Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship
Sept 28, 2014

Bitter water. Starvation. Now thirst.

Three times since leaving Egypt the Hebrews grapple with the possibility of dying in the desert. Three times since they were brought out of slavery the Hebrews murmur amongst themselves.

Today’s episode occurs just after the Hebrews grumble about how they will be fed in a place with no discernable source of food. God provides manna and quail. Without any transition, with no discernable length of time between stories God’s people find themselves once again faced with eradication. The Hebrews realize that their stock of water has run out. Chaos and fear grip the camp. Irrational accusations fly at Moses. And just as before, God responds. God instructs Moses strikes the rock and water comes gushing out.

There’s a similar pattern to what we’ve heard before: a threat to the people’s survival. They begin to grumble. Moses hears them and relays their concern to God. God meets their need.

But in this story something has shifted. No longer do the Hebrews murmur, one to another. Instead the people bring the fight directly to Moses. Their anger is so intense that Moses fears for his life, wondering if the people will stone him. This time there are no abstract and extended complaints. In Exodus 17 they get right to the point, “Give us water to drink.”

This story is compact. There’s no detail and the whole narrative takes up only seven verses. It’s told in clipped, anxious phrases. The tension is palpable as fears have intensified into violence. And something else has changed. In the previous two accounts of miraculous provision God has put the Hebrews to tests of faithfulness. This time the tables have turned. Now it is the Hebrews who put God in the docks.

Testing God. Ready to stone Moses. There’s something risky in this story, the feeling you get when someone stands too close to the edge of a cliff. You have to wonder, how will this god respond? How will the god who made water stand up like walls, who sent the angel of death to slaughter a generation of Egyptian boys, the god who brought locust and hail and boils, how will this god respond to a thankless, forgetful people?

You brace yourself, but instead of fire, instead of rocks from the sky and pillars of salt, God shows up. God stands in front of them, right there, before them. He gives them what they need. God holds up reminders of the things done in the past. God says, “This is who I am. This is who I am.”

When I read these stories I am tempted interpret them as a verdict against an obstinate people with horrible memories and bad tempers. But then I remember the god of Egypt, the only god these people have ever known. The god of Egypt was Pharaoh – a human god, flesh and bone, but one you could see, one that was stable and visible. Pharaoh was a god predictable in his maintenance of power, who utilized affliction and the murder of newborns in order to preserve social hierarchy. The only god the Hebrews have known is the god of capital and slavery and coercive power.

So it is that the wilderness wandering is the start of a new relationship for the Hebrews with this god they have never known, never before encountered. This isn’t just a shifting of allegiances. Instead, this god unveils a new way of life, new expectations. This isn’t a god like Pharaoh.

While they were slaves the Hebrews scrambled for what little was given them. Now they are discovering a god who gives them exactly what they need.

While they were slaves the Hebrews were commodities, a means towards amassing more wealth and power. Now they encounter a god who does not horde.

While they were slaves the Hebrews were worked relentlessly without ceasing. Now they meet a god who demands their rest.

While they were slaves the Hebrews knew a god who was static, human, like them. Now they meet a god who is unrestricted by nature, and in fact wields power over the natural world.

In each of these stories God reveals to the people how things are different. This new relationship requires more than everyone looking out for herself and working as hard as she can. It means obedience, listening to God’s voice and following these strange rules that will make them different from other people.

After a lifetime with Pharaoh as their god is it any wonder that these people are anxious, distrustful, and filled with fear? To such a people God helps them remember. He recreates the scene of the crossing of the Red Sea. Calling forth an assembly of elders, Moses takes the same staff that parted the seas, and once again God brings life from death. God doesn’t tell them, God shows them. God doesn’t talk about their need, God gives them something to drink. God doesn’t say “I am here.” God appears.

Maybe that’s why God answers these cries in such unusual ways, as the Hebrews are left scratching there heads. What is this white stuff on the ground? Why is God using a rock? Why is he throwing a stick into that bitter water? It is not only provision but introduction, an introductory course on how the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob operates.

“Is Yahweh among us or not?” Maybe it was the right question to ask. To question Pharaoh would mean certain death. But here, too, god is not like Pharaoh. With Amy Erickson I wonder if “It may be that the people work to shape God’s character just as God works to shape that of the people. The mutual testing in the wilderness yields a people with a uniquely articulated faith, along with a unique, fundamentally counter-cultural god…”[1]

It’s no wonder, then, that we hear the recounting of the rock of Horeb in the psalms. These are the songs God’s people sang to each other to remind them of this time when they came to know God, when they asked God not to speak of love, but to show them. And God did. This was the story they told to their children, to their children’s children to help each generation encounter this strange god, a god not like Pharaoh.

Here again the psalm:

Remember the wonderful works he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he uttered,
O offspring of his servant Abraham, children of Jacob, his chosen ones.
Then he brought Israel out with silver and gold, and there was no one among their tribes who stumbled.
Egypt was glad when they departed, for dread of them had fallen upon it.
He spread a cloud for a covering, and fire to give light by night.
They asked, and he brought quails, and gave them food from heaven in abundance.
He opened the rock, and water gushed out; it flowed through the desert like a river.

It comes as no surprise, then, that in 1 Corinthians Paul identifies the rock from Exodus 17 as Christ. After all, Jesus, too, was not what was expected. He, too, came to show us what God looks like. Jesus before us on the cross, a god dying while soldiers mocked, telling him to be like Pharaoh, to get down from there and put them all in their place. Instead God lays down his life. Instead, God defeats death. On the cross Jesus doesn’t tell us, he shows us: “This is who I am. This is who I am.”

This is a theme that will continue to reverberate through the history of Israel, right down to you and me. The people of God will continue to forget. We continue to flee to the security and consistency of idols, worthless but easily understood and predictable. And God will keep showing up. God will keep standing in front of us. At every juncture God will reenact the stories of God’s love. God will hold up a staff. God will bring forth bread. God will give us something to drink. God will say, “This is who I am. This is who I am.”

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1067

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