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Shemot/Exodus 17:2 And Moshe said to them, "Why are you contending with me? Why are you testing Adonai?
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Now out of Egypt and heading towards Mt. Sinai for their appointment withHaShem, our people reach Rephidim to find that there is no water to drink. As usual, the people turn to Moshe and berate him for bringing them out to die of thirst in the wilderness. This is Moshe's reply to the people. The particle is usually translated 'what' but is here more accurately rendered 'why'. The first question he asks, with the verb - a Qal 2mp prefix form of the root with a paragogic nun1 - has legal overtones; although the verb means "to contend, strive or quarrel", it can also mean "to plead or defend a cause" (Davidson) and one noun derived from it - - is a defender, while another - - is an adversary. The people have addressed their suit to the wrong party; they should be addressing their complaints to HaShem - it is He who has brought them out into the desert, Moshe is only following His instructions. The Sforno comments on this by supplying an amplification of what Moshe might have said: "Why do you strive with me? You certainly know that I am but commanded (by G-d) and perform (His will)." The Baal HaTurim points out that a masoretic note to the verb shows that it is used three times in the Hebrew Scriptures: here, in the challenge of Joash (Gideon's father) when asked to surrender his son for destroying the altar of Ba'al and the Asherah pole that stood beside it: "Will you contend for Ba'al" (Judges 6:31), and in Job's response to Zophar the Naamathite: "Will you contend for G-d?" (Job 13:8) meaning, "Will you be His advocate?" The Ba'al HaTurim concludes that "this is to teach you that one who contends with his Torah teacher is considered as if he is contending with the Holy One, Blessed be He."
In his second question, asRashi points out, Moshe gets to the point of what the people are really doing: they are testing - , a Pi'el 2mp prefix from the root , again with a paragogic nun - HaShem. This verb can mean "to try, prove or tempt" but is also used for "to try or assay", suggesting that the people might be putting HaShem to the test to see if He is up to providing for their needs. The Sforno again suggests that Moshe is counselling the people that "this testing is fraught with great danger, for if He is angered He will show His deeds to destroy you, and this test will result in dire consequences for you." Richard Friedman points out that "in each of the two chapters that precede this, G-d is described as testing the people (15:25, 16:4). Now the people dare to test G-d and Moshe asks them why they do that. It is a rhetorical question: the point is that there is no reason to test G-d. It is presumptuous, because G-d can be counted upon."
The event clearly struck a chord in our collective memory and conscience. Later in the Torah, G-d Himself complains about the way that the Israelites have made it a habit to grumble about and test Him: "all the men who have seen My glory and My signs, which I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, yet have put Me to the test these ten times and have not listened to My voice" (B'Midbar 14:22, NASB) and Moshe, in his recapitulation to the next generation on the Plains of Moab, later uses this specific incident as the principle example of this: "You shall not put the L-RD your G-d to the test, as you tested Him at Massah" (D'varim 6:16, NASB). The Psalmist picks it up again when urging the people of his day not to be hard-hearted towards G-d "Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the wilderness; when your fathers tested Me, they tried Me, though they had seen My work" (Psalm 95:8-9, NASB).
The Ramban explains that when the people quarreled with Moshe, "it means that they complained about their situation: 'What shall we do? What shall we eat? What shall we drink?'". These are very familiar words for believers, who hear Yeshua chiding the people of His day for their concern about material things: "So don't be anxious, asking, 'What will we eat?,' 'What will we drink?' or 'How will we be clothed?'" (Matthew 6:31, CJB). Yeshua dryly comments, "For it is the pagans who set their hearts on all these things" (v. 32a, CJB); the people of Israel should not be concerned because they are in relationship with G-d, they have seen His works, they know what He can do: "Your heavenly Father knows you need them all" (v. 32b, CJB). All those who have been invited to participate in the Kingdom of G-d are covered by this provision; all those who are called to be a part of the Body of Messiah are included. We are to recognise the Kingdom priority and trust G-d to provide for our material needs without putting Him to the test: "But seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (v. 33, CJB).
Now of course in our modern world, people have largely been freed of the existential day-to-day worries of food, drink and clothing. Our welfare states provide benefit systems so that no-one should ever be lacking a roof over their head and certain basic essentials of life unless they choose to put themselves outside the scope of that support. Setting aside, for the sake of this argument, the homeless who huddle at night in the shop doorways of most cities and the poor who beg and busk on our city streets - "it is, after all, their choice to be there, right?" 2 - all of us should be free to concentrate on Yeshua's words and forge ahead with the work of the kingdom, trusting Him to provide for our basic life necessities, even if that is through such mundane activities as having a job and working to earn money.
Strangely, that doesn't seem to be the case. So much so that only a few years after Yeshua's time, during those early formative years of the church, before any of the splits and schisms that were later to divide the church between Jew and Gentile and then into multiple denominations as the results of that original tearing apart bore fruit in successive generations right down to the present age, the writer to the Hebrews warned his audience in no uncertain terms: "Watch out, brothers, so that there will not be in any one of you an evil heart lacking trust, which could lead you to apostatize from the living G-d! Instead, keep exhorting each other every day, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you will become hardened by the deceit of sin. For we have become sharers in the Messiah, provided, however, that we hold firmly to the conviction we began with, right through until the goal is reached" (Hebrews 3:12-14, CJB).
Many believers today are still absorbed in keeping up with their neighbours, with having as much as their work colleagues. Sometimes, in a strange inverted way, it is seen as a sign of their faith in G-d that they should have more than everyone else around them, to show that they are blessed by being Christians. The Jewish people, of course, are not immune to these pressures; just ask any Jewish mother! Oftentimes, it is our lack of faith in G-d's basic promises, our own prideful (read: sinful) do-it-yourself attitude that prevents G-d from being able to bless us with the basic things of life and more, while we waste kingdom time and opportunities fighting to make what we see as 'enough' money for ourselves. In so doing, we forfeit the right to enter into G-d's rest. When we insist on doing everything for ourselves, we void being "sharers in the Messiah", because we have abandoned our convictions and have not endured through to the end. Yeshua said that "the one who endures to the end, he shall be saved" (Mark 13:13, NASB). Let us not be caught in this trap but instead resolve, while balancing our responsibility to provide for our immediate families and contribute to the household of faith, to put G-d and His priorities first in our lives and not put Him to the test!
1 - We do not know the exact reason for the use of the paragogic nun, but it is thought to be an aid to pronunciation, so that the preceeding is known to be an 'oo' sound () rather than the 'oh' () sound that might otherwise be possible in the unpointed text if the nun were not present.
2 - Please be aware of the sarcasm in this comment.
Further Study: Colossians 2:8; Ephesians 4:22
Application: Perhaps it is time to take an inventory of where we stand before G-d. Are you trusting in His provision and faithfully working through whatever that entails, or are you sacrificing the Kingdom of G-d for the sake of existence today? We need to take a hard look and be sure!
© Jonathan Allen, 2010
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