Preparing for Sinai: God and Israel Test Each Other
נ-ס-ה as a Leitwort in Exodus 15-17
Parashat Beshalach traces the itinerary of the Israelites after the splitting of the Red Sea, recording the trials and tribulations that marked the nation’s wilderness trek towards Mount Sinai. The narrative here and the expansive parallel account of wandering in Numbers outline a preparatory experience; in Exodus the climax is the Sinai theophany and in Numbers the goal is entry into the Land. This message is conveyed through the use of related Leitworter  (literally “leading word”; Hebrew, מילה מנחה), playing on the Hebrew root נסה.
The use of the Leitwort, נ-ס-ה, which generally refers to testing in Exodus 15-17 has been noted by Yonatan Grossman.
God Tests Israel
Turning bitter water sweet (Exod 15:25)
שָׁ֣ם שָׂ֥ם ל֛וֹ חֹ֥ק וּמִשְׁפָּ֖ט וְשָׁ֥ם נִסָּֽהוּ:
There He made for them a fixed rule, and there He put them to the test.
Collecting manna (Exod 16:4)
לְמַ֧עַן אֲנַסֶּ֛נּוּ הֲיֵלֵ֥ךְ בְּתוֹרָתִ֖י אִם־לֹֽא:
…to test whether they will follow My instructions or not.
Israel tests God
Lack of water at Rephidim (Exod 17:2)
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לָהֶם֙ מֹשֶׁ֔ה מַה תְּרִיבוּן֙ עִמָּדִ֔י מַה תְּנַסּ֖וּן אֶת־יְ-הֹוָֽה:
Moses replied to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you try Yhwh?”
The naming of Massa u-Meribah (Exod 17:7)
וַיִּקְרָא֙ שֵׁ֣ם הַמָּק֔וֹם מַסָּ֖ה וּמְרִיבָ֑ה עַל רִ֣יב׀ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְעַ֨ל נַסֹּתָ֤ם אֶת יְ-הֹוָה֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר הֲיֵ֧שׁ יְ-הֹוָ֛ה בְּקִרְבֵּ֖נוּ אִם אָֽיִן:
The place was named Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and because they tried Yhwh, saying, “Is Yhwh present among us or not?”
Together, these occurrences highlight reciprocity, with God and the Israelites testing one another. By means of the instructions for extracting water at Marah (15:25), and the rules about gathering the manna, God tests Israel. In turn, the place names Massa and Meribah memorialize the people’s rebellious doubts as to whether the LORD was present among them or not. (17:2, 7).
Contrast with Numbers and Its Leitworter נסע and נשא
The two parallels between Exodus 15-17 and the account in Numbers that stand out most are:
- Complaint about lack of water that God solves by bringing water from a stone (Exod 17:1-7, Num 20:1-13).
- Complaint about food that God solves by bringing quail (Exod 16:2-13; Num 11:4-35).
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that there are similarities between Grossman’s analysis of Exodus 15-17 and my TABS essay on Parashat Nasso, "Israel's Development as a Nation: Form, Storm, Norm, Perform," in which I observed that the roots נשא and נסע run as a significant thread through the Book of Numbers. There, I suggested that this chain of alliterative Leitworter serves to illustrate the Israelites’ emergence as a nation, through an educational process that follows a pattern typical of group formation.
The bulk of Numbers is devoted to the most dramatic phase of the developmental process, the turbulent “Storm” phase, in Num 11-25. This is the section that Exod 15-17 parallels, including the stories about lack of food and lack of water.
Grossman observes that in these chapters of Exodus, נ-ס-ה is paired with the root ל-ו-נ. In fact, this word for “complaint” functions as an additional Leitwort in both Exod 15-17 and Num 14-17 and is nearly exclusive to these chapters.
- The verb form of ל-ו-נ appears 5 times in Exod 15-17, 10 times in Num 14-17, and only one other time in the Hebrew Bible (Josh 9:18).
- The noun form of ל-ו-נ appears 5 times in Exod 15-17, 3 times in Num 14-17, and nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible.
This shared terminology of complaint in Exodus and in Numbers highlights their common motif.
נ-ס-ה in Numbers
The root נסה is found only once in the book of Numbers but in a formulation that invites comparison with the use of the term as a Leitwort in Exodus. Num 14:22 says of the Israelites complaints as a result of the scouts’ report: “they have tested me (וַיְנַסּוּ אֹתִי) these ten times.” This use of nissa could hint at a tradition of a list of tests, perhaps associated with the itinerary in Exodus.
James VanderKam has drawn a connection between the statement about ten wilderness tests in Num 14:22 and the ten plagues in Egypt (called trials, מסות, from the root הנס in Deut 4:34, 7:19, 29:2), and the ten trials of Abraham, as understood in Second Temple and Rabbinic literature.
The Ten Plagues and the “Ten Tests” – Israel’s Failure in Numbers
According to Num 14:22, Deut 4:34, 7:19, 29:2, the purpose of the plagues was to edify Israel, to demonstrate God’s greatness and spur the nation to devotion. It was meant as an opportunity to win them over and solidify their faithfulness. In contrast, the Israelites’ testing of God in the wilderness demonstrated a failure to learn the lesson of the miraculous signs leading up to the exodus—their failure in the tests that God had set for them.
Num 14:22 focuses on the punishment incurred by this failure, the disqualification of the generation of the exodus from entry into the land.  The larger narrative offers reason to see the decree as not only punitive, but also as creating an opportunity for a process of growth through experience.
The Testing in Exodus and Israel’s Success: God as Israel’s נס
The period of rebellious testing in Exodus chapters 15-17 concludes with a recognition of God’s greatness and an expression of devotion. Following the defeat of the Amalekites (Exod 17:15), Moses builds an altar and names it “Adonai-nissi,” “God is my banner.” Grossman sees this use of the noun nes as an extension of the Leitwort nissa, and views the naming as the culmination of a preparatory phase prior to Sinai:
Thus, following the mila mancha (Leitwort) in the unit of these complaints raises an educational process which the Israelites pass through on their way from Egypt to Mount Sinai to the forefront, a process in which there are ascents and descents, as with every educational process.
נס in Numbers: A Banner or Example
Numbers chapter 21 similarly uses the noun נס as “a banner,” more literally, in a narrative illustrating the culmination of a harrowing educational process leading towards the nation’s trust in God. When God punishes the people for yet another instance of grumbling by sending “seraph serpents” against them, the Israelites appeal to Moses, admitting their guilt and also asking him to intercede with God on their behalf.
God instructs Moses to make a figure of a seraph and mount in on a standard (נס). Moses does so, and “anyone was bitten by a serpent (nashakh hanahash), he would look at the copper serpent (nahash hanekhoshet) and recover” (Num 21:9). The alliteration in the Hebrew is eye-catchingly (or, more precisely, ear-catchingly) tongue-twisting, and includes assonance with the word nes (alliteration in bold):
וַיַּ֤עַשׂ מֹשֶׁה֙ נְחַ֣ש נְחֹ֔שֶׁת וַיְשִׂמֵ֖הוּ עַל־הַנֵּ֑ס וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־נָשַׁ֤ך הַנָּחָשׁ֙ אֶת־אִ֔ישׁ וְהִבִּ֛יט נְחַ֥ש הַנְּחֹ֖שֶׁת וָחָֽי
So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
This is a great step in the Israelites’ progression towards acceptance of responsibility and authority, i.e., the norms of the Form-Storm-Norm-Perform model used in Numbers.
The term nes appears again in the summary of the desert journeys in Num 26:10, the second census that marks the beginning of the “Norm” phase, where it is written of the deaths of Korah and his associates, “and they became an example” (ויהיו לנס). Perhaps the use of this word at this juncture, in a retrospective recapitulation of the rebellion, indicates that the lessons of that episode and others over the arduous journey (נסע) have at last been assimilated so that it is a different Israel that is being counted now (נשא) than at the outset of the book.
Testing as Preparation: Entry into the land vs. The Sinai Theophany
Numbers: Preparing for Entry into the Land
In the book of Numbers, the edification process is preparatory for entry into the Land. Israel’s forty years of wandering are presented in Numbers within a framework of punishment for disobedience. There is no rehabilitation possible for those who have failed the test of faith in God. Other than Caleb and Joshua, none of the exodus generation is capable of acquiring the Land. God yields to Moses’ plea not to destroy the nation, as a national entity, but like the ship of Theseus, the Israelites must be reconstituted, and the emerging nation is forged through a turbulent process.
Exodus: Preparing for the Sinai Theophany
In Exodus, the educative purpose of the נסה-testing is to prepare the nation for the Sinai theophany. This is explicit in the narrative of Revelation itself, in Exod 20:16:
וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָעָם אַל תִּירָאוּ כִּי לְבַעֲבוּר נַסּוֹת אֶתְכֶם בָּא הָאֱלֹהִים וּבַעֲבוּר תִּהְיֶה יִרְאָתוֹ עַל פְּנֵיכֶם לְבִלְתִּי תֶחֱטָאוּ
And Moses said to the people “Be not afraid; for God has come only in order to test you (נַסּ֣וֹת אֶתְכֶ֔ם), and in order that the fear of Him may be ever with you, so that you do not go astray.”
More than half a century ago, Moshe Greenberg offered a convincing original interpretation of the root נ-ס-ה in this verse: “to cause you to experience.” This observation can also illuminate the use of נ-ס-ה in the sense of testing in Parashat Beshalach. The brief sojourn in the wilderness is presented as a period of mutual testing. This functions as an educational process aimed to train the people to accept that the Lord is their Banner, and to prepare them to hear the divine words and to serve God. This transforms the Israelites from slaves to Pharaoh to servants of the Lord.
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Dr. Shani Tzoref is currently a Fellow at the Qumran Institute of the University of Göttingen. She was formerly the coordinator of the Biblical Studies program at the University of Sydney. Tzoref holds an M.A. in Jewish History from Yeshiva University and a Ph.D. in Ancient Jewish Literature from New York University. She is the author of The Pesher Nahum Scroll from Qumran: An Exegetical Study of 4Q169.
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