The study of the Hebrew language did not come easily to me. Perhaps it was because I waited until my final year of seminary to take it; perhaps it was because it met at 3 p.m.; perhaps it was because I sat near a window; perhaps it was because our professor was so bored teaching at this elementary level — I am sure I can come up with some other excuses. I did pass, even making an A, but only because I memorized the Book of Jonah, a particular interest of our instructor.
As I have been teaching my way through Exodus with my Sunday school class, I certainly wish I had loved the Hebrew language more. I am sure that particular nuances elude me, yet translations do capture the richness of the narratives. Specifically, I want to know more about the issue of “testing.”
Exodus itself is a patchwork of stories, which were gathered and edited over many years. These stories are complex reflections on how God’s purpose will be accomplished with flawed human actors, and how human choices will impact the character of the divine. Wandering, while being led? It is very hard to map how the wilderness journey transpired, and clearly the people made the trek more difficult through obstinacy and lack of faith.
The wilderness was a dangerous place, and the way God through Moses led was open to suspicion. A frequent refrain of the congregation of Israel was, “Have you brought us out here to kill us?” Moses usually deflected and suggested that their complaint was against God, not him (Exodus 17:2). Because he claimed to be sent by God to shepherd this people, he had to take the heat. He was a convenient target — like our pastors.
God tested the people, and the people tested God. Neither seemed pleased about this abrasion in their relationship, yet it was an unavoidable reality as a covenant was being forged in a context of peril. Could God trust the people to follow the appointed leadership of Moses? Could the people trust that they were accompanied by God’s own presence? Their insistent question was, “Is the Lord among us or not?” We can only imagine the ways in which that same query is being voiced in the daily heart-rending devastations.
They found themselves at Rephidim without water, and once again God provided through an unexpected means. God instructed Moses to take his staff, the one he had used to turn the Nile into blood, was now to provide life-giving water. God’s own presence was in front of him at Horeb, and through Moses’ action of striking the rock, abundant water flowed. The place where this occurs portrays testing and quarreling, Massah and Meribah, and becomes a cautionary note about how not to behave toward God. Israel’s remarkable lack of faith was on display in full force.
It seemed that Moses believed that God had the right to test the people, but they should have refrained from testing God. After all, God has prerogatives that do not belong to human beings. Brueggemann says that this text warns against a utilitarian view of God, in which the divine “is judged by the desired outcomes for the asking community.” In other words, human measures should not presume to assess the adequacy of God. Dictating how God must respond reduces the sovereign one to our level, a risky proposition, indeed. While immanent among us, God is also working in ways that transcend our comprehension.
Jesus’ own experience in the wilderness raises this theological question once again. When the devil tempted him to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple in order to prove his identity in a spectacular way, Jesus quoted, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deuteronomy 6:16). The rest of the verse is “as you did at Massah.”
This faith venture is not easy, and we are beckoned to trust what we cannot see. Walking by faith and not sight produces a bit of anxiety, even for the mature in Christ. We echo the treasured words of Thomas Merton in Thoughts in Solitude:
“My Lord, God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.”
Thankfully, the one who was seen and touched by earliest believers, the very sacrament of God’s presence with humanity, walks just ahead of us, marking out the pathway. It is this reality that leads Merton to conclude his prayer with these words:
“Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”