Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 1, 2017
Exodus 17:1-7 Commentary
As my colleague Scott Hoezee noted in an earlier Sermon Commentary on this text, a piece to which I’m deeply indebted for several of this piece’s ideas, at first glance this may seem like just another story of Israelite bellyaching to Moses about dragging them out of Egypt. It seems to reveal nothing new about Israel’s trip from slavery in Egypt toward freedom in the land of promise.
After all, as you might expect of people traveling through a wilderness without McDonalds or rest areas, Genesis 17’s Israelites are again thirsty. At Marah’s earlier campsite, they had at least found water, though God had to miraculously transform it to make it potable.
However, at our text’s mysterious place called Rephidim, Israel doesn’t even find bitter water. As a result, not surprisingly, the Israelites quarrel with Moses. In fact, our text tells us not once, but twice that they loudly blame him for their quandary.
Now, of course, Israel has already spent spend much time grumbling against Moses. This time, however, Moses recognizes that her complaints have taken a potentially deadly turn.
So he pleads for God’s advice because he senses that Israel is becoming so desperate that she may try to kill him. In almost the same breath, however, Moses also tries to put the angry Israelites’ thirst into some kind of perspective. “Why do you quarrel with me?” he turns from God toward them to ask in verse 2. “Why do you put the Lord to the test?”
Exodus 15:25 reports that God tested Israel at Marah. God promised that if she obediently listened to God’s voice, God would protect her from the diseases with which God had devastated Egypt.
Now, however, Israel puts the Lord to the test. At Massah and Meribah, after all, the Israelites again ignore God’s voice. What’s more, the Israelites don’t listen to Moses’ voice either. They blame the Lord, with Moses, for dragging them into the wilderness to kill them, their children and their livestock.
By persistently complaining to Moses and the Lord, Israel pointedly ignores God’s commands and decrees. By failing this test, Israel again shows that she deserves to have God strike her with the kinds of diseases with which God struck Egypt.
God, however, again proves to be patiently gracious. God doesn’t, after all, just refrain from punishing Israel. The Lord also gives her enhanced life and, on top of that, spares Moses’ endangered life.
The Lord tells Moses to take his staff and walk with some elders ahead of the rest of the people. Of course, Moses’ staffs are seldom ordinary. Earlier God had asked Moses, “what’s that in your hand” when Moses resisted his call to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. God had also asked him to throw his staff to the ground. God had then turned that staff into a snake that Moses fled. God finally told Moses to pick up that snake which, when he did, God turned back into a staff again.
Moses’ staff is perhaps also, however, the one with which he struck the Nile. God used that rod to turn the great river to blood, killing all of its fish and turning it into a stinking stream of death.
At Massah and Meribah, however, Moses’ staff is an instrument not of punishment or death, but of life. God precedes Moses in order to stand by the rock of Horeb, what we know of as Mount Sinai. When Moses, in the presence of the witnessing elders, strikes that rock, the Lord sends life-giving water gushing out of it.
The name Moses gives this place is a reminder of Israelite sinfulness. He calls it “Massah and Meribah,” because the Israelites had quarreled and tested the Lord there. Yet it’s also the place God graciously provides water for his contentious people who doubt his presence with them.
We could apply much of what we said about last Sunday’s text to this one. But the biblical scholar Terrence Fretheim (Exodus: John Knox Press) helps us to see a new element in this story. It springs from just one little, perhaps barely noticeable, word in verse 6 of our text: “Horeb.”
The rock of Horeb on which the Lord stands and from which live-giving water flows refers is in an area at the foot of Mount Sinai. Horeb is, moreover, the place where God appeared to Moses in the burning bush. It’s also the place to which God also promised Moses would return, with the liberated Israelites in tow. However, Horeb, or Mount Sinai as we more commonly know it, is also the place from which God will give God’s law, the Ten Commandments. So it’s the place from which God repeatedly reveals himself to his people.
Yet Horeb is also the place where the amnesic Israelites want to know if the Lord is among them. So to show them God’s among them, even in the dangerous wilderness, God again gives them life-giving water.
In the not too distant future, however, God will also show Israel that God’s with her by giving her his law at Horeb. So just as the water that gushes out of Horeb graciously gives the Israelites life, the law that will “flow from” Horeb will also be, in one sense, a source of life for them.
Now, of course, people would have to keep it perfectly in order to have eternal life by keeping that law. We’d have to obey every law every last second of our lives, by what we do, say and even think. God’s people know full well we don’t do that; we, in fact, can’t do that. You and I don’t earn eternal life by keeping the law because we break it constantly.
Yet most North Americans would say that you can’t get any kind of life by obeying the law. When, after all, is the last time anyone prayed, “O Lord, if you really love me, show me by sending me some rules to follow”?
No, most of us pray, in one form or another, “O Lord, if you love me, send me a nice spouse, well-adjusted kids and a good job. And, if you really love me, while you’re at it, send me a fine house, some enjoyable vacations and a hefty retirement income.”
When God’s adopted sons and daughters think of signs of God’s love, of sources of life, we usually think of Jesus Christ and material blessings. We seldom see God’s law as something that really helps us to live. Rules may keep us in line, but true blessings from God are good things and people.
Eventually Israel, at her best, comes to see God’s law as a great gift from the Lord. She comes to recognize that God’s law is a good guide as how to live life in ways that not only honor God, but also bless her.
Now, of course, as Hoezee also notes, sometimes we base our laws on the way people agree things should be. The law that is the speed limit on many highways is 55 or 60 miles per house. Many state laws also say that people under the age of 21 may not buy alcohol.
Sometimes, however, the law describes not the way things should be, but the way they are. When physicists talk about the First Law of Thermodynamics, for instance, they’re not talking about the way they’d like things to work, but the way they do work.
People don’t get to decide whether or not to approve such a law. A vote can’t change such a law. If you walk off the edge of a cliff, the law of gravity accurately dictates that you’ll fall, whether you like it or not.
God’s law is something like the law of gravity. It doesn’t describe the way God wants life to work, but the way God knows it works. So the Lord doesn’t give the Lord’s law because the Lord wants to be a buzzkill. God gives God’s law because God knows that following that law is best for us, it gives us life.
So, for instance, our culture tries to convince us that all religions are equally good. It doesn’t matter what we call our god, society tells us, as long as we respect each other’s religions and are devoted to our own.
God, however, calls people to worship God alone. Yet the Lord doesn’t call God’s people to worship only the Lord because the Lord wants people to be as intolerant as the Lord is. No, God calls you and me to worship God alone because God is the only living God.
God knows that true life comes not from practicing just any religion, but from worshiping the living God as God reveals himself to us in Jesus Christ. Life, after all, comes not just through material blessings like the water that flowed from the rock, but also from gratefully obeying God’s whole law.
Maybe this analogy will help us to see the law as a gift of life. What if I were to buy an expensive new car without ever consulting its owner’s manual? I might quickly destroy that car. After all, even if I figured out how to insert the key in its ignition, I might turn it so long I’d destroy the starter. I might make an “x” instead of an “h” out of the stick shift, reducing my transmission to smoking rubble.
Without consulting its owner’s manual, I might simply drive the car without adding any gasoline until I ran out along the side of the road. I might never add any oil, again reducing my car to a smoking heap of worthless metal.
You and I might prefer to operate a car in the way we choose. But we follow the instructions in a car’s owner’s manual because we understand that the people who put the car together know how best to operate it.
In a similar way, even God’s people naturally prefer to live the way we choose. Yet we follow God’s law as God reveals it to us in the Bible because he created us. The Lord knows what’s the best way for all of God’s creatures, including people, to live. God’s law reflects what’s best for us, what brings us true life.
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