1Then all the congregation of the sons of Israel journeyed by stages from the wilderness of Sin, according to the command of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim, and there was no water for the people to drink. 2Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water that we may drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?”
3But the people thirsted there for water; and they grumbled against Moses and said, “Why, now, have you brought us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”
4So Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, “What shall I do to this people? A little more and they will stone me.”
5Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pass before the people and take with you some of the elders of Israel; and take in your hand your staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink.” And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7He named the place Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us, or not?”
It’s always interesting to me when the anthologists who compiled the Torah choose to highlight otherwise minor details, because the context increases they’re significance. In this passage for instance, YHWH instructs Moses to use his staff to strike the rock at Horeb. But He doesn’t just say ‘take your staff’, He says ‘take your staff with which you struck the Nile, and strike this rock.’ And of course it’s the same staff; walking sticks tend to last a long time, so it makes sense that Moses hasn’t had to find a new one since leaving Egypt a few months ago. Normally that detail that he’s still using the same walking stick would be totally unremarkable, even considering the wild things God’s already accomplished through him while he was holding that stick. Really, the stick in and of itself is still rather unremarkable. What’s stunning isn’t the stick, but the utter reversal of outcomes from striking something with it.
In Egypt, by God’s command, Moses struck the Nile with his staff and the lifewater of Egypt turned to putrefying blood; a stark symbol of death. Here in the wilderness, itself a symbol of death in Hebrew literature, once more by God’s command Moses strikes with his staff, this time a barren rock in a dry wasteland, and new waters of life spring up.
Remember that the anthologists responsible for gathering, and unifying the traditions about Moses and the Exodus generation are the same group responsible for gathering and unifying the Patriarchal, flood, and creation traditions into the final form of Genesis. When bringing this short narrative to fit in this moment of the story, they are fully aware of, and have already wrestled with and labored over the tradition of the Garden in the land of Eden.
After the creation poem on page one wherein God separates deadly chaos waters to make room for life to grow on dry land, the author of Genesis then shifts focus to a particular space of land that is far too dry. In Genesis chapter 2 God comes to a wasteland, utterly barren and subject to the same chaos as the ancient oceans, but in a different form. In the midst of that wasteland, God caused a spring to bubble up, and He divided the chaotic wastes with four rivers of living water. Then, at the place where the spring came up He planted a garden, and made a place where His presence could be in full community with humans at the source of life and order.
Then, of course, humans fail to trust God’s wisdom and timing, and damage that relationship both between themselves and God, and between the world and the source of order and life. The authors of the Torah have been helping us readers work forward from that moment to see God’s redemptive plan, His plan to restore that broken relationship. As we go forward from that point, we occasionally catch a glimpse of God’s order breaking back in, even as humans continue to choose chaos and death.
Some of the most striking examples of the lost life of the Garden breaking back into the world, albeit in limited ways, happen to the Exodus Generation. Exodus sees the Israelites in bondage in Egypt as a sort of tragic parody of the Garden. Egypt is a place of immense abundance, and is even blessed to have one of the four rivers which represents that first spring of life. But rather than being a garden characterized by the wisdom and presence of God, Egypt is characterized by humans abusing their power to determine what seems right in their own eyes; to judge that it’s good, take and eat. And far from being free participants, and co-rulers with God, God’s chosen people are slaves.
Where Genesis 3 sees God’s chosen people living the blessed life in the Garden, and being exiled to a cursed life in the wilderness because of their actions; Exodus sees God’s chosen people living the cursed life in a false garden, and being Exodus-ed (no, that’s not a word, but I don’t care) into the blessed life in… the wilderness? And not only that, they’re being led to the blessed life, not because of their choices, but in spite of them.
Which brings us back to the stick that struck death upon a place of life, and life upon a place of death. If you follow the redemptive plan of God as it unfolds throughout the Torah, one of the things you’ll notice pretty quickly is that God’s plan involves tying himself, for better or for worse, to the welfare of one family, even though that family continues to make the same sorts of mistakes that got humans exiled from the Garden in the first place. Prior to the flood, it seems God made every effort to withhold the judgment of the human race until our sin literally began to damage the future stability of the created world, and the very boundaries which He established at the beginning began to collapse in on each other.
After the flood, in the covenant of the rainbow, God promises to never let human sin get to the point where it threatens the continuity of creation again. And we see the terrible reality of that promise in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Jordan River Valley Civilization (JRVC) they represented. In order to limit the instability they were causing to creation, God destroys them in order to spare the world from their spreading corruption. But when Lot’s daughters commit sins that were adjacent to the misdeeds of the JRVC, their offspring are blessed and multiplied, because Lot was Abraham’s nephew.
According to Genesis, Egypt commits horrible evils against the semitic peoples living in Goshen, which included the Israelites. Students of History might recall that the reason for this was in part the result of ancestral animosity to semitic peoples stemming from the oppression of Egyptians by two successive dynasties of semitic rulers governing from Goshen. Students of Scripture will recall that said animosity was also wedded at the time of the Exodus to a fear that these semitic people in Goshen would join with their near ethnic relatives in the Sinai Peninsula and the Levant, and Egypt would succumb to foreign rule again.
So Egypt turned to the tools of Ethnic scapegoating, population dilution, and genocide that Empires always seem to choose when they feel insecure. God hates these tools, and hated all the more so that they were being turned against those with whom He had a covenant. So since Egypt, a land blessed with life in abundance, chose to use the tools of Chaos and death, YHWH in turn handed them over to those powers they had chosen. The river that was a source of life became death. The crops and livestock which they had been blessed with in abundance were consumed by unimaginable tragedy. The sun and open skies where rain was a rarity, became darkened, and filled with rain, lightning, hail, and brimstone. Finally, death came for the very blessing of life which all humans of any culture hold dearest, the blessing of children.
In Egypt’s curse, Israel was given life. As God had parted the ancient oceans of Chaos long ago at the creation of the world, He again parted the waters of Chaos which held Israel hostages of death, and made a way to new life. But as soon as the sound of the chariots and their horses were gone from their ears, Israel began to conspire against Moses, and the God for whom He prophesied, and spoke of choosing Egypt over the desert God had led them to. They were being given access to the very source of life and order in the midst of chaos, but were distracted by the chaos surrounding them, and looking back over their shoulders saw a tree whose fruit seemed good in their eyes. Today’s passage isn’t even the first (nor the last for that matter) time that this exact complaint has come up. The blessing of manna and quail has already been given by this point. God’s already provided springs of living water in the wilderness for them. God’s even already had Moses come to polluted waters of death, throw a stick in, and turn them to waters of life. But the temptation keeps coming. No matter how often God brings the springs of Eden into their peripheral, or the tree of life grows from parched earth in their midst, the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil never stops beckoning them to turn around, to choose to walk away. But God has already tied Himself to this people, and though they keep trying to choose something else, or someone else, He keeps choosing them.
The Egyptians chose death, and God handed them over to it; Israel keeps threatening to choose Egypt, but God answers their choices with even more life. We as Christians have seen the next page. We know why He’s doing this; we know that He’s choosing a people who are equally as flawed as the rest of the world, because His plan to save the world, to turn it back away from death and chaos toward life and order, has to lead through this stumbling path. God’s Redemptive plan moves through broken humans toward wholeness and new life. This often obstinate, consistently unreliable people called Israel will produce a small group of people who get it; who are faithful to God, who do choose (albeit in fits and starts) life over death. And in this small subset of His people, God is able to prepare the way for His incarnate Son to come and finally break the chains of death by death. We are in the season of Lent, and as I said before, we know what’s on the next page. We know that Good Friday is coming, that Christ has to die. But we also know what’s on the page after that. We know that Easter is also on its way, that Resurrection is coming, that Sin, Death, and Chaos are already defeated.
Today I urge you to consider whether you have fully set your face toward life, toward the river of life flowing from His hands and feet, down from the tree of life on which He died. Have you chosen resurrection in every aspect, with every care and concern with which you walk through this world. New life is calling; though by all measures of the world, we might seem to be trapped in the desert, we have been called to live as though we’re in the Garden already. We’ve been called to trust in God’s abundance and blessing so that we might become a blessing to others. We’ve been called to be heralds in the wilderness crying, “Come and cross the river! Do not fear, for Chaos’ waves have grown still at His feet, that we might cross. Death’s arid wastes have been flooded with His mercy so that new life might grow in and through us. Come, drink of the waters of life, eat the manna of heaven, and the fruit of the tree of life. Let death die where it lay. We have been called to life, come.”