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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. At the end of Genesis, Abrahamís descendants had migrated to Egypt where they had been saved from famine through Joseph. But as time passed their circumstances changed and, as foreigners in Egypt, they fell into a position of providing slave labour for the building projects of the Egyptian Pharaohs. Through the intervention of Moses and only after a series of plagues are the people freed from slavery. After the Passover, associated with the final plague (Exodus 12), and crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 14-15), 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; Exod 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. Two things should be noted about this verse. First, 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. Secondly, the reader or hearer who knows the story already will recognise that the rock named Horeb is none other than the mountain at which Moses will later receive the law from the Lord. There is a hint that the story is not simply about the provision of water but also points to the Lordís provision of the law which will guide the life of the people.

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.

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 (John 4:5-42). In that story, Jesus promises living water that will assuage all thirst. In Exodus, the water from the rock points forward to that Ďliving waterí that is found in that Old Testament context of the law given at Horeb. In a desert climate where life and death are separated only by reliable sources of water, the promise of living water is a powerful metaphor of Godís provision of all that is needed for abundant life. In our land, which we have now come to know as a land in which 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.

Psalm 95

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