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Sunday, March 19, 2017

God Stands before Us in the Wilderness (A Sermon)

Exodus 17: 1 – 7
Psalm 95

We said last week that Lent is a dangerous journey. It is a pilgrim’s journey through wild and wasted places (Psalm 121), across rugged terrain, up and down steep slopes, under the sweltering sun and the poisonous moon, through thirsty, arid lands where there is no water, surrounded by wild animals, thieves and demons and foul spirits of every kind. And yet the guardian of Israel is there for the pilgrim, to help and to protect, to preserve. “Yahweh guards your comings and goings henceforth and forever.” (Psalm 121: 8 New Jerusalem Bible)

In our text this week, we continue that dangerous journey theme.

The people of Israel, having left the slavery of Egypt, head into the wild and wasted place – three month journey from Egypt to Sinai, through the wilderness of Sin (location unknown.)

This is not “sin,” – the violation of God’s will or command, but the Wilderness of Sin, one of the seven wildernesses crossed by Moses and the Israelites (Shur – Exodus 15: 22 -23, Etham - Numbers 33:6-8, Sin – Exodus 16: 1, Sinai – Exodus 19: 1 - 2, Paran – Numbers 10: 12, Zin – Numbers 27:14, and Kadesh – Psalm 29:8) The name “Sin” here may refer to the Mesopotamian moon god “Sin,” or – perhaps more probably – to an Egyptian border fortress in the Nile Delta, Pelusium, also named “Sin” in Ezekiel 30:15 (KJV). (Seely 47)

In the course of this three month journey so far, the people of Israel have been pursued by the chariots and armies of Egypt and been protected from those foes. They’ve crossed parched, dry deserts where the only water they could find was bitter, brackish water – and the bitter water had been made sweet and fresh for them.  They’ve stared down the face of starvation – and been fed with quail and miraculous manna (just don’t ask ‘what is it?’ you might not like the answer). It has been a difficult journey, an arduous journey and they’ve not yet arrived at their destination.

Now at Rephidim (location unknown) they are thirsty again – they, their children, and their cattle with them are so very thirsty. And why not? The desert is a thirsty place. And so the people – the whole congregation of them – “find fault” with Moses, “took issue” with Moses (Exodus 17: 2 RSV and NJB).  “Why did you bring us out of Egypt – to kill us and our children and cattle with thirst?” (17:3)

Maybe that is a fair question. Moses was leading them, and one of the demands of leadership is demonstrable results. Moses had promised to lead them to a land of milk and honey (Exodus 3: 17), maybe that’s started to sound to the Israelites like so many empty political promises. They were thirsty and cried for water - ‘demonstrate the effectiveness of your plan or we’ll find a new leader,’ seems to be the unspoken subtext of this demand. But before we criticize the Israelite people too harshly we should remember 1- they were thirsty in the desert, a situation that if not remedied can quickly lead to death, and 2- our American system of government is pretty much based on this demand of leadership – prove your promises or we’ll elect someone else…

But, then again, maybe it is not a fair question. Moses has not failed them in this journey so far. They’ve faced several seemingly impossible obstacles and each time they have endured, they’ve survived. Maybe it is not fair that they quarrel with Moses here. Maybe his record so far should have earned him some trust.

And further, the way this story is presented by the author / editors of Exodus, a complaint against Moses is not merely a complaint against Moses the man, but also against Yahweh God who has appointed Moses (though this detail isn’t mentioned until the very final verse of the story). Their complaint isn’t just: ‘Hey! We’re thirsty!’ it is: ‘Hey!’ We’re thirsty! Is Yahweh with us or what?!’

And Moses cries out in fear, “they’re ready to stone me!” (17:4)

I wonder if his fear was legitimate or, perhaps, if it was over exaggerated somewhat, embellished in order to provoke God to action, if not for Israel’s benefit, then for his. (There were occasions also when Moses would have preferred to die than to lead the people of Israel any more – Numbers 11: 15).

And speaking of Moses’ fear that the Israelite people were ready to kill him, I make a slight wilderness wandering within this wilderness sermon. The Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud wrote a book in 1939 entitled Moses and Monotheism, in which he described how the Israelite people rebelled against, and then killed Moses and replaced him with a new leader. Freud went on to say that the guilt for this vaticide (the killing of a prophet) caused them to long for the coming of “one like Moses,” a messiah to rescue them from their sin and guilt.

Very few (if any) take this theory seriously.

But in response to the people’s complaints (We’re thirsty!) and Moses’ fear (They’re going to kill me!) Yahweh God “stands before” Moses on rock at Rephidim and says ‘Swing away, boy. Hit that rock.’ Moses does, and water comes gushing out, sweet, fresh water to slake their thirst and stop their murmuring and complaints. Moses names the place “The Spring of Trial and Contention” or “The Spring of Testing and Strife” because of the people’s sour attitude and fault finding.

Now the author / editors of this story in Exodus seem to want us to understand that God (and God’s agent) cannot be, should not be doubted, that God is not to be tested, that God’s reliability is not something that needs to be proved or established. (Hamilton Handbook 185)

And maybe that’s true; the psalmist we read last week (Psalm 121) was equally confident that the Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps (121:4) but remember the other psalms that we mentioned calling for God to wake up and do something: “Wake, Lord! Why are you asleep? Awake! Do not abandon us for good.” (Psalm 44: 23 NJB) “Up, awake, to my defense, my God and my Lord, to my cause!” (Psalm 35:23) There certainly are times when it feels like God is asleep and his anointed agents have lead us awry.

It is also interesting to see Yahweh God “standing before Moses” in this story. It’s a very anthropomorphic idea: God walking and talking and standing among the people (though a question arises here - could Moses and the elders of Israel present for this event actually see Yahweh God standing before them on the rock?)  And to “stand before” had a particular connotation in Hebrew thought, one that wasn’t always acceptable to the faithful when it was applied to God.

To “stand before” someone implies service, homage, a state of inferiority. It also indicates worship. (Hamilton Genesis 23) That is why the Masorites who copied and edited the Jewish scriptures between the 7th and 10th centuries altered a verse in Genesis.  Genesis 18: 22 in the Masoretic Text (which is widely used as the basis for the Old Testament in Protestant bibles) says that “the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.” (NRSV) but there is a footnote to explain that in an earlier scribal tradition the verse says that it was the LORD who remained standing before Abraham.

There are several of these scribal corrections, emendations made by the Masorites – to remove unseemly expressions, and to protect the dignity of God. Perhaps the Masorite scribes were uncomfortable with the idea of Yahweh God, the creator of the heavens and the earth “standing before” Abraham, and so made a change, reversing their positions, leaving Abraham to stand before God instead of the other way around. (Hamilton Genesis 24)

And yet the phrase remains here in Exodus 17. (Did the Masorites miss this one?) Yahweh God, creator of the heavens and the earth, the Guardian of Israel, “stands before” Moses and the assembled elders of Israel and makes himself vulnerable to them – risking physical injury if Moses’ swing goes wild, perhaps? (Hamilton Handbook 188) But even if we don’t go so far as to suggest that Moses could have clobbered God in the head with his staff, God still made himself vulnerable to his people. He heard their complaints, he heard their desperation and frustration and fear and anger and vexation and -

and he stood before them on the rock at Rephidim to give them what they needed, to give them water in a place of dryness, to give them life in a place of death, to give them peace in a place of anxiety and intimacy in a place of dissent.

You see, as a symbol the wilderness is an ambiguous, ambivalent place. It is not only a wild and wasted place, the haunt of jackals and demons, of fiery serpents and scorpions, underneath an oppressive sun and a baleful moon; the wilderness is also a place of enlightenment and vision and intimacy with God. The wilderness is a powerful place. To enter the desert, one must leave behind the security of settlement and venture into a region of physical and spiritual danger. The wilderness is a liminal place, the borderland between here and there, a “thin place” between the physical and the spiritual. (Blenkinsopp 161)

For the prophet Jeremiah, the wilderness was where Israel and Yahweh God shared their most intimate time together:

‘Yahweh says this:
“I remember your faithful love,
the affection of your bridal days,
when you followed me through the desert,
through a land unsown.”’ (Jeremiah 2: 2 NJB)

The Qumran community went out into the wilderness near the Dead Sea in order to find a renewed intimacy with God. Christian monks went into caves and wild places to experience that intimacy with God that comes with getting away from the rest of the world. Jesus himself was driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit and after his confrontation with the Tempter was comforted by the angels of God. (Mark 1:12 -13) The desert is a visionary place, a refining place, a place of innocence and intimacy with God.

And here, at the rock of Rephidim, in the Wilderness of Sin, Yahweh God – the creator of the heavens and the Earth, the Guardian of Israel, “stands before” Moses and the people – makes himself vulnerable to their distress and their anxiety. He makes himself vulnerable to their testing and strife. He condescends to their weakness.

This is the point of Jesus’ incarnation – that God is willing to come down and “stand before” us in our weakness. He lowers himself, humbles himself – even to the point of death (Philippians 2: 8) so that we might live.

We are in the middle of our Lenten journey, a journey through the wilderness of sin and death. We are in a dry and weary land, thirsting for comfort and relief. We are in the place of death, under an oppressive sun, beneath a malicious moon – but we are journeying towards the land of milk and honey, the promised land of life, and life to the fullest, life everlasting. And, what is more, we are not making this journey alone. The Guardian of Israel stands before us, stands with us, goes with us. He gives us our spiritual food and our spiritual drink from the spiritual rock that follows – which is Christ himself (1 Corinthians 10:4)

We are in the desert place, making a dangerous journey through life, surrounded by death, but we are not dismayed, for God is with us. We will not give in to our fears and our desperation. We will not let our thirst overwhelm us. We will not harden our hearts as at Meribah. We will listen to his voice. (Psalm 95: 8 – 9) We will follow him through the wild place of death to the land of rest and resurrection.


Blenkinsopp, Joseph. The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible. New York, NY: Doubleday. 1992. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. Moses and Monotheism. Knopf. 1939. Print.

Hamilton Victor P. The Book of Genesis Chapter 18 – 50.Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1995. Print. 

Hamilton Victor P. Handbook on the Pentateuch. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House. 1982. Print.

Seely, David R. “Sin, Wilderness of.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary Volume VI. New York, NY: Doubleday. 1992. Print.

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