"God's Love in the Old Testament" - Chapter 17



Chapter 17: "Israel in the Desert - Pre Sinai"




Chapter 17 – Israel in the Desert – Pre Sinai


By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud

by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people (Ex 13:21 ,22)



Contents of Chapter 17

17.1 Observing the Complaint

17.2 Observing the Context

17.3 Recapping Discipline, Correction & Judgment

17.4 Israel in the Wilderness prior to Sinai

17.5 At Sinai

17.6 To Summarise




17.1 Observing the Complaint


We move on in the chronological flow of Israel 's history to what followed after the Lord delivered Israel from Egypt. Again these are not passages that the atheists seem to home in on because for some reason or other they seem to be less well known. Nevertheless in our project to examine God's dealings in and through Israel in what we call the Old Testament period, it is essential that we examine the period of time that Israel spent in the desert or wilderness after leaving Egypt .


The complaint, if there is one, will be about God's harsh dealings with the embryonic nation. Is the God who hands out death to this nation be a God of love, especially when it is His own people. Doesn't it leave Israel wishing they were not His people? Didn't God say Israel would be His treasured possession? Are his actions in dealing with Israel compatible with that description?


To answer these questions we must observe carefully the fifteen times when Israel grumbled or disobeyed God while in the wilderness. So be warned, these next two chapters need careful reading if we are to rightly assess what was going on.
Observe the 15 times Israel grumbled


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17.2 Observing the Context


Before we move into starting to examine these fifteen incidents, we really do need to observe the context in which all these was happening. I think it is fair to say that:

a) there is much Israel does not know about God and 

b) there is much that they do know.


a) Israel 's ignorance about God


At the start of this time, immediately following the time of leaving Egypt, Israel are not even constituted a nation and their experience of God is strictly limited.
Israel's knowledge of God is limited


To be fair to them, therefore, they could have been quite uncertain about the Lord, and that could account for some of their behaviour.


When we considered the Fall and the expulsion from the Garden of Adam and Eve, we commented how much of the problem was about their failure to realise that God loved them. I think it is fair to say, that this is also true of Israel . We should also recognise that it is true of ourselves!


b) Israel 's knowledge of God


But Israel were not entirely ignorant of God. We need to think about the history that individuals at least had had with the Lord so far in the first book of the Bible and which would have been passed down to Moses' day.
BUT they DID already have history with God


Remember when Moses was having his famous encounter with God at the burning bush the lord identified Himself as “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.” (Ex 3:15)


The accounts of God's dealings with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would have been passed down by word of mouth and possibly even written down. They knew this much of the Lord.


They now also knew that He was a God who communicated, a God who made demands, and a God who could back up those demands with unlimited power, as they had watched from a distance the battle between Moses and Pharaoh that we have just finished considering.


They know that he has delivered them from slavery in Egypt and that He has a plan to give them a new land of their own.
They all also knew of the Exodus


That much they have been told. Later Moses was to complain to God that, “Here I am among six hundred thousand men on foot.” (Num 11;21) so when we add on women and children it is likely that we are talking about a people who probably number somewhere between one and a half and two million people.


We know that communication was fairly good among them because to have left Egypt, every family had had to have performed the rites of putting blood on the door posts of their home. That had been the requirement to be saved from God's destroying angel and that must have been communicated to every one of them. So we may expect that the stories of Moses' encounters with the Lord had been shared among Israel and they knew what the Lord had done and why they were able to escape from Egypt and where they were ultimately going. They do know already that God is for them and He's not a God far off but is near to save them! All of this they know.


c) God's Presence with them

There is one other factor that is very easy to forget which is highlighted by the verses at the start of this chapter: the Lord's presence was clearly with them throughout both day and night at all times.

They also had God's presence with them!


The pillar of cloud and of fire was visible at all times. You might have expected that this visible reminder might have helped Israel get a better perspective but perhaps they came to take these two columns in the sky for granted. Nevertheless, they were there as reminders!

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17.3 Recapping Discipline, Correction & Judgment


In chapter 11 we considered briefly the subject of God's discipline which, we said, means   training   that develops self-control and character and was to train them to become His people (Deut 4:35,36).


Part of their training was observing how He had moved in power on their behalf to save them out of Egypt (Deut 11:2-7).


It is essential as we view these fifteen incidents that we remember that God's intention is to create a people who will be a light to the rest of the world (as we considered in chapter 9).
Don't forget God's original overall plan for them


They are to be a people who live according to His design-rules for mankind after the Fall, and who stand out from the rest of the world by having a living relationship with the one true God, and not being a superstitious idol-worshipping people like so many other nations were.


Perhaps one of the biggest things the Lord has to train Israel to do is trust Him. They need to come into the place where they realise that God is totally for them and that He will completely provide for them all they need. These two things will be an expression of His love for them. Discipline we said previous was training for an outcome and the outcome is a people who are blessed, who know the love of God and who reveal it to the rest of the world.

Correction we said was simply action taken to bring about change of behaviour, changing what was bad to become what is good.


When we looked at God's judgment we observed that it is always corrective, to bring change to a bad situation. It depends on the person or people and whether they can change.
Don't foget God's criteria for deciding on the nature of judgment


If God sees that they will refuse to change, then in some circumstances He removes them but mostly He seeks to bring corrective action that will bring about change of behaviour.


Now there is one further thing that we now need to add in here for our fuller understanding ad it is that in these dealings of God with Israel , it is to bring changes to them as a nation . In all of the situations we are going to look at there is a corporate dimension. Israel are going to be affected as a nation . Whatever happens they are going to be left wondering as a nation how they should respond to the Lord. This is a very important thing to remember in all that follows.

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17.4 Israel in the Wilderness prior to Sinai


As they leave Egypt there is a several months journey to Mount Sinai where they will have a special time with the Lord, after which they will never be the same again. In these months of travel they will learn some significant things or, rather, they should learn some significant things! Six times in these few months they came to a crisis point where they were confronted by a need.

They should have asked the Lord for help, but instead they let bad attitudes rise to the surface. In such a way they showed that they did not appreciate what we said earlier, that a) God loved them and b) that God was totally for them and c) that He will completely provide for them all they need.
Israel's responses in the desert reveal what they HADN'T learnt about God!


In what follows we will identify Israel 's actions by either their disobedience or their attitudes revealed through what they said.

1st - Grumbling – at being trapped by Pharaoh


Ex 14:10 -12 As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the LORD. They said to Moses, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt ? Didn't we say to you in Egypt , `Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians'? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!"

  • It starts even before they are truly out of Egypt .
  • They are confronted by the need for protection. Pharaoh is still the biggest problem in their lives and threatens them, and they see no way out.
  • Yet they forget the awfulness of slavery and they forgot the incredible things God has done in delivering them thus far.
  • What is interesting to note is that the Lord does not chastise them for this response. It is a fairly understandable one in the circumstances.


2nd - Grumbling – Foul Water of Marah


Ex 15:22 -27 Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur . For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place is called Marah.) So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, "What are we to drink?" Then Moses cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became sweet. There the LORD made a decree and a law for them, and there he tested them. He said, "If you listen carefully to the voice of the LORD your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, who heals you." Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water.

  • They travel for three days and their water supplies start running low. When they do come across water it is bitter.
  • The people have not yet learned to turn to the Lord for help but instead grumble.
  • Moses seeks the Lord and a miracle of cleansing follows.
  • The Lord uses this time to point out two things:
  • 1. This had been a test for Israel . A test reveals ability and the ability here would be the turn to God in need. Had they yet learned to do that? No!
  • 2. The Lord lays down a decree that obedience to Him will bring health for them, so that they will not suffer illnesses, plagues, diseases etc. i.e. He will not let them suffer at such times as this but will always be there to bring health as they seek Him.
  • Note again that the Lord does not chastise them but simply provides for them and blesses them with the reassurance about health and healing.
  • It is important to note that immediately after this incident they arrive at an oasis where there is abundant provision. it is no coincidence.
3rd Grumbling – lack of food – Manna provided


Ex 16:1-5 The whole Israelite community set out from Elim and came to the Desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt. In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, "If only we had died by the LORD's hand in Egypt ! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death." Then the LORD said to Moses, "I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days."

  • They travel on again and now there is a question over the adequacy of their supplies.
  • Grumbling is infectious and soon it is the whole community who are feeling negative. Have they learnt yet that God loves them and will provide for them? No! Instead of asking, they grumble.
  • What follows (and you need to read it in your own Bible) is a most amazing miracle. It is the provision of manna. Some try to explain it in rational or material terms but the account leaves us no such room. It is miraculous in that:
    • it was provided first thing every day – except Saturdays.
    • it was always sufficient for the day but if they collected more than a day's worth it would go mouldy.
    • on Saturday none would be provided and so on Friday they should collect double the amount – which would not go off!
    • this carried on for forty years while they remained in the wilderness and then stopped at they entered the Promised Land.
  • This was a very simple but clear form of testing by God, training if you like, to get Israel to realise that He would provide for them constantly but it did require a certain amount of compliance on their part to receive it.
  • Note that God does not chastise them, but simply provides for them with clear instructions about how to collect it.
4th – Disobedience – holding on to Manna


Ex 16:19 ,20 Then Moses said to them, "No one is to keep any of it until morning." However, some of them paid no attention to Moses ; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them.

  • Some of them failed the test! There will always be some, won't there' who refuse to take any notice of the instructions.
  • Moses may have been angry but there is no other come back on these silly people.
5th – Disobedience – looking for Manna on the Sabbath


Ex 16:26 -28 Six days you are to gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will not be any."Nevertheless, some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather it, but they found none. Then the LORD said to Moses, "How long will you refuse to keep my commands and my instructions?

  • It happens again. Some people take no notice of the instructions. Failed!
6th - Grumbling – lack of water


Ex 17:1-7 The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin , travelling from place to place as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. So they quarrelled with Moses and said, "Give us water to drink." Moses replied, "Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the LORD to the test?" But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses . They said, "Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?" Then Moses cried out to the LORD, "What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me." The LORD answered Moses, "Walk on ahead of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile , and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink." So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel . And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarrelled and because they tested the LORD saying, "Is the LORD among us or not?"

  • Again it is a question of trust. Water has run out. Do they ask the Lord for help? No!
  • Instead they come with a bad, critical, judgmental, quarrelling attitude to Moses.
  • They have had the water test before at Marah. This is just a slight variant. Failed!

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17.5 At Sinai


Eventually they arrive at Mount Sinai where they have an amazing encounter with the Lord. Let's note its features before we carry on looking at Israel 's behaviour.


Ex 19:1,2  In the third month after the Israelites left Egypt --on the very day--they came to the Desert of Sinai . After they set out from Rephidim, they entered the Desert of Sinai , and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain.

  • Note in passing that they have taken three months to get there.
  • They camp before the mountain in Sinai.


Ex 19:3-8 Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, "This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: `You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites." So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the LORD had commanded him to speak. The people all responded together, "We will do everything the LORD has said." So Moses brought their answer back to the LORD.

  • This is a very significant passage.
  • Moses goes up the mountain and the Lord speaks to him and he conveys it to the elders who convey it to the people.
  • The Lord reminds them how He delivered them.
  • Then He presents the offer of the covenant – if they obey, He will make them His treasured possession and will obviously guard them, keep them and protect them (all implied in such a description).
  • The people answer very positively.


Ex 19:9 The LORD said to Moses, "I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you."

  • Presumably during that first encounter up the mountain.
  • The people would be able to hear. They would know! This is significant!


Ex 19:10-12 And the LORD said to Moses, "Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes and be ready by the third day, because on that day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, `Be careful that you do not go up the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.

  • These are the first indications that they are dealing with a holy God who is distinct, separate and apart from them.
  • The indicators are clear: make careful preparations to meet with Him and keep at a distance!
  • Anyone who disobeys is to be put to death. This establishes seriousness.
  • It is in fact protective of Israel . The Lord knows that anyone who breaks through and comes close to Him will not survive His glory (as we've seen previously).


Ex 19:16-19 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.

  • There are signs indicating the Lord's presence which are scary!
  • Is this God putting on a show for Israel to convey His ‘otherness', conveying something of His powerful presence that comes close to them
  • This is a very memorable experience!


Ex 20:18-21 When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, "Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die." Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning." The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.

  • To confirm what we have just said.
  • This is a unique experience.


Ex 24:3,4 When Moses went and told the people all the LORD's words and laws, they responded with one voice, "Everything the LORD has said we will do." Moses then wrote down everything the LORD had said. 

  • After receiving the Law from God, Moses conveys it to the people and respond very positively to it and Moses wrote it all down.


Ex 24:4-7 He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel . Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the LORD. Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he sprinkled on the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, "We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey."

  • The covenant is ratified by sacrifices, declaration of the Law and affirmation by the people.
  • They are now the constituted people of God!

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17.6 To Summarise 


In this first chapter of two we have seen the following:


17.1 Observing the Complaint

•  Was God unkind to the Israelites in their desert travels?

17.2 Observing the Context

•  What Israel knew about God already

17.3 Recapping Discipline, Correction & Judgment

•  God's purpose is always to change for the good

17.4 Israel in the Wilderness prior to Sinai

•  6 times Israel responded badly, but God didn't

17.5 At Sinai

•  The amazing memorable events at Sinai


We have set the scene. In the travels through the desert from Egypt to Sinai, Israel are confronted by a number of needs – of protection, of clean water, of food, of water – and in case exhibit bad attitudes, showing that they do not realise that God loves them and is there for them, and also that they have not come into a place of trust in Him.   


Eventually they arrive at Sinai where the lord reveals His presence on the mountain in an awesome, very memorable way. So far, so good. But this is where it is about to go wrong! 


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