The muttering started as soon as they broke camp. No. Moses had to admit that it started as soon as the pillar of cloud moved and he gave the official word that the Lord was moving them out of the Wilderness of Sin.
It was always about the same thing. Where is there water? Are there water holes where we’re going? How much water should we put in the skins? Will there be water in two days, because that’s all the donkeys can carry?
His answer was always the same: “The Lord is leading us. He took us out of Egypt, across the sea on dry land, and he’s promised us a new life. He will not let us die of thirst on the way.”
The answer he wanted to give? We were slaves for 400 years, people. None of you left Egypt unless you were part of a work detail, and then you were more likely to be trying to avoid the whip than noticing your surroundings. Any of you who knew these lands and how to recognize the signs of water died generations ago. This is only possible with the Lord! So trust Him.”
But the people were too anxious. No argument, either rational, sarcastic, or faith-filled could get through, so he just let them grumble.
They were a slow-moving column, slow enough that runners with donkeys could go back to previous campsites to fetch just enough water to get by. But the Lord kept moving them further and further from known water. Days away. Mountains hemmed them in on every side. Cruel rocks with no vegetation, which meant no shepherds who might tell them where there was a spring. Now and then they’d see a smoothed section of rock that looked like it was made by flowing water, but it was too late in the season; all the runoff from winter rains had dried.
Moses could hear a whine of disbelief roll through the people when the pillar of cloud stopped after only a half a day’s walk. They wouldn’t reach water again today. It was true that the people only had strength to journey that far, but he could feel the weight of their panic like one of those mountains, pressing in on him.
And then something worse happened: silence. All the chatter of the people stopped as they surrounded him.
A lone voice cried, desperation in every word, “Give us water to drink!”
Everyone spoke at once, each accusation like a rock thrown at his head. “My mother is dying.” “My children will not live through the night.” “I’ve already lost livestock. I’d better not lose more.” “You don’t know what you’re doing.”
“Quiet!” Moses tried his best to calm them down. “Why are you bringing this up to me? I don’t control the water any more than I control you.”
But they weren’t listening. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt?” “Are you trying to kill us?” “We were better off as slaves.” “At least we knew where water was.” “At least our masters gave us enough food and water to keep our strength up.” “We’re going to die out here.” “The Lord brought us out here to die.”
A sandstorm swirled through Moses’s insides. “No! No. Don’t say that. Those are serious charges.”
“You looked so tough in Egypt, but you don’t know what you’re doing.” “We’re cursed.” “We’re doomed to fail.” “Why is the Lord leading us to our death?”
Their complaints took an even darker turn. “How can Lord be with us anymore?” “It was all a trick.” “The Lord doesn’t care about us.”
Moses clenched his fists and cried out to the Lord, “What can I do with these people? They’re ready to stone me!”
The voice of the Lord came into Moses’s mind, as unhurried as usual. “Walk out in front of the people. Take your staff, the one you used when you struck the water of the Nile, and call the elders of Israel to join you.”
Now they were going to get it. They’d pressed the Lord too far. The Lord was calling a judgment council and putting the people on trial for daring to challenge Him. And people would die. Because there would have to be deaths. What else could the result be for calling the Lord’s power and wisdom into question?
He sent Miriam and Aaron to gather the tribal elders, and then stalked through the crowd, pushing through with his staff in front of him, no longer even trying to answer the people.
The Lord told him to go the rock at Mount Sinai, so that’s where he headed with the judgment council. They each assured him that they’d been trying to keep their tribe in line. What could he say to that except, “It’s too late. They’ve pushed the Lord too far. He told me that he’d stand on the rock at Mount Sinai. I don’t know what He’s going to do to them from up there.”
“Not quite.” It was the Lord. ”I said that I will stand before you on the rock at Mount Sinai.”
Moses stumbled. “But it’s the accused who stands before the judgment council.”
The Lord was silent.
“You–” Moses could hardly get out the words. “You will stand before the council and let the people make their charge against you?”
The tribal elders gasped when they heard his side of the conversation.
Moses panted at the effort to keep his fear in check. “My brothers, the Lord will allow Himself to stand before the judgment council, under the accusation of abandoning his people.”
This was getting worse and worse. The people were not supposed to put the Lord on trial. And the Lord wasn’t supposed to agree to it. They had all watched as the Lord moved the waters of the sea for them and then swamped the Egyptian army. What would He do for this offense? Would He pull down the mountains on top of them? Strike them down with a sickness?
Finally, Moses and the elders were there. They sat between the rock and the people, unsure of how to proceed, afraid to look at each other or at the people.
“Strike the rock with your staff,” the Lord said.
Moses pushed himself up and thought about bargaining with the Lord, begging for mercy for His people, but dread pooled in his gut. The people were beyond his help.
“Moses.” The Lord’s voice was so … gentle. “When you strike the rock, water will come out. The people will get their drink.”
This was even more confusing, but if Moses had learned nothing else, it was to do what God told him to. He grabbed his staff with both hands and swung it behind him. In the heartbeat when the staff was poised in the air, right before he brought it against the rock, he heard the people scream in panic. He put all his power behind his swing and almost broke the staff against the rock.
Water gushed out and drenched Moses. He stood under its stream and cried — whether it was in gratitude, in relief, in shock, in awe, he didn’t know. When the tension washed away, he stepped to the side and watched the people. Many of them had turned away from the rock and tried to run, but the crowd was too thick. In the confusion and arguing, few people noticed what happened. The elders had to wade out and tell them, “Turn around. The Lord has given us water.” “Come and drink your fill.” “Bring your jugs and water skins.”
Some people dipped their fingertips in the water and tentatively licked them as if it might be poison. As the water filled the dry river bed that had been their path, others knelt in the middle and stuck their faces in while they drank. Some people danced and others wept. But there was more than enough water to revive everyone. Even the livestock.
When everyone was satisfied, Moses raised his staff one more time. The people quieted.
“Whatever this place used to be called, I am renaming it Massah and Meribah, because here is where we brought our complaint against the Lord. Against our charge, “Is the Lord with us, or not?” the Lord did not put us on trial for daring to accuse Him, nor did He crush us. He agreed to stand trial and his evidence is all around us. Here is the verdict of the council: He is with us! Glory be the name of the Lord!”
This story found its germ in a sermon I heard this summer that unpacked the ancient legalese that I hadn’t recognized in the biblical record. Thinking about how radical a shift it was for God to agree to stand before the tribal judgment council fired up my imagination, and I wanted to play with unpacking the story, and taking more time to tell it than we get in the Bible. Also, I apologize that I do not have a credit for that amazing artwork — I’ve looked. If you know about the original, please drop me a line.