Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7
I never fully appreciated the Hebrews grumbling in Exodus until two years ago when given the opportunity to journey through the Sinai wilderness on a Middle East travel seminar.
We entered the region after having hiked a day in the full heat of the Petra sun, and I had become extremely dehydrated–so dehydrated that I could not make it to the top of Mount Sinai on the next day’s hike without becoming ill.
As we trekked by bus through the Sinai Peninsula, I gained much more sympathy for the travelling Hebrews. In my early years, I would often hear preachers caricature the wandering Hebrews (sometimes with a hint of anti-Semitism) as a petulant group of stubborn children who never knew true obedience or faith. When I look at this text in Exodus 17:1-7 after having travelled by bus and with plenty of water through the Sinai desert, I realize that these newly freed slaves actually had reason to complain.
In the previous chapter, they faced the hardship of a lack of food and protested to Moses. Just as the LORD had heard the cry of the people suffering the oppression of slavery (Exodus 3:7), God now heard their cry of starvation and provided them with nourishment in the form of manna and quail.
While their lack of food had been sated in chapter 16, this passage confronts them with a new and dire challenge: they had no drinkable water. In verse 1, the narrator states this simple fact as a preface to the people’s quarrel with Moses. Perhaps taking a cue from the previous experience, Moses interprets their quarrel with him as a direct charge against God (verse 2). He makes a similar move in Exodus 16:8: “What are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the LORD.”
Notice, however, that in neither episode does the LORD nor the narrator actually say their complaint is with God. The Hebrews direct their cry to Moses: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:3) This is a very legitimate question. Would it not have been better to live in slavery in Egypt than to face death in the desert?
Yes, the people had witnessed God’s display of power through the plagues; yes, they experienced God’s protection as they fled from a pursuing Egyptian army; and yes, they had recently received God’s provision of manna and quail. But in the face of death by dehydration, can we readers be so devoid of compassion that we condemn these people who had lived lives of suffering in slavery and powerlessness for their lack of faith?
Moses displays his own short-term memory as well as his narcissism, interpreting their outcry as a threat on his own life. Had not God also protected him? But faced with the possibility of mutiny, Moses utters his own complaint to God.
While Moses’ response centers on the conflict, God’s reaction delivers compassion. In this text, God never condemns the grumbling Hebrews. God simply instructs Moses to gather the elders, take them to a rock at Horeb, and strike it with the staff Moses had used to perform so many other miracles in Egypt. Moreover, God grants Moses the reassurance of the Divine Presence: “I will be standing there in front of you” (verse 6). In response to the people’s petitions, God becomes present and provides.
The passage concludes with Moses naming the place Massah and Meribah. The term Massah reflects the Hebrew word “to test” while Meribah derives from the word translated as “quarrel.”Both terms appear in verses 2 and 7, forming a literary framework around the passage. On the surface, this linguistic framework seems to confirm a reading that caricatures the Hebrews as selfishly stubborn, quarrelsome testers of God. But the existential question–“Is the LORD present among us or not?”–reminds the reader that these emancipated slaves faced a very real threat. God’s actions of presence and provision supply the answer needed by a fearful community.
Perhaps when we pay attention to the character of Moses and God’s response to the situation, the text has more to say to leaders of communities of faith than it does to the members of those communities. It may be tempting to disregard the cries of our parishioners as the whining of people who lack faith. It may be easy for us to pit ourselves as leaders against those whom we lead or who we feel are resistant to our leadership. Perhaps in the Lenten season as we reflect on the human condition, we must ask how we can demonstrate God’s compassionate presence and provision to those who cry out from under the burden of real, and sometimes extreme, hardships.