Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7
This section of the book of Exodus is set in a time of crisis being endured by the people of Israel.
They are beginning to make their way through the wilderness as they travel out of Egyptian slavery and move toward the promised land. But it is not a smooth journey. This is a community on a move of no little difficulty as they journey from participation in a past act of redemption (the Exodus) to a future act of participation in a promised goal. As the journey proceeds, these wilderness narratives are increasingly about a community that is “stuck” between promise and fulfillment. Wilderness is no longer simply a place, but it is, for Israel, a state of mind with an uncertain future.
The Pentateuch preserves two blocks of literarily composite materials that focus on these wilderness wanderings, both before Sinai (Exodus 15:22—18:27) and after Sinai (Numbers 10:11-36:13). The occasion for this Exodus 17 text is the third such crisis for Israel on its wilderness journey (see Exodus 15:22-27 and 16:1-36 for the first two such times). Once again, the people complain about their suffering; in this situation, there was no water for them to drink. A comparable time of suffering, also due to the lack of water to drink, is presented in Numbers 20:2-29.
In response to this crisis, God does not create water for the people out of thin air, nor is the natural order disrupted. Water does in fact course through rock formations and so it is a matter of finding the places of flowing water. The actions of both God and Moses enable their hidden potential to surface. God works in and through the natural world to provide water for the people. So, one might speak of divine providence in the world of God’s creation; God leads Moses to help that is available in the world of nature.
God has created the world in such a way that it has healing capacities in and through which God can work in positive ways on behalf of its creatures. They will be able to find the most elemental resource for life.
The people file a complaint against Moses for his ineffectiveness. He cannot produce drinking water. First question: “Why do you blame me?” Moses reprimands Israel.
God alone can resolve the issue, and that will occur in and through the work of Moses. One might think that the text would highlight God’s life-giving ability. Instead, the textual focus is on two verbs that concern the action of the people—test and quarrel. Israel exhibits a lack of faith; given what God has done up to this point, Israel should have known that God is to be trusted. Israel is, however, stubborn and arrogant. In the wilderness, life is precarious for the people of Israel.
God is the creator and has made the world of nature in such a way that it has positive capacities. Human beings need to be alert to the potential resources within creation for resolving creational issues.
In the midst of their troubles, the people voice their questions to Moses, and Moses responds with his own questions. Why do you quarrel with me? It is striking that this back-and-forth quarreling with Moses by the people is interpreted by Moses as a “testing of God.” What does it mean to test God? How can God be tested?
In Exodus 17:5, the “staff with which Moses struck the Nile” (see Numbers 20:8-11, where God commands Moses to order the rock to bring forth water) brings water for the people to drink rather than, unlike the effect of the plagues, making all the water in the Nile unfit to drink.
Such an act ought not be considered miraculous—as if the water were created out of nothing—a remarkably common angle of vision by interpreters. Rather, water is understood to flow naturally in and through rock formations (if not always evidently so) and this prophetic action would enable that reality to be discerned by actions relative to the rock formation.
Compare this divine move to God’s provision of manna (see Exodus 16:31-35); the wilderness itself is not a desolate place, but it is filled with gifts from God that need to be discovered. The wilderness does become a challenge for those who live in it, but there is water coursing through its rock formations. There are resources for life provided by God in the midst of desolate places in the wilderness. Again, these resources need to be discovered.
In response to life’s difficulties, the people voice their anger directly to Moses (as in Exodus 14:11-12). This expression of anger by the people to Moses is of such a nature that it can be called “testing God” (Exodus 17:2). This suggests a certain understanding of the relationship that prevails between God and Moses. The way in which the people treat Moses can be considered comparable to the way in which they treat God. At the same time, their talk is of such a nature that their talking to God can be open and questioning with respect to what God has done, even though it is sharply negative. Moses wonders what should be done with this people, not least because he feels threatened by their behaviors. They are almost ready to stone him! (Exodus 17:4).
God responds to Moses’ feeling threatened: Moses is to take some of the elders with him on a journey to the Nile and take along the staff with which he had struck the Nile (see Exodus 17:6). God will be there for them throughout this tumultuous time. Moses is to strike the standing rock and as a result that rock will “pour forth” water which the people may drink. And Moses did this in the presence of the community gathered around him.
In view of this quarreling experience, Moses called the place Massah and Meribah (see Numbers 20:13, 24) because the people quarreled with and tested the Lord, asking, “Is the LORD among us or not?” Moses questions God as to what should be done with this people, not least because of the threat to his own life that he feels.
The word used for the people’s talking to God in this way is “quarrel” (so also Numbers 20:3, 13). That is a remarkable image for this dimension of the God-people relationship. What is entailed in such a description of the relationship? God is not simply the one in control of what happens in the relationship. What people do and say counts with respect to the divine-human interaction.