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The Politics of Water: Exodus 17:1-7 (Timothy Simpson)

14-09-28 - Drought

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?”

The most important topographical feature of the land of Egypt is the Nile River. Surrounded to the east and west by desert, the Nile flows a thousand miles from deep in the heart of Africa, creating a swath of fertility a mile wide on either side of it in the midst of an otherwise barren landscape. The centerpiece of the Nile, however, is its delta, which, at a length of about 90 miles fans out to drain into the Mediterranean Sea across approximately 150 miles of coastland. Inside that area is some of the most fertile territory on earth due to the annual inundation which replenishes the soil and which made Egypt the breadbasket of antiquity.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the book of Exodus, whose opening chapters are set in Egypt, abounds in those same chapters in water imagery. Water is where the baby Moses is placed and it is from water that he is drawn out. The daily trip of Pharaoh to the waters for his bath becomes the occasion for the plagues, and several of the plagues themselves have their origin in water, such as those of the water turning to blood and the frogs coming forth from them. The climax of the water scenes is the miracle at the Sea of Reeds, in which God first pushes back and piles up the waters so that the children of Israel can cross safely onto dry land, and then unleashes the watery chaos onto the army of the ancient world’s greatest superpower.

The combination of 1) the abundance of water and, 2) God’s capacity for the control thereof leads the Israelites, and with them the reader of the text, into a false sense of security with regard to matters of hydration. The threat in the narrative thus far has been the Egyptian military-industrial complex and its brutal labor practices, which suck the economic value out of each human being for the benefit of the state, without regard to the well-being of those being impressed for service. This practice caused the people to cry out in their affliction, which in turn prompts Yahweh, who reveals his true name to Moses, to remember the promises made to the ancestors and to intervene on behalf of those who otherwise have no hope of rescue.

But after the seashore celebration of Exodus 14, the reality of life outside of the land of Egypt hits the newly-freed slaves. Or perhaps the shift in divine responsibilities has been difficult for Yahweh. Hardening the heart of Pharaoh and wiping out his chariots was one thing, but leading and feeding this people, who are not yet fully a people, is something altogether different. Perhaps both God and the people struggle in their new roles. Clearly, things do not go smoothly for either party, but we get more of a sense from the narrative of the difficulties encountered by the people. Having left behind all that water in order to follow a deity who seemed three days before to wield absolute control over it, only to find themselves near death from its lack, drives the Israelites to complain against Moses (Exodus 15:22-25). In response to this initial difficulty, just as Yahweh had shown Moses that he could unleash Divine power in the process of leading the people out of Egypt, Yahweh then shows Moses another piece of wood in the wilderness. Moses uses this to turn the bitter water of Marah to sweet, proving that neither Yahweh’s power nor Moses’ capacity to channel that power has been diminished by the change in location. This, then, is followed by the manna episode set at the oasis of Elim in Exodus 16 in which the problem is no longer the adequacy of water, but of food. The tensions build and the complaints mount quickly, as does the Israelite’s ambivalence about this so-called “liberation.” “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger'” (16:3). Better to die a slave on a full stomach, than starving to death. Having left Egypt with nothing but the “jewels of the Nile,” which the Egyptians had handed to them while departing, the children of Israel, at the Lord’s direction, had made no provision for sustenance for their journey, having left before there was time even for the bread to rise. You can get your freedom or satiate your hunger with diamonds and pearls. There must be food! Once again, however, at the furthest extremity of endurance, as at Marah, Yahweh hears the cry of the people and intervenes with both manna and a lesson about hoarding as a sign of faithlessness in God’s providential capacity.

All of this is the essential context leading up to this Sunday’s OT lection in 17:1-7. Once again, there is nothing to drink. The people are by now completely exasperated with Moses. “‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’” (17:3). Moses tells Yahweh that they aren’t simply talking about themselves dying in the wilderness any longer; he says that he fears that they’re going to take him out before that happens. It isn’t apparent why this same lesson of trusting God for water occurs so quickly after the last one. There has not been, thus far in the journey, any apparent lapses in piety or obedience, although the reader may infer that the complaint of the children of Israel is itself the transgression, being the sign that they are incapable of the trust God requires. But what else are they supposed to do? What would anyone do in a similar situation? People will die without water, so why would we expect them to be doing anything other than complaining about their circumstances? As has just happened twice before, at Marah with the water and at Elim with the manna, God once again provides for the people after pushing them to the limit, this time directing Moses to employ his much-used staff to strike the rock at Horeb, which is one of the two names (the other being Sinai) given to the holy mountain at which God is portrayed to reside.

Jewish feminist scholar Ilona Pardes has suggestively construed the story of the Exodus to the entry into the land of Canaan, including the years in the wilderness, as a “national biography” in which Israel is born, nursed, fed and reared in preparation for maturity in the new reality of the Promised Land. She reads the scene in 17:1-7 as a tale of Israel beating on God’s rock-hard breast before drinking therefrom. That image captures the kind of dependence that the narrative seems to advocate in the community that holds this text sacred: just as Israel had to learn absolute dependence, so too must the contemporary community recognize that a relationship with this God requires a movement into a zone of aridity and barrenness, adopting a posture of absolute dependence before the one who will meet even our most basic needs. At the same time, the narrative does not flinch from sharing with us the perils of that life in such an environment will bring or the duty that it requires, namely a life which moves between, on the one hand, periods filled with fountains and feasts, and on the other, seasons of famine and thirst, disclosing the unknown and unknowable existence that which may have to be risked in order to follow this God.

Because this community holds fast its memory of thirst in the desert, any discussion of this text in a setting of preaching or teaching must stand in solidarity with those whose whose thirst is not metaphoric but real today, and in opposition to the practices and policies which bring this situation about.

1) We have to talk about over-utilization: Rivers, lakes, streams, and aquifers are being drained for high-intensity, large-scale agricultural production.

2) We have to talk about contamination: Globalization has led to the demise of the family farm world–wide, as multinational agri-giants buy up millions of acres to create biological monocultures which require an increase in the practice of petroleum-based agriculture in order to maintain unsustainably high yields, all of which runs off and pollutes what surface fresh water we still have, even as the effluent from the massive hog and cattle lots seep into our groundwater.

3) We have to talk about commodification: What used to be free and abundant for all is becoming a commodity controlled and sold for profit.

4) We have to talk about deliberate deprivation: In certain places around the world people are being denied access to water by political and military restrictions. The most prominent instance of this is in the Occupied Territories in Palestine, whose aquifers are being far overused by the Israelis, while the Palestinians consume on average considerably less than what the World Health Organization says is the minimum daily allowance for health and hygiene.

Thus the politics of water at this moment in history are peculiarly fraught with political, economic, and security issues which make those of us who are called to talk to people about the ethical and theological significance of water queasy. But these are issues in which all of us have played a part and thus something about them must be spoken from the pulpit.

1) We want every French fry and pickle chip to be just like the one we ate last week and last year, yet don’t want to consider how every one of those potatoes and cucumbers grows just the same year after year. But we need to.

2) We want our yards to be thicker and greener than our neighbors’, yet don’t want to consider how hundreds of millions of people having those same competitions, yard by yard, block by block, are shaping our future for ill. But we need to.

3) We want to buy our bottled water in handy sizes for our active lifestyles, or because we don’t like the taste of regular water, or because we want to be prepared for natural disasters, yet we don’t consider how the person on Social Security or disability is supposed to purchase some of that same water when they get struck by the same disaster. But we need to.

4) We want to support Israeli security and to fight terrorism yet we don’t want to consider how it might feel to have our water drunk right out from under us while we ourselves were parched, nor do we want to consider how we might react, perhaps even violently, if something like this were ever done to us in our land. But we need to think about this, too.

As is the case with so many lectionary texts, it will be all too easy this Sunday to speak in general terms about the necessity of trusting in God for everything and leave it at that, not having done violence to the text but also not having ruffled any feathers either. Thus it will be a good week for the lectionary-preaching pastor to remember Brueggemann’s diagnosis of our times, namely, that we are “embarrassed by concreteness,” therefore contesting ourselves with elliptical references and vague generalities, in the hope that we can keep intact our ideal of a prophetic persona while trafficking in subtleties. Following Yahweh in the wilderness, however is not the life of the salon or the drawing room, sipping from fine china. It is a hard-scrabble, risky existence whose practitioners have to drink directly from the rock. And the people who are called to live such a life are those who must be ready for everything and surprised by nothing. Such a people on such a journey need to hear from their preacher a word this Sunday (and every Sunday) that will outfit them for what lies ahead.

Timothy F. Simpson is Editor Emeritus of Political Theology.

Photo: Flickr/Tyler Bell – Creative Commons

(4) Comments

  1. Thank you for this. It is excellent. It is particularly important, I think, for us to be mindful and informed about the devastating effects of industrial agriculture on our water supply (and our environment generally). Another “water issue” about which we should remain mindful are the potentially disastrous consequences of climate change, being caused it seems by our overconsumption and threatening to bring drought onto much of the world.

  2. Pingback: The Politics of Water: Exodus 17:1-7 | THINKING...

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