YEAR A: LENT 3
March 27, 2011
Exodus 17: 1-7
The book of Exodus is formative of Israelís identity as a people, recounting the holy history of Godís dramatic act of delivering them from slavery in Egypt. After the Passover and crossing of the Red Sea, God leads the people through a forty-year period of wandering in the wilderness, a time of testing and solidifying their community. While God tests the people, they also at times put God (and Godís servant Moses) to the test.
The passage for this week immediately follows the story of Godís provision of manna to the Israelites in the wilderness, and unfolds in much the same way as the previous story (Exodus 16). The people appear not to have developed much trust in Godís providence from the provision of the manna, for here again, they begin by complaining to Moses that he has brought them out of Egypt only to kill them, this time by thirst rather than hunger. The rhetoric is inflated; in chapter 16, they long for the fleshpots of Egypt, as they themselves are starving. In Chapter 17, it is not only they who will perish, but also their children and even their livestock.
Moses responds to the peopleís pleas for water with two questions, ĎWhy do you quarrel with me?í and ĎWhy do you test the Lord?í Here, the two verbs are later used in naming the place where water flows from the rock (v. 7). The people seem to see their quarrel with Moses, who has led them into the wilderness, rather than understanding the theological dimension to which Moses alludes. In questioning Mosesí provision, they are in effect questioning Godís faithfulness and providence.
In the provision of manna, Moses became annoyed at the people only when they tried to keep some of the manna overnight possibly in case there was none the next day or in order to accumulate a stockpile (Exod. 16:20). He and the Lord also became angry when some neglected the command not to gather on the Sabbath (when he had warned them there would be no manna; 16:27-29). In this story, Moses complains immediately to God; it is as though his patience has worn thin. ĎWhat shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.í It is possible that Moses himself is employing highly-charged rhetoric to make his point to God; we are not certain that the people indeed had stones in hand at this stage. (Mosesí sense of being at times beleaguered by the people may bring a note of comfort to those charged with church leadership today; having a whinge appears to have a long tradition).
In v. 5, the Lord instructs Moses to take the staff with which he parted the Nile, and to go to the rock at Horeb. In the choice of this staff, the Lord is reminding Moses and the people of Godís liberation in the Exodus and the crossing of the Red Sea (cf. Exod. 7:9, 17, 20; 14:16 etc). By implication, the One who acted to deliver in such a dramatic way can again be counted on to deliver the people, this time from thirst.
The Lord promises to give water from the rock when Moses strikes it with his staff, assuring Moses that God will be standing there before him on the rock (Exod. 17:6). The focus is to be on Godís presence, rather than on any suggestion of magical powers vested in Moses or the staff. But we should also note the name of the rock on which the Lord will be standing and which Moses is instructed to strike in order to get water. It is Horeb, the mountain of God where God would speak with Moses and give him the law. This name is frequently used in Deuteronomy (see Exod 3:1 and especially Deut 4:10-15 etc.). The name Sinai is used in other material. More than the satisfaction of physical need figures in this passage. The Ďrockí from which Moses is instructed to draw water, is the mountain from which God speaks the law for the well-being of the people. Water and word are juxtaposed. The provision of water prefigures the provision of word which will sustain life in a greater context.
Moses complies with Godsí commands; interestingly, we are not actually told that the water came out from the rock. We note as well that Moses does not give God thanks or praise for the miracle he and the elders have presumably witnessed. Instead, Moses focuses on the peopleís complaint, naming the place Massah and Meribah, the place of testing and quarrelling. His naming of the place is explained by reiterating the peopleís quarrelling and testing of the Lord, this time with an added question that was not part of their original complaint, ĎIs the Lord among us or not?í This is the theological issue that is at stake, the question of Godís presence, and the deeper matter of faith and trust in Godís guidance and provision. The peopleís complaint to Moses, so soon on the heels of Godís provision of manna, shows a continued lack of trust in Godís guidance.
This story of water from the rock is echoed in Num. 20:2-13, where the account is filled out with further detail. In that account, Mosesí failure to trust God (and implicitly, to give God credit for the miracle) accounts for the Lordís decision that Moses and Aaron not be allowed to lead the people into the land of promise. Here again, the core issue is seen as a lack of trust in Godís provision for Godís people.
The Old Testament text for the day accords well with the gospel reading of the Samaritan woman at the well. In that story, Jesus promises living water that will assuage all thirst. In a desert climate where life and death are separated only by reliable sources of water, this promise of living water is a powerful metaphor of Godís provision of all that is needed for abundant life. In our land, after a decade of drought and in spite of recent rains and floods, we have come to know that water is a valuable and scarce commodity. We too are called to ponder anew the depths of the metaphor of living water which Jesus gives.
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