Opening The Old Testament
The Continual Need for a Sign: Reflections on Exodus 17:1-7
Moses concludes his frantic cry with this: "In short order they will stone me!" Indeed they might, though they have not said so exactly. Moses here hurls his deepest fears into YHWH's ears, hoping for a sign that he may survive this debacle. Fortunately, YHWH responds to Moses' plea. "Pass over ahead of the people, and take with you some elders of the people of Israel; and take also the staff with which you struck the Nile (remember the plagues of Egypt?), and go. Watch for me standing in front of you there near the rock of Horeb" (Ex. 17:5-6). It turns out that the wilderness of Sin and Rephidim are cheek by jowl with the sacred mountain, here named Horeb, though in other traditions called Sinai. All great desert events revolve around this one sacred place, and the magical flow of water is no exception.
YHWH's instructions continue. "Strike the rock so that water may flow out of it, and the people may drink" (Ex. 17:6). And Moses does exactly that "in the sight of the elders of Israel." We are spared the scene of the people trampling over one another, mouths agape, tongues extended, as they fight for the life-giving water. Meanwhile, Moses, in a contemplative mood, assigns names to this place. He calls it "Massah" (from the verb "test" "try") and Meribah (from that verb we saw above in vs. 2—"quarrel," "go to court with"). In short, Moses calls the place "testing and quarreling" or maybe "fussin' and fightin'" in a more modern idiom. The name was obvious, he thinks, because "there the people of Israel tested and went to court with YHWH" (Ex. 17:7).
Who could disagree with his assessment? The people did certainly test and try their God. But is it not also clear that Moses, too, tested and tried his God? Did they not all demand a sign that they were not alone in the wilderness, facing a certain death? The final question is the key to this passage: "Is YHWH among us (or 'near us') or not?" (Ex. 17:7). And that of course is our modern question, too. And the query has become ever more insistent in our time of thorough questioning of all authority, all tradition, all previous certainties. And in the light of that question, we demand a sign. If there was a God, that God would not have let my child die, my addiction destroy my life, allow that war, that famine, that plague. We are all in the desert of Sin with that question on our lips: is YHWH near us or not?
We Christians simply cannot stop asking this question, nor should we. Yet, our demands for some sort of sign of God's presence—a tortilla chip with the face of Jesus, an ancient cloth with a blood-stained portrait magically projected on it, a whirling sun in the former Yugoslavia, a crutched-filled grotto in rural France, a huge cathedral in Mexico on the site of an appearance of the Virgin Mary to a lucky peasant, and on and on—seem somehow pathetic. In our scientific age, where only conclusive proof will do, such experiences give in to the times. Books about proofs of heaven hit bestseller lists, but are little better than modern Lourdes, places that offer certainties that finally cannot be obtained. The answer to the question, "Is YHWH near us or not" is not yes or no. The answer is the question itself that I must continue to ask because I want to conform my living to the ancient truth that God is there, and that God still calls people to follow the narrow way. Any proof finally is in the pudding; when I see people offering themselves for others, when I witness acts of courage beyond anything I could ever perform, when I am able on those rare occasions to transcend what I would rather do for myself, then the question arises again: "Is YHWH near us or not?" Others may say, well, those acts of courage arise from a deep well of human longing, a rich humanity and need no divine explanation. I choose otherwise. For me, YHWH indeed is still near us, but I do not need some external signs of that presence to convince me.
Author's Note: Remember the Baltic in September! I will lecture on Job, and you will see some of the great capitals of the world. We depart from Copenhagen on September 3. Full details are at eo.travel. I do hope to see you there!
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.