A notable feature of much ancient literature is its almost childlike willingness to believe that, of course, We the Authors are superior and stainless while They the Foreigners are subhuman. This sort of attitude informs virtually every ancient culture from Egypt (whose official records do not tend to record the foibles of the nation) to Assyria (with its endless boasting about kingdoms conquered and peoples slaughtered) to Greece (which saw nothing wrong with assuming that certain peoples were just “natural slaves” and which understood the term “slave” to mean “talking plow”). Even Native Americans, often portrayed as somehow exempt from the effects of the Fall, show this universal human weakness: some tribes to refer to themselves as “human beings” (as distinct from the rest of us). This sort of tribalism was endemic in ancient cultures.
Which is what makes Exodus so striking. For though the record clearly records God’s choice of Israel, it does not do so with the same sort of jingoism that almost universally informs other ancient literatures. So far from being the apple of God’s eye, Israel is nearly always portrayed as the pain in God’s neck. Their election springs from God’s (usually unrequited) love for them, not about some special wonderfulness on their part which somehow attracted God’s eye.
We meet them today, in full griping vigor, a vast mob of Iron Age Eeyores. “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?” (Gen. 17:3). The complaint demonstrates the amazing ability of the human heart to refuse to trust God. Ten plagues, a parted Red Sea, and quail in the wilderness are all dismissed the moment adversity strikes again and the Israelites say, in effect, “What have you done for me lately?” They treat the whole drama of the Exodus as though God is a cosmic practical joker. He smote the Egyptians, worked wonders in history and miracles in nature just so they would trust him. Now, they imply, God is going to pull away the football like an omnipotent Lucy van Pelt and let them die of thirst. Israel is not exactly a paragon of faith.
And so God, in a very mysterious sign, commands Moses to “strike the rock” and water, the very stuff of life, pours out to save a faithless nation yet again.
The Old Testament is full of such mysterious incidents; incidents which must have puzzled the Israelites as much as they do us. Why strike the rock? Why not speak to it? Or if it comes to that, why a rock at all? What does it all mean?
Later Jewish poets reflected on this incident. Psalm 95, for instance, will regard it as the central test of faith for the nation and warn us “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). And curiously, the Psalmist will identify God with “the Rock of our salvation” (Ps 95:1). In some strange way, implies the Psalm, it is by striking God that waters of life pour out for us.
This gives a special poignancy to the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in the gospel of John. Jesus walks into the middle of a scene that is as fraught with tribalism as any in the ancient world. He addresses a person who has three strikes against her in the eyes of every Right-Thinking Jew of his day: she is a woman, a Samaritan, and an adulteress who stands completely outside the tribes of Males, of Chosen People, and of Solid Citizens. But Jesus speaks to her nonetheless, offering to give her “living water”-to the embarrassed amazement of his still very tribal disciples.
The interesting thing here is that, though she has not “seen his work”, this foreign female sinner obeys Scripture: she “hardens not her heart” even after Jesus makes a series of increasingly difficult claims and revelations about her personal life. She believes-really believes-that Messiah is coming. And when Jesus reveals “I who speak to you am He” she believes Him, though she still does not quite understand His mysterious words. For what, in the end, is this “living water” he speaks of anyway?
Neither she, nor anyone else, would understand that dark figure of speech until we once again “struck the Rock”-and “at once there came out blood and water” (John 19:34).