15.5. Moses Strikes the Rock at God’s Command to Extract Water from It (17:1-7)

(1) From the wilderness of Sin the whole Israelite community continued by stages as the Lord would command. They encamped at Rephidim, and there was no water for the people to drink.

(2) The people quarreled with Moses. “Give us water to drink,” they said; and Moses replied to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you try the Lord?”

(3) But the people thirsted there for water; and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”

(4) Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, “What shall I do with this people? Before long they will be stoning me!”

(5) Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pass before the people; take with you some of the elders of Israel, and take along the rod with which you struck the Nile, and set out.

(6) I will be standing there before you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock and water will issue from it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.

(7) The place was named Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and because they tried the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord present among us or not?”

(1) From the wilderness of Sin the whole Israelite community continued by stages as the Lord would command: The people continue to journey through the wilderness, gradually coming to the realization that they are not merely “leaving Egypt,” but advancing at the direction of the Almighty to a very specific destination (both literally and figuratively).

They encamped at Rephidim, and there was no water for the people to drink: When the problem of lack of water for drinking was encountered the first time (15:23), it was solved by ostensibly natural means (throwing a piece of wood into the water). But this time the same problem will be solved by an actual miracle – extracting water from a rock. The people are forced to transition from feeling that the world is governed solely by the laws of nature to acknowledging supernatural, Divine control. This is an important step in preparing the Jews to receive the Torah.

(2) The people quarreled with Moses. “Give us water to drink,” they said; and Moses replied to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you try the Lord?”: There is nothing wrong with asking for water, but Moses himself senses no problem, and to him it seems that the people are grumbling without any real cause.

(3) But the people thirsted there for water; and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”: The situation now worsens, as the people accuse Moses of a wanton desire to see them die of thirst. Such accusations are of course groundless, but the people feel that Moses is insufficiently attentive to their problems, and this is their reaction.

(4) Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, “What shall I do with this people? Before long they will be stoning me!”: Although Moses understands that his approach is not working, he is bewildered, and at a loss to know how to deal with the situation.

(5) Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pass before the people; take with you some of the elders of Israel: We will soon see that the elders are needed as witnesses, so that everything will happen “before their very eyes.” That is, in order for the elders to confirm that there was no source of water in the rock previously, and that water flowed from the rock simply as the result of the blow from Moses’ staff.

And take along the rod with which you struck the Nile, and set out: But doesn’t Moses know which rod is meant? Why must God specify “the rod with which you struck the Nile”?

The point is that there is a parallel here between the Jewish people and the Egyptians. God is saying to Moses: “Just as in Egypt you had to strike the river with your rod in order to perform miracles for the education of the Egyptians, here too you will need to strike the rock with your rod in order to educate the Jews.”

(6) I will be standing there before you on the rock at Horeb: Horeb and Mount Sinai are one and the same. The image of “water flowing from the rock” precedes even the giving of the Torah (water is in fact a metaphor for the Torah; see, e.g., “Ho, all who are thirsty, come for water,” Isa. 55:1).

Strike the rock and water will issue from it, and the people will drink: Although the Jews had left Egypt some time before, psychologically they were still slaves, with a mindset of unwaveringly following every command with immediate and complete obedience, as represented by a physical blow and its tangible result. Forty years later, however, Moses will be dealing with an entirely new generation that will require a completely different lesson (which was to be achieved in that case not by striking the rock, but by speaking to it). Moses’ failure to understand that change of circumstances led to tragic consequences (see Num. 20:7-13).

And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel: The elders testified to the occurrence of a miracle.

(7) The place was named Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled, and because they tried the Lord: The literal meaning of Massah-u-Merivah is “trial (i.e., ordeal) and strife.”

And because they tried the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord present among us or not?”: Despite all the miracles they had witnessed, they still failed to sense God’s presence among them. Another display of God’s direct participation in their lives is therefore needed, which now follows immediately, in the form of the war with Amalek.

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Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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