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Water at Massah and Meribah

17 [a] The whole community[b] of the Israelites traveled on their journey[c] from the wilderness of Sin according to the Lord’s instruction, and they pitched camp in Rephidim.[d] Now[e] there was no water for the people to drink.[f] So the people contended[g] with Moses, and they said, “Give us water to drink!”[h] Moses said to them, “Why do you contend[i] with me? Why do you test[j] the Lord? But the people were very thirsty[k] there for water, and they murmured against Moses and said, “Why in the world[l] did you bring us up from Egypt—to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?”[m]

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Footnotes

  1. Exodus 17:1 sn This is the famous story telling how the people rebelled against Yahweh when they thirsted, saying that Moses had brought them out into the wilderness to kill them by thirst, and how Moses with the staff brought water from the rock. As a result of this the name was called Massa and Meribah because of the testing and the striving. It was a challenge to Moses’ leadership as well as a test of Yahweh’s presence. The narrative in its present form serves an important point in the argument of the book. The story turns on the gracious provision of God who can give his people water when there is none available. The narrative is structured to show how the people strove. Thus, the story intertwines God’s free flowing grace with the sad memory of Israel’s sins. The passage can be divided into three parts: the situation and the complaint (1-3), the cry and the miracle (4-6), and the commemoration by naming (7).
  2. Exodus 17:1 tn Or “congregation” (KJV, ASV, NASB, NRSV).
  3. Exodus 17:1 tn The text says that they journeyed “according to their journeyings.” Since the verb form (and therefore the derived noun) essentially means to pull up the tent pegs and move along, this verse would be saying that they traveled by stages, or, from place to place.
  4. Exodus 17:1 sn The location is a bit of a problem. Exod 19:1-2 suggests that it is near Sinai, whereas it is normally located near Kadesh in the north. Without any details provided, M. Noth concludes that two versions came together (Exodus [OTL], 138). S. R. Driver says that the writer wrote not knowing that they were 24 miles apart (Exodus, 157). Critics have long been bothered by this passage because of the two names given at the same place. If two sources had been brought together, it is not possible now to identify them. But Noth insisted that if there were two names there were two different locations. The names Massah and Meribah occur alone in Scripture (Deut 9:22, and Num 20:1 for examples), but together in Ps 95 and in Deut 33:8. But none of these passages is a clarification of the difficulty. Most critics would argue that Massah was a secondary element that was introduced into this account, because Exod 17 focuses on Meribah. From that starting point they can diverge greatly on the interpretation, usually having something to do with a water test. But although Num 20 is parallel in several ways, there are major differences: 1) it takes place 40 years later than this, 2) the name Kadesh is joined to the name Meribah there, and 3) Moses is punished there. One must conclude that if an event could occur twice in similar ways (complaint about water would be a good candidate for such), then there is no reason a similar name could not be given.
  5. Exodus 17:1 tn The disjunctive vav introduces a parenthetical clause that is essential for this passage—there was no water.
  6. Exodus 17:1 tn Here the construction uses a genitive after the infinitive construct for the subject: “there was no water for the drinking of the people” (GKC 353-54 §115.c).
  7. Exodus 17:2 tn The verb וַיָּרֶב (vayyarev) is from the root רִיב (riv); it forms the basis of the name “Meribah.” The word means “strive, quarrel, be in contention” and even “litigation.” A translation “quarrel” does not appear to capture the magnitude of what is being done here. The people have a legal dispute—they are contending with Moses as if bringing a lawsuit.
  8. Exodus 17:2 tn The imperfect tense with the vav (ו) follows the imperative, and so it carries the nuance of the logical sequence, showing purpose or result. This may be expressed in English as “give us water so that we may drink,” but more simply with the English infinitive, “give us water to drink.”sn One wonders if the people thought that Moses and Aaron had water and were withholding it from the people, or whether Moses was able to get it on demand. The people should have come to Moses to ask him to pray to God for water, but their action led Moses to say that they had challenged God (B. Jacob, Exodus, 476).
  9. Exodus 17:2 tn In this case and in the next clause the imperfect tenses are to be taken as progressive imperfects—the action is in progress.
  10. Exodus 17:2 tn The verb נָסָה (nasah) means “to test, tempt, try, prove.” It can be used of people simply trying to do something that they are not sure of (such as David trying on Saul’s armor), or of God testing people to see if they will obey (as in testing Abraham, Gen 22:1), or of people challenging others (as in the Queen of Sheba coming to test Solomon), and of the people in the desert in rebellion putting God to the test. By doubting that God was truly in their midst, and demanding that he demonstrate his presence, they tested him to see if he would act. There are times when “proving” God is correct and required, but that is done by faith (as with Gideon); when it is done out of unbelief, then it is an act of disloyalty.
  11. Exodus 17:3 tn The verbs and the pronouns in this verse are in the singular because “the people” is singular in form.
  12. Exodus 17:3 tn The demonstrative pronoun is used as the enclitic form for special emphasis in the question; it literally says, “why is this you have brought us up?” (R. J. Williams, Hebrew Syntax, 24, §118).
  13. Exodus 17:3 sn Their words deny God the credit for bringing them out of Egypt, impugn the integrity of Moses and God by accusing them of bringing the people out here to die, and show a lack of faith in God’s ability to provide for them.

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