Some things never change do they, most people like a good moan about things. The reading from Exodus 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, 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, God responded by giving them what they needed. However, they never seemed to learn that God was with them and would provide for their needs. They never learned to trust God and His servants, Moses and Aaron. They never learned the lesson of faith and always fell back on the human trait if having a good moan.
So what were they moaning about? Lets look at the verses one at a time.
“From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord had commanded” The wilderness of Sin was located between Elim and Sinai. We do not know its exact location. The word Sin in this context might be related to the Hebrew word for Sinai, rather than our word “sin.” We should not confuse the wilderness of Sin with the wilderness of Zin, we hear about in Numbers and other Old Testament books.
Journeying by stages gave the Israelites an opportunity for rest and refreshment, but of course 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.
“They camped at Rephidim; but there was no water for the people to drink” . Rephidim is their last camping place before Mount Sinai, so the mountain must be close
At Marah, the water was bitter (15:23). At Rephidim, there is no water. This is an extremely serious problem. People and livestock require cannot survive for long without water. This, then, is a matter of life and death.
“The people quarreled (rib) with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink'” . The word translated as quarrelled was rib, which could also be used as “plead” or “strive” or contend” or “chide” or “debate.” and 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.
“Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?'” . Moses, however, makes it clear that their quarrel is not with him, but with God. Moses is simply God’s servant, and has been doing God’s bidding.
“But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses, and said, ‘Why did you brought us out of Egypt, to kill us, and our children, and livestock with thirst?'. 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 God saved them again and again from apparently hopeless situations. Surely they should understand that God 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 God has saved the Israelites—not once, not twice, but over and over again. They have cause for fear—but also have cause for faith.
When times are really difficult faith is tested.
“So Moses cried to the Lord, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me'”. As he routinely does when faced with a crisis, Moses turns to God for help.
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 offences, 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 God’s orders.
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you, take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go'”. In a dangerous situation, our natural inclination is to fight or to flee. God 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 God has enabled Moses and Aaron to use in miraculous ways.
“I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb” Horeb is where Moses encountered the burning bush to begin his journey as God’s agent .
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 neighbouring wilderness area bears the wider designation Horeb”.
This is probably 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.
God says that he will be standing on the rock that Moses is to strike. Perhaps the idea is that God 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 God is standing. However, the details here are unclear.
“Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel”.
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, God orders him to strike the rock, and Moses obeys. The elders serve as witnesses to the miracle.
“He called the place Massah (massa—testing) and Meribah (meriba—quarreling), because the children of Israel quarrelled (rib), and because tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?'.
That final question, is the Lord among us or not? is one I think many people are asking in our situation right now. It is, of course, down to each one of us to find the answer for ourselves but I believe He is, always was and always will be, however much we may moan. But however dark the world around us may seem we always need to remember the lesson the Israelites forgot, to have faith and be patient.
The Revd Dr John Stopford
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/zOCINTGcDn0