Our text for today is one of the more challenging texts from an interpretation standpoint in all of the Israelite wilderness story. In fact, as best we can tell, it is a story that is told twice. It occurs in Exodus 17 and then it is retold in Numbers 20. In both accounts, the Israelites are complaining again. This time their frustration is not about a lack of food as was the case in our passage last week. Now, their anger stems from a lack of water. They have entered into the arid region of the wilderness. They have no water to drink and thus their complaining reaches yet another fevered pitch.
In both Exodus and Numbers, Moses follows God’s instructions and strikes a rock with his staff causing water to gush forth and quench the people’s thirst. Interestingly enough, from this story, a legend developed in Jewish thought that suggested that this same rock was carried with the wandering Israelites in the days and years ahead and from it water could be routinely produced anytime there was a need.
What distinguishes the Exodus and Numbers accounts is the fact that in the Numbers version, the people’s complaining is matched by Moses’ own frustration which leads to his striking the rock in anger. In short, Moses’ allows their behavior to get the best of him. While he produces water for the people, he does so with an attitude that is not pleasing to God. According to the scripture, as a result of what happens in this moment, Moses is not allowed to enter the Promised Land.
Now in all fairness to the history of interpreting this text, there are several theories as to what upset God about Moses behavior resulting in his exclusion from the Promised Land. One thought is that Moses didn’t follow God’s instructions. In Numbers, God invites Moses to speak to the rock calling forth water but Moses instead chooses to bring water from the rock by striking it. Another thought is that Moses takes credit alongside Aaron for what happens rather than giving credit to God with the statement in vs. 10, “must we bring you water from this rock?”
A third idea is what I have already mentioned and that is that Moses simply allows the behavior of the Israelites to justify his own bad behavior. The Israelites were angry, complaining and frustrated. So, why couldn’t he behave in the same way?
It reminds me of the story of a woman standing in line for an upcoming flight who watched as the man in front of her was impatient and hateful with the poor young man who was checking bags. When it came her turn at the counter, the woman first apologized to the young man for what she had seen saying how sorry she was that he had been treated so badly. At the same time, she also commended the airline worker for the fact that he had kept his composure and that he seemed to let the ugly words he had heard go in one ear and out the other. “How can you take that kind of verbal abuse?” she asked the young man. “It is really pretty easy,” the baggage handler replied. “You see, that man is headed to Seattle. But, after what he had to say, his bags are now headed to San Antonio.”
Let’s unpack that cute little story for just a moment. Here was a person who was treated poorly. There was no excuse for the way that the passenger had acted toward him. In turn, his sense was that in the heat of the moment, his own act of revenge was justifiable. After all, like with Moses in the Number account, turnabout is fair play.
Unfortunately, neither God nor our faith give us this level of freedom. Even when others choose to act poorly, lash out with frustration or treat everyone around them with disrespect and disregard, that doesn’t give you or me the right to act with an equal measure of hatefulness while justifying our behavior as simply being on the same level as that being displayed by everyone else.
In this life, we cannot control what others say or do. But, as people of faith, we always have control over what we say and do. In turn, I believe that God has the same expectation of us when we encounter the bad behavior of others as when we experience our friends and neighbors at their best.
Further, I don’t think anyone will remember how we behave when we simply get down in the ditch with everyone else. But, I do believe that we will be hard to ignore when we rise above it all despite the temptations and despite our sense that we are justified in our poor behavior.
Do you remember the story from 2006 of the Amish Community in Nickel Mines, PA? On an October day, a man opened fired on the one room schoolhouse in the community there injuring 10 young girls and killing 5. What captured the worlds attention was how the Amish people in that little town responded. They forgave the man, attended his funeral, reached out to his family and ultimately set up a financial fund to help care for his children. (Amish Forgive School Shooter, Struggle with Grief, Joseph Shapiro, npr.org)
The world would have said they had every right to respond to his evil with evil of their own but they refused to allow revenge to be an appropriate response. They didn’t stoop to the killer’s level. Instead, they rose above it and that unexpected response is what capture people’s attention.
Perhaps these are our days to get the world’s attention. And maybe, the way we can best do that is not by joining in the complaining, frustration and pity party, but instead by finding a way to rise above it all. Amen.