This week I myself was labeled quarrelsome and testy, like the Israelites here in Exodus 17:1-7. I called out the gender dynamics at play in a conversation and was shushed with a version of “You are just making things worse.”
One of the things I am trying to learn, and to pass on to others when I hear them similarly struggling, is that when we name problems, the people who like things the way they are will naturally react negatively. But all their sturm und drang is not actually about me at all; it’s only an expression of how they feel about the situation, fists and feet pounding pavement in response to mother’s “No.” I can resist their characterization. I don’t have to accept their shame and blame.
I see a similar situation develop here in Exodus, but sadly, no one steps in to reassure the Israelites that they are not actually the problem. Really, what has Israel done? Fleeing refugees pause to rest. They’re thirsty. They say, “Give us water to drink.” They’re even more thirsty; they say, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”
All this is presented via multiple prejudicial words: “quarreling” (4 times) “testing” (3 times) “grumbling” (once). But if we suspend the interpretive agenda of the text and simply consider the Israelites, their words and deeds within their context, what’s the problem? Is it so outrageous to ask for water? When you’re thirsty, in the desert, with no water in sight — fear of dying is legit. These poor people don’t know where they are; they don’t even know very well the leaders who have brought them there. Fear and doubt are reasonable.
So — who are all these judgmental expressions actually about? Moses, partly. He is fearful and insecure, like the Israelites. So he defends against feelings of inadequacy by accusing Israel. “Why do you test the Lord?”
But the narrator is the worst offender when it comes to labeling the Israelites as troublemakers. He conveys the perspective of the community’s leaders at the time this text developed, likely after Jewish exiles under Persian rule returned to their homeland and struggled to establish themselves, to survive as a people.
Leaders prefer cooperative followers. It’s just so much easier to get things done. Anytime anyone raises a question, it means things are going to take longer and be more difficult. If only everyone would just trust and obey. How handy to have a sacred text that teaches people to fall in line.
This is that text, conditioning people to be cooperative, and it’s just getting started. Later, Yahweh will inform Israel that although they are no longer slaves of Egypt, they are still slaves: his. “For it is to me the sons of Israel are slaves; my slaves they are, whom I brought from the land of Egypt. I, Yahweh, your God” (Lev. 25.55).
These ancient leaders were under a lot of pressure, so the agenda of this text is understandable and maybe even commendable; they did — despite all likelihood — survive!
But we live in less desperate times. For us, cooperation is still necessary to get things done, but it can be accomplished without labeling those who question rebellious or otherwise bad. This incident at Rephidim (“resting spot”) is neither Moses’ nor Yahweh’s finest moment in leading the Israelites. But it isn’t their worst, either. There’s no “comfort, comfort, my people,” (Isa. 40.1) but at least there’s no smiting. At least they get their people the water they do need.