, Amalek prevailed. 12But Moses' hands were heavy. Then they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it; and Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other. Thus, his hands were steady until the sun set. 13So Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. 14Then the Lord said to Moses, "Write this in a book as a memorial and recite it to Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven." 15Moses built an altar and named it The Lord is My Banner; 16and he said, "The Lord has sworn; the Lord will have war against Amalek from generation to generation."
- Exodus 17:8-16
The Amalekites dwelt in that region but were not protecting their homeland – they saw an opportunity to attack and plunder a largely defenseless people with no formal military component (Deuteronomy 25:17-19). Moses instructs Joshua (mentioned here for the first time) to muster a military component in order to fight the Amalekite army and defend the people. This is the first military action of the young nation. Moses, in an effort to motivate his unexperienced army, goes to a hill overlooking the battle and holds up his hands with his staff as a sign of prayer and encouragement. So long as his hands stay up, the Israelites are winning the battle, but when Moses tires and his arms lower, the tide of battle turns. He has brought Aaron and Hur (Josephus claims Hur was Miriam's husband, Moses' brother-in-law) and these two sit Moses down and help him keep his arms aloft until the victory is won.
Because of their treachery, God instructs Moses that there would be continual war with the Amalekite nation until they were completely wiped out.
2. Jethro's Counsel – Exodus 18:1-27
This section explains how the system of government changed from a benevolent dictatorship with Moses, guided by God and represented by Aaron, was in charge of everything – to a more decentralized form of leadership with Moses still the leader chosen and guided by God, but the everyday work of meting out justice and settling disputes spread out among the various elders and chiefs of the different clans/families. Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, brings Moses his wife and sons to where they are camped. He was a believer and a priest of the true God and recognized as such.
11Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods; indeed, it was proven when they dealt proudly against the people." 12Then Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, took a burnt offering and sacrifices for God, and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat a meal with Moses' father-in-law before God.
- Exodus 18:11-12
While there, he observes Moses dealing with all the responsibilities of leadership by himself and warns that God's leader will wear himself out since the load is too heavy for just one man to carry. He encourages Moses to be the people's representative before God and God's spokesman to the people. He then counsels him to teach the people in the knowledge, laws, statues and will of God, and depending on their skill and virtue, assign various men to be leaders of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. They would handle everyday judgements and disputes and bring to Moses only the important and difficult cases that came before them.
We read that Moses accepts Jethro's advice and with that done, Jethro, priest of the true God, returns home to Midian where Moses, his son-in-law had spent 40 years of his life when he had first run away from Egypt. In the next section, Moses and the Israelites will come into the presence of God at Mt. Sinai.
1. The people are God's people, the church is God's church.
Moses was the chosen leader called upon to do a specific task, but the people belonged to God – He was responsible for feeding them and caring for them, not Moses. In the same way today, the church belongs to God, not the elders or deacons or the preachers. Yes, they have a job to do, but God is the One that will make the church stand or fall, not the preachers or other servants. Let us remember that in times of crisis so we don't become discouraged; and keep that in mind in times of growth and plenty so we don't fall victim to pride.
2. If you aspire to leadership, be ready for criticism both deserved and unfair.
Don't be surprised if people will not only criticize your performance but will also suggest you have evil motives (the most painful cut of all). The only response that works is to stand firm and faithfully continue in your ministry.
3. In your prayers to God remember that God provides to satisfy your needs, not your wishes.
God provided, in miraculous ways, the needs of the people for water and food, not their wishes for the wine, meats and delicacies they had enjoyed in Egypt. Some people miss the hand of God working in their lives because it may not be working according to their own personal desires.
4. Good leaders take advice.
Moses, chosen by God, witness of miracles and having successfully led two million people out of Egyptian slavery – was humble enough to follow the advice of one who had not achieved or experienced any of these things. Today's performance coaches tell us that the most successful leaders in any area of human endeavor are not just people who can take advice, they are people who seek advice from others and have the humility to follow it, if they believe it has merit.