Christ and the Woman of Samaria, Rembrandt and student, c. 1655 (Met. Museum of Art, New York)
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
March 15, 2020
The passage that we read today was quoted in the Gospel for Sunday in the first week of Lent. St Matthew, following the rabbis of his day, saw the irony of the passage. The Israelites thought that they were testing God, but He was testing them.
What exactly happened in the book of Exodus is unclear. A mass migration of hundreds of thousands of people is most unlikely. The theory that there was no migration at all, but a revolution of tribes within Canaan, was popular for a decade or so but is now losing its appeal. Some scholars believe that there was an Exodus from Egypt by a Semitic group which we could most likely identify with the tribe of Levi. This clan by both military prowess and a more attractive theology was able to attract other tribes to join them and eventually settled in Canaan. This would fit the reality of today’s situation:
From the desert of Sin
the whole Israelite community journeyed by stages,
as the LORD directed, and encamped at Rephidim.
Here there was no water for the people to drink.
They quarreled, therefore, with Moses and said,
“Give us water to drink.”
Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me?
Why do you put the LORD to a test?”
Rephidim was an oasis—note that the passage does not say that the spring or well was dry, but that there was no water for the people to drink. This was in the area controlled by the tribe of Amalek. For over a millennium there was to be conflict between the Israelites and the Amalekites and indeed the section immediately after what we read today has a battle between the two, most likely because of the need for water.
The confrontation between the Lord and the people that follows will become one of the most cited incidents in Scripture. There are several themes which will be seen throughout:
God Responds to the Needs of His People
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.
I 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.
We should note that the last time that the staff was used was to change the water of the Nile to blood as a curse to the Egyptians. (Ex 7:19) God shows that the same power will be used for this people.
That the Lord is Always with His People Does Not Mean that He is Either Blind or Overindulgent
The place was called Massah and Meribah,
because the Israelites quarreled there and tested the LORD,
saying, “Is the LORD in our midst or not?”
Massah means “the place of the test,” and Meribah means “the place of quarreling.” There is another and indeed even more negative narrative with this incident in the book of Numbers (20:1-13) and so many references in the Old Testament that we cannot list them all. Let us then take one reference from Deuteronomy and one from the Psalms for each.
It is God who is gracious:
Who led you through the great and terrible wilderness,
an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions.
He made water flow for you from flint rock,
and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know,
to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good.
He split rocks open in the wilderness,
and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep.
He made streams come out of the rock,
and caused waters to flow down like rivers.
It is God who tests:
Remember the long way that the Lord your God
has led you these forty years in the wilderness,
in order to humble you,
testing you to know what was in your heart,
whether or not you would keep his commandments.
He humbled you by letting you hunger,
then by feeding you with manna,
with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted,
in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord
In distress you called, and I rescued you;
I answered you in the secret place of thunder;
I tested you at the waters of Meribah.
This as we have seen is the pattern that occurs throughout the Old Testament. The people are rebellious, and God responds with gracious love, but it is always tough love. The final edition of this text was after the exile in Babylon, the greatest test of all. They experienced God’s power and love, but also his command that the Jews accept the consequences of being chosen.
This theme is perhaps best expressed in the book of Job. Job was written at about the same time (500–450 BC) and place, post exilic Judea, that the final edition of Exodus was being edited.
Then the LORD addressed Job out of the storm and said:
Who is this that obscures divine plans with words of ignorance?
Gird up your loins now, like a man;
I will question you, and you tell me the answers!
Where were you when I founded the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its size; do you know?
Who stretched out the measuring line for it
The Lord Loves Us More than We Can Comprehend but Knows Us Better than We Know Ourselves
This is a persistent theme of the children of Abraham. It is still with us. Parishioners who have participated in our Lenten series with Grace Church on Flannery O’Connor have seen it in our first two short stories.
In Revelation, the lead character, Mrs. Turpin, has concluded that she is not leading the kind of life God wants. Her reaction is not to amend her life, rather “A final surge of fury shook her and she roared, “Who do you think you are?”” The “you” here is God. She is not a very attractive character, but I cannot condemn her as she speaks for me on my bad days or perhaps most honest ones.
In the second story, You Can’t Be No Poorer than Dead, the devil tells a young boy that he must choose a path of life:
“Jesus or the devil, the boy said”
No, no, no, the stranger said, their ain’t no such thing as the devil.
I know that for a fact. It ain’t Jesus or the devil. It’s Jesus or you.
We have not travelled far from Massah and Meribah. We are still trying to test God and are chastised for it. Few authors since Job have revealed the punishments as cleverly as Flannery O’Connor. The tension we find in today’s reading is still relevant: to recognize that we are punished is knowledge, to know that we are loved is wisdom.