Exodus 17:1-7 is a famous lowlight for the people of Israel, that ends with them being chastised for putting God to the test. But as I listened to that reading in church today, I wondered who was really testing whom.
We touched on this passage a few weeks ago, in The T-Word series, but I think it’s worth taking a closer look.
In this story, the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and against God because they had no water to drink. The passage ends with Moses naming the spot where this took place Massah and Meribah, because these words mean ‘testing‘ and ‘quarrelling‘ respectively. This incident is also referred to in Deuteronomy 6:16: ‘Do not put the Lord Your God to the test as you did at Massah.’ – a verse that Jesus Himself quotes during His testing in the wilderness.
The Israelites in this passage are seen as whiney, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately brats, who were pretty happy when God freed them from slavery in Egypt, saved them from the Egyptian army at the Red Sea and fed them with manna and quail – but as soon as they got a little parched, they grumbled:
‘If God’s really with us, why are we so thirsty?’
That’s what we parents of teenagers call an attitude of entitlement, and in the very infrequent moments when it rears its head in our home, this attitude is pretty unbecoming in a child of Rob – let alone a child of God.
I wonder: Did God put the Israelites in this situation in order to provoke this response, so He could help them grow out of this kind of outlook? Did He deliberately have them camp in an area without any drinking water, in order to test their faith and trust in Him?
If that’s the case, I wonder what ‘passing’ the test would have looked like. Was He hoping for a ‘This thirst is making me uncomfortable, but I have all the comfort I need in God‘ sort of response? Or maybe a ‘Without water, we’ll die of thirst – but we can trust that God, who made the whole world, can change our body chemistry so we can last longer without a drink‘ attitude?
Or was He just hoping they would look at His recent track record and choose to believe that He wanted, and was ready, to help them? I wonder if the problem isn’t that they looked to God to provide water, but that their attitude was one of frustration, rather than prostration.
What if, rather than grumbling about what God didn’t seem to be doing in that moment, they got on their knees and thanked Him for what he had already done, and asked Him to provide water.
‘Lord, thank you that you have always looked after us. You saved us from the angel of death at Passover. You delivered us from slavery in Egypt. You saved us from the Egyptian army at the Red Sea. You feed us with manna and quail meat. We know you are faithful and will provide for our needs. Please Lord, do this again. We are thirsty, so we humbly ask you to please give us water to drink. In your precious and holy Name, Amen.’
If that had been their response, is it possible that God would have given Moses the same instructions to strike the rock with his staff, producing the same unstoppable gusher of cool, clear water – only He would have done so with pride and joy in His children, rather than disappointment and patience?
Now, maybe the Israelites of that time didn’t know they could come to God directly with that sort of petition. They probably thought prayer was just for priests and prophets – so it never would have occurred to them to say ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ directly to Him.
But we know better, don’t we?
So the next time you’re thirsting for something and you feel like you’re being tested – by God or by circumstances – ask for relief, confident that He wants to help you. Maybe His response will be to show you that you’re not as thirsty as you think, or that you’re thirsting for the wrong things, or to change your body chemistry so you can go longer between sips. Or He might actually give you what you thirst for.
I think we are all being tested, constantly, to trust that God is always here for us, that He loves us and that He is not a God who’s ever going to leave us high and dry.
Peace be with you.