Vision Loss

Desert MoonExodus 17:1-7

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.

Gripe Gripe Gripe

Gathering Manna
Israelites gathering Manna, Ercole de' Roberti, 1490s, National Gallery, London

Exodus 16:2-15

Out in the desert, everybody started to gripe about Moses and Aaron, saying, “God should have killed us while we were still in Egypt. At least back there we had plenty of food. Instead, you brought us out here where we’ll all starve.”

So God told Moses, “I’ll make it rain bread, and everyone will be able to gather just enough for one day. Let’s see if this lot can even follow directions. On the sixth day, they will gather enough for two days, so they can have a break on day seven.”

So Moses and Aaron told the people, “Tonight you will remember that God brought you here from Egypt. In the morning, you’ll know that God is still here. Get off our case. All your griping is not really about us; it’s about God.

“Since God has heard your griping, God will give you meat tonight and bread tomorrow until you’re all stuffed. Get off our case. It’s God you’re really griping about.”

Then Moses had Aaron make an announcement to everyone: “Come and check this out!” God has heard your griping.” And as Aaron spoke God’s avatar appeared in the clouds. And Moses heard God say, “I’ve heard all their griping, so tell them that this evening they shall eat meat, and in the morning they shall fill up on bread, and then they’ll know I really am God.”

That evening, a flock of quail landed all over their campsite. And the next morning the camp was covered in dew. When the dew lifted, it left behind frosted flakes. People started asking, “What’s this?” Nobody knew what it was. But Moses said, “It’s the bread God has given you. Go ahead. Eat it.”

Notice that the provision of the “Bread of Heaven” comes with instructions about how much can be collected. The intention is clear that this is in answer to a legitimate need (people have got to eat) not a free-for-all dispensation of wealth. This bread cannot be stockpiled and traded. It cannot be used as a commodity.

The passing line, “Let’s see if this lot a can even follow directions,” indicates that this is a test, to prove that the complaints were never about the danger of starvation at all. They are really about the lack of gratitude that has taken root in the community. It’s their insatiable desire for more and better of everything that’s being starved in the desert, not their bodies. Jesus would later tell a story that speaks to the same issue.

Such is the case with nearly all complaints; the “issue” isn’t really the issue.

How Empires Are Undone

Exodus 14:19-31

The Red Sea Parting
Frame from The Ten Commandments, 1956

God’s avatar, a great dark pillar of cloud, moved from the front of Israel’s camp to interpose itself behind them, between the Israelites and the pursuing Egyptian armies. The cloud remained there separating the two camps through the night, so dark that even the night seemed bright.

Moses stretched his hand over the sea, and God drove the sea back by the power of the east wind, splitting the water until dry land appeared. The Israelites walked through the sea, a great sea-wall on either side. The Egyptians, in hot pursuit, went in after them with everything they had – crack troops, tanks, artillery. As morning approached, God looked down on the Egyptians from the top of the storm cloud and threw them into panic. God caused their equipment to fail, so they were stuck. The Egyptians said, “We’ve got to get out of here. God is on their side against us.

Then God said to Moses, “Stretch your hand over the sea to close the water over the Egyptians, their weapons and their troops. So Moses stretched his hand over the sea. As the morning broke, the sea-walls closed over the Egyptians. As they fled, the Egyptians were drowned. Not one of them who had followed the Israelites into the sea passage, neither man nor machine, survived. But the Israelites all made it through between the sea-walls, without even getting their feet wet.

That was the day God freed the Israelites from the Egyptians. Seeing the Egyptians’ dead bodies washing up on the shore, they were amazed that God’s power had outmatched the world’s most powerful fighting forces. They stood in awe. In that moment, they believed what Moses had told them about God.

For all its hokey technicolor naivete, the Charlton Heston movie really does get the image right with the wall of water thing. It’s exactly the picture the story gives. Scholars debate whether there is a plausible natural explanation: it was actually a shallow “sea of reeds” near the Nile delta, not the red sea; there were tidal forces at work. Back and forth over whether it could have really happened. On it goes.

But the whole point is that there is not and cannot be any plausible natural explanation for it. The point of the story (and it’s a story) is that God orchestrated a miraculous escape, that the laws of nature were suspended to allow an oppressed people to be free and to deal an invincible empire catastrophic and unmitigated defeat.

Drawing from ancient mythic traditions, this passage came into its current form during the Hebrews’ captivity in Babylon. It was the story that enabled them to hang on until, for reasons quite beyond themselves, the empire fell and they were set free. The story is the wish-dream of every oppressed people for a miraculous escape and for the defeat of their oppressors. As such, it speaks to the imagination, not to the history books. And it’s purpose is to inspire hope, not debate. Particularly, it gives hope to those for whom the capacity to free themselves is impossibly out of reach.

One might think that a story like this, bringing hope to the hopeless, is a cruel kind of trick, a sham. But in fact, it is vindicated by the fact that sooner or later, for reasons that are entirely unforeseen, empires fall. It was so with Egypt, Babylon, China, Greece, Rome, Spain, England, Japan, Germany. And it’s no less true of today’s empires. Hang on long enough, and eventually it will fall. Call it the hand of God if you like.

But to hang on long enough people need hope against the humanly impossible. That’s what this story is about. Every empire is doomed to destruction by its own hubris when it thinks that its tanks, artillery and crack troops can solve all its problems.