17:1 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. 2The people quarrelled 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?’ 3But 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?’ 4So Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’ 5The 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. 6I 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. 7He called the place Massah* and Meribah,* because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’Exodus 17:1–7
The passage from Exodus for Sunday’s Lectionary reading begins in a barren landscape. The story is staged, like the one in the previous chapter, in a place absent of a basic necessity for life: “There was no water for the people to drink” (Exodus 17:1). Oppressed by the bare elements of the wilderness, and confronted by this landscape, which appears to give no prospect for deliverance, the people rise up in rebellion. They demand what is owed them by YHWH and his prophet—not only water (“Give us water to drink,” verse 2), but also an account of “Why” Moses has led them out of Egypt only to “kill” them “with thirst” (verse 4). The people of Israel rise up, “ready to stone [Moses]” (verse 5), if this arid landscape isn’t transformed to yield water. The people demand that this place live up to its name, Rephidim, and thus lay out a “support” for life.
This impossible demand casts the entirety of the landscape into question. Can it yield water? Can it support life? Every stone thus emerges from the background into a reflection that finds them vacant of any hope. And from this void emerges Moses’ cry: “What shall I do . . .?” (verse 4). The supplication suddenly blasts open the scene of a nearly deadly conflict, inviting the possibility of a disruptive force that can alter the situation. What at first appeared to be a totalizing landscape with no prospect for hope now bears the question mark of divine presence (“Is the LORD among us or not?” verse 7).
Today, too, a demand brings into question the entire landscape. As the demand for water confronts an apparently unchangeable order, this demand today is dismissed as wishful thinking. I am referring here to the demand for abolition, resounding from the ongoing uprising against the police state. As poor, predominantly Black and Brown people have sought to carve out an existence in this land, their journeyings have been oppressed by violent structures that have settled into the landscape of society, taking on the aspect of permanence.
The cry for abolition, which itself issues from the abolitionist tradition buried in often unexamined histories, exposes this landscape to be as barren as the desert. Yet, simultaneously, from the communities crushed by the carceral state, there is asserted to nevertheless be another foundation for life, the principles of freedom and liberation, which can transform society. Visions of a new beginning, a new humanity, emerge from these demands, along with the question, can water spring from dry land?
Written almost ten years ago explicitly out of the abolitionist tradition, Angela Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete? begins by literally turning to California’s landscape. She gazes at this landscape, depicted in the painter Sandow Birk’s series Prisonation: Visions of California in the 21st Century. Here, structures imprisoning human life merge into picturesque nature. Prison walls define the shoreline; towers stand alongside barbed fences, receding into the horizon. As the integrity of the state relies on its presumed monopoly of violence, as the racialized notion of criminality becomes attached in a “causal relation” to “imprisonment” (85), here these structures weave into natural landscapes. It is to this, not the realm of dreams, that Davis turns.
In these “visions,” she performs the very task these “visions” make seem impossible—to “envision a social order” abolished of prisons (10). There is a basis, she argues, buried beneath direct view, that might be the foundation for creating a radically different world. Davis’s reflection casts a new light on the landscape. A support, Rephidim, is found for revolutionary transformation beneath what now appear as “inevitable . . . permanent feature[s] of our social lives” (9).
Police nationwide, emboldened by a neo-fascist President, have unleashed hell on this uprising. Extreme violence has sought to suppress this movement because it fundamentally threatens the social order. In seizing and redistributing commodified goods, and in reclaiming and renaming spaces, protestors are wresting things out of the naturalized order. In their hands they are given new value, and assert a new world.
Richmond’s monument to Robert E. Lee, for instance, has been newly named after a Black school teacher, Marcus-David Peters, murdered by police during a mental health crisis. The deployment of federal forces to Portland, the mass arrests and assaults of protestors by police, the utter disregard for the freedom of press—these all violently police any site that might spark a vision of such a new world. The basic power relations which structure US society, namely the war waged upon the poor, relies on its illusionary semblance of natural permanence.
Davis demonstrates that intellectual labor has its part in the uprising. Just as Marx contends that the very means of production now in the hands of the few can become enfolded into a liberated humanity, Davis wrests those taken-for-granted principles from the background and reinvents their use. In a time of ever-increasing climate change, we know that we cannot make clear-cut distinctions between “nature” and “history.” As Birk’s title suggests, the landscapes exhibit a natural history, a “prisonation” of the land.
But Davis’s work throws the “social and ideological landscapes of our society” into a new view (107). This theoretical intellectual pillaging, is what she describes as a “shift[ing of] our attention” (106). She exposes the prison industrial complex to be, far from simple, a set of “symbiotic relations” which can now be untethered. Her criticism razes the complex set of relations currently entrapping millions of Black people in the carceral state. Yet it is precisely in the rubble that she “envisions” decarceration. Springs of water, she argues, can come from dry land.
The bursting forth of water is in our passage intimately linked with divine presence: “He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD saying, Is the LORD among us or not?” (verse 7). Old Testament scholar William Propp notes how this divine act of irrigation echoes Genesis 2, where a similar miraculous emergence of a spring “from the earth” immediately precedes the creation of the first man (Genesis 2:6). Thus, this event in the wilderness evokes the association of creation and irrigation in ancient Near Eastern myths (608). Propp also observes how the imagery of divine irrigation appears in Deuteronomy to symbolize the abundance of the land of Canaan (611). What erupts from the rock upon which YHWH stands is filled with a cosmic significance, signaling a re-creation.
We see this image taken up again by the prophets. Deutero-Isaiah gazes into the history of Israel, and envisions liberation in it: “I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water . . . so that all may see and know, all may consider and understand, that the hand of the LORD has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it” (Isaiah 41:17, 20). The mythical depiction of what the world originally was now signals the future.
The future gains cosmic significance in Ezekiel’s apocalyptic vision of the temple: “the entrance of the temple; there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east” (Ezekiel 47:1). The Book of Enoch, however, charges this imagery with messianic significance. A scene reminiscent of Ezekiel’s vision is the site where “those who have received mercy shall forever, all their days, bless God, the everlasting King” (1 Enoch 26).
Herman Cohen, writing at the dawn of fascism’s rise in Germany, thus likens the emergence and development of the messianic notion of humanity in Judaism as the stream flowing from the rock, which is now for him the foundation of Reason (5). He envisions, in what he self-consciously describes the “prophetic gaze,” a world of peace, a messianic humanity, as the water that blazes a trail in its resistance to structures of oppression. Just as Isaiah 33:21 identifies YHWH as the river of Zion itself, Cohen identifies this gaze upon the sufferers of history as looking upon the face of God (447). Those oppressed and even broken by structures of evil, under the prophetic gaze, shine in the light of the God’s frontside, peace, and thus evoke the commandment to make present the messianic future. To cause the world to bear, that is, the face of God.
A crucial task of political theology is casting scriptural texts, and the literature surrounding them, into such a current for liberation. As this book is waved in the hands of autocrats, it must now become a stone from which waters of life spring. We face a state of emergency, building far longer than it became visible to many. In this crisis, scholars of Christianity must resist the currents in which the Bible is caught. A community liberated Marcus-David Peters Circle. In Davis’s text, institutions wrapped inside the carceral state are transformed into “vehicles of decarceration” (108). We set our sights on Exodus 17. From it a mighty stream of history surges forward. What now emerges before our eyes from the dry land is not only water, but the new world. From it, the idea of a liberated humanity, each person standing free in their infinite connection to every other, enters the scene of history. God becomes present. As the text writes, this desert landscape becomes a “stage” for YHWH.
As Davis looks at the structures which have settled and colonized California’s landscape, their dreamy aspect of permanence is interrupted. These pillars of the landscape decompose, break into fragments of history. She deconstructs the seeming unchanging simplicity of the carceral state into its parts, its “symbiotic relations.” What previously appears as an unchanging whole is now revealed as a historical assemblage of things by sovereign forces.
But, just as criticism breaks down a text into pieces, reassembling them under a new insight, Davis’s text now arranges these fragments to script a new, abolitionist reality. The landscape becomes a “stage” for a moment, namely the irruption of freedom into a fundamentally unfree condition. Or, to once again return to the register of the biblical passage, YHWH becomes present. In the struggle for liberation, Davis writes elsewhere, freedom is “already present,” always premature and anticipatory (7). In the uprising of the people against oppression, history becomes the site of an anticipated future.
The fragmented remains of the landscape grants us a key insight. The conflict between Moses and the people ends with his cry to YHWH. Davis’s text lays the fragments before an open sky. Even as it urges that these be assembled differently, as vehicles for abolition, they also whisper, albeit weakly, what Walter Benjamin calls a “messianic power.” We sense the infinity of these fragments, the seeds of an open future. We envision the liberation of all humanity, no single aspect of any individual claimed as the marker of another’s ownership or license to kill.
I believe it is our task as intellectuals to, as Marx one wrote, read the social hieroglyphics. In the face of an idea such as abolition, which tears away at the foundations of a social order which has ossified in our minds, we must work out its implications. The rallying cry emerging from the streets is one that does not implicate the world in the abstract, but challenges us to look at our landscape with a prophetic gaze. We must once again take up the task of breaking down all that appears solid and secure, and see if we cannot see the signal for a new world etched on the fragments. We face a landscape of ruins—is God with us or not? The answer lies in our hands.