Exodus 17: Water and Conflict, Faith and Sight

Pieter de Grebber, Moses Striking the Rock (1630)

Exodus 17: 1-7 Massah and Meribah-Physical Needs, Testing God and Quarreling with Moses

 From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” 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 complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” 4 So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5 The LORD said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 He called the place Massah1 and Meribah,2 because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”

The wilderness is a place of perpetual struggle for the people of Israel. The LORD makes life for the people possible for they journey across the wilderness to their promised home, but the wilderness is never a place they are meant to dwell in. Once the threat of Egypt’s use of force has been removed the conflicts in the past two chapters and here revolve around the very basic physical needs for sustaining life: food and water. In Exodus 15: 22-25 the crisis revolved around undrinkable water, Exodus 16 the problem was the lack of food and the LORD’s provision of manna and quail, here in Exodus 17 the first crisis is again water. The lack of a predictable water supply is one of the great challenges of the journey across the wilderness and here the lack of water creates a crisis for Moses.

Moses, in his role as the mediator of God’s words and covenant, bears the impact of the anxiety of the people. Even though the LORD has provided in the past, here in a moment of fear and crisis the faith of the people is challenged. Sitting in air conditioned houses, drinking ice water and having our fill of food it would be easy to critique their fear-but when our basic needs of food and water are threatened we probably would not respond as rationally as we want. Moses deals with a desperate people and is caught between their fear and the lack of an immediate response from God.

A part of the Exodus story is the paradox of faith and sight. For so much of the narrative of the Exodus, God demonstrates God’s strength and trustworthiness in physical and tangible ways. The people see the waters part or the manna, for example, or the pillar of fire as demonstrations of the LORD’s presence in their midst. Yet, most of life is lived in these times where, as St. Paul can state, “We walk by faith and not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 5:7) If one’s belief and trust in God is contingent upon a constant and continual demonstration of God’s miraculous provision then faith is transformed into sight. Yet, need continues to be need and the fears and anxiety of the people about surviving in the wilderness would not be assuaged by being told the need to believe when their needs are not being met. Ultimately, God is not threatened here by the people’s cries and actions—it is Moses who is threatened. God hears Moses, speaks to Moses and provides a solution to the needs that the people voice. The place of testing and quarreling (the meaning behind Massah and Meribah) ultimately becomes one more place where water is provided in the wilderness.

One could argue for many natural explanations for water coming out of the mountain, and this would still be consistent with the Exodus narrative. All throughout the signs and wonders, the parting of the Red Sea, and the provision of food and water God uses the things of the earth to provide. Often God is present in the mundane provision of food and water in natural ways. Yet, this does not take away from the reality that for Moses it is the LORD that demonstrates where he is to lead the elders and strike the rock. Yet, in the beautiful language of Isaiah, the LORD is the one who is doing a new thing: “I am about to do a new thing, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43: 19) Whether it is through creation or a new act of creation, the LORD is the one for Israel who gives “water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people.” (Isaiah 43: 20)

Exodus 17: 8-16 The First Battle for the New People

 8 Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. 9 Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some men for us and go out, fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” 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. 12 But Moses’ hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. 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 sun set. 13 And Joshua defeated Amalek and his people with the sword.

 14 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write this as a reminder in a book and recite it in the hearing of Joshua: I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.” 15 And Moses built an altar and called it, The LORD is my banner. 16 He said, “A hand upon the banner of the LORD 1 The LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.”

John Everett Millais (1829-1896), Victory O Lord!

Pharaoh’s armies may no longer challenge the people of Israel on their journey but their movement into the promised land will not be conflict free. Here for the first time the people of Israel who left Egypt company by company like an army now for the first time are challenged militarily by Amalek. Joshua enters the narrative for the first time and we see him being the military leader he will be in the book of Joshua. Yet, it is not Israel’s military might which is key factor in the battle’s outcome. Moses again is called upon as a demonstration of the LORD’s presence as the battle rages. The holding up of the staff of Moses to the LORD coincides with the battle’s turning in the people of Israel’s favor, but the people’s strength becomes tied to Moses’ strength. As Moses’ strength fails Aaron and Hur become instrumental in taking some of the burden from Moses’ already overexerted shoulders. They provide a place to sit and support under his arms so that together they can become a demonstration of the combined strength of the people reaching up for the LORD’s aid in battle.

At a simplistic level, the statement that the future of Israel does not rest solely on Moses’ shoulders, or any leader’s shoulders, is an important one. The following chapter will have Jethro giving Moses advice about properly delegating the task of leadership. Yet, Moses will continue to have a unique role among the people and the time where Moses is away from the people will be a time of temptation for Aaron and the people to turn away from God’s stated intent.

The Bible also invites us into many ethical reflections on the use of force and God’s sanctioning of warfare. This is a difficult question that I have dealt with in other places (most completely in Deuteronomy 20). Here Amalek and his descendants become the recipients of an enduring curse that calls for their obliteration. After the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia and several other places throughout the 20th and beginning of the 21st century I will continue to remain uncomfortable with the designation of a people for destruction and I can admit there will be parts of the portrayal of God in the scriptures that will be difficult for me to understand or adopt. This is not the only voice in this conversation of scriptures and so perhaps as Jeremiah 18: 7-8 can state:

“At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it.”

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