Well...Is YHWH with us or Not? Reflections on Exodus 17:1-7

Lectionary Reflections
Exodus 17:1-7
September 28, 2014

The grumbling and complaining Israelites, having escaped the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds, having received the divine gift of water, quail, and manna in response to their whining, half-truthful demands in the desert, now again are faced with death by thirst. The wilderness is indeed a forbidding place, filled with any number of terrible trials for the newly freed former slaves. But it turns out that the greatest trial for them is not unlike our greatest 21st century trial: just how can we finally know if God is with us or not?

Ex 17:7 announces that this place of the magic water is in reality a place of "testing" and "quarreling," two very different concepts. In fact, the latter word can be translated in several ways, though the former seems clear enough. This is a place of testing, and the testing goes in several directions. Moses is tested, even though he says that they are "quarreling" with him (Ex 17:2). Still it is a test of his leadership. They demand water, and there is none to be had. The people first cry for "water" quite directly (Ex 17:2), but later in Ex 17:3, they become far more specific. It is for them not merely the fact of no water; it is, they claim, some sort of predesigned plot on the part of Moses to murder them! "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?" There is no doubt that this is a test for Moses.

But it is not only a test. It is also a "quarrel" with Moses. However, the more traditional way to read this word is "lawsuit" (various forms of the Hebrew rib). To hear the word in that fashion is to raise the stakes of the dispute from a common "quarrel" to a rather more formal confrontation. Moses has, in the eyes of the people, plotted their demise in the desert, and they want him to answer their questions about this plot. Just why has he brought them out of Egypt? Did he really wish to save them, to bring them to the land that YHWH had promised them, or did he rather wish to murder them in some sort of sadistic desire to witness their slow deaths? When put that way, their "lawsuit' is fatuous, absurd on its face. But, as usual, these people are desperate, impatient, demanding, not in any way the people that YHWH had hoped them to be.

And in Moses' own desperation, he does not answer their ridiculous indictment of his motives, but instead turns directly to YHWH. "Moses cried out to YHWH, 'What shall I do to this people (which appears to mean something like 'what can I do with them'); they seem ready to stone me'" (Ex 17:4)? The verb "cried out" is often employed in Hebrew narrative to signal the doing of an injustice that needs YHWH's intervention (an important example may be found at Gen 18:20 where YHWH sends his messengers to Sodom to see whether their "outcry" of injustice is as great as YHWH has been told). Moses, like Abraham before him, cries out to the God of justice to right the wrongs committed by the people.

So YHWH responds to Moses, God's servant, giving him quite specific directions concerning the solving of the people's problem. He is "to go ahead of them," taking "some of the elders of the people" with him, and employing the staff that he had used to strike the Nile (Ex 17:5). He will strike the rock at Horeb (Sinai in other traditions of the narrative) with the staff, and water will gush forth from the rock. And so it does.

As a result of these actions of Moses and YHWH, Moses names the place "testing" and "lawsuit," because "the Israelites brought a lawsuit and tested YHWH," 'Is YHWH near us or not'" (Ex 17:6-7)?

This story sounds decidedly modern to me. How am I to know, for certain, that YHWH is with us, near us, listening to us, among us? The answer of this story appears to be, "If magic happens, then I can trust God." Amazing healings, Jesus' face on a tortilla chip, the two miracles that make Roman Catholic sanctification possible (or maybe one will do if haste is needed to get the new saint, as in the case of John XXIII or John Paul II, as quickly as possible). Or how about fantastic church growth? "We began with a few families, and now we worship with 9000 people each Sunday; we know that God has been with us!" You can imagine your own 21st century equivalent of water rushing out of dry stones after the sharp whack of a magic wand. So, NOW we know that God is with us?

Finally, I am unconvinced by all this. It is far too random, far too unexpected, far too hit and miss for any sort of real proof of the presence of God. What about those not healed, those not officially sanctified, those who worship with the same 25 souls each Sunday (well, 24 after the death of another beloved one). In fact, I am with the grumbling and testing Israelites in the story. Even after the magic rock trick, I and they still ask, 'Is YHWH with us, or not?" Well?

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