The Continual Need for a Sign: Reflections on Exodus 17:1-7

Lectionary Reflections
Exodus 17:1-7
March 23, 2014

Since we are journeying through Lent, what better text to address on the trip than this infamous pericope from Exodus? The Israelites, too, are on a journey from slavery to freedom, from Egypt to the land of promise, but like all journeys there are moments of fun and pleasure and moments of anger, frustration, and downright terror. Anyone who has taken a long trip in a car, boat, plane, train, or bike knows all of these emotions. Our trip through Lent offers us precisely this.

The story finds the Israelite escapees now entering the wilderness of Sin; do not be tempted by this name. Allegorists beware! This is merely the name of the place, not a location prone to wicked actions. The fact that we have no notion at all where this place is has too often made it possible for enterprising and foolish commentators to launch into an interpretive frenzy, announcing the Israelite's "sin" at a place called Sin. Do not go there; this is after all Hebrew, and in that language "sin" is a very different word.

They camp at Rephidim (again we are clueless about its location), and immediately have a problem; there is no water. This is of course far more than a problem; it is a catastrophe. Without water they will die; the desert will claim more victims, as it has for millennia before and after this event. The demand of the people seems reasonable enough; when one is thirsty, one asks for a drink. However, in Hebrew the request is rather more blunt than most English translations provide. In effect they say, "You give us right now water to drink" (Ex. 17:2). And Moses, in full-out defensive mode, responds to the brutal demand, "Why do you go to court (the metaphorical context from which this verb springs) with me? Why do you test YHWH?" (Ex. 17:2). Well, if I had been among the people on that day, I would have a ready reply to such "passing the buck" questions. "Because we are dying of thirst, that's why!"

However, the people's demand for water in verse 2 now turns quite directly to "complaining" (lin in Hebrew) against Moses. So Moses was apparently correct when he saw in their demands for water an accusation against him for poor leadership and an assault against YHWH who has not provided what they need. The complaint immediately turns ugly: "Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?" (Ex. 17:3). Here is a direct rejection of the great event that has just occurred. YHWH has acted "with mighty hand and outstretched arm" to effect the release of the chosen people from bondage after a four-hundred-year experience of horror in the slave pits of Egypt. They have escaped because of YHWH and Moses, both of whom have promised them protection and success as they make a one-way journey to the land of promise.

The people now say at 17:3 that the whole affair has been a joke, a ruse on the part of YHWH and the spokesperson Moses, to lure them into the wilderness precisely to murder them all with the horrible death of thirst. This puts Moses in a terrible spot. He has promised YHWH's care, and YHWH has not delivered. They have hopped out of the frying pan of slavery right into the fire of the desert; there was at least water in Egypt!

A desperate Moses now "cries out to YHWH" (Ex. 17:4). The verb here is always the one found in places where desperation reigns, where hope is gone, where only YHWH can save. "What shall I do with this people?" he cries. Note he uses that telltale demonstrative pronoun "this" to distance himself from them; it is as if he points in their direction as he stands completely apart from them. This demonstrative pronoun will figure prominently in the great tale of the molten calf in Exodus 32. Both Moses and God will employ it as the people fall under the shadow of imminent destruction.

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).