Moses Striking the Rock in Horeb
by Gustave Doré, 1865
The first essay in this series is Birth of the Israelite Nation. The second is Torah: Instruction for Living. The third essay is Manna: Bread for Life. This is the fourth essay in a series of essays that cover the origin of the Israelite nation and conclude with a discussion of the Ten Commandments.
This essay concentrates on just on the first half of Chapter 17 of the Book of Exodus, just seven verses.
Remember the pattern I told you about that was developing during this time between God and the Israelites? Remembering that will help us understand the importance of this brief episode within the exodus from Egypt. So let's look at it quickly.
The pattern is that first the people experience a crisis; followed by distress. This leads to complaint, which God hears. God then speaks and solves the problem, resolving the crisis and relieving the distress. This, usually, but not consistently, is followed by joy, praise, and thanksgiving: in other words, God's grace results in the worship of him by his people.
In this episode most of the pattern is present, but it does not end in worship, which is not a good sign, and certainly will not endear the people to Moses, nor to God. Here is what happens.
The first thing we notice is positive. The people are finally beginning to learn the need to follow God's instructions. God has just provided for their nourishment with manna and quails while they were in the Wilderness of Sin, so they had ample evidence, once again, of his ability to take care of them.
And, apparently, they took some comfort in that fact, for the text tells us, 17:1 From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They are on the move again at God's command. They are following God's orders without complaint, leaving a place where they know that they will find food each day for an unknown future. That took no small amount of courage given what they had already endured.
They do not know what they will find where they are going; actually, except for the increasingly vague goal of finding the "Promised Land," they don't even know where they are going! But they go. They are learning to trust God. We should give them no small amount of credit for that. I am not so sure that we would be so bold or brave.
After a while they stopped at Rephidim, where we are told there was "no water for them to drink." Crisis. Distress. And a familiar grounds for complaint. Once again, God does not simply lead them to an oasis, but rather to a place where there appears to be no water. They, like us, do not always understand why God does what he does. It is likely that God is testing them, but the text doesn't say. Will they trust him to provide yet again having come this far in faith? Well, they don't!
So, what happens? Complaint, of course. They quarrel with Moses, telling him "Give us water to drink!" In what is becoming a typical fashion, Moses replies, "Why are you quarreling with me!?" But then he adds, "Why do you test the Lord!?"
Moses is clearly saying that confronting him, Moses, is the same thing as confronting God. Moses is on shaky ground here because Moses knows that he can do nothing without God. In a sense this is, as it was in Chapter 16, equating his authority with God's.
The text doesn't say what God thinks about that. But, needless to say, the people aren't persuaded that Moses is God and they accuse Moses of bringing them out of Egypt to kill them all, including their children and livestock.
This time Moses cries out to God, not that they need water, even though that is the whole point of their complaint! - but that he is afraid for his own life! So Moses cried out to the LORD, "What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me."
Now, while we know God cares very much about Moses' life, that is not what God thinks Moses should be worrying about right now. After all, Moses is God's chosen instrument, and God intends to use Moses for God's purposes. Moses has some things to learn too.
So God ignores Moses' fears and concentrates instead on the real problem, which, if solved, should alleviate Moses' fear as well. God is a lot like that now, isn't he? We take him one problem; he solves another that we don't bring up, and, surprise!, the original problem goes away!
So God says, "... 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."
You'll notice a couple of things right away. First, God makes it clear that, regardless whether or not Moses thinks he may be killed by the people, Moses is still the leader. He is to "go ahead" of the people, and to take with him some elders, who, I presume, will be witnesses. He is also to take the staff God gave him, the same staff that God has used to work many prior miracles, both in Egypt and when escaping from it. The staff clearly is associated with God's power, and the people know that.
Here, at a rock at Horab [Also called Sinai. They are now camped near the foot of Mt. Sinai] we will see, once again, God's grace in action. God tells Moses that he, God, will be standing there on the rock. God will, again, be present with his people in their time of need.
The text tells us simply that "Moses did so." It says he struck the rock "in the sight of the elders of Israel." They, as well as Moses, witnessed the power of the Lord. We know what happened next. Water flowed from the rock and the problem was solved. The thirst of the people was quenched. And the people got off of Moses' back. Once more God's gift of grace prevailed over the chaos of the desert. That's what we know. But the text says nothing at all about that! That positive conclusion is assumed by the writer!
If you want to "prove" what happened from the Bible text you have to jump ahead all the way to Numbers, Chapter 20, which gives more detail of this episode. There it says, at verse 11, "Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank." But here, in Exodus, our writer assumes that we know that when the Lord says he will provide, He provides!
All our narrator tells us is that Moses gave this place two names, and they are not ones you might expect. He did not name it "God provides" or "God gave us to drink" or some such positive thing. Rather he named the place "Massah and Meribah," which means "Test and Quarrel." The episode ends telling us that Moses gave the place these names "because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, 'Is the Lord among us or not?'"
The problem is that we don't precisely know that. We know that they quarreled with Moses. And we know that Moses told them they were testing the Lord. But the text nowhere actually tells us that they "quarreled" with the Lord, or even that they thought that they were. They were angry with Moses. And nowhere does it say that they "tested" the Lord.
But Moses isn't wrong since they knew that Moses could do nothing, and had no power, without God. So while the text is distressingly vague and imprecise, once again, they did not trust that God would provide food and drink. Moses is right when he says at verse 7, that they were asking, without actually saying so, "Is the Lord with us or not?"
And, when we ask that question, we are, in fact, testing God because if we have faith we know that the question is rhetorical. The assumed answer from one who believes in God is, "Of course God is with us."
But what does "testing God" really imply? Using this example let's examine its implications more closely. Implied in the question "Is the Lord with us?" is that he may not be. The testing of God comes in seeking "proof" that he is with us. That is, we decide that we need for God to act or to show his hand in a particular way at a particular time to solve a particular "need" we feel we have.
In essence, while we never think of it that way, when we ask "Is the Lord with us?" we are trying to control God, to get him to be with us in this or that thing, when maybe God does not think that is the right thing for us to be doing at all, or that his intervention is the wrong thing for us.
The way the Israelites tried to do this was to demand that he prove his presence by providing them with water in the desert yet again. And if God does act to provide the water this yields two possible conclusions which are diametrically opposed to each other. The fact that he did provide water no doubt led some of the Israelites to believe that they could force God to act. They had yet to learn the other possible conclusion: that God did it out of his love for them; not because of their coercion.
We have a lot to learn in this area as well. We often test God, but, of course, we either don't realize we are doing it, or we deny that we are. here are some simple examples: if we don't take ordinary precautions in our lives; if we don't buy insurance; or have a doctor check out a potential problem, or act recklessly with the lives or well being of others, then we test God.
We say, "If God is with me, God will take care of me" even when we act rashly or foolishly. We say, "If its my time to go; well, its my time to go. God makes that decision, not me," even as we continue to do harmful things to our bodies, against all common sense, knowing that we are by our own destructive actions influencing when it is "our time to go." Yet we still want and expect God to be there for us when the results of our foolishness come home to roost.
Remember the story about the guy in the flood? He sat on the roof of his house as the flood waters continued to rise. A boat came by to get him; then a helicopter, then another boat. Each time he refused help saying, "God will take care of me!" He was swept away and drowned. At the pearly gates he asked St. Peter why God let him drown. And a voice came from a cloud saying, "I sent a boat and a helicopter and another boat to save you. What more did you expect me to do?"
When we test God we try to hold Him hostage. We try to determine how he should act if he is God. This places God in the role of a servant; expected to respond to our every beck and call. If he doesn't answer our prayers the way we want him to, then we say he doesn't care; or that He isn't there.
Such attitudes can even lead to cruel feelings about others. Some people will say, "If God does not heal you, or protect you from that problem, it is because you do not have enough faith!" Implicit in that stupid statement is the idea that, if a person has enough faith, they can command God to do whatever they want. It assumes that God's will always coincides with ours. And it assumes that we can make his will coincide with our wishes through our prayers.
Sorry, but God doesn't work that way. God is God. And we aren't. And unless we figure that out we are going to be pretty confused about what faith is and isn't; what prayer can and can't do, and probably be pretty disappointed in a God who intends to remain independent of his creatures' demands.
Faith is trust in God to provide even when he decides not to provide in the way we want! Faith is hard. If anyone told you it was easy, he or she lied. In this episode we confront an Israelite people who are stubborn, demanding, and arrogant. They demand that God perform in a particular way at a particular time. They want God to be their puppet, their slave, their provider - on their terms.
This time God provides. But not for the reasons that they think. The naming of the place Massah and Meribah tells us that Moses knew, and the later writer of this story knew, the shame of treating God this way. This place would forever be known not for the gift of water; but for the arrogance of the demand of the people.
And when we, as they did, decide that if we do not have what we want - money, health, power, well being - then God is not with us, then we, too, have reduced faith to some sort of prosperity sham. We are saying that unless everything happens for good to me, when and how I want it, then God is not with me.
There are more than enough preachers out there getting rich telling us that "if we just believe" then the prosperity, the health and the well being that we "deserve because of our faith" will roll right in. That sounds foolish when it is baldly exposed as I just did. And it is foolish. But the truth is that millions of well meaning believers are being fed that hogwash every day, and they are believing it. Feel good, narcissistic religion is all the rage. And what do you suppose God thinks of that?
The truth is that God is with us. The truth is that God cares for us. The truth is that God provides for us. But the truth is, as well, that God will be God and that we cannot control him. The Israelites will have to learn this the hard way. So did Job. And so must we.
Next: We will skip the rest of Chapter 17 and Chapter 18 which would be a detour in this series, and go directly to the heart of the Exodus experience at the base of Mr. Sinai, where the 10 Commandments will be given. We will also take an important look at how this part of the Bible was put together from many traditions, which greatly influence how the story is told.