Text for the Week: When Questioning Becomes Quarrelling

Scripture: Exodus 17:1-7

 From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water, and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do for this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massahand Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Theme- Israel has allowed their difficulties to escalate their antagonism but God remains loyal


  1. The Israelites are not criticized for their complaining in chapter 16, but they are in chapter 17 what has changed about their situation to provoke this criticism?
  2. What does it mean that the Israelites “test the Lord”, and is testing God always wrong or are the Israelites participating in a particular type of test that is wrong?
  3. Why does God emphasize that Moses is to take the staff “with which you struck the Nile”, what is the point of that specific reference?
  4. Is there a special significance to Horeb that Moses is directed to go there with the elders and not simply find a nearby rock?
  5. What are we to think of the Israelites who first experienced the signs in Egypt then God’s provision in the wilderness and still said, “Is the Lord among us or not” and how to we prevent ourselves from becoming like them?

Helpful Information

Related Scriptures: Numbers 20:1-29, Psalm 114, John 4, 6, 1 Corinthians 10:1-4

Moses is to travel ahead of the people into Horeb a place that will later be identified with Sinai, this could be an indication that the water that flows comes from God’s Mountain.

The Hebrew ryb “quarreled” is a far stronger term than the one used in previous chapters to describe Israel’s confrontations with Moses, Israel is not simply concerned about their wellbeing as in previous chapters they are in outright revolt.

There is a juxtaposition between Egypt and thirst in the people’s words. In their minds they are being brought from Egypt to death by thirst as if it is the goal of the journey.

The names given to the place of this incident are Massahand Meribah,which mean testing and quarrel.

It is likely that Moses was directed to strike a limestone formation that would have had a crust of rock and a large well of water enclosed within.

For more background check out my video here


At the end of the story of manna in Exodus 16:27 we are told that some of the community went out to gather manna on the Sabbath. The way God responds to this activity seems to indicate problem was not that they forgot to gather double the day before, rather it seems like they were simply trying to gather more than they needed. It is easy to look past this incident but it is the beginning of a pattern of behavior, one that escalates quickly in the next story. In Exodus 17:2 Moses is again confronted by the community (as he was in 15:24 & 16:2), but this time there is a major difference, the verb used for Israel’s complaints. Unlike English authors who have a plethora of words to choose from, Hebrew authors do not often vary their words, rather they use repetition of words to help make texts more memorable and so a variation like this should make us stop and think. In the Israelite response to Moses in 17:2 reflects one of these times. The people are no longer “complaining” they are now “quarreling” which demonstrates much harsher treatment toward Moses. We tend to see both complaining and quarreling as negatives which is why I would suggest that the first is closer to questioning- authentically seeking answers to real hurts. But in this passage something has changed the people are not simply questioning what is happening or offering constructive comments on the situation they are upset and allowing their anger to express itself in simple quarreling. Despite the fact that Moses has proven himself time and again to be reliant on God and able to overcome the obstacles Israel faces, the people intentionally use their legitimate concerns to cause strife.

We notice that the issue presented to Moses in this chapter is the same as in 15:23, a lack of water, and Moses’ response is the same, to cry out to God, also the resolution is the same God miraculously provides water. The only difference between these two passages is the language used for Israel’s confrontation with Moses. Israel’s willingness to use their hardships as a source of outrage against Moses becomes the source of friction for the time in the wilderness. To some degree I think the author is trying to create a character, Israel is used to reflect us, individuals who want to follow God but do so in fits and starts. People who will gladly accept God and follow God’s provision, but who fight against leadership and boundaries when they rub up against us. A pattern is being established that will run throughout Exodus, the people are given laws- instructions for how to live as God’s community- the people violate the laws and turn on Moses and God.

Israel represents the natural tendency of humans as we learn to give up our own selfishness in favor building a community based on God. God has provided Israel with one instruction to help them build a better community and they have ignored it, now they have elevated their rhetoric to the level of threatening Moses and we must ask ourselves, how can we do better?

Israel’s anger and bitterness led them to verbally assault Moses, but we do not have to fall into the same trap. Nor should we pent up our anger and “just deal” with issues that negatively impact our well-being. Rather we need to follow a better model for working through our problems. Israel recognized the problems they faced and that is the first step in properly handling situations. But then they failed because they assigned their problems to the wrong source. The problem for them was a lack of water, but they identified the problem as Moses. Even if Moses were to blame for Israel’s hardships, their anger and frustration was misplaced in attacking him. What they should have done is come to him recognizing the problem and then asked him how he intended to solve the problem; they obviously had seen enough to know that God had worked through him and that should have given him grace. They could have approached sternly without the need to quarrel. Israel’s response to Moses is a warning to us that sometimes we can see real problems and fail to meet God’s standards because we react in the wrong way and thus obstruct what God wants to do in the world.

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