Exodus 17 – Israel at Rephidim – no water to drink

Paul is alluding to the incident recorded in Exodus 17. Were the record informs us that “all the congregation of the children of Israel…pitched in Rephidim”. This establishes Paul’s point that “all drank”. All of God’s people were involved and the whole congregation were participants in an astonishing outpouring of divine blessing.

Exodus 17:1 tells us bluntly that “there was no water for the people to drink”. They complained to Moses, demanding water; even claiming that Moses had “brought [them] up out of Egypt, to kill [them] and [their] children and [their] cattle with thirst” (17:3). Their accusations expressed their unbelief: “they tempted the Lord, saying, Is the Lord among us, or not?” (v7). And Yahweh in this record makes no comment on their faithlessness. Instead He gives them exactly what they wanted: “and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink”.

In the previous chapter, the people—hungry and weary—complained to Moses and Aaron: “ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exod 16:3). e immediate response of Yahweh was to say to Moses: “I will rain bread from heaven for you…” (16:4). So the people thought they had nothing, when the reality was that there was an abundance available to them beyond their imagining. Is it not so for us today? When our problems seem intractable, we forget there are angels, unseen, at our side. ere is a God in heaven ready to help. Sometimes we are not so di erent from the children of Israel in our slowness to believe in God’s presence.

This extraordinary provision was, said the Psalmist, “…the corn of heaven. Man did eat angels’ food” (Psa 78:24-25) and this is what Paul termed “spiritual meat” in 1 Corinthians 10:3. It was described like this because it was provided miraculously by the power of God from heaven ( John 6:31) and also because, although literal food, it taught a higher, godly, principle. It represented the Word of God itself (Deut 8:3) and pointed forward to a future provision of the Word made flesh—the Lord Jesus Christ himself. “I am the bread of life”, Jesus said ( John 6:35,48). “If any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever” ( John 6:51).

Spiritual drink

It is the same with the water from the rock. There was a physical dimension to be sure, real bread and real water meeting urgent physical needs. But Paul goes straight to the far more important spiritual dimension. The manna and water were provided to the nation before the Law of Moses was given. God saved them with miraculous provisions outside this Law and He was teaching the thoughtful Israelite important spiritual lessons. Unfortunately most Israelites couldn’t grasp them (1 Cor 10:5). God’s natural provision provided a temporary benefit but His real provision—the Word—and the principles of which it spoke, namely God’s purpose of developing a people bearing His nature for eternity, were spiritual principles and blessings beyond the literal.

The water, then, also proved to have a spiritual application, pointing to the provision of the word of life in Christ (Eph 5:26). Hence the Lord declared to the woman of Samaria, “whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst, but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14).

The instructions given to Moses in Exodus 17:5- 6 were brief, simple and clear. In the company of the elders of Israel, he was to take the rod which he had used to smite the river in Egypt and smite the rock. The angel of Yahweh’s presence would stand before him on the rock in Horeb, virtually indicating where and how the rock was to be smitten.

That rock, said Paul, is Christ. It represents him in his earthly ministry. The smiting of it surely points to his crucifixion, the details of which were prophetically marked out. And the benefits of salvation owed forth accordingly.

The following rock

So how could Paul say that the rock followed them? What was he teaching the ecclesia when he used this expression? Literally, of course, that rock at Rephidim did not follow Israel in the wilderness. We learn from 1 Corinthians 10:6,11 that the wilderness incidents were “examples”—the Greek word, ‘tupoi’, meaning an impression, a pattern, a resemblance. They foreshadowed deeper principles and lessons.

So the rock didn’t follow them, but the lessons associated with that rock did. At the very start of their journey they were taught that God would provide for them, despite their evil heart of unbelief. It is significant that at the end of their wilderness wanderings the people faced the same shortage of water and once again God used a rock to provide water and to emphasise to them that His mercy had not wavered over the last 40 years (Num 20:2-13).

Salvation and life would once more come out of the rock of His providing. is was the point Paul was making. The provision of literal and spiritual water bookended, as it were, Israel’s wanderings. The lessons of the rock at Rephidim was being mirrored 40 years later through the lessons of the rock at Kadesh Barnea. The record confirms the link by calling both places Mariah or “strife”. This is how the rock was said to have followed them. It wasn’t the same physical piece of granite, but it was the same life-giving lesson—that God would care for them in all their ways.

Numbers 20 – Israel at Kadesh – no water to drink

Once more there “came the children of Israel, even the whole congregation…and the people abode in Kadesh”. This establishes Paul’s point once again that “all drank”. In addition to this, the Psalmist makes the point: “But he, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and destroyed them not: yea many a time turned he his anger away, and did not stir up all his wrath. For he remembered that they were but ash; a wind that passeth away, and cometh not again” (Psa 78:38-39). Do we appreciate the number of times God has borne with us? How many times in our life has He “turned his anger away”? In connection with this we remember the words of Hymn 141—“God is love: His mercy brightens, All the path in which we rove”.

Some have suggested that the incidents of Exodus 17 and Numbers 20 are one and the same. A careful reading makes it very clear they are not. Exodus 17 stands at the commencement of the wilderness wanderings and the smitten rock speaks of Christ crucified. Numbers 20 is near the end of the wilderness wanderings. The old generation had almost passed away and a new generation was about to enter the land. Moses is instructed to take “the rod” (Num 20:8)—that is, Aaron’s rod that budded—and speak to the rock; the Hebrew word, ‘sela’, refers to a lofty, craggy rock.

The reason for the change in arrangements was that this high rock represented an exalted power, a resurrected Christ who was to become the vehicle for prayer and intercession—not to be “stricken” again. The accusations against Moses and Aaron were fierce accusations against God, but in God’s longsuffering, He told Moses to speak to the rock, just as we are permitted to approach the Father through the rock of our salvation, despite our shortcomings.

But Moses was provoked by the rebels and lashed out: “Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?” he declared (Num 20:10). Then he smote the rock— not once, but twice. Yet in the abundant goodness of God, the life-giving water flowed abundantly, but Moses had gone too far.

He did not follow God’s command exactly as he was commanded. By claiming credit for the miracle he had failed to sanctify God in the eyes of the children of Israel. As Psalm 106:32-33 (NET) declares: “They made him (God) angry by the waters of Meribah (strife), and Moses suffered because of them, for they aroused his temper, and he spoke rashly”.

The lesson for the ecclesia in Paul’s day was clear. If you, too, rebel against the rock God has provided, you will not enter the promised kingdom (cp Deut 1:37-38).

Many years ago Brother John Martin prepared an excellent comparison and exposition of the elements linking Rephidim and Kadesh. It shows how the lessons of that rock followed them and demonstrates the links God was making to teach His people to trust in His provisions. This is reproduced in the following table:

Exodus 17 – RephidimNumbers 20 – Kadesh Meribah
v5 “take with thee the elders of Israel”
Representing the leaders of the Mosaic system (Matt 23:2)
v8 “Aaron thy brother”
Typical of the High Priest after the order of Melchisedec (Heb.5:4)
v5 “thy rod wherewith thou smotest the river”
This was the rod that turned into a serpent. The serpent-rod, symbol of sin in the hands of Moses, represents the Jewish leaders as a “generation of vipers” (Matt 23:33), in their hour of triumph over the son of God (Luke 22:53).
v8 “take the rod” (Aaron’s rod that budded)
This rod was the one which, among the other 11 was “laid up before the Lord” (Num 17:7). It budded into life, affirming the divine appointment of the tribe of Levi in supplying the priesthood. Christ, the rod out of the stem of Jesse (Isa 11), although put to death was raised to life again, so determining his continuous priesthood (Heb 10:11-14, 7:23-25)
v6 “thou shalt smite the rock”
Typifying Christ’s crucifixion. He was “smitten for our iniquities” (Isa 53:5-6)
v8 “speak ye unto the rock”
We cannot crucify Christ afresh (Heb 6:6)
Once smitten he must now be spoken to. Moses breached this type!
v6 “the Rock”
Heb. “Tzur” The word for a huge rock or boulder
set in the earth. One of the Divine Titles (Deut.32:4,15,18). In the context of Corinthians (1Cor.10:4) it represents Christ in his earthly ministry.
v8 “the Rock”
Heb. “Sela” The word indicates a cliff or a high crag, and is used in the sense of a fortress (Psa 31:3; Song 2:14; 2 Sam 22:2). It represents Christ as the risen Lord.
v6 The angel active in support.v8-10 Angel stands aside. Moses active (Deut 18:18). Christ mediator for his people.
Summary from study notes on Hebrews
“On the first occasion smitten by the serpent power of sin wielded by the elders of Israel as representatives of the Law of Moses, he, as the manifestation of Yahweh, as a boulder in the earth, was able to pour forth living water unto all those who recognised the principles in his sacrifice”.“On the second occasion, he is the high priest of God’s choosing, elected by the budding forth of the resurrection to life, as that great and majestic Rock seated at the Father’s right hand.
High and inaccessible to men, Christ now has to be “spoken” to in order that he might represent us before the Father”.