The study of the Hebrew language did not come easily to me. Perhaps it was because I waited until my final year of seminary to take it; perhaps it was because it met at 3:00 PM; perhaps it was because our professor was so bored teaching at this elementary level—I am sure I can come up with some other excuses. I did pass, even making an A, but only because I memorized the Book of Jonah.
As I have been teaching my way through Exodus with my Sunday School class, I certainly wish I had loved the Hebrew language more. I am sure that particular nuances elude me, yet translations do capture the richness of the narratives.
Exodus itself is a patchwork of stories, which were gathered and edited over many years. It is very hard to map how the wilderness journey transpired, and clearly the people make the trek more difficulty through obstinacy and lack of faith.
The wilderness is a dangerous place, and the way God through Moses leads is open to suspicion. A frequent refrain of the congregation of Israel is: “have you brought us out here to kill us?” Moses usually deflects and suggests that their complaint is against God, not him (Exodus 17:2).
God tests the people, and the people test God. Neither seems pleased about this abrasion in their relationship, yet it is an unavoidable reality as a covenant is being forged in a context of peril. Can God trust the people to follow the appointed leadership of Moses? Can the people trust that they are accompanied by God’s own presence? Their insistent question was, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
They find themselves at Rephidim without water, and once again God provides through an unexpected means. God instructs Moses to take his staff, the one he had used to turn the Nile into blood, to now provide life-giving water. God’s own presence will be in front of him at Horeb, and through Moses’ action of striking the rock, abundant water will flow. The place where this occurs symbolizes quarreling and testing, Massah and Meribah, and becomes a cautionary note about how not to behave toward God.
It seems that Moses believes that God has the right to test the people, but they should refrain from testing God. After all, God has prerogatives that do not belong to human beings. Brueggemann says that this text warns against a utilitarian view of God, in which the divine “is judged by the desired outcomes for the asking community.” In other words, human measures should not presume to assess the adequacy of God. Dictating how God must respond reduces the sovereign one to our level, a risky proposition, indeed.
Molly T. Marshall