Howard Wallace's home page


YEAR A: PENTECOST 21
September 25, 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 Reed 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 is one which appeared earlier in the liturgical year during Lent (see the commentary on Lent 3). It immediately follows last weekís reading from Exodus, the story of Godís provision of manna to the Israelites in the wilderness. The story unfolds in much the same form as the previous one. 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 (nasah Ďto testí and rib Ďto contentí) are later used in naming the place where water flows from the rock. The people seem to see their quarrel as being 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 gather manna on the Sabbath (when he had warned them there would be none). 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 did have stones in hand at this point.

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 Reed Sea. The very staff which Moses used in the first plague to strike the Nile and make it turn to blood, and hence be undrinkable, will now be used to bring life-giving water to the Israelites. By implication, the One who acted to deliver in such a dramatic way can again be counted on to deliver the people from threats to life, 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. The focus is to be on Godís presence, rather than on any suggestion of magical powers vested in Moses or the staff.

But the story does not only look back (to the Reed Sea) for a clue that God can deliver his people. It also looks forward. This forward movement can be easily missed in our reading. It is signalled by a single word, the name of the rock, Horeb. That, of course, is another name for Mt Sinai, the mountain on which Moses will receive the torah or Law from God. The people will not reach Mt Sinai, or Horeb, in their travels for another chapter or more (Exodus 19) so the reference to Horeb in 17:5 is perplexing. It is saying that, while the story is about literal thirst, there is another Ďthirstí which will be quenched by the giving of the Law which is to come. It is another way of saying that the people do not live by bread (or water) alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord, to paraphrase Deut 8:3 (cf. Matt. 4:4; Luke 4:4).

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 they but slimly trust in Godís guidance.

If there is any suggestion of an answer to this problem, it lies in the geography set before us and the names given to places. Todayís story takes place at the rock called Horeb. In Exodus 3 it was also called Ďthe mountain of Godí (v. 1). It is where the water of life flows from beneath the divine abode. That Ďholy groundí, as Exodus 3 referred to it, is itself named by Moses Massah and Meribah, the place of testing and quarrelling. Those same waters will later be those in which Moses disposes of the dust from the dissolved golden calf (Exod. 32:20; cf. Deut 9:21). Godís own dwelling, Godís mountain, from which life-giving water is dispersed, bears the name and marks of the peopleís rebellion and doubt. God and the people can only really coexist by the grace, as we would call it, of Godís compassionate presence with us; Immanuel, ĎGod-with-usí. The life-giving stream from Godís mountain bears a name that marks the rebellious and quarrelsome nature of Godís people.

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 issues are the peopleís lack of trust in Godís provision for them, as well as Moses failing to give God the praise for working the miracle.

Godís people at this point in the wilderness wanderings have experienced Godís deliverance through the Reed Sea, and at least three instances of Godís faithful provision, sweet water in chapter 15, manna in chapter 16, and now water from the rock in chapter 17. What seems striking is the brief duration of their memory of Godís faithfulness, and their lack of hope that God will continue to make provision for their needs as they arise. Even the dramatic memory of their preservation through the Reed Sea is turned on its head in their challenge to Moses, ĎHave you led us out only to kill us with thirst?í

In preaching this passage, one might draw out the connection between Godís past faithfulness and future provision. As many faith communities and congregations face decline and an uncertain future, these stories of Godís guidance through the wilderness in preparation for a new community may commend hope. Like the people then, we may tend to forget past provision in the face of the many droughts before us; lack of leaders, aging congregations, a weariness of spirit.

In our time, even as in the time of the Exodus, God is re-making a people, journeying with us toward a destination that as yet we cannot see, but which can Ďquench our thirstí. While our first impulse may be to complain, the text today calls us to take heart, for along the way, God feeds us with the bread of our journey and revives us with the water of life.

Psalm 78

Return to OT Lectionary Readings contents page