Exodus 17:1-7: Rocky Water
Here is another episode of grumbling. In Exodus 17:1-7 the Israelites are camped at a place where there is no water. I know you are thinking "Again!" But the last time water was the issue it was because the water was bitter and undrinkable. This time there appears to be zero water. Verse 2 tells us that the people "quarreled" with Moses, demanding that he give them some water to drink. To quarrel is to do more than grumble. In fact, even "quarrel" is too weak of a translation for this Hebrew verb. The word carries the connotation of putting someone on trial. It became a technical legal term for contending with an opponent in court. The noun denotes a trial, a court case. Thus, the Israelites are putting Moses on trial for their lack of water. It is his fault that they are in the desert and about to die of thirst. They are pressing charges against him, not in an official court setting, but rather in more of a mob atmosphere.
Moses responds, "Why do you quarrel/put me on trial? Why do you test Yahweh?" Notice the parallelism. Parallelism is very common in Hebrew poetry/rhetoric. The second line generally does not carry an independent, new meaning, but serves to extend and/or intensify the meaning of the first line.
Two things call for our attention here. First, Yahweh takes the place of Moses. That is, Yahweh so identifies with his servant Moses that to contend with Moses is to contend with Yahweh. Whether the Israelites realize it or not, they are bringing charges not against a man but against the One Who Is.
This brings us to the second point. Look who is now testing who. We have seen the verb "test" in the two previous "provision crises" (15:25, bitter water; 16:4, no food). In both cases Yahweh made provision with the intention to "test" Israel, to expose their level of trust and to train them to live according to His instruction/Torah. In this third crisis the testing has reversed. The Israelites are putting Yahweh to the test, attempting to expose Yahweh, and worse, to train Yahweh to follow their words/grumblings.
Can you imagine that? Attempting to expose and train God? The issue has escalated from one of trust to one of power. Who will answer to whom? Whose word will be followed? It is easy to condemn the Israelites for their brazenness, but how often, in the midst of the Lord trying to train us to trust Him, do we bring charges against the Lord and attempt to squeeze Him into obeying our words? Lessons of trust turn into struggles for power and control. Have mercy upon us, O Lord, for our many efforts to control You. Move us in our prayers from attempts to control to a willingness to submit.
The people back off from pressing charges, but continue to grumble against Moses for their about-to-die-of-thirst condition. Moses cried out to Yahweh, "What am I to do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me!" Moses has stood before Pharaoh and the armies and magicians of Egypt, and now his own people are his greatest threat. Sad!
Yahweh responds to Moses' cry, telling him to walk before the people and even to gather some of the elders around him. Interesting. I'm sure that as Moses thought about being stoned he was seriously tempted to leave the people and head off on his own. After all, he had been a desert shepherd for forty years and no doubt knew how to survive. It must have seemed like a good time to make an exit. And yet Yahweh sends him before the people. More, he is to gather the elders. I doubt these elders had been much of a supporting cast, else why hadn't they intervened and taken up Moses' case? Most likely they were part of the prosecution.
Yahweh tells Moses to take his staff, the one with which he struck the Nile, the one that he threw down and picked up as a snake, the one that he raised over the Sea to divide it, the one that he raised over the divided Sea to unite it over Pharaoh's army - yes, that staff. Yahweh tells Moses to take the staff and strike the rock upon which Yahweh will be standing at Horeb. Water will gush forth and the Israelites will drink. Their thirst will be quenched. Moses does what Yahweh tells him and the elders are there to witness the event. Yahweh has taken up the case of Moses and once again established his leadership.
Moses named the place Massah (testing place) and Meribah (trial place). Israel had tested and contended against Yahweh, saying, "Is Yahweh among us or not?" What a ridiculous question! Yahweh brought about their exodus from slavery to Pharaoh. Yahweh divided the Sea and they escaped Pharaoh's army. Yahweh turned bitter water into drinkable water. Yahweh even provided them manna that very morning. And they are asking if Yahweh was with them?!
And yet it is a real question, all testing aside. In times of crisis, of extreme thirst, it matters little if God was with us. What matters is whether God is with us, NOW. Yahweh answers that question with a resounding, rock-splitting YES! Yahweh is with them, and especially so in the person and leadership of Moses. Did Yahweh succumb to their control, to their word? I don't think so. Yahweh's YES defies all control. Bringing water from a rock surely demonstrated the power and freedom of Yahweh. It must have left Israel in awe of both Yahweh and Moses, at least for a moment. Yahweh is free and untrainable, so much so that He can provide water from a rock for a people who are ready to stone His chosen servant.
Where is Moses leading Israel on this opening leg of their desert travels? To Mount Sinai. Way back at 3:12 when Moses was talking to the burning bush, Yahweh said, "When you have brought the people out of Egypt you will worship God on this mountain." What unfolds at Mount Sinai? God would come down and meet Moses at the top, giving Moses the Ten Commandments/Torah for Israel to live by. Sinai is the site of Yahweh revealing Torah - Yahweh's word for living in the presence of Yahweh.
In the first crisis-provision episode of the bitter water, Yahweh "torahs" Moses a tree to throw into the water (15:25). The water was sweetened and the issue seemed resolved, yet Yahweh's focus had not been the water at all. In 15:26ff. Yahweh called on Israel to listen carefully to His voice to obey His words, "for I am Yahweh who heals you." Not "I am Yahweh who heals the water," but "I am Yahweh who heals you." And how is this healing to take place? Through listening to the word of Yahweh; that is, through embracing Yahweh's Torah. That is the purpose of the test, to create a Yahweh-centered, Torah-living people. Yahweh heals through Torah.
In the second crisis-provision episode of nothing to eat, Yahweh rains down bread from heaven. And with the bread comes Yahweh's test of whether or not they will heed His instruction/Torah: gather only what you need, do not keep any till the next day, but on the sixth day gather enough for the seventh so that you can rest. When Israel failed to observe the commandments, Yahweh's question was "How long will you refuse to keep my commands and my Torah?" Yahweh's focus is not on the Israelites' stomachs, but on their hearts, on their will to trust and obey the word of Yahweh. Thus, the true bread that nourishes the soul is the doing of Yahweh's word.
The third crisis-provision episode is our current text of no water. What is significant here is that it is not just any old rock that Yahweh tells Moses to strike to get water. It is none other than the rock that Yahweh is standing upon, which is none other than the rock at Horeb. Way back in 3:1 we discovered that Horeb was "the mountain of God", the place where God encountered Moses in the burning bush. More, Horeb and Sinai are the same mountain. Yahweh descends upon Sinai to give the Torah for Israel via Moses. Yahweh stands upon Horeb to provide water for Israel via Moses.
Do you see the correlation? Torah is the life-giving water that gushes forth from the rock/Sinai. Torah quenches the thirst of the soul. Consider Psalm 1, which is a Torah psalm. Basically there are two paths that one can take in life: the way of the wicked or the way the righteous, which is adherence to Yahweh's instruction. "Blessed is the one who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked..., but his delight is in the Torah of Yahweh, and on His Torah he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not whither." If you do not want your soul to whither and die of thirst, drink lots of Torah!
The point of all these crises-provision stories is that our healing comes through Yahweh's Torah/Word, our nourishment comes through Yahweh's Torah/Word, and our thirst is quenched through Yahweh's Torah/Word. "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . .." Jesus is our Torah, our healing, our bread of life, our giver of an inner well that springs up with eternal life. Several passages in John come to mind, but I'll stop by directing you to John 15. When we remain in Jesus we have life and we have it abundantly, even bearing fruit. To remain in Jesus is to obey his commands.
I pray that in the crises and provisions of life that we will learn that true life comes by remaining in Jesus, our healing, nourishing, thirst quenching Torah.