Proper 21A

September 22, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 21:23-32

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary

    Exodus 17:1-7

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    A casual reading of Exodus 17 seems to yield no more than yet another story about the people of Israel getting hot and thirsty in the wilderness, and so complaining to Moses about their lack of libations. In that sense, this looks like a mirror image of Exodus 16.  Is there anything new here as opposed to the previous chapter?   Commentator Terrence Fretheim thinks so.

    Fretheim highlights one little word that one could miss seeing quite easily.   It is the word “Horeb” in verse 6.  The so-called “rock of Horeb” on which Yahweh said he would stand when Moses and the elders of Israel arrived is apparently a reference to the region at the foot of Mount Sinai. Horeb is the same place where Moses was said to have been in Exodus 3 when God appeared to him in the Burning Bush. It is the same place to which at that time Yahweh told Moses he would return one day with the people of Israel in tow. And it is the location where ultimately God will give his law, chiefly the Ten Commandments. Horeb is, in short, a key location freighted with meaning.

    In truth, this reference to Horeb in Exodus 17:6 creates a textual problem. We are not entirely clear about any of the precise desert locations referred to in Exodus. We don’t fully know exactly what constituted the Desert of Sin, the region of Rephidim, and other such places. What we do know is that Exodus 19 will tell us that the people will have to journey some distance from Rephidim (where they are when chapter 17 opens) to Mount Sinai. If that is so, then how can the place that eventually got dubbed “Massah and Meribah” also be Horeb?  If the people don’t get to Horeb/Sinai until chapter 19, how is it that Moses gives them water in that same place in chapter 17?  In the end we’re not sure, though some have proposed that maybe “Horeb” was the name of that entire region–perhaps the whole area of foothills and mountains in the Sinai range was broadly referred to as the region of Horeb. That is a plausible enough explanation for the geography of this chapter.

    But the geography is less vital here than the theology. The fact of the matter is that “Horeb” is a theological shorthand for the mountain of God, for the place where God revealed himself to Moses in the Burning Bush and the place from which God will definitively dispense his laws, commandments, and statutes very soon. Yet in this chapter Horeb also becomes a place of grumbling and testing. As we read in verse 7, the people are looking for an answer to the question, “Is Yahweh among us or not?” As proof that Yahweh is indeed among his people in also this desert and dangerous place, God once again graciously provides the people with life-giving water from the rock (and he does so without even the slightest hint of a rebuke.

    God causes streams of water to flow in the desert, not only proving his presence to the people but preserving their lives again as well. But why might it be significant that this living water flowed from the rock called Horeb? Because this means that when the law of God also “flows” out from that place called Horeb, that law will likewise be a sign that God is among his people. What’s more, it will mean that all things being equal, the people should eventually be able to see in that law a blessing that is every bit as much about bringing and preserving true life as are streams of water in a desert place. The water gives life, the law gives life. The water shows God’s love, the law shows God’s love. Whatever flows from the Rock of Horeb, whether it is water or laws, is to be seen as a sign of God’s presence and blessing.

    Exodus 17’s reference to these streams of water flowing from Horeb is a clever way to remind us that there are more ways than one by which God can show his presence and more ways than one by which to perceive just what constitutes a true blessing of God. But already by the time you get to Exodus 19-20 when God gives his law from Mount Sinai, from the Rock of Horeb, you know right away that the people of Israel did not see law and water as being at all similar.

    When God begins to thunder his law, the people stop up their ears and run for cover, telling Moses to go fetch the law in private. Once Moses does this, and then takes a good long while doing it, the people get impatient, conclude Moses is dead, and so revert to pagan revelry around a golden calf. When waters flowed from Horeb, the people lapped it up gratefully and happily. When the law flowed from Horeb, the people were alternately bored and scared and finally also impatient.

    They were like little children who defined worthwhile things rather narrowly. When I was in Kindergarten, I remember going trick-or-treating on Halloween. At most of our neighbors’ houses I got exactly what you would expect: candy bars, suckers, milk duds, and M&Ms. But I vividly recall the one house we went to. This man was very well-meaning but ultimately highly disappointing to a 6-year-old. After opening the door in response to my “trick or treat,” he began not to give me candy but rather a small lecture on needy children in other parts of the world. I found this to be merely odd and not a little boring even as it delayed my getting at other houses. In the end what this man dropped into my little pumpkin bucket was not a piece of candy but a brochure telling about the work of UNICEF.

    As a little kid, I no more saw a blessing in that UNICEF brochure than Israel perceived initially any blessings coming from God’s catalogue of laws, rules, and regulations. Candy in your bucket and streams of water in the desert are one thing, discourses on life are a rather different thing.

    But by telling us that the waters of Meribah flowed from the same place as the law of God, the author of Exodus is reminding us to recalibrate our perceptions. Eventually in the Hebrew and Judaic tradition, this happened. The Torah or Law of God was later viewed by Israel as indeed a great gift. It is finally a loving thing that God did by giving Israel a heads-up as to how life operates the most smoothly. When my father taught me how to drive the tractor and run the manure spreader on our farm when I was young, he was very careful to warn me about the dangers of the power-take-off shaft, about being careful not to jackknife the spreader when backing up the tractor, and other key safety rules for operating the machinery. It was first and last a loving thing he did. Obviously it would have been not just careless but very unloving had my Dad cut me loose with potentially dangerous equipment yet without giving me a clue as to what the dangers were and how to avoid them.

    So also for Israel in the wilderness: when God told them how life works as reflected in his list of Do’s and Don’ts, he was trying to protect them from the harm that could come were they ignorant of life’s pitfalls and dangers. But this aspect of law is something many people forget about, not just these days but all through history.

    What we too often forget is that in the main, rules such as you find in the Ten Commandments are not little hoops to leap through like some trained circus animal and they are not something God invented out of thin air just because he likes to spoil our fun or watch us dance to his little tunes. When God lays down some universal absolute, it is a reflection of the ways things are. And if the good Lord takes the time to let you know about all that, then it is finally a loving and life-giving thing he does–just possibly as loving and life-preserving as streams in the desert.  

    Illustration Idea

    Exodus 17 may well be claiming that the laws of God are every much a blessing as streams of water in a parched and hot place.   But neither the Israelites nor contemporary people see things quite that way, do they!? When was the last time you heard someone pray something along the lines of, “O Lord God, if you truly love me and want to reveal yourself to me, send me some rules to follow!” Indeed, when was the last time you yourself looked for a blessing to come in your life in the form of laws? In truth what most people, preachers included, want from God is on a par with streams of water in a wilderness place. We want health and wealth, we want good food and drink, we want to get a meaningful job that allows us maybe to buy a nice house, take some nice vacations, and sock some money away for our retirement years.

    Although I don’t watch too much religious television on cable, I have seen enough over the years to know that when those televangelists get rolling in promising people this or that great blessing of God–this or that sign that God is really present in their very lives–the kinds of things that get mentioned tend to be material blessings and not the great joy that can be found when God hands you a list of rules to follow. The Ten Commandments are things to post in public schools, according to some people, as a way to make kids behave, shape up, and get serious. And if showing people this list of rules really does manage to make a difference in how they behave, then that’s wonderful but even still we would not see that on a par with having God answer our prayer that we can get that promotion we put in for at work. Rules may whip you into shape, but a promotion is a true blessing of God.

    The God of Exodus seems to have a different take on this matter!


  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 25:1-9

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    Philippians 2:1-13

    Author: Stan Mast