Studies in Exodus 17:1-7


Download sermon

Exodus 17:1-7

Text Comment

v.1       Once again Moses is charting the route that Israel took by giving specific geographical locations, locations no doubt well known to his contemporaries.  Unfortunately, they are not known to us. As we will read later, Rephidim was the last stop before Sinai (19:1-2).  The problem now to be faced was that there was no oasis within traveling distance of their previous camp and Rephidim was dry.

v.2       As we read Moses saying in 16:8 this grumbling against Moses is really a grumbling against the Lord, not only because Moses was the Lord’s servant but because they are grumbling about circumstances that the Lord himself had brought them into.  They traveled, we read in v. 1, from place to place “as the Lord commanded.”  So here again Moses says to them, “Why do you put the Lord to the test?”

v.3       We are astonished and Moses meant us to be astonished that the Lord’s provision of the manna and the quail when the people grumbled the last time and his provision of water at Marah before that had not cured them of their unbelief.  But, as the Southerners say, “There ain’t much education in the second kick of a mule.”  That is, if you didn’t learn the first time you are likely too dense to learn it the second.

v.5       The elders serve as witnesses, the staff as a reminder of what Yahweh has already done for Israel.  These arrangements, of course, will serve to enhance Moses’ authority among the people.  The Lord will use Moses to provide water just as he did at Marah in chapter 15.

v.6       The phrase “the rock at Horeb” has suggested to some scholars that, as Israel had not yet reached Sinai, Horeb is not simply another name for Mt. Sinai but the area or mountain range of which it is a part.  Hard to know.

The Hebrew literally says that the Lord stood upon the rock in Horeb, a point to which we will return.

We come now to a large question concerning the interpretation of this history in Exodus, a question that has become controversial again in our own evangelical Reformed world.  The question is the extent to which we can confidently read an OT episode like this one as a specific foreshadowing of the work of Christ.  You are aware that there is a form of symbolism in the Bible that is called typology.  Typology, someone has said, is God’s fingerprint in history.  Typological interpretation of the Bible proceeds on the assumption that God has woven into the fabric of salvation history both predictions of the future and the teaching of the timeless facts of salvation history.

And in many places we are taught to read the Bible this way.  David was a type of Christ, a Christ-figure beforehand, if you will.  We find that often in the Psalms, for example, David writes not as a private individual but as Israel’s king and many of the statements he made the NT takes as predictive of the life and ministry of the Lord.  We have already said that the exodus itself was a type of spiritual redemption from the sinner’s bondage to sin and death.  The temple was a type of Christ and salvation, so was the sacrifice, so too the priest himself and the prophet, and on and on.

But historical events can be embodied prophecies as well.  We learned a few years back that Judah’s spiritual transformation that led him finally to offer his own life for the freedom of his brothers made him a type of Christ, a fact confirmed by Jacob’s blessing of Judah, his fourth-born son, as the one among his twelve sons who would be forerunner of the Messiah.  The near sacrifice of Isaac on Mt. Moriah and the Lord providing a ram for sacrifice instead are clearly predictions of things to come.  And so on.

But is there a typological foreshadowing of Christ and his cross here in Exodus 17:1-7?  Many good men think so and they have an argument.  Indeed, there is a school of Reformed preachers for whom finding Christ’s redemption in such a text as Exodus 17 is the mark of a biblically faithful preaching.  Let’s look at their argument.  I am taking what follows from the late Dr. Edmund Clowney’s book, Preaching Christ in All of Scripture.  Dr. Clowney, a much revered figure in our Reformed world over the past generation, a PCA minister, long-time president of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, father of Rebecca Jones who was here recently with her husband Peter, and author of many excellent books, is someone for whose thinking I have immense respect.  So let’s follow his argument.  See what you think of it.  It goes like this.

  1. The word translated “quarrel” in 17:2 is not the same word translated grumbled in, say, 16:2.  For that matter, it is not the same word translated “grumbled” in 17:3.  It is the Hebrew word ריב which means “to strive” or “to contend.”  Now, what is interesting about this word is that it is often used in legal contexts to describe a formal complaint, even a lawsuit brought by one against another.  This is a key term in this text because it not only appears twice in v. 2, but twice again in v. 7 where we read that Israel “contended” with the Lord and in the name Meribah, which has this word in it as you can yourself see in the r-i-b in the middle of Meribah.  So, it is thought, what we have here is a kind of formal courtroom setting.  The term is used later by the prophets to say that the Lord is bringing a lawsuit against his people for their breach of his covenant.  But here the people are charging God with a breach of his covenant.  That is to say, they are putting God on trial.  Since God is not available to stand trial, they put Moses on trial in his place.  Israel accuses God of having abandoning them in the desert and she demands justice.  When Moses says in v. 4 that the people are ready to stone him, he means that they are ready to execute him for a crime.  Stoning, remember, was not only mob violence in the ancient world but a method of judicial execution.
  2. The elders of Israel are the judges of the people, the men upon whom falls the responsibility of making legal judgments and enforcing punishments.  Moses’ rod was a symbol of his authority, a symbol of judgment, a means of inflicting a penalty.  So the instructions given to Moses amount to his being told to convene a trial, to conduct a public legal proceeding, to render a verdict and to enforce a penalty.  If someone is found guilty, punishment, as often in the Bible, would be by strokes of a rod.  Isaiah, for example, speaks of the Lord’s “punishing rod” (Isa. 30:32).
  3. Next, we have the Lord ”standing” upon the rock in v. 6, a point somewhat muted by the NIV’s translation “by the rock” instead of “upon the rock.”  In this trial scene, Moses stands with the rod of judgment in his hand, and God comes to stand before him. Generally, of course, in judgment men stand before God, but here God stands before men!
  4. What is more, in the Song of Moses in chapter 15 and in both of the Psalms that refer to this episode, the Lord is referred to as the rock.  There is a close identification of Yahweh with the rock.  Paul, as you remember, refers to the rock that followed Israel in the wilderness and identifies that rock as Jesus Christ.
  5. Israel is guilty, to be sure, but the rod of Moses is not raised against Israel.  Rather Moses strikes the rock, which is to say, he strikes the Lord in this physically symbolic way.  Moses can’t strike the Lord, who is spirit.  He needs a rock to make local and physical the presence of the Lord.  Indeed, the rock can be seen as the symbol of the Lord’s human nature.  Yahweh is the rock; he is not guilty; but he receives the blows of judgment.  So this episode in Exodus 17:1-7 foreshadows the Lord Jesus bearing our judgment in our place.  He redeems his people by being punished for their sin, in their place, and from that sacrifice flows the water of life.  What we have in this text is nothing less than a foreshadowing of the cross and the atonement accomplished by the Lord Christ’s sin-bearing in our place.  He is beaten and by his stripes we are healed.
  6. Confirming this interpretation is the New Testament’s constant identification of Yahweh in the wilderness with the Lord Jesus, that, in fact, no other than God the Son whom we would later know as Jesus Christ.  It was Jesus there on the rock, God the Son, just as Jude says in his v. 5 that it was Jesus who brought his people out of Egypt.

Now there is no doubt that Dr. Clowney’s interpretation of this text is a serious effort to understand this history in its redemptive historical context.  It is Paul, after all, who says that Christ is the rock in the desert.  Every piece of this interpretation of this episode is rooted in the language, the imagery, and the theological argument of the Bible.  We can count on that from Dr. Clowney.

But still there is this nagging question in my mind:  is this really the intention of the Holy Spirit in this passage?  Should a thoughtful reader of the Bible see this meaning in this text?  Should we have expected that pious Israelites would have understood that there was something like this, something akin to this in this text?  I’m not at all sure and here’s why.

  1. First, almost everything in this interpretation depends upon the meaning Dr. Clowney gives to the Hebrew verb ריב .  The rest depends upon there being a trial, a legal proceeding, the prospect of a legal judgment and the infliction of a legal penalty, a judgment.  The interpretation that Dr. Clowney offered of Christ’s sin-bearing in our place depended upon such a forensic setting and he took that from this verb.  Now there is no doubt that the word can suggest such a forensic or legal setting.  As I said, you can find this, for example, in Hosea who makes the Lord’s lawsuit against Israel the centerpiece of his prophecy.  In fact a large part of Hosea’s prophecy is the prosecutor making the case against Israel, the amassing of evidence that she was guilty of breaking God’s covenant, and the enumeration of the punishments that would befall her because of her sin.  There the context makes it very clear that the term bears this legal, forensic sense.

But here it is not so clear and obvious.  Studies of the word, of which there have been many, indicate that often the verb means simply “to complain” or “to contend” in a more general sense.  For example, note its next use in Exodus is in 21:18 where we read, “If men quarrel and one hits the other with a stone or with his fist…”  There is no legal sense of the term there.  That is commonly the case with this verb.  And, here in 17:3, in a kind of recapitulation of the initial point, we are told again that “Israel grumbled against Moses,” but there the word לון a much more ordinary word for complain or grumble, in fact, the word used in 16:2 and 8.  That is to say, this narrator, the one writing this history, Moses himself probably, seemed to take ריב (“to content”) in the same sense as ןול (“to quarrel or grumble”). That is, he seemed to take it in its more general sense and not as a specifically legal term.  The use of a second verb that has no legal connotations as a synonym for  ריב is, I think, by itself, virtually a fatal objection to Dr. Clowney’s typological interpretation of this text.  What is more we have a similar thing in v. 7 when the place is called Massah as well as MeribahMassah is a more general term without any legal or forensic associations.

All of that is very important because if there is no legal setting established by the use of the verb ריב in v. 2, the rest of the interpretation that finds in this episode a foreshadowing of the cross grows much less likely.  There is then no legal punishment being imposed and God is not bearing that punishment in Israel’s place.

  1. Second, it is not clear that Moses’ rod should be understood here as an instrument of judgment and punishment.  It is clearly the symbol of Moses’ authority, the authority he has been given by God, but it has not yet in this narrative ever been made the direct instrument of punishment, the rod that is laid upon the back of an offender.  Dr. Clowney would point out that it was Moses’ rod that made the Nile blood. That is most certainly true and that was judgment upon Pharaoh and Egypt, but it is the Nile’s change that is the judgment, not the blow of the rod.  That same rod divided the waters of the Reed Sea for Israel and closed them over the pursuing Egyptian army but, again, it is not clear to me and, therefore, I wonder whether it would be clear to the early readers of this text, that Moses was wielding the rod as an instrument of punishment, as if he was beating the Egyptians with it or that he was beating the rock.  It seems more likely that the rod functions in this text as it has before, as the symbol of Moses’ God-given authority, an authority he now exercises over nature to provide Israel with food.

After all, this is the third of three consecutive episodes in which something like the same thing happens.  It is certainly fair to interpret 17:1-7 in terms of its connection with the two episodes that have preceded it.  Water was needed at Marah and Moses followed the Lord’s instructions, threw a particular piece of wood into the water, and the water became sweet.  Food was needed in the Desert of Sin and, there again, Moses mediated God’s instructions and food was miraculously provided in the desert.  And, finally, again we return to the need for water and, once more, Moses again followed the Lord’s instructions and became the instrument by which the Lord made provision for his people.  The burden of these three consecutive texts is the Lord’s provision for his people in the teeth of their unbelief.  It is not clear to me that we have an obvious shift to another major theme here either in the place of the theme of the first two or in addition to it.  Fact is, it is hard for me to believe that if we really have Christ as the sin-bearer here in Exodus 17, that is not the primary theme and great purpose of this text.  But, just as clearly, God is providing water for his thirsty people in this narrative.

  1. Third, it is true that Paul says in 1 Cor. 10 that Christ was the rock that followed Israel in the wilderness.  But Paul does not make anything of Dr. Clowney’s interpretation of Exodus 17:1-7.  Quite the contrary.  Paul refers to the rock as a source of Israel’s provision, not as Israel’s redeemer who suffers punishment in her place.  Paul’s application of this history is not that of Christ as Israel’s sin-bearer but Israel as sinfully foolish for wasting the Lord’s gracious provision for her in the wilderness because of her unbelief and for craving the world’s provision instead of the Lord’s.
  1. Finally, I simply point out that the burden of the text, what we read in the summary of this episode in v. 7, is Israel’s complaining spirit and her unbelief in the Lord’s saving presence, not her failure to grasp the significance of his being punished in her place and on her behalf.

Now, there is surely nothing in Dr. Clowney’s interpretation of Exodus 17:1-7 that isn’t true.  It is true that Christ is the sin-bearer for his people, that he bears in his own body and upon his own heart the punishment that we deserved.  He is judged guilty, not for his sin but for ours, and punished accordingly.  All of that is true, wonderfully, life-changingly true.  The question is simply whether that is what is being taught in this text or whether it is being imported into the text and imposed on it.

I once asked Dr. Bruce Waltke, following one of his scintillating lectures on the interpretation of the Bible, why the early church fathers – who often employed very fanciful, allegorical methods of biblical interpretation, who were often finding in biblical texts teaching we do not really think they contain – why they didn’t go further astray.  Using their methods of biblical interpretation, finding allegorical meanings everywhere, why didn’t they come up with more dangerously erroneous interpretations.  He replied that the New Testament exercised a control over their thinking.  Their interpretative techniques may not have been sound, but they usually got either wholesome or harmless interpretations because they knew what the New Testament taught about God, man, salvation, and the Christian life, and that is what they tended to find in Old Testament texts.  They read back into the OT their understanding of the New.  It may not have been what an actual OT text taught, but it was what the Bible taught somewhere!

I suspect something like that has occurred here in Gen. 17 in the hands of even very able interpreters like Edmund Clowney.  He wanted the Bible to be read in terms of Christ and his salvation, which is surely right, at least right in a general way.  He found the cross in Exodus 17.  But I don’t think the cross is really there.  It is many places in the Bible, including Genesis 22 – the account of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac – and other narratives that predict Christ’s atonement typologically, but it is not here in Exodus 17.

Well, what is the problem if one finds the cross everywhere?  Surely we need always to be thinking about the cross.  Absolutely.  The problem is that if you think about the cross in Exodus 17:1-7 you won’t think about what the text is really saying, viz. that the unbelief of God’s people, of the church, is a reality that we must take seriously, and that one of the marks of that unbelief is that people who should know better do not trust the Lord for his provision when they find themselves in need.

Dr. Clowney doesn’t want the text to be about us; he wants it to be about Christ.  Well it is about Christ; it is about Christ’s provision of the needs of his people.  Yahweh in the wilderness, we are taught everywhere in the New Testament was the Second Person of the Triune God, the very person the church will later know in his incarnate state as Jesus Christ. But this text most definitely is also about us and poses the question to us whether we really trust the Lord or not and shows us how we might know whether we do and warns us of the foolishness of allowing a parched throat to make us forget all that Christ has already done for us and promised to us.