Commentary on Exodus 15:22-18:27

Last updated: October 4, 2010

Biblical translations are from the ESV

15:22 Then Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. 23 When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah.

In Hebrew, “Marah” means “bitter.”1

15:24 And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?”

Their question, “What are we to drink?” was not in itself outrageous or even unfair. Their sin manifested itself rather in their attitude, which is suggested in the statement at the beginning of v. 24, “So the people grumbled against Moses.” Moses was, of course, God’s human representative among them and a likely target for blame. What is noteworthy, however, is that the people were following the pillar of cloud and therefore knew perfectly well that it was Yahweh who had led them to this location. But since Moses was the Lord’s spokesman, they expected the answer to their complaint to come from him. The people did not have what they had expected and failed to trust God to provide it. Since the Garden of Eden that has been a formula for disobedience.2

15:25a And he cried to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.

The purification of water is the first event in the wilderness after the crossing of the Red Sea. The context is important; it invites comparison to the cycle of the plagues, in which Yahweh contaminated water and disrupted nature in the land of Egypt. The purification of water at Marah is a reversal of the plagues. It indicates a change in theme from Yahweh’s war with Pharaoh to the divine guidance of the Israelite people.3

15:25b There the LORD made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested them, 26 saying, “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer.”

Many commentators are puzzled over what law God has in mind.

But the absence of a specific law is the key to interpretation. The speech is a proposal for law in general, not the legislation of a particular law. God proposes that the law be the means by which the Israelites live with Yahweh in the wilderness. The proposal of law is presented to the Israelite people with emphatic language, im-samoa tisma, “If you list carefully.” The emphasis in the proposal of law is not on any specific legislation, but on the promise of reward, namely that obedience to the law will generate health among the Israelite people. The interweaving of law and health relates the proposal of covenant in vv. 25-26 to the miracle of purifying diseased water in vv. 22-24. A similar proposal of law will reappear in 19:1-8, as an introduction to the establishment of covenant in chaps. 19-24. As in 15:25-26, the emphasis in 19:1-8 will also be on the promise of reward for obedience to law, and not on any specific laws themselves.4

The diseases of the Egyptians here does not necessarily refer to the plagues on Egypt, but could refer to maladies that were endemic in Egypt.5

15:27 Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they encamped there by the water.

16:1 They set out from Elim, and all the congregation of the people of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt.

Numbers 33:10-11 mentions an intermediate encampment by the Red Sea/Sea of Reeds, suggesting that this verse condenses the itinerary. It has been exactly one month since the exodus began (12:17-18).

16:2 And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, 3 and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

The phrase “died by the hand of the LORD” refers to natural causes. The Israelites prefer death in old age in slavery to death by starvation in freedom.6

16:4 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, I am about to 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 they will walk in my law or not.

Two interpretations of this phrase [that I may test them] are possible: (1) the gift of manna is to be subject to restrictions that test Israel’s obedience and trust; and (2) God intentionally subjects Israel to hunger in order to demonstrate and inculcate the lesson of their absolute dependence upon Him for sustenance. This follows the understanding of the manna episode in Deuteronomy 8:2-3.7

16:5 On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily.” 6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the people of Israel, “At evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7 and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your grumbling against the LORD. For what are we, that you grumble against us?” 8 And Moses said, “When the LORD gives you in the evening meat to eat and in the morning bread to the full, because the LORD has heard your grumbling that you grumble against him – what are we? Your grumbling is not against us but against the LORD.”

The [ESV] translation of v. 8 can make the verse seem as if Moses were saying that although some meat would be supplied, only the bread would be truly abundant. This is simply a mistranslation. Moses’ statement should read, “When the LORD gives you meat to eat in the evening and bread in the morning, to satisfy you” (i.e., both the meat and the bread would satisfy the Israelite appetites).8

16:9 Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the people of Israel, ‘Come near before the LORD, for he has heard your grumbling.’” 10 And as soon as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the people of Israel, they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud. 11 And the LORD said to Moses, 12 “I have heard the grumbling of the people of Israel. Say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread. Then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.’”

16:13 In the evening quail came up and covered the camp, and in the morning dew lay around the camp.

These migratory birds of the pheasant family, scientifically known as Coturnix coturnix, are to this day caught in large numbers in northern Sinai and Egypt. They migrate in vast flocks from central Europe to Africa in the autumn and return in the spring. They are small in size and make the long and tiring journey in stages. Flying low and landing exhausted, they are easily captured with nets or by hand. Numbers 11:31-32 gives a vivid description of this process. The tender meat of the baby quail is regarded as a great delicacy. It requires no oil for cooking and is speedily prepared over a hot flame. There is no suggestion in the narrative that the quail was other than a one-time provision. This is supported by the account in Numbers 11:4, 6, 13, 21-22, which records that some people, bored with the manna beyond endurance, hankered after meat. Hence, the quail could not have been available regularly or even intermittently. That is why both Deuteronomy 8:3, 16 and Nehemiah 9, which recount God’s benefactions to Israel in the wilderness, ignore the gift of quail.9

16:14 And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as frost on the ground.

To the description “fine and flaky, as fine as frost” must be added the specification in Numbers 11:7 that the manna was like coriander seed, of the color of bdellium, and it tasted like rich cream when prepared. No natural phenomenon in the Sinai region entirely matches these details. Closest is a white honeylike substance excreted from the tamarisk bush and called manna to this day by the Bedouin who collect it and eat it. This sap, rich in carbohydrates, is sucked by insects, which excrete the surplus onto the twigs. These form tiny globules that crystallize and fall to the ground. However, no naturalistic explanation can do justice to the manna tradition as it is presented in biblical literature. Here the substance possesses a numinous quality. Its bestowal is distinguished by certain wondrous features. However much one gathered, it accounted to only one omer; on Fridays the amount doubled; it did not fall on the Sabbath; any surplus beyond the allotted amount became rancid on weekdays but not on the Sabbath. What’s more, although the manna collected by Bedouins in the Sinai is seasonal and of limited quantity, the biblical manna nourished the entire Israelite population throughout the forty years of the wilderness wanderings.10

16:15 When the people of Israel saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat. 16 This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘Gather of it, each one of you, as much as he can eat. You shall each take an omer, according to the number of the persons that each of you has in his tent.’” 17 And the people of Israel did so. They gathered, some more, some less. 18 But when they measured it with an omer, whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack. Each of them gathered as much as he could eat.

These verses may seem to be telling a miracle story – that is, no matter what anyone tried to do (gathering a lot or a little), it all miraculously came out exactly to the amount required by his appetite that day, or the like. A more precise translation eliminates the possible misimpression: “The Israelites did so. Some gathered more, some less. Since they measured it by the omer, the person who had gathered more had nothing left over, and the person who gathered less had no shortage; each had gathered according to what he could eat.” In other words, the opening statement that “the Israelites did so” meant that they obeyed the rule about not gathering too much but just enough, and the rest of the two verses confirms this by more detail, explaining how everyone was careful to use measuring containers so as not to break God’s law.11

16:19 And Moses said to them, “Let no one leave any of it over till the morning.” 20 But they did not listen to Moses. Some left part of it till the morning, and it bred worms and stank. And Moses was angry with them. 21 Morning by morning they gathered it, each as much as he could eat; but when the sun grew hot, it melted.

16:22 On the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers each. And when all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, 23 he said to them, “This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD; bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over lay aside to be kept till the morning.’” 24 So they laid it aside till the morning, as Moses commanded them, and it did not stink, and there were no worms in it. 25 Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a Sabbath to the LORD; today you will not find it in the field. 26 Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is a Sabbath, there will be none.”

16:27 On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, but they found none. 28 And the LORD said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws?

The word “you” is plural.12 Moses is to relay the message to the people.

16:29 See! The LORD has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day.” 30 So the people rested on the seventh day.

16:31 Now the house of Israel called its name manna. It was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.

In ancient times the refining of sugar had not been invented, and the only means of sweetening foods was to add either fruit compounds or honey to them. Honey is far sweeter than dried, crushed, or minced fruit, being approximately half sucrose and half fructose, and its taste in foods was the apex of ancient flavoring. Few Israelites ever had the luxury of making wafers (in effect, thin cookies) instead of bread, and honey was rare enough (since it had to be found in the wild rather than cultivated as today) that describing the manna as “like wafers made with honey” was tantamount to saying that it was “the most delicious food imaginable.”

Manna was colored white, the comparison here to coriander seed (which is pale white in color) intending nothing more than to establish a known color as the comparison point. The taste and texture of coriander seed, in other words, had nothing to do with the manna.13

16:32 Moses said, “This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘Let an omer of it be kept throughout your generations, so that they may see the bread with which I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you out of the land of Egypt.’” 33 And Moses said to Aaron, “Take a jar, and put an omer of manna in it, and place it before the LORD to be kept throughout your generations.” 34 As the LORD commanded Moses, so Aaron placed it before the testimony to be kept.

The “Testimony” mentioned here in v. 34 refers almost certainly to the tablets of stone on which the Ten Commandments would be written rather than the ark of the testimony that would hold them. Accordingly, the statement that “Aaron put the manna in front of the Testimony, that it might be kept” presumably means that he put it, in its jar, within the gold-covered chest that was called the ark. (The Hb. Translated by the NIV and most other English versions as “in front of” can also be translated “right next to,” “in the direct presence of,” or the like.) Verse 34, however, may well describe the process in retrospect, after the ark was constructed and the tablets given to Moses by God for deposit therein. We cannot tell from these verses, in other words, whether Aaron put a sample of the very first manna in a (clay) jar, which eventually was transferred to the gold jar kept in the eventually constructed ark, or whether the fulfillment of this command was accomplished with some manna gathered months later, after the ark was built.14

16:35 The people of Israel ate the manna forty years, till they came to a habitable land. They ate the manna till they came to the border of the land of Canaan. 36 (An omer is the tenth part of an ephah.)

An omer was about 2.2 liters or a half gallon.15

17:1 All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the LORD, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” 3 But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” 4 So Moses cried to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

Even though God did not rebuke him, Moses had handled the people’s protest incorrectly. Previously he had reassured them, taking God’s side and asserting that God would provide for them (16:6-8) or simply acting as their intercessor in bringing their complaint to God (15:25). But here he took seriously the severity of the people’s mind-set and paid special attention to his own welfare above God’s will. . . . Moses looked here like a person afraid of losing his life for doing his job and showed a lack of confidence in God’s provision for him that is parallel to and resultant from the people’s lack of confidence in God’s provision for them. Accordingly, this rebellion is remembered in Scripture not only as Israel’s (Num 20:13, 24; 27:14; Deut 6:16; 9:22; 33:8; Pss 81:7; 95:8; 106:32; Heb 3:8) but Moses’ and Aaron’s (Num 27:14; 20:24; Deut 32:51; Ps 106:32).16

17:5 And the LORD said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.

In Egypt, the rod was used to make the waters of the Nile undrinkable, but here the rod is used to produce water for the Israelites to drink.

17:6 Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD by saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”

Massah means “trial” and Meribah means “quarrel.”17

Had the people said something like, “Does the LORD intend for us to become weaker and weaker while we wait for him to supply us with water?” it would still have been an untrusting statement and evidence of lack of faith. But for the people actually to doubt God’s presence among them was outrageously unfaithful. His presence was obviously manifest at all times, as it was at the very time through the pillar of cloud/fire, so the people’s question must be seen as nothing other than a contempt of the Lord’s leadership over them. It would be akin to asking a runner in the midst of running a marathon, “Do you intend to run in this race?” or asking a mother while she is in the kitchen working hard to get the family’s meal ready, “Are we going to have any dinner tonight?” It is an insult. It looks at the obvious and implies by snidely denying it that it is no good. Israel thus incurred God’s wrath and challenged God in a way he could not ignore.18

17:8 Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim.

According to Deuteronomy 25:17-19, the Amalekites made a surprise rear attack on the exhausted Israelites shortly after the exodus and cut down the stragglers.

17:9 So Moses said to Joshua, “Choose for us men, and go out and fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.”

This is the first mention of Joshua in the Book of Exodus. That he needs no introduction here implies that he was well known to the original audience. He was Moses’ designated successor and his exploits are narrated in the Book of Joshua.

17:10 So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. 11 Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed.

The significance of this gesture is unclear. The hand, often the symbol of action and power, is also the instrument of mediation. The expression “the laying on of the hands” exemplifies this idea. Moses’ action might therefore be interpreted as a sort of mysterious focusing of supernal power on Israel. If so, it is noteworthy that Moses is here presented as being subject to the ordinary human frailties, in possession of no superhuman or innate magical powers. Another interpretation, highly plausible, is that of Rashbam, according to which Moses held up a standard bearing some conspicuous symbol that signified the presence of God in the Israelite camp. The name that Moses gave to the altar after the battle lends support to this explanation. Standards emblazoned with religious insignia are known to have been in military use in the ancient Near East.

A rabbinic comment on this verse reads as follows: “Did the hands of Moses control the course of war? [No! The text] teaches that as long as the Israelites set their sights on High and subjected themselves to their Father in Heaven, they prevailed; otherwise they failed.”19

17:12 But Moses’ hands grew weary, so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side. So his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. 13 And Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the sword.

The unique use of Hebrew h-l-sh, “to be weak,” as a transitive verb seems to convey the notion of inflicting heavy casualties, rather than of victory. Therefore, the Amalekites were forced to break off the engagement and withdraw.20

17:14 Then the LORD said to Moses, “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.”

The reader of the English translation may wonder how the memory of Amalek can be blotted out when Moses is to record the battle as a memorial. The Hebrew word translated “memory” (zeker) often means name and connotes posterity. “The point, therefore, is that Amalek will never be forgotten, but will survive only as a memory, not as a people.”21

17:15 And Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The LORD Is My Banner, 16 saying, “A hand upon the throne of the LORD! The LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.”

The Hebrew word (nes) translated “banner” refers to a decorated pole that was held high and used as a signal marker or signal pole, where an army or army unit can rally and regroup.22

The Hebrew phrase [from generation to generation] envisages a protracted cycle of wars between Israel and Amalek. Several references to those wars are recorded in the biblical narratives. In the course of the wilderness wanderings, Amalekites and Canaanites jointly inflicted “a shattering blow” on an Israelite force, as told in Numbers 14:44-45. Amalekites, either as mercenaries or neighboring kingdoms or independently, made devastating incursions into Israelite settlements throughout the period of the judges. It was King Saul who first dealt effectively with the recurring Amalekite menace, and King David who finally confronted the implacable enemy on its home ground. He decisively neutralized its war-making capacities. Still, it was not until the days of King Hezekiah (715-687/6 B.C.E.) that “the last surviving Amalekites” were destroyed, according to 1 Chronicles 4:43.23

18:1 Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel his people, how the LORD had brought Israel out of Egypt.

It has long been recognized that chapter 18 is not in chronological order. Numbers 11:11, 29-32 state that Jethro was in the camp of Israel in the second month of the second year after the exodus. The events of this chapter occurred near the end of the sojourn at Sinai/Horeb. The account may have been placed at this location in Exodus to contrast the kindness of the Midianites/Kenites with the hostility of the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15:6).

18:2 Now Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, had taken Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after he had sent her home, 3 along with her two sons. The name of the one was Gershom (for he said, “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land”), 4 and the name of the other, Eliezer (for he said, “The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh”).

We are treated to a fleeting glimpse into Moses’ domestic life. The narrative in 4:20-26 affirms that Moses’ wife and sons accompanied him as he set out to return to Egypt. Hence, this verse presumes a story, now lost, about how they separated and rejoined their family in Midian. A midrash has it that Aaron convinced Moses of the folly of bringing his family into Egypt at such a time, and so Zipporah and the children were sent back to Jethro. It is quite possible that the full story about the “bridegroom of blood,” now abridged in 4:24-26, originally provided the details of Moses’ separation from his wife.

The translation “sent home” for Hebrew shilluhim is by no means certain. The other biblical usages of this noun denote either “dowry,” as in 1 Kings 9:16 and the cognate Ugaritic tlh, or “a farewell gift,” as in Micah 1:14. Neither sense fits the context here. The verbal form shillah frequently means “to divorce”; but in light of Jethro’s reference to his daughter as Moses’ wife (v. 6), it cannot have this meaning here.24

18:5 Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife to Moses in the wilderness where he was encamped at the mountain of God. 6 And when he sent word to Moses, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you with your wife and her two sons with her,” 7 Moses went out to meet his father-in-law and bowed down and kissed him. And they asked each other of their welfare and went into the tent. 8 Then Moses told his father-in-law all that the LORD had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had come upon them in the way, and how the LORD had delivered them. 9 And Jethro rejoiced for all the good that the LORD had done to Israel, in that he had delivered them out of the hand of the Egyptians.

18:10 Jethro said, “Blessed be the LORD, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharaoh and has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. 11 Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods, because in this affair they dealt arrogantly with the people.” 12 And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices to God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law before God.

Jethro offers a confession in which he employs the well-known formula: ‘Now I know . . .’ (I Kings 17.24; II Kings 5.15). The content of the confession ‘that Yahweh is greater than all gods’ has aroused considerable controversy. Some older commentators, such as Calvin, thought that the confession still smacked of polytheism, and that Jethro had not reached the point of pure monotheism. Yahweh was indeed the greatest, but nevertheless, among other gods. But this is to misunderstand the Old Testament idiom by being too literal. Surely when the Psalmist praises God with such words as: ‘Yahweh is great . . . our Yahweh is above all gods’ (135.5), there is no vestige of polytheism left. Others have taken the confession to mean that Jethro now announces his conversion to Yahweh and renounces his pagan past. But this interpretation also has its difficulty. Certainly the idiom in 18.11 is different from that used by Naaman: ‘There is no God in all the earth except in Israel.’ The latter confession contains an obvious polemic aimed at establishing the exclusive claim of Yahweh in the mouth of a pagan.

The problem of whether Jethro’s confession implies a conversion to Yahwism cannot be decided alone on the basis of the formula attah yadati (now I know), as has often been attempted. Certainly Zimmerli is right when he stresses that this sort of knowledge involves an act of acknowledgment of a new understanding of God which has resulted from his action. But the acknowledgment does not determine the status of the speaker before his confession. His new understanding can be a deepening of a prior knowledge (I Kings 17.24) or a totally new understanding which is fully discontinuous with the past (II Kings 5.15). In other words, from the formula alone Jethro’s confession could indicate either that he was a previous worshiper of Yahweh, or that he was a new convert.

There remains a certain tension in the text which, of course, has called forth this discussion. The fact that Jethro is a priest from a foreign country who does not belong to the people of Israel is an essential part of the tradition. Nevertheless, Jethro acts throughout the story as a faithful witness to Yahweh. He is not treated as an outsider, nor does he act as one. He rejoices with Moses because of what Yahweh has done for Israel, and offers him praise in the language of Israel’s faith. The sacrifice which Jethro offers is the final stage in a series of acts of worship. There is no hint in the text that he has won the right to participate in the cult because of a recent conversion. Rather, he bears witness to the greatness of the God of Israel by praise, confession, and sacrifice. It is possible that behind v. 12 lies an old tradition of a covenant treaty between Midian and Israel, but according to the present form of the text, the sacrifice flows naturally from Jethro’s response to the story of Israel’s deliverance.25

18:13 The next day Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from morning till evening. 14 When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?” 15 And Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God;

This biblical phrase [to inquire of God] originally meant to seek divine guidance in a situation in which human wisdom has unavailingly exhausted itself. Here it has acquired a legal nuance with the sense of “seeking a judgment or decision,” “making judicial inquiry.” This usage reflects the conception of true justice as being ultimately the expression of the will of God communicated through the human judge.26

18:16 when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.” 17 Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good.

Now it has long puzzled commentators that Moses, who had spoken ‘mouth to mouth’ with God and was his mediator par excellence should have depended on the practical advice of a foreign priest, albeit his father-in-law, for such an important element in the life of the nation as the administration of justice. Later exegetes developed a number of theories by which to explain the problem. Yet the remarkable thing is that the Old Testament itself does not seem to sense any problem on this issue. The narrative moves back and forth with apparent ease between advice offered on the level of practical expediency (vv. 17f.) and statements about God’s will which supports the plan (vv. 19, 23). No tension appears between these two poles because both are seen to reflect the divine will to the same extent. Because the world of experience was no less an avenue through which God worked, the narrative can attribute the organization of a fundamental institution of Israel’s law to practical wisdom without any indication that this might later be thought to denigrate its importance in the divine economy.27

18:18 You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone. 19 Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you! You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God, 20 and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do. 21 Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens.

The various categories of society are here indicated by the division into “thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.” These terms are used elsewhere to denote military units, but here they delineate civilian groupings of various sizes. It is not any more likely that the terms are to be taken literally in this context than in a military context. The expression seems to have the sense of “all the various societal levels” rather than literally indicating that every ten people would have a judge; every fifty (five groups of ten), an appellate judge for that group; and every two appellate groups (“hundreds”), a higher appellate judge, and so on. In other words, the expression “thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens” seems to be essentially a figure of speech by which is meant “all the various population groupings.” By providing leaders for each population level, Moses could assure an adequate number of judges to handle all but the most complicated court cases.28

18:22 And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. 23 If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.”

18:24 So Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said. 25 Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. 26 And they judged the people at all times. Any hard case they brought to Moses, but any small matter they decided themselves. 27 Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went away to his own country.


Childs, Brevard S. The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary. Westminster Press, 1974.

Dozeman, Thomas B. Exodus. 1st ed. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009.

Propp, William H.C. Exodus 1-18. Yale University Press, 1999.

Sarna, Nahum M. Exodus. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1991.

Stuart, Douglas K. Exodus. Holman Reference, 2006.

1Sarna, Exodus, 84.

2Stuart, Exodus, 366.

3Dozeman, Exodus, 369.

4Ibid., 370.

5Sarna, Exodus, 85.

6Ibid., 86.


8Stuart, Exodus, 373-374.

9Sarna, Exodus, 88.

10Ibid., 89.

11Stuart, Exodus, 379.

12Propp, Exodus 1-18, 598.

13Stuart, Exodus, 384.

14Ibid., 385-386.

15Ibid., 386.

16Ibid., 390.

17Sarna, Exodus, 94.

18Stuart, Exodus, 392.

19Sarna, Exodus, 95-96.

20Ibid., 96.

21Propp, Exodus 1-18, 619.

22Stuart, Exodus, 400.

23Sarna, Exodus, 97.

24Ibid., 98.

25Childs, The Book of Exodus, 328-329.

26Sarna, Exodus, 100.

27Childs, The Book of Exodus, 331-332.

28Stuart, Exodus, 418.


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