From the Moon Desert, all the Israelites traveled in fits and starts as God led them. When they came to a place where they could spread out, they stopped there. But there was no drinking water. So the people started griping at Moses saying, “Give us drinking water.”
Moses said, “Why are you griping at me? Why are you always accusing God?”
But the insatiable people kept on griping: “Why did you bring us here from Egypt to kill us and our children and our livestock by thirst?”
So Moses asked God, “Now what? These people are going to stone me.”
So God said, “Take some of their leaders and go on a little farther. And take your staff with you, the one you used to strike the Nile River. I’ll wait for you on the rock by the ruin. When you get there, strike the rock with your staff, and it’ll crack open a spring. Then the people can drink.”
So that’s what Moses did, in full view of their leaders. He called the place Griping Accusation, because it was where the Israelites griped and accused God of not being with them.
Being thirsty is one thing. Accusing someone of wanting to kill you is taking it to a whole new level. But then again, Moses hadn’t handled it very well, projecting the people’s frustration with him onto God. He gives the impression of carrying on the desert adventure a bit like Indiana Jones, “Give me a break, will ya, I’m making this up as I go along.” Traveling in fits and starts doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the leadership.
The story, in all, is a parable about what happens in communities under stress, when things aren’t going well and there is no clear direction. The people get grouchy, the leaders get defensive, leading to hyperbolic accusations flying in both directions. Bad scene.
The solution: a leaders retreat. Or rather, a leaders advance. And this is indeed what the church often does. And it seems to relieve the tension. At least something is being done about the presenting issue, and there is a short term solution. The people get something to drink. But the leaders retreat doesn’t fix the underlying problem. There is still no direction. They are all still stuck in the desert.
And the next thing they try to generate for themselves a sense of meaning, and for something to do: start a war. Exodus 17:8-15, has been conveniently left on the Common Lectionary’s cutting-room floor, but it’s an integral part of the story.
This story is, according to tradition, the moment where Moses screwed up. The incident at the “Rock of Horeb” is given as the reason he was unable to enter the Promised Land. And Horeb in Hebrew does indeed mean “ruin.” But the picture here is that there was more than striking the rock improperly that was involved in Moses’ downfall. This is the ruin where Moses’ traded his vision of freedom for a vision of establishing a new empire.