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March 3, 2002

Exodus 17:1-7


Tony Grant




When Bob Stevens went to work at the headquarters of tabloid publisher American Media Inc. in Florida in late September 2001, he did not know that his building would soon become a hot zone for an outbreak of anthrax, or that he would be fatally exposed to the disease. His death was another chapter in the apocalyptic annuals of the new terrorism of the third millennium. Other hot zones soon emerged in media centers in New York City, at the nation's capital and in post offices in New Jersey and Washington, D.C.

Yet the world was a dangerous place before September 2001. Our global community, linked by air traffic, offers germs a full set of frequent flier upgrades, enabling them to migrate around the globe with unprecedented speed. On any overseas airliner, one woman's continual cough can become every passenger's new flu, and then every passenger can spread it around at home. International vegetables and fruit carry illness, too. Raspberries picked in Guatemala can be on U.S. grocery store shelves the next day along with Cyclospora cayetanensis (pronounced sigh-clo-spore-a kay-tan-in-sis), a parasite.

Meanwhile, some of our fashionable antibiotics actually seem to be good for these bad bugs. Tuberculosis has gone totally global, causing 30 million deaths worldwide from 1990 to 2000, and now, a multiple drug-resistant tuberculosis is rampant in Russia, Peru and other countries.

Since the late 1970s, more than twenty serious pathogens have emerged, including bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as "Mad Cow Disease," and three years ago, the Nipah virus appeared in Malaysia. It jumped from pigs to people, killing both pigs and people. "Some years," say experts, "we barely dodge a global flu pandemic."

Rather suddenly, times have changed. Even plagues have changed, but one thing remains constant: We fear contagion, whether terrorists steal it, grow it and then spread it, or it rises out of nature. Pestilence plagues people.

The ancient Hebrews knew all about pestilence and plague. They had been escaped from Egypt because of a series of ten plagues. Now that they were wandering and wondering in the wilderness, however, they found themselves afflicted with a plague of a different sort, one just as contagious as the Asian flu. A germ was in the air, a bug was in their system, an epidemic was among them. Like all bad bugs, their disease was hard to see, yet its symptoms were discernible they had a plague of peevishness. The Israelites had come down with a bad case of complaining. They were whining and crying like a bunch of babies.


[Hold up a baby's pacifier] I suppose they needed something like this to stop their fussing. I do not know what you called this with your children, or when you were a baby—a paccy, Some children call it a binky. In any case, the Israelites sounded like they needed paccys or binkys. They should have known that God is as good to his people as a loving mother or father is good to a baby. But a baby does not know to trust her parents, that is why babies need pacifiers. Unfortunately, the Israelites were spiritual babies and had a baby faith

Exodus 17:1-7

The story of Moses' securing water from a rock in Exodus 17:1-7, is one of the many episodes in the wilderness when the Israelites failed to trust that the God who had liberated them from Egypt would also provide for them in their wanderings. The people's continual restiveness is such a prominent themes in the exodus and wilderness experience that scholars refer to it as "the murmuring tradition." The verb that usually occurs in such passages is "complained" (as in 15:24; 16:2; 17:3; Numbers 11:1, 14:2, 29), but the verb here is "quarreled," based on the name of the place "Meribah" (v. 7), which shares the same Hebrew root. Commonly the people direct their quarrel toward Moses, as here in v. 2. Moses' response is a double question also in verse 2 ("Why do you quarrel with me?...Why do you test the LORD?") I suspect that Moses already knew the answer to those questions.

The people's complaint--"Give us water to drink" (v. 2)--seems not unreasonable since v1 says they had no water. The additional complaint in verse 3 -- "Why did you bring us out of Egypt?"--reflects the theological problem underlying the "murmuring tradition." Now we might point to some subsidiary problems here:

The people attempt to shift responsibility for their circumstances from themselves to Moses.

Also the people seem to regard Moses as their provider and not God—glorifying the instrument rather than the real Provider.

But those subsidiary problems only point out the real problem—which is their faithlessness.

Allthough initially defensive (v. 2), Moses relays the people's complaint to God even as the situation deteriorates toward violence. As Moses notes in v4, they are ready to stone him—they are ready to kill him.

Back in Egypt, Moses had struck the Nile with his staff and made the water undrinkable. Now Moses, mirroring his earlier action, strikes the rock with his staff to produce water.

But the focus of exodus 17 is on the peevish plague among the people. The verbal roots for Massah and Meribah are "test" and "quarrel,"

The incident at Meribah and Massah became something of a byword in the religious tradition of ancient Israel. It is referred to again, for example, in Deuteronomy 33:8-9. It points to a real problem among the people. The problem was, as I have already indicated, a lack of faith in God.

The Common Complainer

Complaining cuts to the heart of our relationship with God. Complaining also cuts the heart out of our relationship with others. The complaining Israelites questioned God’s faithfulness. In v7 they ask,: "Is the LORD among us or not?" (v. 7). Complaining was also destroying their relationship with Moses. When we complain, we look around for a scapegoat, and lo there was Moses.

Complaining is a plague that's more destructive to a church than spreading a cough at communion. Complaints tear the soul apart, tear people apart, tear communities apart.

The Israelites were whining, ungrateful, and disappointed. And what was their complaint? That God was never good enough. That God never did enough. The pillar of fire, the column of cloud, the defeat of the entire army of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the salvation of the people--not enough.

"Why did you lead us out here? We'll die out here! We're thirsty. It's dry. It's hot. My feet hurt. Egypt was better. Egypt had water. Egypt had beds. Our children need water. Even our cows are thirsty. It's not like home!"

So here's Moses, whom God had called to transform a climate of complaint into a culture of faith. Moses is an overqualified nanny, running about with binky at-the-ready for whoever needs to be pacified next. Moses himself had some complaints about having to do that all the time.

Where does the common complaint come from? Does it fester? Is it catching? It's catching all right. And it comes from real or imagined wrongs, or simply faulty expectations, or lack of courage, or the inability to persevere in the face of daunting circumstances.

* The common complainer says, "I don't like it," then offers no solution.

* The common complainer says, "It's your fault. You fix it. You do something. I'll just sit here."

* The common complainer says, "If you don't do it my way, I'll go home." Or worse, "If you don't do it my way, I'll stay until everyone is infected and miserable."

Complaint is like poison in the belly of a bitter soul that hates to be alone. So it spreads, it infects, it converts, it multiples--until the community is one bitter belly, with a heart full of sourness and no place for God.

Curing the Epidemic

How then do we cure a complaint epidemic?

First, understand what it is. Complaining constitutes a "testing of God," (vv. 2, 7). We are explicitly told not to put God to the test. We are not to insist that God meet our demands in order to prove that God is God. The Divine does not operate that way and is highly incensed when we suggest that he should. When we complain, we are implicitly saying that God is not God. We are saying that if God were God, he would be doing what I want him to do. Complaining is a backhanded way of saying, that God is not faithful. "The Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying "Is the LORD among us, or not?'" (v. 7). The cure for complaining is to realize that in whatever situation we find ourselves, God is with us. To complain is to say, "God, you have abandoned me. God, you are gone and you do not care." In other words, such complaining denies the very nature of God—because by nature God is faithful to his people.

Now you might ask, what do I do when someone is complaining and is spreading the complaint plague. Try administering the Colossian cure: "Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive" (Colossians 3:13). In other words, turn the language of complaint into the language of commitment. Don’t complain about out brothers and sisters, but instead make a commitment to them that expresses our love, forgiveness, and understanding. Don't start the gossip mill. That spreads the complaint disease faster than a sneeze. Don't create a SuperPlague in the church, home, or community. Such a plague could destroy the church, home, or community.

The Faith Cure

Rather than joining the complainers, turn to the ChristCure—which is the cure of faith.

John of the Cross was a sixteenth century Spanish Christian, He says that faith is "a certain and obscure habit of the soul." Faith is a habit. It is not a decision that we make one time, it is a continual decision that we make so much and so often that it has become a habit of our soul. John of the Cross goes on to say that faith "is an obscure habit because it brings us to believe divinely revealed truths that transcend every natural light and infinitely exceed all human understanding." John says that we are not going to be able to reason our way to God; We are not going to think our way to God, but the habit of faith enables us to reach beyond reasoning and thinking to believe "divinely revealed truths." John adds that when the light of faith is bestowed upon a soul it produces a darkness for the soul—which seems like a totally strange and contradictory thing to say—the light of faith produces darkness. What he means is that the light of faith is so bright that it eclipses and overwhelms all dimmer lights. Let me explain. We know that there are stars in the sky--we see them at night--but when the sun comes out we do not see them. What happened? The light of the sun is so powerful that it obscures all other lights so that—in comparison, they are in darkness. The habit of faith so overwhelms and dominates our lives that nothing else in life has any meaning. When we have the habit of faith, things become possible to us that were totally impossible otherwise.

John of the Cross further said, "The light of faith in its abundance suppresses and overwhelms that of the intellect. For the intellect, by its own power, comprehends only natural knowledge, though it has the potency to be raised to a supernatural act whenever our Lord wishes." John is one of those folks who seems to say things in the most obscure possible way, but he does have some things to say that are worth hearing. He says that our minds work best in dealing with physical things. This is the way we are made. Our intellect works best in what we might call the natural world. This is not a fault of the intellect. This is just the way it works. But then he goes on to say that our minds can be illuminated and transformed by the sun of faith In fact, I think he would say that our intellect is only properly used when it is used in and out of faith. This brings us then to the observation that the mind is a rather slippery device that can operate either for faith or against faith.

We find this to be true on every question.

Suppose that tomorrow you need to do something that you have never done before. Now it could be anything, but let us suppose that I am talking about myself, and the thing that I have to do tomorrow is bake a cake.

My first mental reaction is: "I have never done that before. I have never in my life baked a cake." I have used a bread machine to bake bread, but I have never baked a cake.

My next reaction then is: because I have never done it before, I cannot do it. I can then use my mind to multiply the reasons for my unbelief in my ability to bake a cake. I do not know much about cooking. I do very little cooking at the manse. I know that cakes can fall. Certainly any cake I make would fall. It won’t work. I can’t do it. This is the reasoning of unbelief about my cake baking.

But I could reason the other way. Suppose I am flooded with belief in my ability to bake. I actually get out the box of cake mix. I read the recipe on the box. I turn on the oven and mix the mix, and with much help from God, it would come out all right.

This reminds me of St. Francis of Asissi’s recipe for building a church. Frances looked at an old church that was in such ruins that only pieces of the walls were left. He said, "I am going to rebuild that church." People who heard him said, :"You are just one person. You can’t do that." Francis picked up a rock and placed it on piece of a wall and said, "See, I have already started."

That is faith.

At Massah and Meribah, the people had no faith. And because they had not faith, everything was going wrong, everything was bad, nothing could be done, God was not with them and the best thing they could think of was to assassinate Moses and go back to Egypt. That is the language and thought process of unbelief.

Christ heals us of that ugly super plague. Christ floods us with the sun of faith so that all those doubts that seemed so strong are swept away and replaced with a new way of thinking and reasoning, so that what formerly seemed absurd and idiotic now seems the only reasonable and sensible way to live. In IICR5:17, the apostle Paul says, "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new." Old ways of thinking, old ways of unbelief--that is all passed away and done away with in Christ. We have a new way of thinking, the way of the possibilities of belief. Amen.


Dahle, Cherly. "What are you complaining about?" Fast Company, May 2001, 66.

Seven Languages for Transformation. Jossey-Bass, 2000.

"The plague years," Wired, April 4, 2001, 173.

John of the Cross Kavanaugh editor, Paulist Press, 1987 p82.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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