Victory O Lord!, John Everett Millais, 1871, Manchester Art Gallery.
Ex. 17: 8–13
October 20, 2019
Much of the Old Testament that we have today is a product of the exiles from Babylon seeking to make sense of their experience. In the course of two generations, they had gone from being expelled from Jerusalem and forced into exile in Babylon (597–587 BC) to liberation by the Assyrian king Cyrus. (537 BC). By 500 BC, they had rebuilt a temple in Jerusalem and then took a breath and asked how and why. The Jews were and are a people who find the working of God in history and so they looked to their past to explain their present and hopefully to give some indication of their future.
In reviewing their history, they could not miss the similarities between their present situation and the Exodus from Egypt. The Jews in Egypt were under a cultural death sentence and God sent Moses to free them. Being led by God was the key image and certainly the most illustrative, but these were subtle writers, or more precisely editors, and they saw many other parallels and images that were immediately relevant to their situation. We read one in today’s first reading but to understand that we first need to examine the passage before it.
This chapter begins with the Jews in the desert and desperate for water. As usual they blame Moses:
Here, then, in their thirst for water, the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt? Was it just to have us die here of thirst with our children and our livestock?
The LORD answered Moses, “Go over there in front of the people, along with some of the elders of Israel, holding in your hand, as you go, the staff with which you struck the river. will be standing there in front of you on the rock in Horeb. Strike the rock, and the water will flow from it for the people to drink.” This Moses did, in the presence of the elders of Israel.
This place was called Massah and Meribah which means: “place of quarreling” and “place of testing.” It is found often in the Psalms as a moment of great shame for Israel:
He split rock in the desert,
gave water to drink, abounding as the deep.
He made streams flow from crags,
drew out rivers of water.
But they went on sinning against him,
rebelling against the Most High in the desert.
(Ps. 78:15–17; see also Ps. 95:8–11 and 81:8–9)
Yet notice here that the key is that God had saved his people. He showed them his care through his chosen leader Moses. Notice as well that he used his “rod.” In the ancient Near East, gods carried rods as the symbol of authority and supernatural power. We have seen several times in Exodus the staff or rod in use. Most famously with the changing of the water into blood.
This is how you shall know that I am the LORD. I will strike the water of the river with the staff I hold, and it shall be changed into blood.
Notice today have the same staff that wounded the enemies of the Jews gives life to them. Another instance of the power of the staff in Exodus is at the Red Sea:
And you, lift up your staff and, with hand outstretched over the sea, split the sea in two, that the Israelites may pass through it on dry land.
Moses is entrusted with the care of the rod/staff.
This image is also used in other places in the Old Testament most memorably in the 23rd Psalm:
Even when I walk through a dark valley,
I fear no harm for you are at my side;
your rod and staff give me courage.
The waters of Meribah show that God’s power is used to care for the physical needs of his people; the section today will show that he is also concerned with their military/political needs.
Amalek came and waged war against Israel.
The people of Amalek were nomadic herders like the Jews and, although sometimes they were on friendly terms, the two groups were often in conflict. We see today one of those times, perhaps over the precious water that Moses had produced.
Moses chose Joshua, who will eventually be his successor, for this first test. Moses would not lead the forces in battle, but he would be intimately involved.
I will be standing on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.
The effect was the same as at the Nile and the parting of the Red Sea. Joshua had the better of the battle as long as Moses held the staff aloft. If, however, he let his hands down the battle turned against him.
Moses’ hands, however, grew tired; so they put a rock in place for him to sit on. Meanwhile Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other, so that his hands remained steady till sunset.
We see an important change here. The victory was the Lord’s: the staff did not have power on its own but was a symbol of the power of God entrusted to his agents. Usually this was Moses or Aaron at his direction, but this time the entire community is involved. Moses is only one person and as the community grows leadership must develop as well.
In the Book of Numbers, we read:
I cannot carry all this people by myself, for they are too heavy for me.”
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Assemble for me seventy of the elders of Israel, men you know for true elders and authorities among the people ,and bring them to the meeting tent. When they are in place beside you, I will come down and speak with you there. I will also take some of the spirit that is on you and will bestow it on them, that they may share the burden of the people with you. You will then not have to bear it by yourself.
The leaders of the Jews who returned to Jerusalem after the exile would have taken this to heart. There was no Moses among them, no great charismatic leader. The writings of the time reveal some people of great character and ability, but also show that they had different skills and needed each other. These stories of the Exodus would have given them great solace. They may not have a Moses among them, but there is the power of God and He will raise up the Joshuas and Aarons and Hurs that are needed to care for his people. We in St Charles are undergoing physical renovations and, I hope, an emerging sense of stewardship. Let us take the same comfort.