Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 27, 2020
Exodus 17:1-7 Commentary
Israel is wandering in territory that is all too familiar to us—in the great wilderness of In Between, between release from bondage and possession of the Promised Land. As the New Interpreters Bible puts it, this passage is “a paradigm for the crisis of faith that occurs between bondage and well-being.” Thus it is relevant for escapees from Egypt, exiles in Babylon, or Christians living between justification and glorification. Out here in the wilderness of In Between, we have to choose between testing God and passing God’s test.
Out in the wilderness, there is one crisis after another, crises that test our faith and obedience. Israel has just gone through their food crisis, and some of the Israelites failed the test of faith and obedience. Now, once again, they are faced with a water crisis, as they had early in their wanderings. This time the crisis is more urgent, more dangerous. Contrary to Marah where there was at least bitter water and Elim where there was abundant water, there was absolutely no water in the desert south and east of the Desert of Sin. Little children were getting dehydrated, livestock were drooping, and the adults were increasingly desperate. It didn’t take a modern scientist to know that it takes only 3 days to die if you have no water.
So, those desperate adults did what they always did in a crisis—they grumbled, and quarreled with Moses. “Give us water to drink!” Apparently, they have no thought of God; this is, after all, a “God forsaken place.” So, in spite of all that Yahweh had done for them in the last couple of months, they demand that Moses give them water. Moses responds with words that are both predictable and mysterious. “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?” That mention of Yahweh should have stopped their grumbling and aroused their faith, but, as the text says, “The people were thirsty for water….” Their thirst overwhelmed their trust and they repeated their bitter question from the food crisis. “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”
Of course, that isn’t what Moses had done. In fact, it wasn’t really Moses who had done that at all; it was Yahweh who had brought them up out of Egypt. But they leave Yahweh out of their complaint. Is that what Moses meant by “putting Yahweh to the text?” Did they put God to the test by forgetting God entirely in their crisis, blaming their human leader as though their Divine Deliverer isn’t even there? One commentator suggests that they tested God by making demands on God, but I don’t read that in the text at all. Rather, it seems that they didn’t even trust God enough to pray, to beg God for water. Instead, they blame their human leader for their predicament.
Putting God to the test, therefore, wasn’t so much testing God’s patience by their continual grumbling, or questioning God’s ability to help. It was, more, a matter of doubting or denying that God was even there with them at all. Moses summarizes their test with a single question: “Is Yahweh among us or not?” How will we know if he is here? We won’t/can’t believe in the Presence of God until/unless he gives us water. He has to pass the test of giving us what we want/need, or we won’t believe God is with us, among us, for us.
One helpful way to understand this testing of God is to contrast it with another example of testing God in Malachi 3. God challenges the post-Exilic Israelite to give the full tithe to support the Temple, a challenge that these former prisoners, now farmers found overwhelmingly difficult. If we give a tenth of the little we have, we won’t be able to survive. So, God says, “Test me in this and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have enough room for it (Malachi 3:10).”
In Malachi 3 God begs his people to put him to the test. In Exodus 17 he criticizes them for putting him to the test. What’s the difference? In Exodus, Israel says, in effect, if God will do what I say, if God meets my needs/wants, I will believe he is present with me. If I get water from God, I will trust God. If I see, I will believe.
In Malachi, God says, if you will do what I say, if you trust me enough to obey me, you will receive my blessing and you will know that I am among you. If you give your tithe in faith, you will see an overflowing blessing. If you believe, you will see. God wants us to test him by trusting and obeying, while Israel wanted God to prove his presence by giving them water before they would trust and obey.
To complicate matters, the God whom Israel is testing here in Exodus is testing Israel at the same time. That’s what God says when he gives them the manna back in Exodus 16:4. “In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions.” And when God appears in a terrifying theophany on Mount Sinai, God is once again testing his people. “Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning (Exodus 20:20).’” God was always testing, proving, purifying his people.
Did they pass his tests of hunger and thirst, of trust and obedience? No, not here, not before, not after, not ever. God’s people continually fail to trust the God who has done everything for them. Indeed, Numbers 14:22 says that Israel put Yahweh to the test 10 times in their wilderness time. You would think that God would weary of their putting him to the test and failing his tests. And he did, eventually, but even then, even when God sent them back into bondage in Babylon, God did not finally desert his people.
Again and again, God did exactly what he did here in Exodus 17. In spite of Israel’s failure (even to pray), he gave them what they needed in a way that proved he was among them. As usual, he used a Mediator to give them water, a mere man named Moses. He wielded the same staff that had struck the Nile and turned water to blood and that had parted the Red Sea. This time that staff struck a rock which gushed water, so that all could drink all they wanted.
But it wasn’t Moses who gave the water (or the manna or the parting of the Red Sea). It was Yahweh who is always present with his people, even in wilderness of In Between. Note how our text opens with something the people didn’t see or had forgotten; the whole community was “travelling from place to place as the Lord commanded (through that Pillar of Fire and that Cloud).” And when Moses headed out to find water, God said to him, “I will stand before you by the rock at Horeb.” I will reveal myself to you, so you will know which Rock to strike. “Is Yahweh among us or not?” Yes. Always. Testing. Providing. Being gracious, even when we grumble, and even when our grumbling puts us back into bondage.
God met their need, even though they failed their test. But Moses gave names to this moment in their wilderness wandering, so that they would not forget either their sin or God’s grace. Those names, “Massah” (Testing) and “Meribah” (Quarreling) occur again in Israel’s literature (Psalm 78, 81, 95) as a reminder to future generations. When you are in need in the wilderness, don’t put God to the test. Rather, remember how God met his people’s needs again and again when it seemed that they were God forsaken. These stories of Israel’s wilderness time show us that God is working salvation in the middle of human crises: hunger to food, thirst to water, leprosy to cleanness, poverty to well-being, sin to salvation, and finally death to life.
We have a great advantage over ancient Israel, even though they had seen God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm in many miraculous ways. After all that, we may well ask what will it take to convince God’s hungry and thirsty, grumbling and quarreling, testing and not trusting people that God is really among them? What it finally took, what God finally did in the fulness of time, was to come into their midst in a human body. “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us, full of grace and truth.” “The virgin will be with child and they will call him ‘Immanuel’—which means ‘God with us.’” (Matthew 1:23)
St. Paul identified Jesus with this story in a surprising way when he said in I Corinthians 10:4, “for they all drank from the same spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.” He was undoubtedly thinking there of Jesus’ stunning words in John’s gospel: “Whoever drinks of the water I give will never thirst (4:14).” “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink (7:37).” Jesus is God among us, and for us, to meet all our needs.
As I pondered the meaning of Israel’s testing of God, it occurred to me that we have an almost exact parallel in the current coronavirus pandemic. As people suffer in fear, we hear little mention of God. Most people seem to be putting their trust in science and politics, that is, in human efforts to meet human need. And because the need doesn’t go away, people are grumbling about and quarreling with their human leaders, on both sides of the aisle, in both science and politics. “Why did Trump do this? Why didn’t the Democrats do that? If you don’t do something, we are all going to die out here in the wilderness.” Even believers join in this incessant chorus of negativity, instead of calling out to God. Are we testing God by thinking and acting as though he is not among us? Or is God testing us, to see if we will trust him even though it seems as though he has forsaken us to this virus? Will we only believe when we see a cure? Or will be believe and then see God among us?
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