1 All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3 But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” 4 So Moses cried to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5 And the Lord said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” – Exodus 17:1-7 ESV
Since leaving Egypt, the Israelites have displayed a clear pattern of behavior when encountering what they believe to be unexpected and undesirable difficulties. As soon as things take a perceived turn for the worse, they express their disapproval to Moses and Aaron. At Marah, they discovered that the water was undrinkable, so they took their dissatisfaction with the situation to the two brothers.
So the people murmured against Moses, saying, “What can we drink?” – Exodus 15:24 NLT
Rather than reprimand them for their mistreatment of His appointed leaders, God miraculously transformed the bitter water of Marah into fresh drinking water. But He also gave them a warning about their ongoing behavior. He demanded that they begin to do what is right and obey His commands or they could find themselves suffering some of the same plagues that befell the Egyptians. His constant care for them came with conditions.
Not long after that event, as the people made their way through the desolate wilderness of Sin, their supply of unleavened bread ran out, and their growing hunger caused them to lash out in frustration yet again.
The entire company of Israelites murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger!” – Exodus 16:2-3 NLT
Once again, God intervened and performed yet another miracle. He provided them with quail each evening and a bread-like substance every morning that would supply all their nutritional requirements for the rest of their journey. But just days later, when the people arrived at a place called Rephidim, they found another reason to complain. There was no water. It seems that the water they had gathered at Marah had run out and now Moses and Aaron had led them to yet another desolate and dry spot that provided no hope of quenching their thirst. So…
…the people were very thirsty there for water, and they murmured against Moses and said, “Why in the world did you bring us up from Egypt—to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?” – Exodus 17:3 NLT
In each successive encounter, their complaints become increasingly darker and more desperate. Their inflammatory rhetoric reflects their growing disillusionment with the entire enterprise. They expressed their regret of having ever left Egypt and accused Moses and Aaron of leading them on a virtual death march into the God-forsaken wilderness.
The further they got from Egypt and the closer they got to Canaan, they began to second-guess the leadership of Moses and the reliability of Yahweh. Despite all that God had done for them, they questioned the very nature of His “deliverance” by declaring it to be headed to certain failure. In their minds, each difficulty they faced provided further evidence that this problem-plagued trip to the promised land had been a huge mistake.
Driven by thirst and fear, they accused Moses of trying to kill them. Their deliverer had become their executioner. But what they failed to understand was that Moses was simply following directions. He was being guided by the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. These manifestations of God’s presence were always with them and had been guiding them all along the way. Their arrival in Marah had not been a mistake. God had led them to a place where the water was undrinkable. He had known all along that their bread would eventually run out and their hunger would cause them to question His goodness.
God was not lost. He had not become disoriented in the trackless wilderness of Sin. He knew exactly where He was going and what He was doing. He was testing His people to see if they would trust Him. He was placing them in situations that were designed to expose their doubts and fears. And here at Rephidim, He provided them with yet another test of their confidence in Him. There was no water. But the pillar of cloud remained at the head of their column. As they made camp, the divine presence of God was visible for all to see. He had not left them or forsaken them.
But the people had their doubts. They could not understand why this God of Moses and Aaron would allow them to suffer. If this Yahweh was so powerful and great and if He truly was with them, why did they keep ending up in less-than-satisfactory situations? Did He not know that Rephadim had no water source? But rather than take their questions and concerns to God, they turned on Moses and Aaron, and their anger was so intense that Moses feared for his life.
“What will I do with this people?—a little more and they will stone me!” – Exodus 17:4 NLT
But, once again, God intervened. He gave Moses the following instructions:
“Go over before the people; take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand your staff with which you struck the Nile and go. I will be standing before you there on the rock in Horeb, and you will strike the rock, and water will come out of it so that the people may drink.” – Exodus 17:5-6 NLT
God could have acted on His own, but He chose to use His servant Moses as the means of addressing their perceived problem. As the elders looked on, the pillar of cloud moved from the camp and repositioned itself above a particular rock. In a desert filled with rocks, this relocation of God’s divine presence provided Moses with a clear indication as to which rock he was to strike. Not just any rock would do. In fact, God clearly indicates that His presence will reside over “the rock” in Horeb.
This rock had already been set apart by God as the source of their sustenance. He had known all along that Rephidim would be an arid region devoid of water. But “the rock” was already in place and ready to deliver what the people needed. So, when Moses obeyed the command of the Lord and struck the rock, water poured from it in a steady stream. That ordinary-looking rock became a source of life-giving refreshment in the midst of a barren wilderness. And it became a symbol of God’s salvation that, centuries later, the apostle Paul would use as a foreshadowing of Jesus
I don’t want you to forget, dear brothers and sisters, about our ancestors in the wilderness long ago. All of them were guided by a cloud that moved ahead of them, and all of them walked through the sea on dry ground. In the cloud and in the sea, all of them were baptized as followers of Moses. All of them ate the same spiritual food, and all of them drank the same spiritual water. For they drank from the spiritual rock that traveled with them, and that rock was Christ. Yet God was not pleased with most of them, and their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. – 1 Corinthians 10:1-5 NLT
This divine deliverance would be repeated multiple times during the peoples’ wilderness journey. God delivering water from a rock would become a symbol of His providential care and life-sustaining power. Even in the midst of a waterless desert, God could provide salvation from the most unlikely of sources. But would the people trust Him? Would they stop judging His character based on the nature of their surroundings?
God knew that the real problem with the people was not a lack of water, but a lack of trust. Despite the pillar of cloud, the manna and quail, and the miracle at Marah, the Israelites continued to doubt the presence of God.
…they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” – Exodus 17:7 ESV
And to commemorate this place of testing, Moses gave it two different names: Massah and Meribah. Massah means “place of testing” and Meribah means “place of murmuring or discontentment.” It was a place of testing because the people tested the patience of God. But it was also a place where God tested the faith of His people and, sadly, they failed. Rather than recalling God’s past provision in times of difficulty, they murmured and complained. Instead of trusting in God’s proven ability to provide for all their needs, they allowed present circumstances to raise doubts about His power and presence.
Reluctantly and rather slowly, they were learning to trust in God. He was sufficient to supply all their needs. There was no circumstance too dire, no enemy too great, or difficulty too large that God could not overcome. But that lesson would take years for the Israelites to learn.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.