This week, we’re taking a look at another story from the Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land (Exodus 17:1-7). In the middle of a desert, the Israelites complained about the lack of water, wondering if God was with them or not, calling for Moses’ head, and wishing they were back in Egypt. Unlike the previous story where God was empathetic toward their plight, in this passage, God was not pleased with their attitude and behavior. What’s the difference?
When I was home for Thanksgiving break during my sophomore year of college, I had an intense heart to heart with my parents. In short, I asked them if they really loved me. While the question was born from a desire for a better, more expressive relationship, and was painful for me to bring up (and surely painful for them to hear), there are aspects of the conversation that now make me cringe. Here I was, at home, having flown from Kansas to Michigan to be with the family at my parents’ expense. I stayed in my own bedroom which my parents provided. I was wearing clothes purchased mostly from money they earned. I was on break from college that they essentially made financially possible. My belly was full of food I did not pay for. All of these were indicators that my parents loved me. Yet I had the audacity to ask if they loved me! They showed me one more way that they loved me. They didn’t kick me out of the house! In fact, they listened quietly, shared their sorrow over my feeling the way I did, and were entirely graceful. They recognized on some level that my passion was matched by my immaturity. I couldn’t see what was in front of me.
The evening before the Israelites complained about their lack of water, they ate quail that miraculously showed up at camp every evening. They fell asleep under the glow of the glory of God displayed in a pillar of fire, and arose to a pillar of cloud to signal that God was there with them. The morning of the day they complained, they collected manna from heaven, baking it into enough sweet bread to get them through the day – another miracle they experienced daily. After all this they asked if God was still with them! This is why Moses named the place Massah (test) and Meribah (arguing) - their immature arrogance got the best of them, and they would be remembered for it.
We still do this, don’t we? The way we do this has changed over time, but we still cry out wondering if God exists at the top of our lungs at times, not aware that we have breath in our lungs that enable us to cry out, let alone hearts to pump our blood, brains to process everything we’re constantly doing to stay alive, including raising our fists to God. All of these things declare the reality of a very much alive creation that is fearfully and wonderfully made. Like me at 19, we react recklessly instead of responding after reflection. This behavior may shed light on our despair, but it also illumines our ignorant, immature arrogance. We are Israel in this regard. This is a specific take home that this narrative provides. Yet there is a more global application as well. It turns out Israel had a lot to relearn about faith. So do we.
What we see happening here will be an ongoing struggle for Israel’s entire journey, which happens to be humanity’s journey as well: choosing to embrace a very new and different paradigm of faith than had been previously employed. Paradigms don’t change easily or quickly.
Ignaz Semmelweis advised doctors and surgeons to wash their hands to avoid spreading bacteria. He was largely ridiculed and dismissed because everybody at that time thought that bathing in general was harmful to one’s health. Elizabeth I was considered a clean freak because she bothered to bathe once a month! Louis XIII was reportedly not bathed at all until he was seven years old! Civilized Europeans didn’t do such things. Only toward the end of the 19th century was basic hygiene considered appropriate for good Americans to do. It took generations to unlearn the false way of thinking about cleanliness. Generations! People were truly convinced that bathing would cause irreparable harm! Research and observation helped recognize the issue, and eventually full-on marketing campaigns were used to convince Americans that being clean was the right thing to do. But it took a long time.
The people of Israel had a paradigm of belief largely borrowed from the culture around them which they would need to unlearn. They understood faith to look a certain way, and expected God to act in ways thatfit their belief construct. God, however, was trying to create something entirely new. Their view of God was a merit badge theology where we do our part, and then God does God’s part. It’s sort of a contract. We can read words that seem to allude to this way of thinking throughout the Bible. So long as we’re good believers, God will come through. For all who are not good believers, God will come through as well, we think, by rewarding them with nothing at all or worse – judgment. “They’ll get theirs” we tell ourselves. One day, they’ll face the Judge and get the punishment they deserve. This rhetoric is all over the Bible. It is ancient, it is easily embraced because that’s how we’ve made sense of everything in our world. We do our part of the deal and God does God’s part. Simple math. Uncomplicated. Seemingly fair. We feel at home with this theology.
What happens when we stay with that old story? Train wreck in every possible way as we evaluate and judge our situation and others’ according to our reference point. We will continue to view the world through a narrow lens that always colors reality in hues that favor ourselves while spotlighting the problems of others. When we give into this easy old story, we become increasingly binary, categorizing everything as simply right or wrong, people as friends or foes, and believers as “in” while unbelievers as “out”. Fortunately, this is not the story that defines God.
The people of Israel were being invited into a new story, a better story that was and is being written by God that is not merit based but rather founded in a grace that is at the very heart of creation itself. From the very first chapter of the Bible we read the creation poem reflecting God’s desire to create, and every step of the way declaring it good, culminating with human beings made in the likeness of God who are very good. Very good. Reflections of the divine. This is our foundation: that we are inherently good and loved by God – even when we act out of selfish ambition that hurts ourselves, others, and our connection to God. This also means we are inherently valued and loved by God unconditionally. The idea of earning God’s favor simply doesn’t fit because we already have it, and always have.
When we embrace this idea we find our steps ordered very differently. Our motives come from different places. Our eyes are focused differently. We are not afforded a view that separates simply into binary categories where we are usually right and those unlike us are wrong. This broader, unitive way of being is clearly evident in the Prophets, Jesus, Paul, John, and Peter, yet often gets overlooked because the language they used to communicate to their audience necessarily had to be familiar. The constructs familiar to their audience were more akin to the Israelites’ at the “water rock”. The Way of Jesus will always sound like a contrast, I guess, because we human beings will always feel drawn toward regressive paradigms that allow us to remain in control.
Knowing our tendency, we must therefore ever keep before us words like those from the Apostle John, who seemed very in touch with the Spirit: God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them (1 John 4:16 NLT). Pretty simple. Pretty obvious. Like washing your hands.