Exodus 17:17 – Is the Lord Among Us or Not?
Lack of water and food raise questions about God's capacity to sustain those who have been brought out of Egypt.
The episodes in Exodus 15:22-17:7 can be read as casting a negative light on Israel. Clearly they are not standing at the sea fearing and believing in the Lord and Moses as in 14:31. The singing of 15:1-21 has drifted away. Yet, as the episodes commence, the need for water is real. There is complaint against Moses, not merely lack of believing in him. However, Moses' response is to cry out to God, and God shows him how to make the water drinkable. At their next stop, there are twelve springs of drinkable water; their need is answered. In the next episode they again complain against Moses (and Aaron), this time over the lack of food. They attribute their release from Egypt to Moses and hold him responsible for their emerging plight. In addition, they become wistful about Egypt, claiming that they are now worse off. This time the Lord responds directly by raining down manna-always just enough for everyone and no more. In the third episode there is no water at all. The tension escalates; now the people quarrel with Moses and Moses understands the quarreling to be testing God. Earlier, Moses had complained that God had not acted quickly enough to deliver Israel (5:22-23); now, Moses cries out to God that the people are out to get him. Much shifts when Moses calls the people "this" people (17:4) instead of using a personal pronoun (my or your). But once again God responds to the need; there is no punishment. These three episodes are followed by a battle with the Amalekites in which Israel prevails.
While ominous breaches in Israel's obedience occur, there is striking restraint on the part of God. These episodes underscore God's commitment to Israel. A troubling idealized nostalgia for Egypt is also creeping in. On the other hand, the existence that Israel is enduring is quite different from the promise of "a land flowing with milk and honey" (13:5; see also 3:8, 17). In the wilderness it is hard enough to find drinkable water! One should not reduce the story to a denigration of the material versus the spiritual. God's promises have a material dimension. Given the extensiveness of God's promises, the present reality does raise a question. How is one to respond to the delay in what God alone can do? "Is the LORD among us or not?" That question might betray an accusation that God (or God's chosen leader) is out to kill us (17:3), but it might also be a legitimate question. After the golden calf episode Moses will have to press rigorously the question of God's presence.
The reader's task is not to pass judgment on Israel's faith. Since Exodus does seek to shape faith and practice generation after generation, readers might better ask how these episodes reflect their own character. That is one of the ways in which these stories were later employed. On the basis of these narratives, Psalm 95:7b-9 pleads: "O that today you would listen to his voice!"