EXODUS 13:17 -14:8
He appeared to them in a strange manifestation, a pillar of cloud-encased fire. Pinning down the nature of God, understanding what he “looks like” is not something possible for mortals. His appearances are sufficiently mysterious to dissuade us from thinking we have perceived him. The scale of God’s being is simply beyond our capacity.
But while he is not Baal or Zeus, the storm god who can be seen in the clouds, neither is he the impersonal infinite Force outside of our dimension. Whatever and whomever God is, he is both with us and beyond us, immanent and transcendent.
“And Adonai went before them” (וַיהוָה הֹלֵךְ לִפְנֵיהֶם va’Adonai hōleich lifneihem). Stranger words could hardly be uttered. “By day a pillar of cloud” (יוֹמָם בְּעַמּוּד עָנָן yōmam be’amud ‘anan). Even his manifestation, meant to be something mortals can see and understand, is mysterious in that it changes in appearance depending on whether it is day or night. “And by night a pillar of fire” (וְלַיְלָה בְּעַמּוּד אֵשׁ velailah be’amud aish). As we see in Exodus 40:38, it is not that cloud changed to fire at night. Fire was in the cloud. By day it simply could not be seen.
What all of the appearances of God to human beings have in common is simple: they are forms of appearance for the purpose of revealing something to people. God is disclosing himself, making himself known. To put it simply, these appearances were visual aids to communication. In each case, these were very limited forms. People could view these and live. The divine glory was restrained, clouded, veiled in mystery.
The rule of Exodus 33:20 guides biblical descriptions of appearances of God to people: “you cannot see my face, for man may not see me and live.”
God is willing to lay aside his glory, to appear in ways human beings can endure. God is not a man, but he is not averse to appearing as one. His motive of disclosing himself to humankind brings him down to earth on some occasions in human form.
For those of us who read the Hebrew Bible as disciples of Yeshua, we cannot help but ask how the divine appearances to Israel relate to the later notion of Yeshua as Divine Messiah. If God’s manifestation to human beings will ultimately be expressed in something more permanent, in God coming down as the Divine Messiah with divinity and humanity joined, this idea is consistent with what came before. He appeared as a cloud, a fire, and sometimes as a man. Would he ever make this more permanent and be born as an actual man? He could if he desired.
Israel’s Exodus into the desert (17-22), God leads Israel to the place of crossing (14:1-4), Pharaoh pursues (5-8).
The confrontation between God and Pharaoh is not over. If the death of the firstborn in Egypt was not enough, now God will show a wonder that has captured the imaginations of readers for thousands of years: the parting of the sea. Before that comes, the E source of the Torah wraps up the previous section by noting God took Israel by a safer path, because they were not yet ready to face war but were too small in their faith (13:17-19).
The the J source, which has been absent from the text since 5:2, describes how God’s manifestation went before them in a pillar of cloud with fire in it. This is the first reference among many to come of God appearing to Israel as a pillar of cloud-encased fire. References to the pillar of cloud are from all three sources in Exodus: J, E, and P. This divine manifestation was a vital feature of the story passed down through the centuries. It becomes clear by the end of Exodus 40 that the pillar always has fire in it, but the fire can only be seen through the cloud at night.
If Exodus 14 reads strangely it is because this chapter is a blend of the J and P sources. Richard Elliot Friedman shows that it is possible to separate the J and P accounts of the sea crossing and have two complete stories (The Bible with Sources Revealed). The final editor of Torah (perhaps Ezra) did not leave out the details of either account, it seems. The final version which we have in Exodus 14 is harder to read and follow because of the repetitions. But it was important to the editor to include both versions and to weave them together.
Three issues of major historical interest come up in this passage. How can Philistines be mentioned here (13:17) when they did not appear on the historical scene until the 12th century BCE (the Exodus at latest is 13th century BCE)? What route did the Exodus take and what can we discern from these references? How do the numbers of people add up when Pharaoh sends only 600 chariots chasing an army of 600,000 men (see previous section also)?
The Philistines, as best we can tell from limited evidence, were among the sea people, coming probably from Crete and Greece, mentioned in an Egyptian inscription from 1190 BCE. After losing a battle with Egyptian forces, some of them settled the coastland of Canaan (the Gaza area). This area is where the Philistines would later rule in the days of the judges and kings of Israel. The anachronistic reference to the Philistines is one more evidence that at least parts of the book of Exodus were written down much later than the events they describe. This fact in and of itself does not necessitate a skeptical view of the historical truth of the Exodus and the origins of Israel. Israel passed down its stories orally until the Iron Age, when records began to be kept under royal administration. The three source documents behind Exodus all come from the period of the divided monarchy in Israel and Judah.
As for the route of the Exodus, Cassuto breaks the options down into a simple three: the northeast route or “way of the sea” which was Egypt’s guarded route and not a good option for Moses, the middle route toward Beersheba passing near to the “Philistine” region which is said in vs. 17 to be too dangerous, or the southeast route toward southern Sinai and further from Canaan, but a safer route to take. Cassuto chooses this option as the most likely route. The locations of places like Succoth are all guesswork. A southerly route makes great sense and would place the crossing either at the Bitter Lakes north of the Red Sea or perhaps over some segment of the Red Sea. The Hebrew text does not, however, say “Red Sea,” but “sea of reeds.” The LXX (Septuagint) has the reading “Red Sea” which has become traditional. The southerly route lends credence to the location of Mount Sinai (Horeb) in the southern Sinai (not in Arabia).
Finally, we should be clued in to the unrealistic population figure for the Israelites given in the text by the fact that Pharaoh sends 600 chariots (plus “all the other chariots of Egypt”) chasing 600,000 men (plus women and children). The numbers are all based on six, which fits Cassuto’s theory of a sexagesimal system in the Middle East for thinking about numbers. How many chariots could Egypt muster? No army in antiquity even approached half a million, or even a hundred thousand. The numbers are either figurative (no one a few centuries later would know them) or based on some type of census of troops with later confusion between the word for troop and the word for thousand (see previous section).
Would God offer something before we were ready? Would he hold out the possibility of a different way of life, knowing all the time that we would fail to attain it?
That is exactly what we see in his dealings with Israel in the Exodus and the wilderness.
Most of the time, when an enemy threatens us, we as human beings cannot think, “God will save us.” Tyrants and warlords attack and cause tragedy. No divine hand stops them.
The armies of Pharaoh were coming and death looked certain. But Israel was in a special place and time and God was showing the world something to give us hope. אַל־תִּירָאוּ (‘al-tira’u), “Fear not!” הִתְיַצְבוּ (hityatzvu), “Stand firm!” וּרְאוּ אֶת־יְשׁוּעַת יְהוָה (ur’u et-yeshuat Adonai), “And see Adonai’s deliverance!” This was Moses’ answer to the fearful Israelites who watched the chariots and columns of Egypt’s approaching army.
God would keep making offers like this to Israel. He would fight for Israel in battle. He offered blessings in the Torah to give Israel total peace and freedom from all concern of attack. These blessings and promises are magnified in the words of the prophets of Israel, picturing a world where swords are turned into plowshares and hills overflow with wine and bread.
God is foreshadowing here his ultimate intention, which is to be king on earth. Israel was not ready to attain to it. We can surmise that God knew human beings were not ready. At the time of the Exodus, God promised to stop the enemy. In a thousand battles since then, God has been hidden and apparently absent. Why the difference in God’s presence and power then and now?
One conclusion we could reach is that the examples from the past point us to hope for the future. God will fight for us in battle in the day his deliverance comes down from heaven to overtake death and the grave. Until then, we can wait and hope.
Pharaoh’s army approaches Israel’s encampment at Baal-zephon (9), the Israelites despair and complain (10-12), Moses assures them that the Lord will battle for them (13-14).
Pharaoh pursues and the Israelites melt in fear. They complain in bizarre irony as if the desert will become their graveyard. Sarna (JPC Commentary) points out that Egypt, from which they have come, is actually a land of tombs (such as the pyramids), a place obsessed with death and with making elaborate memorials for kings and nobles who have died. The Israelites have literally left a graveyard to go and find life with God. But they complain that God has brought them out to die.
This will not be the last time Israel complains, questions God’s goodness, and shows a lack of faith. The wilderness experience for Israel will be a series of tests and they will fail again and again, but God will endure them and keep saving them anyway. Of course the ones telling the story are Israelites too and all the versions of the story (in the E, J, and P sources) include this theme of faithlessness and complaining. It is part of human nature to despair and to give voice to doubt.
But this text in particular captures an insightful truth: enslavement damages the human soul. The effects of enslavement include a loss of self-worth and a disbelief in the possibility of a good outcome. Abused people tend to prefer remaining in their state of maltreatment rather than risk change.
Moses encourages them with a compelling series of commands and a word of hope. אַל־תִּירָאוּ (‘al-tira’u), “Fear not!” הִתְיַצְבוּ (hityatzvu), “Stand firm!” וּרְאוּ אֶת־יְשׁוּעַת יְהוָה (ur’u et-yeshuat Adonai), “And see Adonai’s deliverance!” Israel is in a unique position, one that will not last forever historically. God offers to bring them to a place of safety and show them a better way of life. What is the meaning of this offer? Should we extrapolate from this that God will always rescue us from every danger?
No, during the time of the Exodus and giving of the Torah, and still held out as a possibility for centuries in the land of Israel, God made an offer to show Israel the kingdom of God on earth. The Torah is filled with potential for one people on earth to experience and bring to the world a great change. Ultimately, human beings were not ready for the invitation but God’s purpose in it was to foreshadow his ultimate plan to do just that. When we read about the Exodus, we see the hope of our future with God as king looming in every paragraph.
The reader attuned to modern ideas about the natural and supernatural wonders if the parting of the sea at the Exodus was a natural event or a supernatural event. The fact that the parting occurred slowly, as an apparent result of a wind that blew all night long, gives some interpreters reason to surmise a natural event. For some the miracle is timing, not the parting itself. Explanations involving shallow water and tide abound.
But why not see that this case, like many other in the Bible, is one of intensification of a natural occurrence. More than just timing, the forces involved in the water moving are sped up beyond the normal “laws of physics” and are also a deviation from the usual balance of forces. The waters pile up beyond any normal tidal movement or wave pattern. The ground is abnormally dry for Israel to be able to cross it. The miracle in the story is nature moved by super nature, a mixing of the realms.
Those who are oppositely inclined, who resist seeing anything other than a kind of instantaneous overruling of all natural processes (a divine magic trick) are also befuddled by the story. Why didn’t the tellers simply say God made the waters pile up instantly? Why the long night and the east wind?
This kind of miracle is not a divine magician exerting his omnipotent power to bend the rules and make new ones. It is the will of the Creator to command natural forces to act differently, but still within their nature. This is the God who was said in the first creation account to bring about life after its own kind. He works with and through nature, nature being his creature and his artistic masterpiece.
Is the parting of the sea nature or supernature? The only answer based on the story is yes.
God shows Moses the way of salvation (15-18), Israel crosses the Sea (19-22), Egypt is trapped (23-25).
The way of salvation for the Israelites will be to move forward over what seems impassable. God had brought them to this place purposefully, drawing them back from Etham and the edge of the wilderness to stand near Baal-zephon (14:1-4). Israel could have already been in the Sinai desert. Perhaps if they were, Pharaoh would have chased them even there. But now, God has chosen a seemingly impossible means of salvation.
Why must Moses lift his staff when the power is all God’s? God shows his power through human mediators because his acts are a cooperation between the faith of the people and his power. The people will look to Moses as a mediator, the one God uses to rescue them. The act of God that is about to happen will resonate through all of history and turn the hearts of many to faith in God.
In vs. 20, the description of the angel of God is potentially confusing. The pillar of cloud stands between Egypt and Israel. It is said to be cloud and darkness, yet it gives light toward Israel. The phenomenon can be understood in this way: God’s Presence is the fire or light in the midst of the cloud (see Exod 40:38). At night the fire was visible but in the day the sunlight made only the cloud show. The medieval Jewish commentators suggest that in this instance the Lord caused darkness and cloud on Egypt’s side and more light on Israel’s side.
The parting of the sea did not happen suddenly, but was the result of an east wind blowing the waters back through the night. It seems as if the miracles of the plagues and Exodus were an intensification of natural processes. The signs arise from creation and surpass it, bringing the power of heaven into the created order.
EXODUS 14:26 – 15:26
At least four things are remarkable about the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15. It is one of the oldest passages in the Bible. It is likely written by a woman. It takes the praise usually assigned to a king after a battle and instead gives it all to God. And it is one of several parts of the Bible about God’s power in relation to the chaotic waters.
As for the age of this section, whereas many parts of the Torah were written during the monarchy in Israel, such as J in Judah perhaps in the 7th century BCE. But the Song of the Sea is much older, and it is feasible that Miriam, sister of Moses, could be its author. Richard Elliott Freidman points to studies of biblical poetry by David Noel Friedman and Frank Moore Cross when he says, “This poem . . . is possibly the oldest composition in the Hebrew Bible” (The Bible with Sources Revealed).
Carol Meyers observes that in the Bible and also in the cultures surrounding Israel, victory songs were usually written by woman (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Although the narrative introduction says “Moses and Israel sang this song,” this does not amount to a claim about authorship. Vs. 21, however, says “Miriam sang to them.” The difference in expression is obvious here. Whereas in the first narrative (from the J source) the people sang together, here (in the E source) Miriam is singing “to them,” meaning to the women going out with tambourines to dance for a victory celebration. The E source appears to believe this song dates back to Miriam who composed it to meet the need of the moment after the great miracle of the sea.
The motif of God subduing the sea and commanding it runs throughout the Bible and is common to the Ancient Near East. The power of the waters to destroy life is a great fear in the ancient world. The Bible shows evidence of stories, similar to those of Baal and Marduk also, about God mastering the waters. Cassuto brings up a tale which seems to be apparent in the background in which a personification of the waters (Rahab, the sea serpent) rebels against God (see Isa 51:9-10). Genesis 1 demythologizes this, calling the sea Tehom (a Hebrew equivalent of Tiamat, the chaos dragon of the sea from Babylonian myth). Tehom is also here in Exodus 15, in vs. 8, “The deeps congealed in the heart of the sea.”
Whereas other poetry that has survived from the ancient world tends to praise the king after a battle, Israel’s most ancient poetry is a paean to God directly. This is a stark cultural difference and it should be of interest to the historian. What is it about Israel’s experience and culture that makes this tiny nation more theocentric than the surrounding peoples? Why is God more important than the human king to them? This historical singularity in Israel gives evidence that something in their experience made them unusually devoted to their deity. It may seem a small point, but it is one of several that should give us pause and make us consider: maybe God really did appear to Israel in days of old.
The Egyptian army drowned (26-29), Saved Israel believes (30-31), the Song of the Sea (15:1-21), the water at Marah (22-26).
The flood waters return and destroy Egypt’s pursuing army. The closing narrative if chapter 14 says Adonai saved (יּוֹשַׁע, yosha’) Israel and that Israel trusted (יַּאֲמִינוּ, ya’aminu) in his power and good will. God has said repeatedly his wonders have a purpose to make the Egyptians and the Israelites believe that he is Adonai.
The Song of the Sea uses language suggesting it is very old, predating other material found in Exodus. Like the Song of Deborah in Judges 5, this is ancient poetry. It also may be the composition of Miriam and possibly a circle of women in spite of the fact that vs. 1 says Moses and the Israelites sang the song. Carol Meyers (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) argues that both in the Bible and in other literature, the victory song after war is generally a female genre. Thus Miriam and Deborah may be two of the earliest composers of biblical poetry.
The Song of the Sea is a hymn that makes the act of God personal for the people of God. The wonders of God are about relationship. The song divides into vss. 1-6, 7-11, 12-16, and 17-18. The first section declares that Israel’s strength is Adonai. The second describes the Exodus in poetic detail (using the poetic ga’oh ga’ah, he has triumphed gloriously). The third section describes the consequences of God’s act, to redeem a people and cause the fear of Adonai to come on other peoples. Vss. 17-18 describe the cosmic mountain of Adonai. Similar poetry about Baal and numerous references in the Bible (see Jon Levenson, Sinai and Zion, for more) show that Israel used familiar language of the culture about God inhabiting a mountain that is both of this world and beyond it. Sinai and later Zion become the cosmic mountain when God’s Presence is there. While it may sound as if the ancient poem is speaking about Jerusalem, this poem almost certainly predated the temple of Solomon and the reference is not so specific.
The Song has been an important part of Jewish liturgy since the days of the Second Temple, according to rabbinic sources (Sarna). Scribes write the words in the sefer Torah (the scroll of the Torah) artistically, like a brick layer with a brick upon the joint of two bricks.
The incident after the Song of the Sea, where the water at Marah was bitter and undrinkable, begins to show how God will solve the problems of the people in the wilderness. God will not let the Israelites suffer plagues like the Egyptians as long as they follow him. And through this incident God teaches Israel “a statute and a rule” (or “a fixed statute” or “a binding statute”), that Israel’s fortunes in this world will depend on faithfulness to the covenant with him.
EXODUS 15:27 – 16:10
In Elim, according the story told for hundreds of years, there were twelve springs and seventy date palms. You don’t have to read the Bible for long to realize that twelve and seventy are symbolic numbers. The place, which cannot be identified today, was an oasis. They had left the lush provision of Egypt, a land known for having a reliable and abundant food supply, and passed through the last pitstop of paradise at Elis before facing the barren and empty wilderness.
Circumstances change. What was a comfort to us cannot be depended upon to last. We will come to periods in our lives where we simply cannot find the things that once mattered so much to us. People disappear. Resources dry up. Fun activities lose their flavor. Optimism falters. We leave a time of security and warmth to face for a while something dry and cold.
God is there. Always hidden and maddeningly invisible, he is there.
“What will we drink?” Israel asked at Marah (Exod 15:24). “You have brought us out into the wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger!” they complained at the Wilderness of Sin (16:3).
What they don’t know is that relief is coming soon. “I am about to rain bread from heaven for you.”
The desolation does not last. Heartbreak heals. Misery fades. Sorrows turn to sweetness. Life grows again in the ashes. We cross the wilderness and find habitable land again.
God did not make the world to be an unending desert. Time does not stand still in God’s universe. And there is manna in the barrenness if we open our eyes.
Camped at Elim (27), the people complain about lack of food (16:1-3), the Lord’s instructions to Moses and Aaron (4-5), the Presence of the Lord and the promise of provision (6-10).
Cassuto points out some chronological gaps in this story which deserve the attention of the reader. Sabbath laws about manna gathering have not yet been given (not until 16:23) and yet they are already referenced in vss. 4-5. Up to this point, based only on what is written, we would have to say Moses has no idea what God is talking about when it comes to Sabbath laws. In vs. 8, Moses seems to know far more than God has already told him about the manna and quail. Even though God does not tell him so until vss. 11-12, Moses already declares to the people that meat will come to them in the evening and bread in the morning. Finally, Cassuto observes that the quail and manna stories are linked in unusual ways, like two originally separate stories that were combined into one.
There is a general principle of Torah that events are not narrated chronologically and this shows in the story of Exodus 16. Cassuto explains the way the story is ordered by theme instead of chronology: a complaint about water (15:22-27), the complaint about meat and bread (16:1-3), the manna and quail stories combined (16:4-36), and then another complaint about water (17:1-7). The use of three stories about God proving his role as provider fits ancient ideas about storytelling (lessons come in threes).
Meanwhile, though Moses and the Israelites in Exodus 16 have not yet been told about Sabbath laws, the Torah is written from the perspective of later readers who do know them. Thus, the story is told here for those who already know and who wish to learn how the first generation came to experience Sabbath. Also, the Tabernacle is alluded to in vs. 9 (“come near before Hashem”) though it has not been built or explained yet. But the editors of Torah are telling a story to later generations, who already understand these concepts.
Medieval Jewish commentators also note these chronological gaps and solve them in a different way. Some of them interpret Exodus 15:25 (“Hashem made for them a statute and a rule”) as a mysterious hint that God gave Israel some Torah prior to Sinai.
The story of manna asks us to imagine a completely otherworldly kind of existence, as if life on the normal plane of reality is suspended for forty years and the people were living between this realm and the one beyond.
None of the rules of manna make sense in relation to our ordinary experience of nature. Manna seems to be created ex nihilo, “from nothing.” Like the jar of flour in Elijah’s day that did not run out, or like the original creation of the substance of the universe, manna just materializes.
It is impossible to gather too much or too little. Extra work will not give you more and light work will not give you too little. This miracle grain seems to gather itself.
Five days a week, it goes rancid within twenty four hours, but on the sixth day which God is just teaching Israel about, it lasts forty eight hours so they can practice the newly instituted Sabbath law.
Clearly manna is in this story a lesson about daily existence with God. We need only work for our needs and nothing more, just as those who tried to gather extra manna found they could not amass an excess of it. We need to obey God’s commandments even when they seem impractical, and God provides in such a way that we can. At least he did with Israel in a time and place where the Ideal and the Mundane were intertwined.
Of course, the manna principles cannot simply be adopted by those of us who do not live in the suspended state of miraculous existence in which Israel found itself. There is no guarantee of a minimum harvest of a daily omer of cloud cake for us. We may work and work and find we cannot earn enough for our needs. Or we may prosper far beyond earning our daily bread.
So the story seems to be asking us to apply it loosely, as a kind of wisdom for life. We don’t need to amass wealth. We don’t need to work to exhaustion for a supply far beyond the requirements of life. We should not base our lives on a plan which excludes God’s ways. Rather, in simple trust, we should take comfort in the fact that life generally makes available to us what is needed to live in this world and focus more on living with God.
God speaks and will answer Israel’s complaint (11-12), quail and manna (13-14), instructions for manna (15-16), each person gets the same and it cannot be kept overnight (17-21), the Israelites ask why they get a double portion on the sixth day (22-26), confusion and no manna on day seven (27-30), manna and a jar kept as a memorial (31-36).
“Manna” has become a familiar word, used sometimes in expressions in the English language for “something good that comes unexpectedly.” But the origin of the name is an amusing story. God according to the Exodus story had a plan to feed Israel miraculously in the desert. So the Israelites awoke to find a small, fine white powder like frost in the ground but which smelled like a grain. Puzzled they asked, מָן הוּא mān hu, “What is it?” Therefore, says vs. 31, they called it מָן mān (pronounced with a short o vowel sound). The King James Bible derived from this the English “manna.” In other words, they called it “what” (or “whatchamacallit”).
The account of the manna makes it clear this is supernatural food. It resembles some kind of seed they knew, which translators have for a long time thought most likely to be coriander, which is the seed of the mature cilantro plant and is small and round. The story tells us it tasted like wafers made with honey. But aside from being a miracle grain that falls like dew every morning, everything else about the manna is a carefully designed test of obedience for Israel. The manna is about gathering a daily provision, no more and no less, and an adaptation to the daily ritual to accommodate the Sabbath law God is about to teach Israel. The supernatural characteristics of the manna include: it is produced out of nothing and mysteriously appears, those who gathered it all harvested the same amount regardless of their effort to take more, it rotted and attracted worms within twenty four hours, but an exception was made on the Sabbath when it would give a double portion the day before and last forty eight hours.
The amount they would gather each day was an “omer.” Omer is usually the word for a sheaf of cut grain and occurs only here as a measure of loose grain (thus, vs. 36 explains for those reading later who would not know the ancient measure). It is three and a half liters (thirteen cups of flour, enough for two large loaves).
The descriptions of the manna do not fit with any natural phenomenon (aphid secretions, tamarisk sap, etc.), though it is possible God could have multiplied and made extreme amounts of a natural substance. The idea that each person gathered an omer no matter if they tried to get more or less (vs. 18) and that if kept overnight it bred worms (vs. 20) is a supernatural story through and through.
We learn something of the institution of the Sabbath and its “halachah” from this chapter. “Halachah” means the practical guidelines for keeping a commandment. The important regulation that no food is to be cooked on the Sabbath comes from vs. 23. The principle in halachah is that already cooked food may be heated, but any use of cooking that changes the state of food (from raw to cooked, frozen to thawed, etc.) is forbidden.
Moses had not relayed to the people the instructions about the double portion on day six. So when it happened, they were confused. Vs. 27 should lay to rest the notion that the Sabbath was kept by the people of God before the Exodus. Although the Israelites were familiar with the word “Shabbat” (Sabbath) — since in Mesopotamia there was a monthly Shabbat and since the word derives from the verb “to cease” — some have used this chapter as evidence that Sabbath observance preceded the Exodus. Yet the Israelites apparently have no idea that the seventh day is for rest and must learn it from the manna.
Contention with God. Proof of his Presence. This is surely a pattern in our lives.
Sometimes we feel entitled. Or for whatever reason the injustice of our situation hits us. Who do we blame? The universe? God? Humanity? Ourselves?
Even in the absence of a clear cause and effect chain relating the origin of our troubles to a specific person, we still lash out in blame. Someone or something must be to blame. Even if we can pin it on a particular individual our case is bigger than that. This is a cosmic outrage. Somebody should do something.
The arguments sound juvenile if we write them out clearly in plain words. But with a dash of honesty, we realize if we care to look inside, this is what our emotions are telling us. How dare the universe let us be in this situation!
But the place where Israel contended with God’s patience (Meribah, מְרִיבָה, “contention, a dispute”) is also known as Massah (מַסָּה, “proof”).
If we care to look, life follows this pattern. The storm comes and, caught in the rain, we rail and blame. But later the sun peeks out and life is beautiful again. Our contention is followed by proof. Proof that the universe is good. Proof that behind it all there is a reason we want more, a compelling explanation for the desire inside us for life and joy and grandeur. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, if we find in ourselves a desire no satisfaction in this world can satisfy, we were probably made for another world. Only that “other world” is this world redeemed, brought to its purpose by God who is Present with us right in the middle of it.
The waters of Massa-Meribah (1-7), war with Amalek (8-13), permanent curse on Amalek (14-16).
The waters of Massa-Meribah story becomes a repeated theme of preaching about Israel’s unfaithfulness to the Lord (Num 14:22-23; Deut 6:16; 8:2, 15-16; and 9:22; Psa 78:65; 95:8). The Bible draws three lessons from the story: it is a mistake to try God’s patience, God is Present and he provides, and God allows his servants to be tried and tested (Sarna, JPS Commentary).
Israel comes to its last station on the way to Sinai, Rephidim, and finds no water there. Moses prays in a way that will become a familiar pattern to readers. He is blunt, direct. His ire is directed at the people and he takes the affront to his leadership personally.
The place from which the water emerges gets two names, both of them symbolic. מַסָּה massah is “proof,” and מְרִיבָה meribah is “contention.” God proves his Presence and Israel becomes known for contending with God’s patience.
While in this very place of contention with God, the Amalekites attack. A nomadic people, similar to Bedouins (Casutto), the story of Amalek’s attack is repeated in Deuteronomy 25:18. They hit the rear of Israel’s ranks, where the women and children and aged were. Moses is too old to lead the troops and so he appoints Joshua.
Yet Moses plays the vital role yet again. Just as at the Sea, his intercession (symbolized by his raised rod or, variously, a standard bearing some name or symbol of God according the rabbis and hinted in vs. 15) brings the power of God to the battle. Aaron and Hur (identity unknown, possibly the grandfather of Bezalel) hold up Moses’ arms. The picture is one of divine-human cooperation.
As a result of Amalek’s vicious attack at a time when Israel was vulnerable, they become an unforgivable or perhaps unrepentant enemy. Amalek will attack Israel repeatedly into the early days of the monarchy, possibly as mercenaries hired by other peoples. The story of Esther draws on this history, as Haman is depicted as a descendant of Amalek.