Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7
Road trips are never easy. This is something that Moses learned the hard way while journeying with Israel in the wilderness.
Exodus 17:1-7 is one of a series of wilderness narratives situated between Israel’s departure from Egypt and its arrival at Sinai. On the first leg of the journey, Israel departs from the Sea of Reeds, journeys through the wilderness of Shur (Exodus 15:22), and arrives finally at Marah, where God sweetens the bitter waters (Exodus 15:23-26). From Marah they travel to Elim, where they find twelve springs of water (Exodus 15:27). From Elim they travel to the wilderness of Sin, where God first provides manna (Exodus 16:1-36). And from the wilderness of Sin they travel to Rephidim, the setting for today’s text (Exodus 17:1-7).
The wilderness narratives in Exodus share a number of characteristics in common. First, the accounts happen while Israel journeys from Egypt to Sinai. Second, the central conflicts revolve around resource scarcity, perceived and otherwise. Third, the people blame the leadership of Moses (and sometimes Aaron) for their troubles. Fourth, God hears the grievances of God’s people and responds to them by providing resources that directly address their needs.
In Exodus 17:1-7, the issue is water: “The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink” (Exodus 17:1). The first thing to note is that they undertake this journey under God’s leadership (“as the Lord commanded”). Presumably, this refers to the pillar of cloud and fire which guided the Israelites on the various legs of their journey (Exodus 13:20-22). God’s presence was with them, not only in the form of verbal promises, but visually and tangibly. In addition to God’s visual presence, the Israelites also had the daily reminder of God’s caring provision in the form of manna, which arrived six days a week. Signs of divine activity were everywhere.
And yet, with parched mouths, the Israelites lash out against Moses: “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” (verse 3). The decision to blame Moses points to the central problem in this story. Israel had still not learned a crucial lesson: where God leads, God provides. God had secured victory over the Egyptians, enriched Israel with the wealth of their former captors, made a way through the Sea of Reeds, and provided regular supplies on their journey through the desert. If the wilderness narratives demonstrate anything, it is that God provides in every situation.
But before we pillory the Israelites too severely, we should note that they are not only on a journey through the wilderness, they are also on a journey of the soul—being transformed from an earlier existence as an enslaved people to that of an independent nation. Unlearning the habits of domination—reinforced by Pharaoh’s extractive and cruel system of slavery and subjugation—is difficult, painful, and patient work. It is the work of generations. Accepting kindness and generosity when all one has known is violent exploitation was never going to be a quick or easy process. Israel had been subjected to a brutal existence under the yoke of Pharaoh. But they suddenly find themselves free of Pharaoh’s chains and the recipients of God’s kindness and mercy. Few would disagree that one of the Bible’s most difficult commands is the call to “trust.” This is especially true when the world teaches you that your survival depends upon distrust and skepticism. These wilderness stories demonstrate just how difficult it would be to transform a formerly enslaved people into a trusting nation.
In response to Israel’s murmuring, God stages a miracle, accentuated with a small amount of political pageantry: “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. 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’” (verses 5-6).
The inclusion of Moses’ staff is a significant detail. The story begins in Exodus 4, when God turns this ordinary shepherd’s implement into a sign of divine power by transforming it into a snake (Exodus 4:1-5). The staff was designed to convince the Israelites that the God of their ancestors had heard their cries and had sent a deliverer. But it also did something for Moses, who had expressed concern that nobody would believe his story (Exodus 4:1). God’s promise was attached to this concrete thing—this “sacrament”—that gifted both Moses and the Israelites with confidence in the trustworthiness of their God.
Even more significantly, however, is the fact that Moses’ staff was used in Exodus 7 to turn the life-giving Nile into a death-dealing canal of blood. According to 7:21, the bloodied Nile produced such a horrendous odor that “the Egyptians could not drink its water” (emphasis mine). In Exodus 17, the Israelites needed a similar miracle, but in reverse. Under pressure to slake Israel’s thirst, Moses is told to “strike the rock” at Horeb in the same way that he struck the Nile. Water came forth and the people were able to drink. The crisis is averted by divine generosity.
The wilderness narratives are a treasure trove of insight, especially for congregations experiencing disruption, transition, or adversity. These texts have the profound capacity to mirror back our own community dynamics, showing how we also struggle to believe that where God calls, God provides.