Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7
Exodus 17 records the fourth occurrence of “complaining” by the Israelites in the early days after the exodus from Egypt.
Complaining, in fact, is a defining theme of the wilderness wandering story. In Exodus 14, when the Israelites reached the shores of the Reed Sea and saw the Egyptians in hot pursuit, they said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?…It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness,” (Exodus 14:11-12). God delivered the Israelites and allowed them to cross the Sea in safety.
Three days later, the people could find only bitter water to drink; they complained against Moses, “What shall we drink?” (Exodus 15:24). God instructed Moses to place a piece of wood in the water, making it sweet to drink.
A few weeks later, the people were hungry and complained to Moses, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:3). On this occasion, God provided manna for the people–a constant source of food until the people entered the Promised Land and ate the provisions of the land for the first time (Joshua 5:12).
The text for this day occurs when the Israelites arrived at a place called Rephadim and can find no water. The people “quarreled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink! Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?'” (Exodus 17:2-3). God instructed Moses to take the staff with which he had struck the Nile and some of the elders of Israel and to “go on ahead of the people” (Exodus 17:5). At a designated place, Moses was to strike a rock, making water come out of it, so that the people might drink. Moses did so and called the place two names: “Massah,” from the Hebrew root “nasah,” meaning “put to the test”; and “Meribah,” from the Hebrew root “rib,” meaning “quarrel, strive.”
Four times in the space of less than three months (according to Exodus 19:1, the Israelites arrived at Sinai on the third new moon after leaving Egypt), the Israelites complained and quarreled with Moses. Modern-day readers of the stories, for whom water is available at the turn of a faucet and food is abundant, marvel at the Israelites’ seeming lack of faith in God.
But take a step back and look behind the stories. What lessons can they teach? What can they tell us about God, humanity, and the relationship between God and humanity? The end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus tell the story of the descendants of Jacob living in Egypt. Life is good for a very long time. Then “a new king [pharaoh] arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8), and, under his reign, the Israelites were oppressed and even threatened with extinction.
In the midst of these circumstances, a baby boy was preserved from death and taken into Pharaoh’s court. He was raised as an Egyptian, but was ever mindful of his roots. One day, he murdered an Egyptian for beating an Israelite and fled for his life. Forty years later. God called him to return to his people and demand that Pharaoh allow them to leave Egypt. Pharaoh’s initial reaction to Moses’ demand was to increase the peoples’ oppression, but after a series of “contests” in which God demonstrated power over the Egyptian gods, Pharaoh relented and allowed them to leave Egypt.
Thus, a weary and downtrodden people left a life of oppression–but a life of familiarity–and journeyed into the Sinai desert led by a man they hardly knew. They hoped to arrive safely in the land that had been promised to their ancestors, a land they had never seen. Each step took them further away from the known and deeper into the desert unknown–men, women, children, and livestock.
The Egyptians pursued; the water was too bitter to drink; food was scarce; the water ran out altogether. Doubt set in; fear overtook, and the people complained and quarreled. In each instance, God provided: deliverance, sweet water, food, water from the rock. These were the early days of the wilderness wanderings, and God persistently guided the people and provided for them.
In Exodus 19, the people arrived and camped at Sinai. There, God said to them, “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). In Exodus 20-40; the book of Leviticus; and Numbers 1-10, God gave the Israelites their instructions for living as holy people in the Promised Land.
The people left Sinai in Numbers 10, and the complaining continued. But in the Numbers narratives, God was not as patient as in the Exodus stories. At Sinai, God had revealed Godself to the people in no uncertain terms; they no longer had a reason to wonder who this God was who had led them out of Egypt. Thus, in Numbers 11, God burned the perimeter of the camp when the Israelites complained and God caused a plague to come upon the people. In Numbers 14, God threatened to destroy the whole people and begin all over again with Moses. In Numbers 16, God opened the ground and swallowed up those who had threatened rebellion in the camp. And finally, in Numbers 20, even Moses is denied entry to the Promised Land because he did not obey God.
God cares deeply for each of us and helps move us from places of fear and doubt to places of trust. God provides for us and reveals Godself to us, and then God asks us to trust when the good provision doesn’t come as quickly or in quite the form as we would like. Look back, remember the provision of God in the past journey; it will come again in future journeys. For “I am the LORD your God.”
September 28, 2008