Grumbling at God: Reflections on Exodus 17:1-7

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Lectionary Reflections
Exodus 17:1-7

September 25, 2011

One would imagine that the miraculous escape from Egypt, heralded by the divine plagues and the courageous persistence of Moses, would have emboldened and steeled the Israelites for a triumphant march directly to the land of promise, the land promised to be flowing with milk and honey. However, the traditional fact that they wandered in the wilderness of the Sinai desert for forty years makes it clear that divine presence and human courage do not automatically create faithful disciples and eager nation builders.

It is little less than astonishing that immediately after they danced and sang the Song of the Sea (Ex. 15:21), among the very oldest pieces of literature in the Hebrew Bible, celebrating the central event of Israel's life and faith, the victory at the Sea of Reeds (nobody knows where this is, despite the rigorous attempts to locate it over the past 3000 years), the first thing the people do is "complain against Moses" (Ex. 15:24).

The verb translated "complain" or "grumble" is little used in the Hebrew Bible. In fact, only here in Exodus, in the parallel passages in Numbers, and in one place in Joshua, do we find this particular word. This, I think, is significant. In the face of the greatest action of the God of Israel, abetted by the greatest human figure in their history, the people can only grumble against both of them. Exactly what does this powerful memory of complaining, repeated several times in several scenes in the wilderness, imply about the people of God?

Exodus 17:1-7 is perhaps the classic example of this tradition. "From the wilderness of Sin (no, this word has nothing to do with "sin;" so do not go there!), the whole congregation of Israel journeyed place to place at the call (literally "mouth") of YHWH. They finally camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink" (Ex. 17:1). The first part of the verse suggests a kind of aimlessness in the journey in the wilderness, but by the end a specific place is named, though again history hides its location from us, if indeed it ever was a historical place.

"The people argued with Moses, and said 'Give us water to drink'" (Ex. 17:2a). The verb "argued" (NRSV "quarreled") is most often used in legal contexts where arguments are used to prove the truth or falsity of a claim. But here, though we have been told quite clearly "there is no water," the people argue about it as if Moses is somehow holding hidden sources of water from them. This is nothing to be argued about; there is no water!

"And Moses said to the people, 'Why do you argue with me? Why (literally "what') are you testing YHWH?'" (Ex. 17:2b). Moses announces clearly the implication of the people's demand for water when there is none to be had; it is a test of YHWH, not finally a quarrel with Moses. If YHWH will provide water then YHWH can be our God, they say. Moses in effect warns them that their faith in YHWH is resting on very weak grounds: no water, no YHWH. Act in the ways we want or we will search for another god who will. In Exodus 32 they will demand such a god from Aaron who will oblige them by molding and shaping a molten calf.

The people's demands for proof will not be turned aside; their thirst for water trumps all arguments or quarrels. Now they revert to their more familiar stance; they grumble. "The people thirsted for water, so they grumbled against Moses, and they said, 'Why in the world (my old Hebrew teacher used to translate this construction 'why in Hell;' I commend it to you, especially in this particular place, but suggest you use it with caution!) would you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?'" (Ex. 17:3). Moses says nothing to that rash demand, but turns directly to YHWH. With terror in his voice, "Moses cried out to YHWH, 'What shall I do to (NRSV "with") this people? They are about ready to stone me!'" (Ex. 17:4). Moses appears to want either some protection from the people's incessant demands or perhaps some weapons with which he might knock some sense into them; the force of the preposition "to" might suggest the latter.

But YHWH has a plan. "YHWH said to Moses, 'Go ahead of the people; take with you some of the elders of Israel. And that staff with which you struck the Nile? Take it, too, and go. I will be standing in front of you there at the rock of Horeb. Strike the rock and the water will pour out of it in order that the people may drink'" (Ex 17:5-6a). The people demand water and YHWH will provide water so that they may drink. "So Moses did so in the presence of the elders of Israel" (Ex. 17:6b). If the scene ended there, it would be a simple story of YHWH satisfying the demanding people, giving to them what they need for survival in the harsh desert. Thus, we might conclude that God satisfies our needs. And that would be a typical claim of the traditions of Israel.

9/18/2011 4:00:00 AM
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  • John Holbert
    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.