1Now the entire congregation of the Israelites traveled from the wilderness of Sin by stages as YHWH commanded. They camped in Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2So the people brought a complaint against Moses. They said, “Give us water so we can drink!”
Moses said to them, “Why do you bring a complaint against me? Why are you testing YHWH?”
3But the people were thirsty, so they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill us and our children and our flocks from thirst?”
4Then Moses cried out to YHWH. He said, “What shall I do for these people? Pretty soon they’re going to stone me!”
5But YHWH said to Moses, “Go over in front of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you, and take the staff that you used to strike the sea in your hand, and keep on going. 6Here’s the thing, I’ll be standing before you there by the rock in Horeb, and you will strike the rock, and water will come out from it, and the people will drink.”
So Moses did just that before the elders of Israel. 7And he named that place Massah and Meribah, because of the complaint that the Israelites brought and because they tested YHWH saying, “Is YHWH amongst us or not?” — Exodus 17:1-7
I’ve translated these verses a bit loosely in order to get the feel of the story. Before we are too hard on the Israelites, we should ask ourselves just how likely we would be to travel through the wilderness, waiting for God’s command for each move, not knowing where our food and water was going to come from. Until we’ve been willing to do that, we should put ourselves in their place and realize our own weaknesses.
But I want to focus a bit on Moses, rather than the people. Moses goes to God and he is given instructions. He is to go out and stand in front of the people and keep moving forward. He is to carry his staff. He is to bring some of the elders with him.
The elders are clearly there to witness and to be part of this event. They are to learn, and also to be rebuked for their complaints as God resolves their problem. But what about the staff? For the Israelites at this point, the staff was the power symbol. They saw it as a magic staff. It was the thing Moses used to release God’s power.
I can be quite certain they saw it that way both because of their actions, and because that is the way such an object would have been seen in their world. It was a special physical artifact, blessed by the gods (or God in this case) and the item would release God’s power when done properly.
Moses goes up and strikes the rock with the staff as he is instructed, and out comes the water. What isn’t seen by the people is that God is standing there with Moses. The staff strikes the rock, but God brings the water.
We can test this by reading what happened in Numbers 20. There Moses is told simply to speak to the rock, but he falls back on the staff, and strikes the rock with it twice.
God was trying to teach the people that he was with them, and that it was not their ritual actions or their holy objects that made it happen; it was God. Their requirement in taking those actions was obedience. When they were obedient God acted. The staff itself had no power. The sacrifice of an animal had no power to forgive. God brought the water and God forgave.
This is one of the great lessons I have learned in studying the Torah (the Pentateuch or first five books of the Bible).
God demands obedience, but it is God who brings the results not the ritual. Even your obedience doesn’t cause God to act. You can see God’s grace in action as he lets them have the visible sign (the staff) while trying to turn their attention to him as they are able to take that step.
It is so easy to get the idea that we control God. If a prayer is answered, we want to think we have found a â€œprayer method.â€ If we are blessed, we want to look at aspects of our life that have brought the blessing. But the answer in both cases is that God acted because of his grace. We didn’t earn it. We didn’t cause it. As with Moses, God is standing there, whether we see and acknowledge him or not.