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Politics of Scripture

Water Margin

We have a history of commentaries that paints real physical need—experienced by billions worldwide daily—as stupid ingratitude. If we ask YHWH for literal water, pleading with him and testing his provision, are we being unappreciative?

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. 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?”

Exodus 17:1–7 (NRSV)

Commentators on Exodus 17:1-7 often characterize Israel’s demand for water in the desert wilderness as a grave, sinful deed, one foreshadowing their tendency towards apostasy in the Bible’s later books. I argue that by seeing the narrative through the eyes of the people, rather than through the eyes of Moses/YHWH (also known as the marginal-materialist approach), we can grasp the legitimacy of Israel’s demand but also their collective power in the process of attaining it. Israel was without water, essential for human life, and faced an unresponsive leader. In a daunting turn of events, they bound together and spoke as one to challenge Moses and YHWH and forcefully voice their needs⁠—which were successfully obtained. Their courage and solidarity can inspire those who struggle against privation and dehydration in the here and now.

Exodus 17:1–7 is the last in a trilogy of episodes (15:22—17:7) depicting the harsh realities of Israel’s experience in the wilderness, each following a similar pattern. Here, Israel arrives at Rephidim after journeying from Sin (the area near Mt. Sinai) and realizes there is no water (17:1). They complain to Moses (17:2–3) and grumble about their liberation from Egypt (17:3) amid the present circumstances. Moses asks YHWH for assistance in dealing with the increasingly tense situation (17:4–5). YHWH commands Moses to gather the elders of Israel and strike the rock of Horeb for water to appear (17:6).

While commentators throughout the history of this text’s reception illuminate the structural pattern of the passage, as I have just described, they simultaneously disparage the people’s desire to have water in the middle of the desert (hence Exod 15:22—17:7 is often demarcated by Biblical scholars as the “rebellion cycle”). Scott Langston’s Exodus Through the Centuries indicates that from the earliest Jewish and Christian commentators, the Israelites were framed as disobedient to Moses and YHWH—whether by not following the (inchoate) torah (cf. Exod 15:26), unnecessarily complaining, or merely not respectfully recognizing God’s recently given and miraculous provision (170–184). Possibly the earliest of all interpretations of this passage, found in Deuteronomy, repeatedly mentions the Israelite misconduct at Massah/Meribah: there they unrighteously tested YHWH (Deut 6:16; 33:8), provoking profound anger (Deut 9:22). Whether the interpretation is canonical, churchly, or rabbinical, the Israelites’ reaction to being without water is understood as an act of disobedience.

Contemporary commentators are brutal in their language against the Israelites, while reading from the Israelites’ own perspective is noticeably rare. Ronald Clement remarks that the request for water is “startling and deplorable… ungrateful and illogical behavior in view of God’s deliverance…” (94). Jorge Pixley, a liberationist Old Testament theologian, surprisingly characterizes Israel as a “counter-revolutionary” force acting against the vanguard leadership of Moses and YHWH. To Pixley, while critiquing the revolutionary leadership is vital for accountability, the Israelite complaint here signals “weak-spiritedness” and a failure to grasp “the progressive thrust in human history” that the Exodus project represents (107). Terence Fretheim claims the Israelite attitude toward YHWH here “hold[s] God hostage… violating the Goodness of God, it endangers the understanding of the faith” (189).

While I do not discount these scholar’s contributions, their comments arise from economically prosperous social locations, and they themselves likely never experienced the life-threatening crisis of being without water for an extended time. Even in ancient interpretations, the scribes represented the top of the socioeconomic pyramid with the ability to write authoritative religious texts—likely possessing greater access to liquid than the average peasant. Thus, to these unimaginative interpreters, complaining about water and food—especially after experiencing a magnificent miracle of the Red Sea splitting—is preposterous, irrational, and truly selfish because it makes primary the supposed needs of the individual over the omniscient plan of God.

These top-down readings—ones that take the dominant, centralizing perspective of Moses/YHWH over and against that of the Israelites—contrast with what I attempt to do below: a marginal-materialist reading from the underside. As defined by Miguel De La Torre, “a material reading… attempts to introduce the reality of daily struggles into the Bible. Close attention is given to how the social location of the marginalized, both today and during biblical times, affects how the Bible should be understood” (46). Marginal-materialist readings must produce, additionally, “life-abundant” readings, as De La Torre terms them. Without this hermeneutical telos, the Bible becomes a tool for the oppression and subjugation of all outside the prevailing social order’s norm. (I would go further and state that if this is the case, the Bible must be thrown out as a source of moral and social guidance). As De La Torre writes, “only interpretations that empower all elements of humanity, offering abundant life in the here-now, as opposed to just the here-after, are biblically sound” (52).

Thus, the interpretations above are the opposite of life-abundant. They occlude alternative, contextually-informed readings under the guise of rationalistic impartiality (while taking the side of Moses/YHWH regardless). Such interpretations do not interrogate the meaning of actual water, lived thirstiness, and the responses of Moses and God in the pericope and surrounding narrative. We have a history of commentaries that paints real physical need—experienced by billions worldwide daily—as stupid ingratitude. If we ask YHWH for literal water, pleading with him and testing his provision, are we being unappreciative?

To emphasize: water is essential for all humans. Christiana Peppard’s Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis illustrates the obvious nature of humanity’s relationship to water. She writes, “fresh water is a baseline requirement for survival and flourishing—for human beings, societies, civilizations, and ecosystems—and it is nonsubstitutable… Fresh water reveals how radically dependent we human beings really are, for access to fresh water is an ultimate variable in survival at all levels of scale. In this sense, it is a universal requirement for human life” (20; emphasis added). The calculus is self-evident: humans will perish within a week without water. Therefore, when commentators describe Israel’s request as ungrateful, they promote a message of death for contemporary readers: we must not complain (to our leaders and God) of our lot, but should be only grateful for their past provision.

Let us read the lectionary passage through the eyes of the journeying Israelites experiencing thirst unto death. This large assembly of lowly, recently emancipated slaves has been wandering through the wilderness for several months (Exod 16:1) and faced extended privation. First, the water was too bitter at Elim, and it took their grumbling for Moses to make it potable. Then, they lacked food in the Desert of Sin before being granted manna and quail. Now, after more journeying, they have a complete lack of water.

This group of old and young, women and children, livestock animals and domesticated pets are exhausted. Their “liberation” from Egypt amounts to a series of “tests” where they have been deprived by God of the sustenance needed to live (cf. 15:25, 16:4). Egypt was the house of slavery and death, yet death continually stalks this roving band after deliverance. It makes perfect sense, then, that Israel begins to grow nostalgic for their past life—reminiscing about the supposedly guaranteed meals and water given after work days—because no matter how bad the subjugation, they could at least live another day. Yes, Egypt committed infanticide against them, but Moses and YHWH have brought Israel to near-total destruction! (Although, it is telling that the Israelites in this final episode do not explicitly name a desire to return to Egypt. They merely question the reasoning behind their liberation, when facing certain death without adequate hydration.)

What of Moses? Surely he will be sympathetically receptive to the vocal needs of Israel, the ones he rescued through water? Quite the opposite! The text revealingly presents Moses as contemptuous of the simple request, “Give us water to drink.” He sounds annoyed, skirting responsibility with his response: “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” (Exod 17:2). One wonders if Moses has his own supply of water, hidden from the rest of the congregation. If not, why does he not join the Israelites’ complaint or request YHWH’s assistance? The narrative appears to show Moses as physically and spiritually stronger than the “weak” Israelites.

Nevertheless, Israel’s response to this situation is brave and (understandably) extreme. Here is the leader of the Israelites—the one who vigorously challenged the tyranny of Pharaoh, separated the Red Sea, and has been the mediator between them and God—not just ignoring their request but throwing a question back at them! In response, Israel both rhetorically strikes back by questioning the entire emancipation and (if Moses’ words to YHWH are accurate) threaten him with deadly violence! The Israelites are tired of starvation, dehydration, and the continual unresponsiveness of their prophetic head. This reading of the text reveals a borderline apathetic Moses⁠, demonstrating an uncaring attitude toward the Israelites’ suffering or death. Indeed, his motivation to resolve this tension is only that the people are close to taking his own life.

Israel’s interaction with Moses demonstrates a kind of collective agency not seen in the entirety of the Exodus narrative. By questioning their current status, testing YHWH (to fulfill his promise of deliverance from death-dealing oppression), and possibly plotting an overthrow of an inattentive figurehead, the people are acting upon and envisioning a future that is responsive to collective needs. They are honest about long-term political goals and maybe even envision (or at least we can fabulate in our minds) a sociopolitical arrangement that is not hierarchical (people-Moses-YHWH), but horizontal and interdependent—one that prioritizes the lives of people, children, and livestock beyond the whims of lawgivers and law enforcers. They have seen the miracle of their own liberation, and now they seem to believe they have the power to institute a new future. Yet, the need that inspires every downtrodden, thirsty, dusty Israelite at this moment is just some water to live.

To the reader’s surprise, YHWH is not angry with this request or Israel’s rebellious behavior. Without preface, conditions, or divine finger-waving admonition (contra Deuteronomy), YHWH tells Moses exactly what to do so that Israel will have water immediately. Unlike in Exod 15–16, YHWH does not institute new statutes or ordinances, but graciously and immediately gives the demanded aqua. Most importantly, YHWH does not call the Israelites ungrateful or foolish. YHWH merely provides.

In addition to instructing Moses to strike the rock at Horeb, YHWH also instructs Moses to gather the elders of Israel to view the miracle. In this act, Moses is politically legitimated in the eyes of the Israelite elders and, therefore, all of Israel. His prophetic-leadership role becomes official and consensual between himself and the people: he has responded to these complaints and provided the necessary nourishment, the water both literally and symbolically authorizing his leadership. The text concludes with the assumption being that Israel is satisifed. Even though it required divine intervention, the Israelites’ collective call for water, despite want and obstruction, succeeded.

Israel’s outrage in this life-or-death moment is relevant to our contemporary context. The human need for water is no different now than it was three-thousand years ago. Today, billions of men, women, and children (to say nothing of animals!) worldwide live without immediate access to clean, potable water or consumable liquids. In fact, due to a confluence of global factors—climate change, salinization, industrial pollution, overuse in agriculture—even more people will be deprived of drinkable water to stay healthy and hydrated in the coming years.

Rather than producing a death-inducing interpretation of the lectionary text, a material-marginal reading provides life-abundant inspiration to those thirsty today. By taking the perspective of Israel, we see how they stood up to the established authority of Moses and YHWH. They expressed their demands clearly, critiqued the (new) status quo, and were willing to take serious action to ensure their survival and that of future generations. This petition worked: YHWH immediately took action and Moses took steps to legitimate himself before the entire assembly. Indeed, such political action in the current day will be arduous. But if a band of ex-slaves can convince Moses and God to provide nourishment in the desert, the future possibilities of just water distribution (and food, resources, etc.) are endless. Together, we can be strong like Israel!

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