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Unseen Grace: Lent in the Book of Exodus

By March 1, 2011 No Comments

Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, has undergone somewhat of a renaissance in its methodology for teaching biblical Hebrew over the last five years. The focus of this renaissance is the orality of the people of Israel, the orality of the Hebrew language, and ultimately the implications of these for the interpretation of the Old Testament. The theory is that if the Old Testament can be approached in a way that takes its orality seriously, then new inroads into the text might be forged. These inroads, in turn, may lead to previously unknown (or long forgotten) discoveries into the meaning of the Old Testament stories.

Though there is some debate, a growing consensus of Old Testament scholars suggest that prior to the Babylonian exile the people of Israel were overwhelmingly oral, with as little as one to three percent having the ability to read or write. In this sort of environment, how would the Word of God–the stories of the beloved ancestors–be passed down from generation to generation?

In short, the stories would be told. This seems an obvious answer, but consider the implications. The stories would not be read. Trim-line scrolls would not be safely stowed in the ancient equivalent of pant-pockets to be taken out and read whenever the need or desire arose. Rather, the stories were told. The people would gather–for worship, for a family gathering, for a village meeting–and the stories would be told. Any telling suggests a type of performance, and the more formal the gathering, the more formal the performance would have been.

A performance demands not only giving voice to words but also giving body to movements and space to setting. According to this framework, voice, body, and spacing are all essential elements to any interpretation of a biblical story, for they were all central to the story’s original context. This revelation calls for a paradigm shift in the interpretation of the Old Testament stories from a predominantly text-oriented model to a performance-oriented model. At Western Seminary, the old Hebrew Reading course has now permanently morphed into a course in which students memorize, and then perform, Old Testament narratives in Hebrew and in worship. The course is enriching the spiritual and exegetical acumen of the students.

The rub of this is, of course, that if all we ever do is read the stories of Scripture and never enter them (as an actor enters a script), then we may never experience the stories in their fullness. The stories of Scripture must be seen in order to be understood.

Let me explain with an example. Exodus 17:1-7 has become for me a paragon of the importance of “seeing” a story, lest its meaning be muddled or missed. This particular story takes place shortly after Moses has miraculously led the Israelites out of Egypt and across the Red Sea; they are now closing in on Mt. Sinai. Immediately prior to this story, God sent manna and quail shortly after turning bitter water sweet at Marah. We pick up the story as the children of Israel journey from the wilderness of Sin and eventually encamp at Rephidim, where “there was no water for the people to drink” (v. 1).

The people quickly turn on Moses and quarrel with him, demanding water to drink. He challenges their demands by rebuking them for quarrelling with him and, ultimately, for testing the Lord. But the people continue to thirst.

In the intense heat of the Sinai desert, someone could expect to live no more than a couple of days without water. Out of fear and anger, the people lash out again at Moses, this time spreading their discontent throughout the camp, “murmuring” against him. They lament that Moses even brought them out of Egypt (this is not the first nor the last time this will happen) and accuse him of willfully taking them out to the desert to kill them.

In desperation, Moses does what any leader of God’s people would be expected to do: he prays. “What can I do with these people?! In a moment they’re going to stone me!” (v. 4, author’s translation). Can you visualize the scene? Moses has been backed into a corner while the elders of Israel approach, stones in hand–they are just waiting for someone to cast the first stone.

This is not a pretty scene. This is not the scene the people imagined as they sang and danced on the far side of the Red Sea as the Egyptian army was swallowed up. The entire nation of Israel now hangs in the balance. If no water is found, the people will die (and all the promises God made to their ancestors will die with them, lying cracked and broken on the thirsty earth).

But Moses prays. Moses stands in the gap between the people and God; he reconnects the faltering flock with the ultimate source of their hope. Moses prays. God answers.

But God’s answer is strange. “Pass in front of the people and take a few of the elders of Israel. And the staff you used to strike the Nile, take it in your hand and go” (v. 5). How does Moses “pass in front” of the people? How many elders does he take? Why does he take his staff? To where is he supposed to “go”? And does God realize that he is telling Moses to pass in front of the very people who have their arms cocked, waiting to stone him? In a performance, these are all important questions.

Thankfully, God continues: “Behold, I will be standing there in front of you on the rock of Horeb. Strike the rock and water will come from it, and the people will drink.” This is, by far, the most important verse in the passage, and also the most frequently misread.

It all boils down to the translation of a preposition, a little word loaded with implications. The word, in Hebrew, is ‘al. It is generally translated “upon,” as the etymology of the word would dictate; it can also mean “before” or “beside.” God tells Moses, “I will be standing there in front of you ‘al the rock of Horeb…” Where will God be standing? Upon the rock? Beside the rock? Before the rock? It makes little difference until we realize what God is commanding Moses to do once he arrives at this rock.

Moses is instructed to strike the rock. The word “strike” is an extremely violent word. It is often translated “smite,” as in, “strike a death blow.” If Moses is to approach the rock and strike it, God’s location vis-à-vis the rock becomes all-important.

If God stands before the rock, and Moses walks past him to strike the rock, God becomes a sort of shield between Moses and the elders–who probably still have stones in their hands. If God stands beside the rock, God’s presence may function, as Calvin suggests in his commentary, to remove Moses’ anxiety and doubt about the efficacy of what he is being asked to do. Both of these are fine interpretations. But I think both fail to capture the fullness of the moment.

If God stands upon the rock which Moses is to strike, everything changes. Visualize it. God is going to “stand” on the rock. How does God stand? In a performance, God must have both body and voice and is described as such by the narrator. God stands on the rock. How big is the rock? There is no way to know for sure, but the Hebrew word suggests a substantial rock. This is not one of David’s smooth stones from the brook.

Moses then approaches the rock, staff in hand. Does he see God? This is highly doubtful. It is much more likely that God is only “visible” to the audience. Regardless, in the context of the unfolding drama, Moses faces the rock and his God simultaneously. He brings his staff behind his head and brings it down hard on the top of the rock. Water gushes forth.

Did you see it? If Moses strikes the rock with God standing upon it, Moses strikes God, and only then does the rock produce water. God stands in the gap between the people and Moses, and between the people and their thirst. To do this God took the brunt of Moses’ staff, once again miraculously providing salvation for the Israelites. In Isaiah 43 God remembers both the Red Sea and this passage at the Rock of Horeb. He reminds the people that he has always been the Savior of Israel; the Lord is their King, their Redeemer, the One who brought them out of Egypt, the One who gives water in the wilderness, the One who gives drink to his chosen people.

And in this story it is clear that not only is God their Savior, but by his wounds the people are healed. No water will come from the rock until it is struck–with God on it. In other words, no water will come from the rock until God is struck, and from his side pours streams of living water.

The story in Exodus 17 teaches that God is a God who sacrifices himself for the sake of his people. Exodus 17 is an archetype of what God in Christ does on the cross. Jesus did not do something entirely new on the cross. Rather, he gave the ultimate expression of the sacrificial love that God has always given to his people.

The apostle Paul interpreted it the same way. I Cor. 10:4 says, “For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” The rock was Christ, and the water that flowed from its side was the living water of salvation.

The Church has interpreted this story as a Lenten story, and you will find it assigned to Lent in the lectionary. However, the Lenten connection made by most commentators is only superficial, since few commentators see the Lenten connection between the sacrificial act of God standing on the rock, and the sacrificial act of Christ on the cross. That is because the connection is not a literary one, but a dramatic one. The full effect of this story is only seen when it is seen.

But the story does not end there. The closing moments of the drama usher a challenge that is as demanding as it is subtle. The narrator briefly summarizes Moses’ response to God’s commands: “And Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel” (v. 6). Picture this dramatically. In my mind’s eye, I see Moses, God, and the elders gathered at the Rock of Horeb upstage right–farthest away from the audience and off to the left from its perspective. The people of Israel stand downstage left–closest to the audience and facing it, completely unaware of what is unfolding behind them.

The drama builds to its climax as Moses approaches the rock and raises his staff above his head, poised to strike the rock, and God with it. At this point I see Moses, God, and the elders forming a freeze frame–a tableau–for the rest of the drama. The vision of Moses striking God remains as the backdrop to the Israelites’ continued grumbling as the drama draws to a close. This is the enduring image this drama has burned into my heart and mind. The narrator continues: “And he called the name of the place Quarreling and Testing, because the children of Israel quarreled and because they tested the LORD there, saying, ‘Is the Lord really among us? Or not?!'” (v. 7). The people’s final question, left unanswered by God and narrator, echoes through the canyons of time and ought not fall on deaf ears or faltering hearts today. Contained within that final question is an irony so tragic you may want to sit down before you read on.

The irony hinges on the word “in our midst.” In Hebrew, this word can be translated either as “in our midst,” or “in our innermost part,” better yet, “in our heart.” I believe both translations are intended here, which enables the irony in this final scene to function on two levels.

First, and closest to the surface, is the translation “in our midst.” The irony of this is, of course, that the people demand to know whether or not God is even present among them while God is in the background enduring the suffering that brings their salvation. I hesitate to consider how often I, in the midst of life’s trials, stop and ask God if he is even present or working in my life.

Is it possible that Exodus 17 adds this layer of tragic irony to the Lenten story: God not only sacrifices Godself for our salvation publicly on a cross, but also privately, invisibly, simultaneously enduring the physical suffering our salvation requires and the emotional and spiritual suffering brought on by our stubborn lack of faith and determined nearsightedness.

But the second layer of irony cuts deeper still. The second translation, doubtless unintended by the people of Israel in the moment, reads like this: “Is the Lord even in our hearts or not?” Here their faithless question turns the mirror back on themselves, revealing the true state of their hearts. Maybe they have missed God’s sacrificial salvation because they have closed their hearts to God’s presence by choosing fear over faith, discouragement over devotion. As my pastor recently said, “Discouragement develops distrust, which leads to disobedience, which inevitably produces disgusting behavior.”

Throughout the Lenten season, how will this story inform your reflection and practice? My encouragement is that we open our mouths less to speak and more to praise God out of gratitude for the manifold ways–both visible and invisible–that God sacrifices for us daily. We do not serve a God who is only high and holy. We serve a God who walked the earth with us, who lived and died a human life, and who will stop at nothing to pour out his love for us, whether we recognize it or not.

I will pray for greater attentiveness this Lenten season: attentiveness to the state of my heart and attentiveness to the presence of God in my life and in my life’s circumstances. This drama teaches that God is present, regardless of whether or not we recognize his presence. And more often than not, when we do not recognize his presence, it is because we have chosen fear over faith and have turned our backs to the saving work he is doing in our midst and in our hearts.

This Lenten season, pray that God will open your heart to recognize his presence. And pray that God will open your eyes to the myriad ways he is working in and around you. Then, pray that God will open your mouth so that you might help others become aware of God’s presence.

And finally, as you read the Bible in preparation for Easter, don’t forget to read the Old Testament. And don’t forget to read with your imagination: see what you read, don’t just read what you read. And go a step further: enter the story; use your body and your voice. Let the Word be living and active inside of you and through you. If you do so, it is likely to transform your life and your understanding of God forever.

Travis West is an adjunct professor of Hebrew at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.
Travis West

Travis West

Travis West is Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary.