All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the LORD, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. Therefore the people quarrelled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” And the LORD said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarrelling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD by saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”. (Exodus 17:1-7 ESV)
Grumbling people. Worried. Scared. Picking on the leaders. Concerned about supplies. Panicking.
Welcome to the Old Testament – to the people of Israel – to the rescue by God out of Egypt and into a … desert, a wilderness – not 5 star accommodation with all mod cons. It is a dire predicament. The people are at the place they are at because of a commandment of God but there is no drinking water. They take it out on Moses who responds: Why are you taking it out on me? And why are you testing God? Why are you not trusting him?
On the surface of things, the people actually seem reasonable. They need water and there isn’t any to drink – and we don’t last long without water. So their immediate concerns are immediate. But pause for a moment and consider their context. They have just observed the God of Israel go up against the gods of Egypt – plague after plague, culminating in the death of the first born in Egypt while the angel of death passed over them. They have left Egypt with much wealth. (The Egyptians wanted them gone and gave them wealth to go.) They have had their God on sentry duty – pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night – and passed through the Red Sea and vanquished Pharaoh and his army. They have received manna from God – that flaky bread like substance – and quails – and it is now that they are out of water. Based on what has happened so far, on the trajectory of actions from God, what might they expect? I contend … ‘water’.
However what do they do? Quarrel. Test God. More than that, grumble and ignore the past. Or is it even worse that that? Are they so big headed from God’s rescue activities that they are demanding God serve them on their terms?
God responds to Moses’ plea and instructs him to take the staff, pass on through the people with some of the elders of Israel and when at the rock of Horeb, strike the rock, and water will flow and the people will drink – and it happens – and this goes down in history because of the names given to the place – Massah – which plays on a Hebrew word for ‘put to the test’ and Meribah – which plays on a Hebrew word for ‘finding fault’. These names and this story go down in history and just mentioning the names in future generations – and indeed they are mentioned in the psalms – reminds the people of grumbling and finding fault and also of God’s helping them again – and thus this account is a story of their short sightedness, their lack of remembering, and ultimately their distrust in God. And yet God still helps them!
When I say it like this, it is easy to go ‘stupid people, gracious God’ or ‘insufferable people, merciful God’, or ‘short sighted people, patient God’ while forgetting that the nature of the relationship people have with God is faith and trust – and we all assume it is easier for us to join the dots between cause and effect and to find meaning in what we see and experience. People start wondering – just because God has helped us in the
past, will he help us now? If I had what I call a miracle in the past, why am I not getting a miracle now? How do we work out what is a natural part of this world, what is simply a coincidence and what is a miracle?
Because we live by faith and not by sight, when what we see and experience challenges our faith, how do we go forward? If the fire is coming towards me, do I claim God’s promise in Isaiah, “when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Isaiah 43:2a ESV) or do I run? Is my running a lack of faith? And it all boils down to not so much “What is God’s Word?” but “What is God’s Word for me right now?”.
For the people of Israel in the wilderness, leaving Egypt, their whole existence was bound up with trusting this God who rescued them. Moses would teach them – and I imagining he is reminding them of this constantly – the following truth, reality, context for living … For the land that you are entering to take possession of it is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sowed your seed and irrigated it, like a garden of vegetables. But the land that you are going over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water by the rain from heaven, a land that the LORD your God cares for. The eyes of the LORD your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. (Deuteronomy 11:10-12 ESV)
Yes, the people are being rescued but not to live on their own terms. They are leaving a land of flowing water to a land that relies on rain – hear that … relies on rain – and that means relies on God. It really does boil down to ‘Is God reliable?’ and how do we live each day with this God?
It will take 40 years in the wilderness for the people to trust God and only a few generations for them to fall away again. By the time of Jesus, there are still faithful people around but the Old Testament faith and religion has split into theologies – Jerusalem and Samaria – think of Jesus and the woman at the well – and camps – think Pharisees and Sadducees (who were mainly priests) – and the tension that exists between trusting God and trusting our deeds has never left the planet.
And then along comes Jesus and he challenges everything again by saying, ‘Follow me’. And the world considers this new addition into the Gods Top Trumps set. Jesus’ followers, however, are as the description implies, following him and learning what that means day by day for themselves on the inside – What do I think? What do I feel? What and how should I behave? – and what it means on the outside – how do I follow Jesus and live now with this person, this situation, this country? And it easy for the disciples of Jesus to not keep Jesus in mind, at times, precisely because he isn’t visibly next to us. It is a discipline, a pattern, a routine – maybe learnt in childhood, or in worship, or because as adults we have realised that we need help – to go to Jesus where he said he will be found – words, water, bread and wine – and listen and receive. This is how we work out “What is God’s Word for me right now?”.
It is easy to grumble. It is easy to be short sighted. We have lived long enough to know that miracles are not the order of the day when they are essentially genie tricks to make our life better. We can be fearful and anxious. And what we need to be drawn back to when the world goes awry is our rock and living water – and that takes us back to Jesus himself. Do we trust him if he doesn’t do what we want? That’s the question we find ourselves asking.
And in the fears and the grumbling, the anxieties and the need still to make choices each day and live by those choices, what the followers of Jesus discover is that Jesus is patient, merciful and gracious and he holds us close to him and says, ‘Don’t be afraid’. His death and resurrection don’t guarantee no problems but rather give us life with meaning and purpose and hope so that we may use our sanctified common sense, our knowledge of the world and of people, to walk wisely – following Jesus. We make his Word and not what we see, the chief reference point for our living and for ourselves, and then we live in the world around us, the world we see.
In Jesus, God is reliable and we can live with him each day.
- Exodus 17:1 - 7