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Lectio divina on the book of Exodus

by Fr Piergiorgio M. Di Domenico OSM

Lectio 1 – 2016/17
Exodus 17
Water from the Rock
 Mistrust and faith
(Nb 20 : 1-13)

1 The whole community of Israelites left the desert of Sin, travelling by stages as the Lord ordered. They pitched camp at Rephidim where there was no water for the people to drink.

2 The people took issue with Moses for this and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses replied, ‘Why take issue with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?’

3 But, tormented by thirst, the people complained to Moses. ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt,’ they said, ‘only to make us, our children and our livestock, die of thirst?’

4 Moses appealed to the Lord for help. ‘How am I to deal with this people?’ he said. ‘Any moment now they will stone me!’

5 The Lord then said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, taking some of the elders of Israel with you; in your hand take the staff with which you struck the River, and go. 6 I shall be waiting for you there on the rock (at Horeb). Strike the rock, and water will come out or the people to drink.’ This was what Moses did, with the elders of Israel looking on. 7 He gave the place the names Massah and Meribah because of the Israelites’ contentiousness and because they put the Lord to the test by saying, ‘Is the Lord with us, or not?’

8 The Amalekites then came and attacked Israel at Rephidim. 9 Moses said to Joshua, ‘Pick some men and tomorrow morning go out and engage Amalek. I, for my part, shall take my stand on the hilltop with the staff of God in my hand.’ 10 Joshua did as Moses had told him and went out to engage Amalek, whille Moses, Aaron and Hur went up to the top of the hill. 11 As long as Moses kept his arms raised, Israel had the advantage; when he let his arms fall, the advantage went to Amalek. 12 But Moses’ arms grew heavy, so they took a stone and put it under him and on this he sat, with Aaron and Hur supporting his arms on each side.

Thus his arms remained unwavering till sunset, 13 and Joshua defeated Amalek, putting their people to the sword.

14 The Lord then said to Moses, ‘Write this down in a book to commemorate it, and repeat it over to Joshua, for I shall blot out all memory of Amalek under Heaven.’

15 Moses then built an altar and named it Yahweh-Nissi 16 meaning, ‘Lay hold of the Lord’s banner! The Lord will be at war with Amalek generation after generation.’


Israel’s journey through the desert is still full of difficulties: after the trial of hunger (Ex 16), now the people is tormented by thirst (Ex 17:1-7) and war (Ex 17:8-16). Trials that become even harder due to the fact that the people are radically incapable of entrusting themselves to someone without reservations. The real desert is in their hearts. As long as they wander in this distressing desert, they will not be able to understand the meaning of the trials they have to undergo, they will not be able to see the signs of God’s goodness and providence, which are there for all to see. This contagious mistrust affects even Moses, who is the leader guiding a wretched and ungrateful Israel from the land of slavery to one of liberty and service. His formative action is very difficult, given that he has to lead them to understand that the freedom they have gained is first of all an interior liberty.

Israel has now pitched camp at Rephidim, south of Sinai, where there is no water. Israel had already experienced thirst immediately after crossing the Red Sea: “…they entered the desert of Shur. Then they travelled through the desert for three days without finding water. When they reached Marah, they could not drink the Marah water because it was bitter.” (Ex 15:22-23) Then the Lord showed Moses a piece of wood. When Moses threw it into the water, the water became sweet. That was a trial through which Israel should have recognized the Lord as “the One who heals” from each and every infirmity.

The Lord’s trials – the trials we have to undergo in our lives – may change our hearts, but they must be welcomed in all humility and trust. On the contrary at Rephidim, it is the people who want to put the Lord to the test. They want a sure sign, water with no delay, the immediate satisfaction of their need. They are a people who is unable to wait. “Blessed are all who hope in [lit. wait for] Him” (Is 30:18) in silence and trust (cf Is 30:15). This people is unable to understand that being poor and needy is the very condition thanks to which faith can grow, as well as communion with God and neighbour. This is why the prophets did not regard the desert as place of deprivation, but as the place of an intimate and fruitful union with the Lord. “I am going to lead her into the desert / and speak to her heart.” (Hos 2:16) God is present in a “land unsown” (Jr 2:2: “I remember your faithful love, / the affection of your bridal days, / when you followed me through the desert, / through a land unsown.”). Blessed are the poor who do not trust in material things: the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs (cf Mt 5:3).

Moses turns to the Lord’s help. “Any moment now they will stone me!” (Ex 17:4) His very life is at risk. Discouragement, mistrust, pessimism are fatal to life.

God tells him to take in his hands the staff with which he struck the River (cf Ex 7:17). The staff is the symbol of God’s own power. Given that the people is unable to do anything, is an ill people due to mistrust, God intervenes by His power. God’s grace falls over man’s nothingness.

The rock too is a symbolical expression of God’s power. “I shall be waiting for you there on the rock” (Ex 17:6) ‘Rock’ is one of the divine names: “He is the Rock” (Dt 32:4), an eternal rock in which we can trust for ever (cf Is 26:4). He is the Rock of Israel: in one of the great feasts of the year, “to the sound of the flute people make a pilgrimage to the mountain of the Lord, the Rock of Israel” (Is 30:29). The faithful prays to Him thus: “I love You, Lord, my strength… The Lord is my rock” (Ps 18:1-2). Yes, “You are my rock” (Ps 31:3) on which, in my old age, I shall stand secure, remain fresh and green, bear fruit (cf Ps 92:16). “You who seek the Lord – says the prophet – consider the rock from which you were hewn, the quarry from which you were dug” (Is 51:1-2), because Abraham’s journey started from there, and he moved towards a destination he did not know yet, relying on his faith in God. The Rock is also the sure foundation of the house of the sensible man, who listens to Jesus’ words and puts them into practice (cf Mt 7:24); it is also St Peter’s faith on which the Church will be built (cf Mt 16:18).

The Rock is a living and fruitful reality. In the parallel passage of Numbers 20:1-13 – a re-reading of Exodus 17 whose aim is also to explain why Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land – Moses and Aaron must talk to the Rock, as if it were a human being: “…order this rock to release its water. You will release water from the rock for them and provide drink for the community and the livestock.” (Nb 20:8) Moses then took the branch according to God’s orders and, with Aaron, called the assembly together “in front of the rock” (Nb 20:10) but did not talk to it. He spoke to the community instead, asking: “Shall we make water gush from this rock for you?” This question implies a doubt, as it is confirmed by the fact that immediately afterwards Moses “struck the rock twice with the branch” (Nb 20:11). In his view, to strike the rock only once would not be enough. The people’s mistrust is now Moses’ too. Mistrust is a contagious illness; courage and wisdom are necessary to eliminate it. “At the waters of Meribah they so angered the Lord, / that Moses suffered on their account, / for they had embittered his spirit, / and he spoke without due thought” (Ps 106:32-33).

Mistrust and wavering do not please the Lord: “Because you did not believe that I could assert my holiness before the Israelites’ eyes, you will not lead this assembly into the country which I am giving them” (Nb 20:12).

Neither the desert generation nor Moses will enter the Land: “The Lord was angry with me too, because of you. ‘You will not go in either,’ He said.” (Dt 1:37) Moses will pray to the Lord that He may grant him the longed-for grace: “My Lord Yahweh, now that You have begun to reveal Your greatness and Your power to Your servant with works and mighty deeds no god in Heaven or on earth can rival, may I not go across and see this fine country on the other side of the Jordan, that fine upland country and the Lebanon?” (Dt 3:24-25) The Lord’s answer is harsh: “Enough, do not mention this subject again! Climb to the top of Pisgah; turn your eyes to the west, the north, the south, the east. Look well, for across this Jordan you shall not go.” (Dt 3:26-27) Just before his death, once again Moses is denied the permit: “Moses went up Mount Nebo, the peak of Pisgah opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole country… The Lord said to him: ‘This is the country which I promised on oath to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying: I shall give it to your descendants. I have allowed you to see it for yourself, but you will not cross into it.” (Dt 34:1, 4-5)

From all that, you can gather how serious an illness is mistrust (or fear), blocking any possibility on man’s part to meet the Lord. God’s one and only wish is that we trust in Him, even when He may seem to be far away or hidden.

In the section of Isaiah called ‘The Book of the Immanuel’ (chapters 6-12), which is read at Mass during Advent, we find a very surprising line: “‘Bind up the testimony, seal the instruction, / in the heart of my disciples.’ / My trust is in the Lord who hides His face from the House of Jacob; / I put my hope in Him.” (Is 8:16-17) Please note: I trust in the Lord even though He hides His face. I trust in this hidden God, apparently far away. That is why I can believe that a new ‘branch’ will sprout in my life.

At Rephidim Israel is attacked by a very powerful enemy, the army of the Amalekites, who were tribes living in the Negeb desert and hindering Israel from penetrating into the Promised Land. According to Genesis 36:15-16, the Amalekites descended from Esau; they very often raided the neighbouring peoples (cf Jg 6:1-6; 1 S 30). Amalek is the symbol of utter enmity with God, a sin which cannot be forgiven: “The Lord will be at war with Amalek generation after generation” (Ex 17:16). Amalek must be destroyed with no pity (cf Ex 17:13).

Moses says to Joshua – who appears here for the first time, but he is not introduced by anyone, as if he were already famous: “Pick some men and tomorrow morning go out and engage Amalek” (Ex 17:9). “Men” or “some men” (according to the Episcopal Conference’s translation). They seem to be a small group fighting against a more numerous enemy. This is to show that it is the Lord who fights for them, according to a theological idea that we may find also in Judges 7, when the Lord asks Gideon to reduce the numbers of his army, just before attacking Midian. Human power alone is unable to win without the Lord’s help.

With this certainty in mind, Moses took his stand on the hilltop with the staff of God in his hand (Ex 17:9). As long as Moses kept his arms raised and kept praying, Israel had the advantage. When his arms grew heavy, the advantage went to Amalek. Then Aaron and Hur who accompanied him took a stone and put it under him so that he could sit, and supported his arms on each side. “Thus his arms remained unwavering till sunset” (Ex 17:12). They remained unwavering or, as the Hebrew puts it, they remained “faithful” (‘emunah): his unwavering trust is supported by his brothers’ prayer and proximity.

Here Moses is fulfilling his role as a leader: to stay in front of the Lord, with his hands raised and an unwavering trust in Him, in order to present to the Lord the needs of the brethren who have been entrusted to him. He fulfils his role as an intercessor, so relevant in the eyes of the Lord: “They forgot the God who was saving them, / who had done great deeds in Egypt, / such wonders in the land of Ham, / such awesome deeds at the Sea of Reeds. / He thought of putting an end to them, / had not Moses, His chosen one, / taken a stand in the breach and confronted Him, / to turn His anger away from destroying them.” (Ps 106:21-23)

God is looking for such intercessors: “I have been looking for someone among them to build a barricade and oppose me in the breach, to defend the country and prevent me from destroying it; but I have found no one.” (Ezk 22:30; cf also 13:5)

So, let us welcome this word as if it had been addressed to each one of us too. We too have received the task to intercede on behalf of those brothers and sisters God has entrusted to us, so that they may not lose the faith while welcoming the trials of life in humble trust. God’s will is clear: given that He loves us, He wants us to trust utterly in Him. We would like to communicate this trust to everybody in order to heal the evil of pessimism, the wounds of discouragement, trusting in the word of the Lord: “This is the victory that has overcome the world: our faith” (1 Jn 5:4).