New Medieval Bible Meditation: Exodus 17:1-7

March 12th, 2014

Third Sunday in Lent
March 23, 2014

Exodus 17:1-7 (Revised Common & Episcopal), Exodus 17:3-7 (Roman Catholic) 

Is the Lenten journey starting to seem long?

At the literal level, Ex. 17:1-7 teaches (1) how the people of Israel in the wilderness find fault with Moses when they camp in a waterless place, (2) Moses’ intercession for the people, and (3) the Lord’s provision. The congregation of Israel camps at Reph’idim, but finds no water there. The people find fault with Moses, and say: “Give us water to drink.” Moses’ reply (v. 3) shows that the congregation’s treatment of Moses reveals something about their attitude toward God – they “put the Lord to the proof.” Still thirsting for water, the people begin to murmur against Moses. They accuse him, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?” Moses, seemingly sensing the developing danger, cries to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me” (v. 4). The Lord replies: Moses ought to “pass on before the people” (v. 5) and take some of Israel’s elders with him, as well as the rod with which he turned the Nile’s water into blood (Ex. 7:14-24), and “go” (v. 5). The Lord promises to “stand before” Moses “on the rock at Horeb” (v. 6). Horeb is Sinai: Moses has already encountered the Lord there in the burning bush (Ex. 3), and will later receive the Law there. Now the Lord promises that when Moses strikes “the rock,” water will come out of it, “that the people may drink” (v. 6). Moses does this with the elders of Israel watching. Moses names the place Proof and Contention, because there the people questioned whether the Lord is really with them.

At the allegorical level, we see Moses’ intercessory crying out to the Lord as a type of Jesus’ own cries in prayer: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear” (Heb. 5:7). Thus Moses’ prayer is a type of Christ’s earthly prayers. Particularly, it is a type of Christ’s earthly prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mt. 26:36-46 and parallels), when his own betrayal and death is at hand. For Moses fears for his life, while Jesus Christ actually dies, offering his life to his Father at the hands of an angry crowd.

Further, Moses’ prayer is a type of Christ’s perfect heavenly intercession, which we glimpse in Heb. 7:25-27.

The water the thirsty congregation craves is a type of the “living water” (Jn. 4:10, 7:38) Christ gives those who believe in him. Most deeply understood, this living water is the Holy Spirit.

The Lord tells Moses to “Pass on before the people,” which is a figure of the Passover – Moses risks becoming a paschal lamb – and most especially a figure of Jesus Christ’s Passover through death to eternal risen life. For Christ our Head goes to heaven before his body the Church, and yet the Head is not separated from the body, though the Head has passed on before the body into the Father’s heavenly abode. It is as though the risen Christ is emerging from the dark tomb, and his head is already in the sunlight, but his body is still passing toward the sunlight.

“The elders of Israel” (v.5) are thus a figure for those apostles who saw Christ risen or his ascension. In a different way, “the elders of Israel” (v. 6) are all those who witness that Christ gives the Holy Spirit, i.e., that the rock springs forth water.

St. Paul himself teaches that this rock is a figure for Christ in 1 Cor. 10:1-6.

The “rod” in Moses’ hand, which turned the water to blood, represents the cross Christ carries to his Passover, the cross he bids his disciples carry. Water is used in baptism, and this joins us to the death of the one crucified for us (Rom. 6:3-7): hence, the water turns to blood. Note that both blood and water flow from Jesus’ side (Jn. 19:34).

The main point of this passage is that God performs a sign through Moses, which ought to transform the hearts of God’s people. The sign that is powerful and effective to transform our hearts is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ himself.

At the moral level, we see two things of note. First, Ex. 17:1-7 helps us reflect on what we demand of our leaders. For example, is the first demand (v. 2) of the Israelites reasonable? It depends on the spirit in which it is made. They have seen God do miracles by Moses’ hand, and so they could ask this from faith. On the other hand, they ask something they know is beyond human power to provide – water in a waterless place. As the passage continues, we see that they are not asking from faith, since they murmur.

The most perfect way for us to treat Christian leaders, though, is for us to ask God to do things through them that exceed their unaided human power. This is what happens in the sacraments, for example, or when grace operates through a preacher’s sermon or advice. So it is reasonable, since God is a God who does more than “all we ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20), to hope and have faith that God will continue to operate in this way through Christian leaders who, in themselves, are sinners like all of us. Note, though, that the peoples’ object of faith in this case is God; hence they do not demand miracles from their pastors or priests, etc., as though these people are Pharaoh’s wizards and have power to do these things. But they trust in God to work powerfully and encourage their leaders to have this same hope in God.

Second, we see that God calls Christians who would lead to “pass on before” the people, in a way that manifests their intercession for the people, and makes them vulnerable. They thus rely only on God’s power, as Christ relies wholly on God’s power in allowing himself to be killed. The Church is a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9), gathered from all nations, and sent on before the world; the figure of Moses is thus a type, in Christ, of the boldness asked, in different ways, of every Christian.

The anagogical sense of this verse is suggested strongly by some of the above allegorical and moral senses: In Moses’ intercession, we see the mystery of how our prayers, intercessions, and sacrifices for one another participate in, and are perfected by, Christ’s own perfect intercession and sacrifice. This is imaged in the Church as she offers the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist as the culmination of her own graced prayers. Hence, as Augustine says, in this sacrament of holy communion the Church “demonstrates that she herself is offered in the offering that she makes to God” (City of God 10.6, Dyson trans.; cf. Rom. 12:1-2). And this movement by which we are offered up with Christ to the Father through the Spirit is a manifestation and glimpse of the love who is the Holy Trinity, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.


New Medieval Bible Meditations: Scripture Interpretations for Preachers, Nuns, and other Guilty Bystanders is Clifton Stringer’s contribution to the renewal of the Church’s reading and teaching of the Holy Bible. I try to pick a passage from the lectionary for the coming Sunday, ideally one shared by both Roman Catholic and Protestant (both Revised Common & Episcopalian) lectionaries.

The premise of this method of interpretation is that Sacred Scripture, because it is divine revelation, has wondrous depths. That Scripture is ‘divine revelation’ means that Scripture is divine truth and wisdom graciously shown to us by God. Scripture is thus a created participation in the divine Word (Jn. 1:1) who is the second person of the Holy Trinity. Sacred Scripture is thus, and ultimately, a participation in God’s own knowledge, the very joyful eternal life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Scripture is shared with us out of love that we might become wise and good, and be saved.

Since the infinite God is the author of Sacred Scripture, in addition to Scripture’s “literal or historical” sense, many passages of the Bible will have mystical senses (or spiritual senses). The literal sense is, as it were, the fountain and foundation of these mystical senses. These mystical senses are usually reckoned at three: the allegorical sense, the moral sense, and the anagogical sense.

Here is how St. Bonaventure describes these three mystical senses: “Allegory occurs when by one thing is indicated another which is a matter of belief” – like when one thing in Scripture prefigures another later thing, or builds on an earlier prefiguration. “The tropological or moral understanding occurs when, from something done, we learn something else which we should do” – like when Christ or an apostle does something holy that we must imitate. “The anagogical meaning, a kind of ‘lifting upwards,’ occurs when we are shown what it is we should desire, that is, the eternal happiness of the blessed” – that is, when we catch a glimpse of the glory of God.

Aquinas even notes that, since God understands all things through one infinite act of being, God can intend for there to be more than one meaning of a scripture at the literal level.

All four senses (literal, allegorical, moral, anagogical) are effective for preaching, teaching, and training in righteousness, as the Spirit leads.

To reflect further on these senses consider, for example, Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae 1.1.10 or Bonaventure’s Breviloquium, Prologue, section 4.

Also note that, in writing these meditations, I do not do any ‘historical critical’ research into the passages. If you would like to do this, it can add to your understanding of the literal sense, and even sometimes spur your imagination among the other senses. But many modern scholars focus on ‘historical critical’ questions almost exclusively; read their works, insofar as it is helpful for knowing and teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ; there is no need for me to reinvent the wheel.

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