This week’s reading follows closely on from the one we looked at last week. We heard of God’s promise and provision of quail and manna every day for the Israelites, and in the intervening verses between the middle of chapter 16 and the beginning of chapter 17 which we’re looking at today, we read more about this. The people gathered the manna every morning, but those who gathered more than they needed and tried to keep it for future consumption found that it quickly went bad.
This week’s reading follows closely on from the one we looked at last week. We heard of God’s promise and provision of quail and manna every day for the Israelites, and in the intervening verses between the middle of Exodus 16 and the beginning of Exodus 17 which we’re looking at today, we read more about this. The people gathered the manna every morning, but those who gathered more than they needed and tried to keep it for future consumption found that it quickly went bad. On the eve of the sabbath God told the people to gather extra and it remained fresh so that they could rest and worship God. God told them that none would be provided on the sabbath itself, although a few people still went out to try and find manna on that seventh day. For 40 years God kept God’s promise and the Israelites had manna to eat ever day.
But despite this, when we get to the start of Exodus 17, the Israelites are still not sure that God is faithful or reliable. They’ve journeyed on in stages from the wilderness of Sin, they’ve been eating the quail and manna for we don’t know how long, but they still want to test God. In Exodus 17:7 we read that the Israelites “tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the LORD among us or not?’” Despite the daily provision of food they’re still not sure whether God is actually there. This time it’s water that the people need (again - like in Exodus 15:23-25 where God performs a miracle to make the bitter water good enough to drink). We can read a retelling of this story in Numbers 20:1-13, which gives a greater emphasis on Moses’ impatience with the people, and in that version of events God tells Moses and Aaron that because of their lack of trust in God’s provision they will not enter the promised land. This story is similar to the preceding story of manna in the wilderness in that in response to the grumbling of the people, God acts in order to satisfy their needs. And actually, if Moses is reflecting the sentiments of Yahweh, it sounds as though the miracle is provided rather grudgingly!
We surely have some sympathy for the Israelites though. Even today the Sinai wilderness is known for its harshness and isolation. If you didn’t have water and you could see no possible source of water being found in the immediate future the heat and thirst must quickly become unbearable. I remember being in the middle of nowhere in baking heat with only the smallest amount of water left and the estimation that I might have to walk another one or two hours to get to my accommodation. Every time the thirst became too much I took the tiniest sip, but fear quickly set in about how quickly that would run out. And I knew that at least I would get something to drink that day, even if it ain’t to hand exactly when I needed it! No matter how pleased the Israelites would have been to be free, I’m sure their attitude took a dive pretty quickly.
But despite our sympathy for the Israelites, the passage seems to be pointing us towards judgement. Due to the fact that this incident occurs so soon after the quail and manna there seems to be an element of condemnation in the text. The writer seems to be asking, haven’t these people seen the merciful presence and provision of God in the miracle of food? Don’t they understand that having brought them so far, God doesn’t intend to let them die of thirst in the wilderness? We might find many comparable passages in the gospels, where the disciples have had an amazing encounter with the Spirit of God, and where they’ve witnessed amazing miracles, yet they show little sign of understanding what they’ve witnessed or been told. In this Exodus passage the people are impatient and they lose faith very quickly, and their attitudes are spelt out in the renaming of the location - Massah meaning test, and Meribah meaning quarrel.
I think most of the sympathy this passage arouses should go to Moses. Moses is caught in a difficult position - the people he’s trying to lead are argumentative, disruptive and difficult to please. The environment is hot and harsh. And if the passage in Numbers is anything to go by, Moses must have
also been tempted to be impatient with God. But here in the Exodus version of events, Moses remains in the role of mediator. He takes the panic and concern of the people to the LORD, and he communicates God’s instructions back to the people. In both Church and society today I’m sure that most leaders will have found themselves trapped between the demands of the people, the realities of the situation, and the direction of God. So this passage shows us some of the many difficulties that leaders face, and how much simpler it is to be a follower!
The way that God instructs Moses to use his staff brings us back to the miracles God has worked in this way before. God told Moses and Aaron to strike the Nile with the staff and the water became blood. God told Moses to hold the staff over the Red Sea and the waters parted, and later, when the staff was raised again the parting of the water was reversed. The point is that the same God has power to bring death or to bring life. The same God who made a way for the Israelites to escape into freedom and new life brought death to the Egyptians. The same God who banished the water from the Nile can also produce water from a rock. It points towards praise to God for the relationship that brings life to the Israelite people.
The passage also points to the future. We’re not simply left with the image of a bunch of people moaning, an uncomfortable leader, and the love and mercy of God in providing for them. The mention of Horeb in Exodus 17:6 (which is another name for Sinai) and the water springing from the dry rock point us forwards to the time when a greater expression of God’s love for Israel will be seen in that place. Having fed and watered the people in a physical way, God will on day sustain them in a more significant way by providing the commands under which they are to live.
For further reflection…