Tag Archives: Crisis

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.”

Psalm 28- Can You Hear Me Lord?

Can You Hear Me by jinzilla@deviantart.com

Can You Hear Me by jinzilla@deviantart.com

Psalm 28

<Of David.>
 1 To you, O LORD, I call; my rock, do not refuse to hear me, for if you are silent to me, I shall be like those who go down to the Pit.
 2 Hear the voice of my supplication, as I cry to you for help, as I lift up my hands toward your most holy sanctuary.
 3 Do not drag me away with the wicked, with those who are workers of evil, who speak peace with their neighbors, while mischief is in their hearts.
 4 Repay them according to their work, and according to the evil of their deeds; repay them according to the work of their hands; render them their due reward.
 5 Because they do not regard the works of the LORD, or the work of his hands, he will break them down and build them up no more.
 6 Blessed be the LORD, for he has heard the sound of my pleadings.
 7 The LORD is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts; so I am helped, and my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him.
 8 The LORD is the strength of his people; he is the saving refuge of his anointed.
 9 O save your people, and bless your heritage; be their shepherd, and carry them forever.
 
There is an intensity and beauty to this Psalm in its movement from crying to be heard to blessing the LORD who has heard. We can never enter the original Psalmist’s world and know who their enemies are or what is the crisis they are experiencing or how long they cry before they know that the LORD hears and responds, and yet we have their words which can echo our own crises and cries. The life of faith can inhabit this wide space between the desperate cry and the confident trust of one who has been answered. Faith does not exempt the faithful one from these times of crisis, but it does give the faithful petitioner a Faithful One who they trust will hear and answer their calls.

The intensity of the petitioner’s prayer is carried by the verbs focused on hearing: “I call, do not refuse to hear (literally do not be deaf), if you are silent” and the additional contrast between the LORD’s role as the petitioner’s rock and their destination if their rock proves untrustworthy, the pit. The psalmist cries out to the LORD, their rock, because the LORD is the only one who can deliver them. This cry is both an individual cry for help but also has the connotation of worship with lifting up hands toward the sanctuary. The Psalm doesn’t bargain with God but instead attempts to lift up the desperate reality that the Psalmist finds themselves within. If God does not rescue them from the wicked their life will end. The words of the Psalm 28 point to a life or death reality and wait upon the LORD for deliverance.

In contrast to the words of the Psalmist are the words of the wicked who speak peace while plotting mischief. The wicked often masquerade as the righteous and yet the Psalmist can point to the “fundamental disjunction between words, intentions and deeds.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 276) The wicked here are portrayed as those who do not ‘regard the work of the LORD,’ who seem to easily inhabit that space of God’s perceived silence with their own certainty that their words will go unpunished. They fill the pause in God’s perceived works with their own evil works and while the Psalmist wants the LORD to repay the evildoers for their works he also wants to ensure that he is not swept away along with them. Do not mistake my words for those of the evildoers who oppress me, do not mistake my work for their work or my deeds for their deeds. The work of the wicked is contrasted with the work of the LORD and the trust is that their disregard for the LORD’s working will result in their own destruction.

The space between verse five and six, the space between the LORD will break them down and blessed be the LORD who has heard is unknown. During that time the one praying holds onto the promise of the LORD’s hearing and the remembrance of the way the LORD has acted for the faithful ones in the past. Yet, the Psalm takes us across the unknown span of time to the resolution where God has acted, where the Psalmist can rest because God has provided them safety and strength, God did hear and act and save. It is this space where the Psalmist can utter the words of praise for the LORD who is faithful to the promises that were made. Now the Psalm moves beyond the individual to the community that calls upon God for their inheritance as well as guidance. The LORD is called upon to be their shepherd (which also has royal/kingly connotations in the Hebrew Bible) and to watch over and lead them forever. Perhaps, like in Psalm 23, the people will again find themselves in the darkest valley needing to cry out for the LORD to hear and rescue them again and then once again the intensity of the beginning of this Psalm may be a part of the movement again to that time when the LORD has heard and acted.

Psalm 20 – In the Day of Trouble

Bible paintings in the Castra center, Haifa-Samuel Annointing David and David and Goliath

Bible paintings in the Castra center, Haifa-Samuel Annointing David and David and Goliath

 Psalm 20

<To the leader. A Psalm of David.>
1 The LORD answer you in the day of trouble! The name of the God of Jacob protect you!
2 May he send you help from the sanctuary, and give you support from Zion.
3 May he remember all your offerings, and regard with favor your burnt sacrifices. Selah
4 May he grant you your heart’s desire, and fulfill all your plans.
5 May we shout for joy over your victory, and in the name of our God set up our banners.
  May the LORD fulfill all your petitions.
6 Now I know that the LORD will help his anointed;
  he will answer him from his holy heaven with mighty victories by his right hand.
7 Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the LORD our God.
8 They will collapse and fall, but we shall rise and stand upright.
9 Give victory to the king, O LORD; answer us when we call.

Psalm 20 probably has its origins in a military crisis where the king comes to receive a blessing prior to the upcoming conflict. While we may use the day of crisis to adopt this Psalm to our times in any number of circumstances the militaristic language of the Psalm reflects the very conflict heavy history of the Hebrew people. As a people at the crossroads between several ancient empires they constantly found themselves encountering armies marching to or through their nations. Under David and Solomon, they had a brief period of military strength, but for most of their history they were a small nation surrounded by powerful and ambitious neighbors. As in Deuteronomy 20:1 they will go out to battle with armies that are larger and better equipped, having more horses and chariots (the strongest weapons of the day). Just as the priest in Deuteronomy 20 blesses the troops before their upcoming conflict, here the Psalm begins with a similar pronouncement, “The LORD answer you in the day of trouble! The name of God of Jacob protect you!”

In our time we are very suspicious of an alliance between the church and state. For example, Miroslav Volf can state: “On many occasions throughout their history religions have betrayed their original visions by making themselves instruments of secular causes: they became primarily markers of ethnic, cultural, or national identities, supporters of political rulers and consecrators of wars, or transcendent reflections of economic interests.” (Volf, 2015, p. 58) While there is a real and present danger of religions who become intertwined with the political system betraying central parts of their identity to obtain the blessings of a political party or nation we also need to set aside this concern with the Psalm for a moment to enter the non-secular place that it comes from. If the nation of Israel is going to put its trust in the LORD and not invest in its military might in the same way that the nations around them do, then they need to trust that the LORD will act on their behalf. If the king is living in the way they are supposed to live, modeled on Deuteronomy 17: 14-20 then the priest is expected to give their blessing and the LORD is supposed to intervene in the time of crisis. This is the other side of the covenant they were expecting to live within, if they as a people lived according to the commandments, laws and ordinances of the LORD then the LORD was to intervene and protect them.

The first four verses the speaker is praying for the petitioner who is coming forward with the crisis. May God protect you, send you help, give you support, remember your offerings, regard your sacrifices with favor, grant your heart’s desire and fulfill your plans. Yet, beginning in verse five now the speaker and the petitioner become joined together in the first person plural pronouns (we and us): May we shout for joy, our pride is in the name of the LORD, we shall rise and stand upright, answer us when we call. The day of your distress has become the day of our calling, the priest and the petitioner once stood apart but now stand together before God. In that standing together the king can trust that victory is coming and that the LORD will help the anointed one.

As Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger highlight, this Psalm as well as numerous other places in the Old Testament are a critique of military self-sufficiency.(Brueggeman, 2014, p. 106) Although the kings of Israel and Judah would frequently attempt to rely upon military strength or alliances to protect them if they were going to live in faithfulness to their calling they should be able to call upon their God to assist. Often the rulers and nations want both, the divine blessing of their wars and the horses and chariots (or weapons of the era) that will ensure military supremacy. Perhaps the lure of self-sufficiency is too great for any nation to be able to subjugate itself to the LORD. Israel struggled mightily with this calling. Yet, for the Psalm to find meaning today we don’t need to restrict it only to the king or leader preparing to enter into armed conflict and seeking God’s blessing. Days of trouble are a regular part of life and we do want to believe that our prayers are heard and that God will act. In those times where the odds seem stacked against us we want to know that our God can be relied upon and that our pride can be in the action of the LORD in the midst of our own weakness.