The rock at Horeb

Remembering is essential for God’s people. “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart,” we read in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 8:2). Remembering is essential for God’s people in order to be God’s people, and so is telling in story and song. Today’s reading from Exodus and the Psalm are part of the telling that makes remembering possible.

“We failed the wilderness test,” the witnesses declare, “and what was in our hearts was lack of trust, despair, and grumbling, betrayal of the covenant, and the stubborn refusal to see the desert as the place for knowing the Lord and the way to the land of promise.”

“We failed the test,” the witnesses declare, but they didn’t photoshop the desert scenes to make themselves look a little better. “We forgot what God had done, and the miracles the Lord had shown us, who divided the sea and let us pass through it and made the waters stand like a heap; who led us in the daytime with a cloud, and all night long with fiery light; who split rocks open in the wilderness, and gave us drink abundantly as from the deep, making streams come out of the rock and causing waters to flow down like rivers.[1] We failed the test, but the promises were new then and we had everything to learn; everything to learn. What did we learn, you ask? We learned to sing of the faithfulness of God.”

Psalm 78:

“Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth.”

It is the voice of a teacher we hear in this psalm.

“I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us.”

Israel continued to utter dark sayings from of old because they continued to shed light on what it means to live as God’s covenant people.

“We will tell to generations to come the praisworthy deeds and the power of the Lord, and the wonderful works God has done” (Ps 78:1-4).

Israel continued to remember and tell so that every new generation would “put their trust in God, and not forget the deeds of God, but keep God’s commandments; and not be like their ancestors, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, and whose spirit was not faithful to God” (Ps 78:7-8).

It is a humbling exercise to pass on a tradition that includes yourself and your generation among those who failed it, but such honesty may well be the most profound proclamation of God’s faithfulness. Israel’s parents and teachers didn’t tell their children, “We did everything just right back in the day, and you must learn to do the same.” No, they told them, “We have failed again and again in our life as God’s people, but God has been faithful and true all the way. We failed to remember God’s promise and the commandments of life, but God remembered us.” Psalm 136 recalls Israel’s story with the God of gods and the Lord of lords, and after each line the refrain is, whose steadfast love endures forever. “We failed the wilderness test,” the witnesses declare, “but through our failure we learned to sing of the faithfulness of God.”

The commentaries point out that complaining is a defining theme of the wilderness wandering stories. Trapped between the sea and Pharaoh’s approaching army, the people said to Moses, not without a dose of dark humor, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?” (Exodus 14:11-12). Soon they marveled as the Lord made a way out of no way. Then they couldn’t drink the water of Marah, because it was bitter, and the people complained against Moses, “What shall we drink?” (Exodus 15:23-24). The Lord showed Moses a piece of wood to sweeten the water. Then they ran out of food, and again they complained against Moses and Aaron, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:2-3). And the Lord gave them quail and manna to eat. Then the water gave out altogether and the people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink,” followed again by a version of the now familiar refrain, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:3).

Yes, there’s definitely a pattern, and Moses certainly noticed it. “What shall I do with this people?” he cried out to God. It is tempting to notice the pattern and ask, “What is wrong with these people? They’ve been surrounded by miracles every step of the way, and all they can do is complain! Is their memory that short? Any little crisis, and their anxiety takes off spinning like a dust devil.” That’s easy to say for someone who reads about it in an air-conditioned room after a good breakfast.nA professor from Atlanta wrote,

I never fully appreciated the Hebrews grumbling in Exodus until two years ago when given the opportunity to journey through the Sinai wilderness on a Middle East travel seminar. We entered the region after having hiked a day in the full heat of the Petra sun, and I had become extremely dehydrated—so dehydrated that I could not make it to the top of Mount Sinai on the next day’s hike without becoming ill. As we trekked by bus through the Sinai Peninsula, I gained much more sympathy for the travelling Hebrews. In my early years, I would often hear preachers caricature the wandering Hebrews (…) as a petulant group of stubborn children who never knew true obedience or faith. When I look at this text (…) after having travelled by bus and with plenty of water through the Sinai desert, I realize that these newly freed slaves actually had reason to complain.[2]

Israel’s testimony wasn’t written on a bus tour. It was born in a long struggle for freedom and against oppression, a struggle against hunger and thirst, against fear and despair. Israel’s trust in God was not a relaxed nod in response to a friendly invitation – it was found at the bottom of all they could imagine, at the end of their strength, and at the very edge of what they could bear: nothing left to lean on but the promise of God. “The desert is only the real desert when it is too big for you,” wrote Mary Boulding, “when you do not know your way and have no reliance except God.”[3]

The men, women, and children who followed Moses were pioneers of faith who went into the unknown much like their ancestor Abraham who left all that was familiar to him in response to God’s promise. It is tempting and easy for us to notice the pattern of complaints in the desert and to miss entirely the trust that was built over a generation of wandering between the people and God. It was that trust that became the foundation of the covenant God made with them at Sinai. Their testimony to their children, to every generation of Israel, and to us is that the journey is precarious, but that God is faithful, even though our own fidelity is shaky.

The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Nothing more is said or shown. No additional scene describing the size of the rock, the faces of the elders upon seeing water flowing from the rock, or the joy of the people drinking and watering the animals. None of that. The Lord’s instructions are recorded, and the narrator only adds, “Moses did so.” Our attention is not drawn to the miracle but to the God whose word can be trusted.

There’s another detail that invites us to read the entire episode metaphorically rather than hydrologically. The rock to which God pointed Moses was not some rock over there, next to another rock; it was the rock at Horeb, the mountain where Moses received God’s Torah, the commandments and teachings of life.

“The journey was long and precarious,” the parents and teachers told the children, “but God never failed us. We had food to eat and water to quench our thirst. None had too much and no one had too little. Because God was faithful, we learned to be faithful to each other. Not that we never failed each other again, God knows we did, but in the wilderness we began to drink God’s word like our life depended on it, and God’s word has sustained us ever since. Moses called the place Massah and Meribah, test and argument. Looking back, we thought he could have called it Ya-amin, the Lord is faithful, but perhaps he still had to discover that himself then.”


[1] See Psalm 78:11-16

[2] David G. Garber

[3] Mary Boulding, The Coming of God, 38.