5The 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. 6I 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.”
Do we need to know that the limestone rocks of Mt. Sinai drip with ground water, and striking it could open a porous layer containing water? The narrative does not describe a small band at Sinai poking the rocks in order to survive. The narrative announces that by the command of God and the hand of Moses a river flowed from Mt. Sinai (here called Mt. Horeb) down to Rephidim and watered the whole people.
The story has roots in the ancient experience of the people. They know there is water to be found in the wilderness if you know where to look – just as they know there is that strange stuff manna, secreted by bugs and falling to the ground like frost. But the story is no longer about a small band surviving in the desert – it is about a great people for whom Sinai becomes a fountain of a river of life.
It is not story grown into legend, it is memory grown into proclamation. A refugee people found in the word of God a life-sustaining reality. So the descendants of Jacob, now in exile in Babylon, lost in a new wilderness, can hear the message that the word of God will be their sustaining power. It will preserve them from perishing. It will give them life.
Numbers 1:46 gives the number of males 20 and older as precisely 603,550 identifying exactly how many came from each tribe (Exodus 12:37 rounds it off to 600,000). We do not know what the number means or where it comes from. We do know what it preaches: God is able to supply all our needs!
No matter how many people are carried away into exile, no matter how many people are scattered among the nations, no matter how many of God’s people find themselves under the lash of slavery, under the sorrow of hunger, in danger of perishing from thirst, God is able to deliver his people. God is able to provide.
And the life-giving, sustaining, renewing, joyous gift that enlivens us flows from Sinai, flows from the place where God will speak and God’s law be given. There the instructions for the tabernacle/temple will be laid out. There the commands to love God and neighbor. There the teaching on faithfulness. There the warnings against turning to idols. This is our river of the water of life.
And then John will tell us that this Word has become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. And this Jesus will turn water into wine, cleanse the temple, open blind eyes, give bread to the 5,000 and offer the woman at the well living water – water that will overflow abundantly within her in an imperishable life. True freedom will come, says Jesus, “if you abide in my word.”
The people cry out against God, accusing God of bringing them out into the wilderness to destroy them. But Moses will take the leaders on to Sinai and release this water that is our joy and our life forever.