Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7
In this week’s text, we continue journeying with the Israelites in Exodus’ narrative of the wilderness trek.
As with last week’s Exodus text, we are presented with rich opportunities for thinking about who God is and how God responds to and provides for the people in a time of incredible anxiety and danger.
In turn, the story presents us with opportunities to give voice to our deepest fears (“Is Yahweh among us or not?” 17:7) and of imagining the ways our god responds to us when we are thirsty in the wilderness.
Setting the story of Water from the Rock in its larger context is important. This is not the first time the Israelites have lacked for water. The first time, they had been in the wilderness for three days (Exodus 15:22). When they arrived at Marah, they found the water there undrinkable on account of its bitterness.
After the people complained, Moses called out to God and God provided a piece of wood, which, when thrown into the water made it sweet and potable (15:23-25a). After this, God “put them to the test” (15:25b), saying that if the people would listen to God’s voice and keep all of God’s commandments and statutes, then God would not bring diseases on them as God did with the Egyptians, “for I am Yahweh who heals you” (15:26).
In Exodus 16, the people struggle to listen to God’s voice with regard to the gathering of manna, in particular to the command not to store it up (no one said enacting a cultural sea-change would be easy). However it seems that with Moses’ not-so-gentle guidance, they figure it out. Exodus 16 ends with the statement: “The Israelites ate manna forty years, until they came to habitable land; they ate manna, until the came to the border of the land of Canaan” (16:35). Apparently, food providing and gathering comes to run smoothly.
However, when we get to Exodus 17, the Israelites hit another bump in the road. They have camped at Rephidim, but there is no water to drink. The complaining that was so prevalent in chapter 16 resurfaces, and this time, it is intensified with quarreling. They say to Moses, “Give us water to drink” (17:2). Apparently unfazed by the lack of water himself, Moses accuses the people of testing Yahweh: “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test Yahweh?” (17:2).
Moses interprets the people’s demand for water to be test of Yahweh. Both parties, human and divine, both new to this relationship, appear to be testing one another. Previously God has devised tests for the people (15:25b; 16:4) and Moses has framed the people’s quarreling and requests for water as testing God. What precisely is being “tested”?
Perhaps the narrative is presenting us with a story of this divine-human relationship being worked out — after the honeymoon of the exodus event — and “tested” during the hard times.
The people’s continuing doubt seems both to be about who is in charge (they still identify Moses as the one who brought them up out of Egypt, rather than Yahweh) and why they have been chosen. In Egypt, they were chosen by the Pharaoh for work (Exodus 1:11) and ultimately, for death (Exodus 1:16). They suspect that this is Moses’/God’s intention for them as well, for they wonder if they have been brought into the wilderness to die, to be killed, along with their children (their futures) and their livestock (their security).
Based on their questions, they seem to assume that Yahweh has left Moses in charge and that Moses’ agenda mirrors that of the Pharaoh — to use the people: for labor and as a means to gain glory over an upstart god who dares challenge Pharaoh’s authority.
So Moses goes back to God again, complaining about the people: “What shall I do with this people?!” God tells Moses to take the staff he used at the Nile River and to meet God on the rock at Horeb, from which water will flow when Moses strikes it with his staff.
It strikes me (pun intended!) that God chooses to bring water — and the life it symbolizes and will impart — out of something that appears to be lifeless. This may be symbolic of God’s intentions to bring the people life, not death, as they suspect. Out of Egypt and out of the wilderness, God will find ways to make life flow in unexpected ways. But it will require a certain amount of trust from the people, a willingness to put faith in a god who seems not to do things in the typical way.
I wonder if all these tests Moses and God keep referencing are intended to teach the people radical trust in a god who is opposed to hoarding and yet who is also present and responsive to their needs. This display of divine power is far less dramatic than controlling the waters of the Red Sea and turning them into dry land, but it does seem to present that act, in which the sea became dry, in reverse. The dry rock here flows with water. God brings water — and with it, life — to the arid wilderness.
Ways in which God has acted to make life to flow from places of death would be an interesting angle to take up in a sermon. Further, the preacher might also call to mind ways people have quarreled with God and insisted that God act to sustain life. The people who will come to be known as Israel are not presented as meek and submissive. Their doubts and their “quarreling” are presented in the narrative as calling God to action.
God seems almost (dare I say?) to forget about the people’s needs but responds with creativity when the people loudly protest. The people keep pushing the question: “Are you another god like Pharaoh?” It may be that the people work to shape God’s character just as God works to shape that of the people. The mutual testing in the wilderness yields a people with a uniquely articulated faith, along with a unique, fundamentally counter-cultural god, both of whom have inspired countless generations of people to follow them.
We do not get to hear about the people’s reaction to this little miracle at Massah and Meribah. But Moses names the place, not after the miracle, but after the people’s doubting and testing: “Is Yahweh among us or not?” (17:7).
This name highlights the wildness and freedom of God, but it also memorializes the fears, questions, and doubts of people of faith. The question also reminds us that when faced with this question, God responded with and through flowing, life-giving water.