This is one of several stories about Israelites complaining to Moses:
• With the Red Sea at their front and pursuing Egyptian soldiers at their rear, they complained to Moses that he had brought them out of slavery in Egypt to die in the wilderness—and said that they would have been better off as slaves (14:11-12).
• Then, at Marah, the complained because the water was bitter (15:24).
• Then they complained that they should have stayed in Egypt where they had plenty to eat, because they were hungry in the wilderness (16:2-3).
In each of these instances, Yahweh responded by giving them what they needed. However, they never seemed to learn that Yahweh was with them and would provide for their needs. They never learned to trust Yahweh—and Yahweh’s servants, Moses and Aaron. They never learned the lesson of faith.
There is a similar story in Numbers 20:1-13 (see also Psalm 78:15-16)—but there are significant differences between that story and this one. In that story, Yahweh told Moses to speak to the rock rather than to strike it with his staff. However, Moses struck the rock instead of speaking to it and, as a consequence of his disobedience, was denied entry into the Promised Land.
Paul refers to this story in his first epistle to the Corinthians. He says that the Israelites “all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. However with most of them, God was not well pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness” (1 Corinthians 10:3-5).
Paul’s “spiritual food,” is an obvious reference to manna, which was physical food from a spiritual source. His reference to the “spiritual rock,” which he equates with Christ, is more complicated. Hebrew Scriptures often refer to God as a rock (Genesis 49:24; Deuteronomy 32:4; Psalms 18:31; 62:2, etc.). Paul not only applies that metaphor to Christ, but also says that Christ was present with the Israelites in the wilderness. His primary point, however, is that the disobedience of the Israelites led to their punishment. He is writing to the Corinthian church, which has members who are guilty of many sins, and he entreats them not to repeat Israel’s mistake—Israel’s sin.
EXODUS 17:1-3. BUT THERE WAS NO WATER FOR THE PEOPLE TO DRINK
1All the congregation of the children of Israel traveled from the wilderness of Sin, by their journeys, according to Yahweh’s commandment, and encamped in Rephidim; but there was no water for the people to drink. 2Therefore the people quarreled (Hebrew: rib) with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.”
Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test Yahweh?”
3The people were thirsty for water there; and the people murmured against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?”
“All the congregation of the children of Israel traveled from the wilderness of Sin, by their journeys, according to Yahweh’s commandment” (v. 1a). The wilderness of Sin was located between Elim and Sinai (16:1). We do not know its exact location. The word Sin in “the wilderness of Sin” might be related to the Hebrew word for Sinai, but is not related to our word “sin.” We should not confuse the wilderness of Sin with the wilderness of Zin, which is also mentioned in the Old Testament.
Journeying by stages would give the Israelites an opportunity for rest and refreshment. They would need a source of water at each resting place, because people and livestock require significant amounts of water every day—far too much to carry.
“and encamped in Rephidim; but there was no water for the people to drink” (v. 1b). Rephidim is their last camping place before Mount Sinai, so the mountain must be close. Various sites have been proposed for both places, but their locations are uncertain.
At Marah, the water was bitter (15:23). At Rephidim, there is no water. This is an extremely serious problem. People and livestock require significant amounts of water, and cannot survive for long without water. This, then, is a matter of life and death.
“Therefore the people quarreled (rib) with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink'” (v. 2a). The word, rib, is often translated as “plead” or “strive” or contend” or “chide” or “debate.” It is often used in a legal sense to describe a legal complaint. In this case, the people issue their complaint against Moses, demanding that he give them water to drink. Psalm 95:8 characterizes this as the hardening of their hearts (just as Pharaoh’s heart was hardened).
In verse 7, the word rib will be incorporated into the word, Meribah.
“Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test Yahweh?'” (v. 2b). Moses, however, makes it clear that their quarrel is not with him, but with Yahweh. Moses is simply Yahweh’s servant, and has been doing Yahweh’s bidding.
“The people were thirsty for water there; and the people murmured against Moses, and said, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?'”(v. 3). It is easy for us, who have seldom been truly thirsty and have never faced the likelihood of death from lack of water, to be critical of these people. In addition to the fact that we have never walked in their shoes, we have been reminded in recent chapters how Yahweh saved them again and again from apparently hopeless situations. Surely they should understand that Yahweh will rescue them again now—but they don’t. But if our throats were parched and our children were crying for a drink of water, we might forget God’s past providence too.
But we need to balance those concerns with the fact that Yahweh has saved the Israelites—not once, not twice, but over and over again. They have cause for fear—but also have cause for faith.
These people accuse Moses of bringing them out of Egypt to kill them. Perhaps they doubt his motives as well as his leadership. Moses, acting as Yahweh’s agent, has brought them salvation time after time. However, when they are hurting, they lose faith that he can do it again.
EXODUS 17:4-7. STRIKE THE ROCK
4Moses cried to Yahweh, saying, “What shall I do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
5Yahweh said to Moses, “Walk on before the people, and take the elders of Israel with you, and take the rod in your hand with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock in Horeb. You shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink.” Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7He called the name of the place Massah (Hebrew: massa) and Meribah (Hebrew: meriba), because the children of Israel quarreled (Hebrew: rib), and because they tested Yahweh, saying, “Is Yahweh among us, or not?”
“Moses cried to Yahweh, saying, ‘What shall I do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me'” (v. 4). As he routinely does when faced with a crisis, Moses turns to Yahweh for relief. He asks what he should do, because he fears that the people will stone him. Stoning is a method of execution by throwing stones at the guilty party.
We need to keep in mind that this is before the giving of the Jewish law, but this passage would have been recorded after the giving of the law. The law prescribes stoning for various capital offenses, such as idolatry and blasphemy. If Moses were guilty of intentionally leading these people to their deaths, stoning would seem a highly appropriate punishment. However, that is not the case. Moses is simply following Yahweh’s orders.
“Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Walk on before the people, and take the elders of Israel with you, and take the rod in your hand with which you struck the Nile, and go'” (v. 5). In a dangerous situation, our natural inclination is to fight or to flee. Yahweh tells Moses to do neither. He is to move to the front of the people to reaffirm his status as their leader. He is to take the elders with him, both to confirm his leadership and to act as witnesses of the miracle that is about to occur. He is to take the staff which Yahweh has enabled Moses and Aaron to use in miraculous ways (4:1-6; 7:10-12; 8:5-7, 16-17; 9:23; 10:13; 14:15-31).
“Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock in Horeb” (v. 6a). Horeb is where Moses encountered the burning bush to begin his journey as Yahweh’s agent (3:1-6).
The Hebrew word horeb means “a desolate region” or “ruin.” Sinai and Horeb are different names for the same mountain. “Where a distinction appears, the mountain itself is Sinai and the neighboring wilderness area bears the wider designation Horeb” (Harrison & Hoffmeier, 526). This is confusing, because these people will not arrive at Sinai until chapter 19. However, if Horeb is the region and Sinai is the mountain, it could be that they have reached the region of Horeb but not the mountain itself.
Yahweh says that he will be standing on the rock that Moses is to strike. Perhaps the idea is that Yahweh will stand on the rock to lead Moses to it—but move before Moses strikes the rock. It would not seem right for Moses to strike a rock on which Yahweh is standing. However, the details here are unclear.
“You shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink.” Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel” (v. 6b). As noted above, in the Numbers account, Moses was supposed to speak to the rock but struck it instead, and was punished for his disobedience. In this account, Yahweh orders him to strike the rock, and Moses obeys. The elders serve as witnesses to the miracle.
“He called the name of the place Massah (massa—testing) and Meribah (meriba—quarreling), because the children of Israel quarreled (rib), and because they tested Yahweh, saying, ‘Is Yahweh among us, or not?'” (v. 7). Elsewhere Massah and Meribah are usually mentioned separately (Numbers 20:13; 20:24; Deuteronomy 6:16; 9:22; Psalm 106:32; Ezekiel 47:19; 48:28). In two verses they are mentioned together, although both verses seem to indicate two different places (Deuteronomy 33:8; Psalm 95:8). It appears that this verse brings together the names of two places to illustrate the inclination of the Israelites to test and quarrel with Yahweh.
As noted above, the word, rib, is often translated as “plead” or “strive” or contend” or “chide” or “debate.” It forms the center part of the word meriba (Childs).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan