EXODUS 17:1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3 But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” 4 So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5 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.6 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.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

One persistent liability of religion is that it fosters in believers an expectation that God will always provide what they need. Indeed, this short tether of self-interest, which keeps “juvenile” forms of theism closely tied to an individual’s concern for security, provisions, good fortune and life everlasting, has prevented theism itself from evolving apace with our spiritual growth as a species over the millenniums.

When children don’t get what they want, they will typically fuss and complain. And if the world fails to deliver on their demand, they will pout and mope about, making life difficult for everyone else. If parents aren’t consistent in reshaping this behavior – or try too hard to keep these protesters satisfied – children can grow up with a sense of entitlement, thinking that the world owes them what they crave.

But because the world simply cannot deliver on their every demand, many youngsters grow up with deep discontent and an insatiable appetite for more, fueled by an insecurity that drives them to get as much as they can for as little effort as possible. In short, they grow up to become consummate consumers, with just the right mix of low self-awareness, impossible expectations, and a blatant disregard for how their behavior negatively impacts the larger community of life.

In the biblical myth-cycle, the Eviction from Eden and the Exodus from Egypt are really two angles on the same event, looked at from different elevations along the spiraling course of human development. The surplus provision and instant gratification of Eden in early childhood soon become conditions of captivity for the human spirit in its late adolescence, which must grow up, move on, and start taking responsibility in life.

Adolescents typically want freedom without responsibility, however, and the old securities of Egypt often tempt us to forsake maturity and fulfillment for what we think we really need and deserve.

At yet another turn of the spiral, Exile from Jerusalem, these complaints in the desert wilderness will eventually resolve into a grieving loss, a deeper self-understanding, and a search for God in the midst of suffering.


How does quarreling with Moses and complaining about not having water to drink amount to “testing the Lord”? When their need for water in the desert wasn’t instantly gratified, the Israelites began to question whether or not God was really with them.

The patron deities of theism emerged as the hidden agencies behind the forces that support and stress human existence. A storm god was regarded as behind the storm that devastated a village, which didn’t fix the damage, certainly, but did provide an explanation for the disaster. That is to say, it was made meaningful.

If the explanation is that god is angry and punishing the village for its sin, then at least it has meaning – and the mind needs meaning like the body needs water and food and air to breathe.

If you believe in a god whose “job” is to provide for you, protect you from harm, or love you unconditionally, then every time there isn’t bread on the table when you want it, rescue from danger when you need it, or the warm feeling of being the apple of your god’s eye, you might well begin to doubt and lose faith.

God had called Abram out of his homeland, liberated the Hebrews out of bondage, and renewed a covenant with Moses – all of it working out a promise to bring the people into a greater destiny, which included their responsibility as “a light to the nations.”  God didn’t say, “I’ll take care of you and give you everything you want,” but rather, “You will be a vehicle of my blessing to all people.”

With the promise still unfulfilled – because they were still only on the way – the people lost focus and started fixating on their immediate needs. In effect, they cried out: Forget the future and your  so-called purpose for us! We’re thirsty NOW and you don’t care!

In doubting God’s covenant commitment and larger intention, they were thereby “testing the Lord.” Because God wasn’t present to them according to their demands, they accused him of being absent.

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