For better or worse, the Israelites are a reflection on not just humanity but Christianity as well. We can make the argument that we as Christians have the benefit of the Holy Spirit to guide us but mostly that’s not to our benefit but rather our shame. In spite of having the Holy Spirit, we commit many of the same stupid mistakes that the Israelites are guilty of.
Where we left off in Exodus, the Israelites had left Egypt and had crossed the Red Sea. And then they found themselves in the desert. And here’s where the story begins to sound very familiar to our Christian walk – the Israelites began to grumble.
It’s very easy to point the finger and think, those foolish Israelites, don’t they remember how God had just rescued them from the Egyptians? Don’t they remember walking across dry ground in the middle of the Red Sea? If God can handle the armies of Pharaoh, certainly He is able to provide food!
But this is how we act as well. We quickly forget what God has done for us when things get tough. All we can see are our circumstances and we spend our time preoccupied on how we are going to get out of our predicament.
When we left the Israelites, they had complained about food and water. God cleaned the bitter water at Mara and he gave them manna to eat in the morning and quail to eat at night. God had provided everything that the Israelites had needed.
In our Christian life, it is not our duty to find a place that we’re comfortable with and sit back and relax. God expects us to grow in our life. Growing means sacrifice of things that are comfortable to us. Sometimes that sacrifice is something that is neither good nor bad. For instance, if we want to spend more time reading the Bible or praying, it’s going to cost us time. In other circumstances, growth means sacrificing old, sinful habits and doing away with them.
God is going to provide for the Israelites even in the midst of the desert. But that doesn’t mean that the Israelites are supposed to sit back and just let God take care of them. After some time, the Israelites are likely already taking God for granted.
Let’s pick our story back up in Exodus 17:1-2
1 The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”
Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the LORD to the test?”
Once again, the Israelites find themselves in a situation without water to drink. What we need to note though is that this isn’t the result of some random wandering. They are going wherever the Lord leads them. That means that God is leading them to a place where there is no water.
Now, if we were in the Israelite’s shoes, we might like to think that we’d trust God in the situation. After all, God provided water before. God is leading now. God isn’t going to lead them into a situation where they will die from a lack of water.
Here’s what is going on though. This is a test of the Israelites. They were in this situation before and they failed the test. Have the Israelites learned from their struggles? No.
This happens quite often in life. At times, it seems that Satan knows our weaknesses and he will tempt us where we are weakest time and time again. If we don’t learn to overcome that temptation, we will fall to it time and time again.
Other times, God allows us to encounter similar circumstances because we didn’t learn our lesson the first time. God doesn’t delight in seeing us suffer or undergo trials. However, God wants us to grow and sometimes the only way to do so is to encounter the same problems again.
There are many reasons why we face difficulties in life. Just because you seem to encounter the same problem time after time, it doesn’t mean that God wants you to learn something from the situation. But it could mean this. If it seems like you keep having the same problems time after time, it wouldn’t hurt to take a step and ask if God is trying to teach you something.
So, the Israelites blow it again. Moses immediately calls them on it and asks why they insist on putting the Lord to the test.
3 But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”
4 Then Moses cried out to the LORD, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
5 The LORD answered Moses, “Walk on ahead of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the place Massah[a]and Meribah[b] because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the LORD saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”
What does this bunch of ungrateful whiners deserve? What they probably deserve is to die in the desert just as they had decided was going to happen to them. God would have every right to do so and He could have started over with Moses and a small remnant of the other tribes and still kept His covenant with Abraham. But this is an illustration of God’s love and mercy. It is unmerited favor that the Israelites get what they clearly don’t deserve.
What God gives them, aside from water from the rock, is a beautiful picture of salvation. In John 4, Jesus is speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus responds to the woman in John 4:10:
Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
Jesus identifies Himself as the source of living water. Even this has a double meaning. Living water is not just a religious term. Living water is simply water that was running as opposed to sitting still. This is the kind of water that you want if you are thirsty. If you are dying of thirst and you encounter a small, still pond that is full algae and mosquitoes, it won’t be any good to drink. On the other hand, if you find clear, running water, this will give you just what you need.
Of course Jesus is more than just life giving water. He is life. To the Samaritan woman, He meant new life and a cleansing from her past sins.
Not only do we have the water as a picture of Jesus, He is also the rock. Jesus tells a parable about wise and foolish builders in Matthew 7:24-27:
24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
So, Jesus is the rock and He is the source of living water. But there is a third picture of Jesus in the water from the rock. When Moses strikes the rock, it pictures Jesus at His death. We know that He was whipped and nailed to the cross and his blood flowed freely. But also after His death when the spear pierced His side, what flowed from it? Of course it was water.
The water from the rock gives life. The living water from Jesus gives life.
Before we finish, it’s worth noting that a similar situation happens later in the desert. In Numbers 20 Moses also strikes the rock to bring water from it. The problem is that in that circumstance he was specifically told not to strike the rock but instead to just speak to it.
6 Moses and Aaron went from the assembly to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and fell facedown, and the glory of the LORD appeared to them. 7 The LORD said to Moses, 8 “Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.”
9 So Moses took the staff from the LORD’s presence, just as he commanded him. 10 He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” 11 Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.
12 But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.”
I won’t add any additional commentary to the passage in Numbers other than the fact that this brings us full circle. I suppose that we can say that even the best of us are like the Israelites at times. We complain and lose faith at inappropriate times. We grumble because of the lack of a basic need or something that we think we should have. And we quickly forget how good God has been to us.
But even Moses wasn’t perfect. It feels almost unfair that Moses put up with so much from the Israelites and had one slip up and because of it wouldn’t be able to enter into the Promised Land. But even this was part of God’s plan. When the Israelites were ready to enter the Promised Land, Moses was 120 years old. He wasn’t the man to lead them into battle. But if he was still the leader but Joshua was leading as well, it would lead to confusion and conflicts.
God loves us and He extends an incredible amount of grace to us even when we don’t deserve it. This time God not only gave the Israelites water, He gave them an incredible picture of Jesus as the rock, the provider of living water, and the one who was struck and water flowed out of. While we should always try to avoid messing up, we should look for the good things that God brings out of screw ups like us when we do.