The children of Israel continued their journey from the wilderness of Sin towards Rephidim and on their way they experienced extreme thirst, complained against Moses and tested God. There are several proposed routes for the Exodus though I will side with the traditional one since we can be certain where the Sinai/Horeb region is, though it is difficult to pinpoint the exact location of all the encampments detailed in Numbers 33.
Geographically speaking the Israelites reached Rephidim, but in one sense they had been there before. At Marah (Exodus 15:23-24), the children of Israel had no water and grumbled against Moses. Yet the Lord bountifully blessed them at Elim with twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees. In the wilderness of Sin (Exodus 16:1-3), they were famished and grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Lord sent bread from heaven and they had a constant supply of the same for forty years. Like us, they would be tested and would learn that God did and still does provide. Another way of putting it is how one person entitled a book he authored, “God’s ravens still fly!”
It is too easy to consider their reaction to their adversity and point the finger condescendingly and pronounce “Oh you of little faith!” Though how would you or I have held up facing extreme thirst in the ancient world in a desert scenario we will probably never encounter? Or HaChaim comments knowingly “Most ordinary people would turn heretics if subjected to this kind of trial.”[i]
But what does pointing the finger achieve other than exposing ignorance coupled with pride? If we have an intellect, a heart, and a desire to please the Lord, we must consider what we can learn from this and be careful not to succumb to the same response. Warren Wiersbe writes, “Every difficulty God permits us to encounter will become either a test that can make us better or a temptation that can make us worse, and it’s our attitude that determines what it will be.”[ii]And how will you respond, by complaining or seeking the Lord?
Predictably, they complained against Moses, but ponder his wise response. He addressed their foolish complaints with concise and apt questions, to make them really think and consider their ways. “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” When responding to those who make no effort to listen, a question or two is more constructive than a protracted and fruitless discussion. Similarly in a counselling situation it is helpful to listen intently and patiently but it is not wise to go over the same issue without seeking a solution. An invaluable question we can apply consistently is “What does the Bible say?” since that helps us to acquire and deduce godly wisdom.
The people’s response demonstrates that they had not listened to Moses since they ignored his two questions and reiterated their complaints from the previous chapter (Exodus 16:3). Though they suffered extreme thirst they were also concerned for their livestock. Tur HaAroch notes, “The reason why they mentioned the herds, separately, was to remind Moses that a great deal of water was needed, seeing that the animals consumed a lot of water.”[iii]But this also draws to mind Rebekah’s actions and attitude when she provided water for the ten camels belonging to Abraham’s servant. A camel can drink thirty gallons of water or even more if they have not drank for a long while, a comparable amount to the volume of water typically used for a bath, so that was a great act of humble service which we should emulate.
Moses wisely cried out to the Lord and they were almost ready to stone him. There is a famous saying that “From Moses to Moses there was none like Moses,” speaking of the time between Moses son of Amram and Moses Maimonides (Rambam). But Moses spoke of a greater Prophet from the midst of his brethren who they should listen to (Deuteronomy 18:15-22). Yeshua (Jesus) stated that “Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58) which was an unmistakeable claim to divinity (c.f. Exodus 3:14), and subsequently they tried to stone Him though He hid Himself, went out of the temple, through the midst of them (John 8:59).
Moses sought the Lord in prayer and as their leader had a heavy load to bare. These tough yet character forming experiences drove Moses to become a man of prayer and is something we should also do. The Lord had guided Moses and the Israelites with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Similarly, the believer needs to be in God’s word daily, seeking Him for guidance through Scripture and prayer by His Spirit.
What was it that caused the Israelites to be almost ready to stone Moses? At Marah they complained and at the wilderness of Sin they accused him and now at Massah and Meribah, they were almost ready to stone him. This is how sin progresses if left undetected. First, sin is conceived in the recesses of the mind. It needs to be killed there and then. Then those thoughts circulate internally and are dwelt upon. Then it is verbalised and complaining occurs and afterwards it graduates to accusations. Ultimately, it can lead to death and the desire to kill. Only the greater Prophet like Moses, the sinless One can forgive sin and atone for sin.
The Lord instructed Moses to take some elders with him and take his staff. In the next chapter Moses listens to Jethro’s advice and appointed a number of elders. The principle of a plurality of elders progresses in Exodus 18 and reminds us that no one possesses all the spiritual gifts and we are dependent upon each other but most of all the Lord.
Notice that these elders also perform the duty of witnesses and there would be a few of them. Today in a legal setting we sometimes consider the number and credibility of witnesses in relation to a case or trial. Accusations were being directed against Moses and he took witnesses with him. Chizkuni comments, “They were to be witnesses to the miracle that was to occur when, in response to Moses hitting the rock, a supply of water would materialise. The presence of these elders would prevent the people from claiming that the location (near Sinai) from which this water originated was one where fountains of water were located.”[iv]
Deuteronomy 19:15 explains that on the strength of two or three witnesses a matter shall be established. Hence in Matthew 18:15-17, when dealing with a sinning brother, witnessed should be used and the purpose being corrective discipline to restore a person and if possible, not to remove them.
Moses took his staff as commanded which was not a magician’s wand nor akin to Arthurs’ sword. It was the staff that he used to strike the Nile and that would remind them of the Lord’s previous works. Later Aaron would fashion a golden calf which they erroneously worshipped as God who led them out of Egypt! The Psalmists often reference the Exodus and we should remind ourselves of God’s sovereign hand in human affairs.
The Lord would stand before Moses on the rock in Horeb. This would also answer the question the Israelites asked, “Is the Lord among us or not”(Exodus 17:7)? His presence would bring great reassurance. Water from the rock was an especially notable miracle. Sometimes we talk about extracting blood from a stone. This is obviously a term used to describe the impossibility of trying to achieve something unrealistic. If God can bring water out of a rock, what can He not do (Psalm 114:7-8)?
Yet this also speaks of a greater reality since the rock is a foreshadowing of Jesus the Messiah who was smitten on the cross (1 Corinthians 10:1-11). Jesus is the rock of our salvation. This event at Rephidim where water came from the rock is also an example and a lesson for us all. We must not complain and never put the Lord to the test. All these events were written for us as examples for our instruction and we must hold on to the Lord and his word.
But what is the significance and meaning of the water that came from the rock? The water is a foreshadowing of the Holy Spirit, whose coming was made possible by the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus to heaven (John 7:37-39).[v] At the feast of Tabernacles there was a grand water ceremony when Yeshua said, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink” (John 7:37). He quoted Isaiah 12:3 concerning Himself with reference to living water (John 7:38). He was revealing his heavenly identity as the Messiah and would later send the Holy Spirit.
There is another incident in Numbers 20 where Moses struck the rock when he was told instead to speak to it. Moses was irate with the people and in his fury struck the rock twice. Since Moses on that particular and rare occasion did not esteem the Lord before the people, he would not enter the Promised Land.
Jesus the Messiah died once and stated, “It is finished!” In Adam, through one man’s offense all die, but through Messiah and His one act of sacrifice, through Messiah they can live. Jesus took the full weight of sin upon Himself and gave Himself as a sin offering. Through His substitutionary atonement, He brings peace with God.
It is impossible to please God without faith (Hebrews 11:6), but do you trust Him? If we fail to respond with an attitude of faith, we will most likely encounter the same trials time and time again and remain none the wiser for it. How do you know if someone has faith in the Lord? When they are tested it will become evident. If someone knows the Lord, they can face the next trial by depending on Him and relying on His enabling.
The Lord has sent His Holy Spirit and will neither leave nor forsake the believer. All they have to do is to believe on Him, be obedient to Him and follow Him. He will guide the believer and lead them by His Spirit into all truth. Whoever is thirsty, let them come to Messiah and live!
[ii] Warren W. Wiersbe The Wiersbe Bible Commentary Old Testament (David C. Cook, 2007; Colorado Springs), p174
[v] Wiersbe, p 175