I’ve made use of the RSV in this post. The copyright holder allows copying of the RSV under the following restrictions:
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Although the text of the reading is on verses 3-7 I’ve included brief notes on verse 1-2 as well.
1 All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the LORD, and camped at Rephidim; but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 Therefore the people found fault with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you find fault with me? Why do you put the LORD to the proof?” 3 But the people thirsted there for water, and the people murmured against Moses, and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?”
The fact that the people traveled as a whole (“congregation”) unified group “in stages” implies that the going was fairly easy or, to be more exact, leisurely. God had been providing for their need for water on the journey (Ex 15:22-27), as well as for their need for food (Ex 16:1-35), this in spite of their grumbling against Moses (Ex 15:24; 16:2) which, in reality, was a grumbling against God (Ex 16:7-8). Now, in our present passage, they are once again grumbling about water.
Because there was no water in the place they were camping Therefore the people found fault with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you find fault with me? Why do you put the LORD to the proof?” It appears that in blaming Moses the people had forgotten (was it a willful act of forgetfulness?) who was actually behind their journeying in the desert (Ex 3:8), and who was directing Moses (Ex 3:10). Moses’ question, “Why do you put the LORD to the proof?” recalls the earlier grumbling for water at Marah: “There the LORD made for them a statute and an ordinance and there he proved them, saying, “If you will diligently hearken to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases upon you which I put upon the Egyptians; for I am the LORD, your healer” (Ex 15:25-26). It is against this backdrop that the people’s accusatory question (verse 3) to Moses must be seen:
3. But the people thirsted there for water, and the people murmured against Moses, and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?”
The irony of course is that their children had been killed in Egypt by the Egyptians (Ex 1:22), and their death was wrought by means of water which they now crave. Also, was not the first plague-one of the diseases God would not afflict the Israelites with if they were obedient (Ex 15:26)-the turning of the waters of Egypt into blood so that it could not be drunk (Ex 7:14-24)? And was it not by water at the sea that God saved the Israelites, their children and their cattle (Ex14:10-31), while Pharaoh’s soldier’s, horses and chariots were cast into the sea? (Ex 15:4; 15:21). And, as we have already seen, did not God previously manifest his power to give his people drink (15:22-27)? Yet, in spite of these many manifestation of his power to punish or save with water the people still grumble!
4 So Moses cried to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5 And the LORD said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel; and take in your hand the rod with which you struck the Nile, and go.
6 Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, that the people may drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.
Take in your hand the rod with which you struck the Nile, and go. Ouch! What Moses is to do is intended by God to be a none to subtle reminder to the people of one of the events we have just spoken of, the changing of the waters of Egypt into blood, the first powerful manifestation of God’s intention to save his people. Here Psalm 95-which mentions this event-is instructive: “Harden not your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work” (Ps 95:8-9).
7. And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the faultfinding of the children of Israel, and because they put the LORD to the proof by saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”
Pope Benedict XVI: In the First Reading we see the Jewish People suffer in the desert from lack of water and, in the grip of discouragement, complain and react violently, as on other occasions. They even reached the point of rebelling against Moses and almost of rebelling against God. The sacred author says: “They put the Lord to the proof by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?'” (EX 17,7). The people demanded from God that he meet their expectations and needs, rather than abandoning themselves trustfully into his hands, and in their trial lost their trust in him. How often does this also happen in our lives? In how many circumstances, rather than conforming docilely to the divine will, do we want God to implement our own plans and grant our every desire? On how many occasions does our faith prove frail, our trust weak, our religious sense contaminated by magical and merely earthly elements? In this Lenten Season, as the Church invites us to make a journey of true conversion, let us accept with humble docility the recommendation of the Responsorial Psalm: “Oh, that today you would hear his voice: “Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the desert, where your fathers tempted me; they tested me though they had seen my works'” (Ps 95: 7-9)~Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Lent, 2008.
Is the Lord among us or not? see St Paul’s teaching that the rock which Moses struck was Christ and its meaning in 1 Cor 10:1-13. See Father Callan’s commentary on these verses here. Bernardin de Piconio’s can be found here.