Exodus 17-20

The Israelites continued from the wilderness to Rephidim, where they complained to Moses about having no water.  God tells Moses to strike a rock to obtain water, which he does.  Amalek comes to fight with Israel, and because Moses holds up his rod during the fight, Israel wins.  Jethro and Ziporrah, Moses’ father-in-law and wife, come visit him in the wilderness.  Jethro sees Moses trying to act as magistrate for all of the people.  He advises Jethro to set up chieftains over the people to settle minor disputes, and only bring major disputes to Moses, so that Moses would not be worn out.  Moses agrees.

On the third month after the Israelites left Egypt, God tells the Israelites (through Moses) that the Israelites are his treasured possession among all peoples, as long as they keep his covenant.  He also tells them that on the third day, God will descend to Mount Sinai in a thick cloud; any person or animal who touches the mountain will be put to death.  Moses tells the people to stay pure and avoid going near women.  On the third day, a horn blares, the mountain trembles, and God descends to the mountain.  Moses and Aaron go up, and God gives them the ten commandments.  For a second time, people witness the thunder and lightning marking God’s descent; for a second time, Moses ascends the mountain.  This time, God tells Moses that the Israelites should not make gods of silver or gold, and that they should make an altar of earth to perform sheep and oxen.

Commentary:

  • Here, for the first time, God promises to destroy a people.  17:14 reads “…I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!”
  • Moses’ striking of the rock may have a scientific basis.  The Sinai has limestone rocks whose soft surface can be chipped away with a blow, revealing a porous inner layer containing water.
  • Chapters 19-24 describe the theophany, God’s coming to earth.  It interweaves contradictory material from J, E, and P so extensively that the narrative is very hard to follow.  For example, God descends to the mountain twice (19:18, 19:20) and Moses reports God’s words twice (19:18, 19:20).  19:19 reports the interaction between God and Moses as a dialogue, but the “dialogue” in 20:1 is actually a monologue by God.  The ten commandments are spoken after Moses has already descended the mountain, making it unclear who he is speaking to.  The account starting 20:15 is completely unaware of the decalogue, making it seem like  a duplicate of the account starting 19:16.
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