4. The Meribah Experience

In Exodus chapters 7 through 13 Moses appears before Pharaoh. He performs many signs and calls down ten plagues to motivate Pharaoh to release the Hebrews. Before standing before Pharaoh, he had to return to Egypt from Midian. And after leaving Pharaoh’s presence, he led the Hebrews out of Egypt to the Red Sea. All of these events together took a year or less.

Thus began the fulfillment of a long-awaited promise given by the Lord to their forefather Abraham around 2000 BC. The promise included the fact that they would be given the land of Canaan in the future:

Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” - Genesis 15:13-16

When the Lord appeared to Moses at the burning bush in Midian around 1446 BC, he restated this promise and told Moses it was finally time for it to come to pass:

Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.” - Exodus 3:7-8

When Moses arrived in Egypt a couple weeks later, he spoke to the Hebrews and their elders and told them what the Lord had revealed to him - that it was time for the Lord to fulfill his promise:

Say therefore to the people of Israel, “I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.” - Exodus 6:6-8

Moses shared these promises with the Hebrew people before he had spoken to Pharaoh and before the plagues had begun. But, because of years of oppression and the constant bombardment of Egypt’s cultural influence, the Hebrew people could not understand what he was saying, or trust the Word of God.

The very next verse tells us that when Moses spoke these promises to the people they would not even listen because of damage their spirits had sustained.

“Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery.” - Exodus 6:9

The people’s minds had been overrun and taken captive by Egyptian ways of thinking. The fortress of their soul had become a stronghold of the world, and they were unable to receive the knowledge of God.

The next seven chapters (Exodus 7-13) cover a period of approximately five to twelve months and describe the Lord’s mighty works in Egypt for his broken and faithless people. Moses speaks to Pharaoh, performs signs, and calls down ten plagues that negate Pharaoh’s power, shut down Egyptian society, and prepare God’s people for deliverance.

The night of the final plague, right before Pharaoh released the Hebrews, Moses instituted the Passover meal and reiterated the ancient promises once again to the Hebrew people who had now seen firsthand the works of the Lord on their behalf:

Then Moses said to the people, “Remember this day in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of slavery, for by a strong hand the Lord brought you out from this place. No leavened bread shall be eaten.Today, in the month of Abib, you are going out. And when the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which he swore to your fathers to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this service in this month.” - Exodus 13:3-5

That same night Pharaoh relents, the Exodus occurs, and the Lord begins to lead his people through the wilderness toward the Promised Land. Constantly and undeniably with them, God guides them with his presence as a visible pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night. The Hebrews had seen with their own eyes the works of God and his faithfulness to his Word.

Immediately in the next chapter (Exodus 14) the Hebrews find themselves trapped at the edge of the Red Sea - and Pharaoh has organized his military forces to pursue them. In another display of power, the Lord parts the waters of the Red Sea so his people can escape before the sea returns to drown the Egyptian forces as they try to follow. Another mighty work has been seen and experienced by the Hebrew congregation.

Safe on the other side, the community celebrates with a time of fellowship and a song service which is recorded in the next chapter. Following this praise and worship comes the account in chapter 16 of the Lord providing supernatural food (manna) for the Hebrew community in what would otherwise be a barren wilderness without sustenance. As they partake of this community fellowship meal, all is good with the people of the Lord.

All is good, that is, until chapter 17 where it becomes apparent that even though the Israelites have seen God’s faithful works as he led them out in fulfillment of the promises in his Word, they do not yet know his ways, nor do they really have faith in him. Though they see God’s works, they do not know, understand, or trust the Lord’s ways - thus proving that experiencing supernatural signs and miracles does not guarantee a strong faith. In the same way, community gatherings, song services, and potluck meals do not by themselves communicate the knowledge of God in a way that builds faith in the believer.

Exodus 17:1-7 describes the situation.

It was around 1445 BC. Israel had just miraculously escaped Egypt and annihilation by Pharaoh’s forces at the Red Sea. They make camp at Rephidim, but find no water to drink. The biblical text says, “the people quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’”

Therefore the people quarreled (rib =”strive”, “contend”) with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel (rib =”strive”, “contend”) with me? Why do you test (nasah = “to test”, “to try”) the Lord?”But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”

The word “quarrel” is the word rib in the Hebrew. This word describes an ordinary argument, but it can also be used to refer to a legal lawsuit being filed (such as in Dt. 25:1). This “quarreling” with Moses may have been the record of a pretrial motion against Moses, which was a well-documented practice in the Ancient Near East during this time period. If Moses, the accused in this developing courtroom battle, failed to meet the legal demand – in this instance, “Give us water to drink” – he would be taken to trial before the judicial elders of the people. Moses is being legally accused of breaching his agreement with the people he promised to lead through the wilderness to the Promised Land. The charges brought before the Hebrew elders might even involve attempted murder:

“Why did you bring us up out of Egypt? To kill us?”- Exodus 17:3

Moses countered the legal threat by asking them, “Why do you test the Lord?” It was not Moses who made the promise to Abraham in 2000 BC, and it was not Moses on his own authority who came to Egypt with ten plagues promising to fulfill that promise. The originator and fulfiller of the promises was the Lord. So in reality, the people were putting the Lord on trial. The Hebrews were “testing” or “trying” the Lord in their own legal case.

In the end, the Lord makes the case moot by commanding Moses to provide water while the potential jury, the judicial elders, stand right up front to witness the evidence of the Lord’s faithfulness to his promises.

So Moses cried to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”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 staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 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, and the people will drink.”And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.- Exodus 17:5-6

Afterward, Moses named the place “Massah” and “Meribah” to commemorate both the people’s foolishness and the Lord’s goodness.

(Moses) called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” - Exodus 17:7

It is important to note that the words - Massah and Meribah - have significant and very relevant meanings.

Massah comes from the Hebrew word nash, which means “to test” or “to try”. At Massah during their first year in the wilderness the Israelites “tested” the Lord’s faithfulness and put God on “trial” for breaking his covenant with them.

Meribah means “place of strife”. It comes from the Hebrew word rib which, as was mentioned above, means “to strive” and “to contend”. It is a technical legal term. Thus this place would always be remembered as the place where the Israelites began legal proceedings against Moses, the Lord’s chosen leader.

However, the trial ended before it even got started when the Lord proved his faithfulness by having Moses strike a rock to bring forth water. Note that Moses used the same staff he had used to strike the Nile, turning it to blood and death (Exodus 7:20). This is significant. The Lord had Moses use the staff of judgment to strike the rock upon which the Lord was standing to provide water for the covenant people to drink.

And the Lord said to Moses,…“Take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 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, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.-Exodus 17:6

Exodus 17:1-7 - After leaving the Desert of Sin the Israelites were camped at Rephidim, but they had no water for 3 days. Moses called the place Massah and Meribah.
Here Moses was told to strike the rock.
My Image
The miraculous water at Meribah was just the beginning. Over the next forty years as they were led by the Lord and traveled in the wilderness, the Israelites’ needs were provided, and they were delivered from every difficulty and conflict.
During this forty-year wilderness experience, the Israelites saw daily the mighty works of the Lord. But at the same time they were also taught the knowledge of God - also on a daily basis.

The fact that for 40 years Moses continually taught the wilderness generation the Word of God is detailed in many verses:
Exodus 20:9, Leviticus 1:1; 4:1; 11:1; 12:1; 13:1; 15:1; 18:1;19:1; 20:1; 23:1; 24:1; 25:1; 27:1, Numbers 5:1, 5, 11; 6:1, 11:24; 14:39; 15:1; 15:37; 17:1; 19:1.

During those 40 years, Moses covered a vast number of topics in his instruction. They include the nature of God, the plans of God, the moral code of God, sins against God, sacrifices to restore fellowship with God, the governmental laws for the nation of God, the priestly rituals that would daily remind the people of the ways of God, and the festivals that would encourage the people with reminders of their future with God. All this and much more knowledge of God was faithfully communicated to Israel’s wilderness generation.

A great illustration of the extensiveness of Moses teaching is recorded after that first generation - the wilderness generation - had all died. Moses held one last nationwide teaching session for the younger second generation in the year 1405 BC. This historic lecture is recorded in Deuteronomy 31:19-32:47. The notes for this class were set to music and sung by Moses to his students so that they might more easily remember them and teach them to their children.

And the Lord said to Moses,…“Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel. For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant.” – Deuteronomy 31:19-20

Sadly though, as the Lord pointed out, despite the fact that Moses had spent forty years teaching the wilderness generation, they still did not learn or understand the knowledge of God. Their hearts were hard and rebellious. They did not inhale the words of God, so they could not exhale faith in God.

And so, when they were given the same “No Water” test in 1405 BC that they had been given forty years earlier in 1445 BC they again failed miserably with the same hardness of heart and bitterness toward Moses and God.

In fact, their statements at the time indicate their minds were hopelessly deluded with the kind of worldly thinking that suppressed the knowledge of God and misrepresented the facts of reality. While remembering Egypt - the land of their oppression, abuse and slavery - as good, they described their resting place with the Lord as “this evil place”. They remembered the land of their slavery as a kind of paradise with grain, figs, vines, pomegranates and water, but the wilderness, where the Lord had daily manifested his works, Words, and ways as evil. They were calling evil good and good evil. The account of this event is recorded in Numbers 20:1-13:

And the people of Israel, the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh…Now there was no water for the congregation. And they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. And the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink.” Then Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. And the glory of the Lord appeared to them…

Numbers 20:1-13 occurs 40 years later. This Meribah is different from the “Massah Meribah” of Exodus 17, which was just a few days outside of Egypt. Numbers 20 took place in the Desert of Zin while Israel was staying at Kadesh. There, Moses was told to speak to the rock, but instead he struck the rock. This was called the waters of Meribah because Israel quarreled with the Lord.

Based on their history, the Israelite believers should have faced their “no water” problem by resting in faith and believing that the Lord had a plan, a purpose and a provision. They should have gained confidence over the last forty years by having seen and heard the Lord’s works, words and ways. But there had been no imbibing of these truths into their disillusioned souls. After forty years of instruction and experience this generation should have been able to exhale faith in God from souls having inhaled truth, while resting peacefully in the knowledge of God. But they had failed. Because of their unbelief it was impossible for them to enter into God’s rest. It was not that God was forbidding them to enter - but that they had allowed themselves to become incapable of it.

Looking back, David would write 400 years later from Jerusalem inside the Promised Land to warn his own generation to avoid the same mistake and not miss out on the Lord’s rest. In his warning, David quotes the Lord’s words that explain the wilderness generation’s situation: “they have not known my ways, therefore I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest’” (Psalm 95:10-11).

Once again it is clear that God was not punishing them by keeping them out, but giving up on them after forty years of trying to get them into his rest. The fact that they could not enter God’s rest was the simple result of their refusal to learn the ways of the Lord. Since they refused to learn for forty long years, the opportunity was taken away. It was over. They died and fell in the wilderness, having never learned to trust their Creator, Deliverer and Provider. They missed out on the chance to live their lives in God’s rest - and, it appears, they missed the chance to enter an eternal life of rest with the Lord, as well.

In 63 AD, a New Testament letter addressing believers in the Jerusalem church used the example of the wilderness generation and David’s advice to his own generation as a platform to call them to secure their souls in the rest of God. These believers had faced persecution from unbelieving Jews and were about 36 months away from their nation starting a war with the Roman Empire that would result in the total devastation of their culture, land and holy city.

Considering their present suffering and the great turmoil to come, these believers needed more than just a vague religious concept of a home in heaven someday - they needed a living faith that not only guaranteed eternal life in the future but also secured their souls today, as they lived in union with their Savior God through daily struggles, cultural oppression, and eventual national overthrow.
They may have had hope in Christ for eternity, but what about hope for today? Would they collapse and put God on trial the moment they faced hardship, persecution, and the loss of everything they had?

A true faith is enduring in life and in eternity. If your faith collapses in life, it is possible you do not really have faith for eternity. If the wilderness generation could not trust the Lord for water after they had seen him deliver them from Egypt, it is possible for us also to reject the Lord in life even though we claim to have recognized his deliverance from sin and death. If the Lord has delivered you from sin and death to bring you into his eternal kingdom, then he also has a plan and purpose for everything you face in your life - both good and bad.

If you cannot handle life, then you need to learn God’s ways and make every effort to enter his rest. Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart. Hear his Word and learn his ways. Prepare your soul for life today.

The New Testament letter referenced above is the Book of Hebrews. It was written to believers in Jerusalem around 63 AD using David’s words from 1000 BC when he addressed the failure of the wilderness generation, who lived during the years of 1445-1405 BC. He writes:

Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says,“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion (“Rebellion” from Ps. 95:8 Hebrew “Meribah” from “rib” meaning “argument” or “lawsuit”), on the day of testing in the wilderness,(“testing” from Ps. 95:8 Hebrew “massah” meaning “trial”, “test”) where your fathers put me to the test(“test” from Ps. 95:9 Hebrew “nasah” meaning “to test”, “to try”) and saw my works for forty years. Therefore I was provoked with that generation,and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’”Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. As it is said,“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said,“As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest,’”although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” And again in this passage he said,“They shall not enter my rest.”Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted,“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Hebrews 3:7-4:13

Interestingly, the admonition, “strive to enter that rest” can sound contradictory . The word translated “strive” in Hebrews 4:11 (Greek spoudazo) means “to make haste, to give diligence to, and to be swift”. It is sometimes translated as “make every effort”.

The author was therefore admonishing his readers to swiftly be diligent to make haste to “enter that rest”!

He is therefore also telling us that as long as today is called “today” we are to make every effort to enter God’s rest. And since from the beginning, every day has been called “today”, the Lord has offered this rest to every generation in history. We enter God’s rest when we hear, understand, and continually trust the Word of God, which reveals the ways, the plans, and the purpose of the Lord. The Word of God gives us a solid foundation of the knowledge of God that we can hold in our minds to keep our souls at rest. This rest is the peace that passes understanding.

But, entering this rest is not automatic for a believer in Christ. Entering God’s rest is not instantaneous, it is not an emotion, and it is never separated from a knowledge of the truth. This rest is constantly under assault and can be destroyed by the worry, panic, and fear that come when our souls begin to focus on the “wisdom of this age” and the deceitful scheming of this world. The truth of the Word of God in our soul can be replaced with lies and deception. We need to make every effort to enter that rest and maintain that rest in our souls by concentrating on the knowledge of God that empowers us.

Do not let the pressures and the afflictions of this world cause you to retreat out of the strong tower built in your soul. It is in this strong tower, filled with the knowledge of God, that the believer can rest in the promises, plans, and purposes revealed in the Word of God.