Then all the congregation of the children of Israel set out on their journey from the Wilderness of Sin, according to the commandment of the LORD, and camped in Rephidim; but there was no water for the people to drink.
Rephidim lay about a day's march from Mount Sinai at the entrance to the Horeb district. They had walked through a barren desert into a valley with no shelter, only sparse vegetation, and no water. Pictures of this area have been posted online, and it does not look at all hospitable. This event would have occurred sometime in May, and in a desert environment, temperatures would be rising. The latitude of Rephidim is roughly the same as St. Augustine, Florida, if that helps.
As an aside, most Bible commentators feel that Mount Horeb and Mount Sinai are just different names for the same mountain. A smaller group feels that they are separate mountains, or possibly, different peaks in the same range. There is no reason for us to get into the weeds on this controversy. What we do know is that Exodus 17:1 says that they camped in Rephidim, where this event took place. In Exodus 19:1-2, they departed from Rephidim and went to the Desert of Sinai. Exodus 17:2-3:
Therefore the people contended with Moses, and said, "Give us water, that we may drink." And Moses said to them, "Why do you contend with me? Why do you tempt the LORD?" And the people thirsted there for water . . ..
In a hot and dry environment, an adult can lose three pints of sweat in an hour. A child left in a hot car can dehydrate, overheat, and die in only a few hours. Once a person's water levels dip below a healthy amount, along with the obvious thirst, he or she also develops dry skin, fatigue, light-headedness, dizziness, confusion, rapid pulse and breathing, and other symptoms. Dehydrated children cry without tears. Without water, a general malaise sets in. As water leaches out of the brain cells, the brain contracts, and blood vessels in the head may burst.
How endangered were the Israelites at this point? The biblical text reads, "And the people thirsted there." To what degree did they thirst? The word translated as "thirst" can mean "suffer thirst." The Good News Bible interprets the text to say they were "very thirsty," which is likely.
Not only did most of them not have God's Holy Spirit, but the Israelites were starting to become dehydrated, which alters a person's thinking. I have experienced situations without water, and it does strange things with one's mind. Hiking in a canyon in the backcountry of Utah, my wife Phyllis and I ran out of water. I had to restrain Phyllis almost forcefully from drinking from a stream that we had been warned had cattle runoff in it. She was beginning to get a little loopy. She would have become extremely sick had she drunk from that stream. We should have been carrying a portable water purifier, but that is a lesson for another day.
The story continues in verse 4: "So Moses cried out to the LORD, saying, "What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me!" It appears that the Israelites had become dehydrated enough that they were not thinking straight.
In verse 6, God instructs Moses, "Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock in Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it." Again, pictures of what is presumed to be the "rock in Horeb" can be seen in numerous photos online. They show a huge rock at the top of what is currently identified as Mount Horeb, and the rock features a split right down the middle.
Consider this. In the center of this rocky, dry, and barren area, at the highest point around, stands a large rock with an almost perfect vertical split down the middle. No one can say for sure that this is the very rock Moses struck, but it is certainly possible.
With this image in mind, we should picture a huge cascade of water gushing out of the split in the rock—enough water for millions of thirsty people and their animals. How long would it have to flow to rehydrate them all? Days, perhaps?
So, in verse 7, Moses named this place Massah and Meribah, meaning "testing" and "contention" or "quarreling," respectively, "because they tempted [tested] the LORD, saying, ‘Is the LORD among us or not?'" They had witnessed daily miracles in the cloud by day, the pillar of fire by night, and manna on the ground each morning, and they dare to ask, "Is the LORD with us or not?"
Despite their complaints, He obviously was with them. He was among them, just as He is among us. Consider that Moses was thirsty too! But he was faithful. He saw God leading them, and he trusted Him to lead them where He wanted them to go. He knew God would handle the situation in His own time because He had not brought them this far into the wilderness just to let them die.
As we experience our daily battles and are tempted to complain as they become more severe, remember that we can react in fear or faith. The examples we have seen all show that it is far better to respond with faith. We can be confident that God will help us. So, keep in mind Exodus 14:14, where we began: "The LORD will fight for you, and you just keep quiet."
- Mike Ford
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