Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7
In the biblical traditions, the wilderness is a space of depravity where people’s most basic needs are lacking.
During the time of Lent, many people create a sense of want by withholding themselves from coffee, chocolate or some other pleasure. However, for some, Lent is an all too real reality in which they may feel trapped in a situation of serious deprivation, seeing no way out. On this Third Sunday of Lent, it is thus fitting to contemplate this experience of want in terms of thirst. The metaphor of lack of water in the wilderness that marks the Old Testament reading for today is a compelling means of making sense of this experience of want and particularly of God’s provision in the wilderness.
In Exodus 17:1-7, we see a vivid account of people’s response to being faced with limited resources. The people react in anger about the lack of water, quarrelling with Moses and with God — the place names Massah and Meribab serving as reminders of the people quarrelling (from the Hebrew word rib) and testing (from the Hebrew root nasa) the Lord. The names Massah and Meribah have entered the tradition in relation to what is known as the “murmuring motif.”
For instance, in Psalm 95:8-11, we read the following: “Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your ancestors tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work. For forty years I loathed that generation and said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they do not regard my ways.’ Therefore in my anger I swore, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’” Moreover, this story also appears in Numbers 20:1-13 when Moses is punished for not speaking a word as God had commanded but rather striking the rock which consequently is viewed as the reason why Moses is said not to have entered the Promised Land.
On the one hand, the fact that the people complain to Moses and to God is a typical human reaction when faced with the experience of extreme need such as embodied in thirst in the midst of the wilderness. It furthermore leads to questions of theodicy, contemplating the relationship between God and suffering as evident in the people’s cry of despair in verse 7: “Is the Lord among us or not?” This question, “Where is God?” is a question that is echoed in the book of Job as well as in every situation in which the people of God are suffering. In the wilderness, people more often than not may be faced with an acute sense of God’s absence.
However, on the other hand, embedded in these people’s questioning of God and God’s representative Moses is the notion of amnesia. The people have forgotten God’s powerful intervention just in the chapter before this one when God in Exodus 16 miraculously provided food in the wilderness — a jar of manna serving as a mnemonic device reminding people of God’s ongoing provision (Exodus 16:33-34). The people, moreover, have forgotten God’s powerful intervention at the sea, saving the people from the charging Egyptian army (Exodus 14-15).
Still the story narrated in Exodus 17:1-7 is about water in the wilderness — God graciously providing water in order to satisfy the people’s most basic needs (cf. also God’s provision of food in Exodus 16). In verse 5, God commands Moses to use the staff with which he had struck the Nile (a reminder of God’s powerful action in the past) to strike the rock. God’s presence in verse 6 as divulged by “[God] standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb” will be responsible for the fact that water will come out of the rock so that people may drink and be satisfied.
It is significant to note that, as in the story of God’s provision of food in Exodus 16, the wilderness is still there. In Exodus 17, the people are experiencing God’s provision in the form of water gushing from the rock, even though the wilderness is still all around. With regard to liturgical time, one could say that we will still dwell a long time in Lent before Easter comes.
However, in the midst of Lent we may find that God is providing life-giving water, so quenching our thirst. Also in the Lenten periods of our lives when we are experiencing deprivation of some sort, we are ensured of God’s constant presence providing us with what we need.
In this regard, one should note that in the stories regarding food and water in the wilderness, God’s provision comes in unexpected ways. Water from a rock. Manna and quail. God’s provision of food is thus often surprising and even impossible in terms of human perception. The life-giving gift of water is symbolic of the ultimate goal that God’s children may not only survive but also flourish.
One of my favourite hymns which use the metaphors of God’s provision of food and water to speak about our journey through life is the familiar hymn by William Williams (pub 1745):
Guide me, O Thou great Redeemer
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but Thou art mighty,
Hold me with Thy powerful hand.
Bread of heaven, Bread of heaven,
Feed me till I want no more;
Feed me till I want no more.
Open now the crystal fountain,
Whence the healing stream doth flow;
Let the fire and cloudy pillar
Lead me all my journey through.
Strong Deliverer, strong Deliverer,
Be Thou still my Strength and Shield;
Be Thou still my Strength and Shield.
Bringing together images of God’s liberation that is embodied in God’s accompanying presence in the fire and the cloud as well as God’s gracious provision of food and water, believers throughout the centuries are professing their belief in a God who will be our travel partner in our life’s journey — a confession that is particularly meaningful in those times when we find ourselves in the wilderness.