"The Question" Bible Study on Exodus 17:1-7
September 23, 2020, 6:55 PM

Dear Members & Friends:

I invite you to read the following passage from Exodus 17:1-7 (New Revised Standard Version).

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

In this week's text from Exodus 17:1-7, we continue journeying with the Israelites in Exodus' narrative of the wilderness trek.  Last Sunday's Exodus text gave us the opportunity not only to reflect upon the miraculous work of God but also to ponder our human relationship to God and God's gifts in a time of stress and difficulty.

It seems to me that a key to interpretation of this passage is the pregnant question that is asked at the end of this Sunday's text: "Is the LORD really with us or not?" (Exodus 17:7).

The context for this episode is significant in understanding its implications.  The freed slaves making their way through the wilderness need water.  The first instance of water deprivation was when they were without water for three days (Exodus 15:22).  Upon finally arriving at the oasis of Marah, they found the water there bitter and undrinkable.

In their thirst, the people complain, and Moses beseeches God.  On that occasion, God provides a piece of wood, which, when tossed into the water makes it sweet (Exodus 15:23-25a).  Right after this, we are told that God "put them to the test" (Exodus 15:25b).  If the people would listen to God's voice and endeavor to keep God's commandments, then God would not inflict them with diseases like God visited upon the Egyptians, "for I am the LORD who heals you" (Exodus 15:26).

In Exodus 16, the Israelites have a tough time obeying God's commands about gathering manna.  The command not to store up manna is particularly difficult.  Moses intervenes, and the people do better.  The chapter ends with, "The Israelites ate manna for forty years, until they came to livable land.  They ate manna until they came to the border of the land of Canaan" (Exodus 16:35).  It seems at last the freed slaves are getting the hang of surviving faithfully in the wilderness.

But then, in Exodus 17, the Israelites' difficulties continue.  Making camp at Rephidim, they find that there's no water.  The complaining resumes.  They quarrel with Moses demanding, "Give us water to drink" (Exodus 17:2).  Moses, exasperated, accuses the people not only of annoying him but also of testing the patience of God: "Why do you quarrel with me?  Why do you test the Lord?" (17:2).

In spite of Moses' contention that the people are testing God, they mostly seem to be doubting Moses as a leader.  Has Moses overstepped in claiming that the Hebrews have been chosen for special Divine care?  Have they really been called to be God's special people?  Pharaoh chose the Hebrews for slavery (Exodus 1:11) and even for genocide (Exodus 1:16).  In short, is Yahweh God just another all-powerful but utterly uncaring god like Pharaoh?

Their complaints cause Moses to go back and complain to God.  This image of Moses as the go-between of God and the people presents him as the ultimate priest.  How dare they challenge Moses' leadership?  "What shall I do with this people?!"  God tells Moses to take the staff (the one he used at the Nile River) and to meet God on the rock at Horeb.  Moses is to strike the rock with the staff.

What is more lifeless than a rock?  Dry.  Hard.  But surprise!  Water comes gushing from the rock.  There is life where there was nothing but death.  Is this meant to be not only a means for Israel's survival but also a metaphor?  God is bringing a lively people, a new, holy nation out of death and death-dealing enslavement.

The question, "Is God with us or not?" is being given an answer.  God is present in the heaven-sent bread and meat and, in this Sunday's text, now present in life-giving water.  Through these miraculous Divine interventions, God is schooling Israel in God's character.  God is with the former slaves, guiding them, setting up structures for their life together, giving them daily nourishment for their survival.  Their quarreling will not be punished by God; rather, a loving God will see their complaints as a call to loving action.

The Exodus writier doesn't tell us how the people received the miracle of water from the rock at Massah or Meribah.  However, Moses can't seem to get out of his mind that here was yet another place where his leadership was tested.  Moses names the place as a reminder of the people's complaining and testing, a memorial to the frightening yet basic question, "Is the Lord really with us or not?"

It seems that in the most desparate situations in life that is our question too!

God is with us!

Blessings on the Journey,

Pastor Greg Rupright


09-26-2020 at 9:21 PM
Pat May
We always seem to need that reassurance.
Thanks be to God for giving it to us!!!
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