God sometimes shows Himself in the most unlikely places to make a simple point to His followers – there have never been “God-forsaken” places or people. The stage for this lesson in Scripture was set amidst a brewing conflict with the desert tribal people called the Amalekites. The children of Israel were already tired by the beginning of the Amalekite conflict (Ex. 17:8). Part way through the fifty-day journey from Egyptian territory to the mountain of the law (recalled now in the 50 days between Passover or Pesach and Pentecost or Shavuot) they already neared exhaustion.
God’s Provisions in the Past
They had experienced God’s provision at the healed bitter waters of Marah (Ex. 15:23-26) and the refreshing oasis of twelve pools and ten palm trees at Elim (Ex. 15:27), yet they were compelled to move on to the mountain where God planned a meeting with Moses on their behalf. To the mountain they trudged, sheep and goats, carts and children.
Suffering hunger in the dry and barren wilderness, the Bible records that God rained upon them first bread, then quail from the heavens to fill their stomachs (Ex. 16). Their incessant complaining and overt disobedience led even God to ask, “How long will you refuse to trust Me?” (Ex. 16:28). Yet God continually provided, and the manna in a pot became the first of many memorials the children of Israel made. The pot was later placed beside the tablets of the law that Moses received from God and kept in the Tabernacle (Ex. 16:34).
Journeying into the sand-filled fanlike fingers of the Wadi Feiran system of the Sinai desert (Ex. 17:1-7), a connected system of valleys with water in underground rivers beneath, the Israelites arrived depleted of water in their canteens and very thirsty. Though God had shown them His might at the parting of the Sea, the cloud and pillar of fire, and numerous supply demonstrations, the people again panicked.
The huge uplifted granite mountains of the Sinai peninsula sloped above them, and God directed Moses to take the elders to the slope of a mountain he knew well from his shepherding days (cp. Ex. 3:1). This was the shepherding territory of Jethro the Midianite, the father-in-law of Moses. Moses did not doubt that God could and would supply the water necessary for the people. He also knew how to get the water, because he lived in this desert before.
In areas of that desert where the metamorphic rock (sand stone and the underlying granite beds) meet sedimentary rock there are strata deposits of water. Shepherds of the ancient world, as the Bedouin Sinai dwellers today, knew exactly where these deposits of water awaited their needs. Even as we travel through the desert today on camel back through this Sinai landscape, we still see the places where the calcified deposits on the walls of the great Wadi Feiran have been pierced by sticks and rocks to access the water deposits that exists in those pockets behind the walls.
Moses knew the method, and had he had the time to look carefully, he could even predict with fair accuracy the location of water deposits. The appearance of small mosses and damp surfaces can be signs of water deposits. He was, after all, a skilled shepherd from the region before he led the children of Israel.
A modern discovery of this phenomenon by a westerner illustrates what a Near Eastern shepherd of this region knows well. This selection is taken from records of the British governor of the Sinai region of the 1930’s, Major C.S. Jarvis – today a part of the “Palestine Exploration Fund” records:
“Several men of the Sinai Camel Corps had halted in a dry wadi (river bed) and were in the process of digging about in the rough sand that had accumulated at the foot of a rock face. They were trying to get at the water that was trickling slowly out of the limestone rock. The men were taking their time about it and Besh Shawish – the color sergeant – said, “Here, give it to me”. He took the spade of one of the men and began digging furiously in the manners of NCO’s the world over who want to show their men how to do things but have no intention of keeping it up for more than a couple of minutes. One of his violent blows hit the rock by mistake. The smooth hard crust which always forms the weathered limestone split open and fell away. The soft-stone underneath was thereby exposed and out of its apertures shot a powerful stream of water. The Sudanese, who are well up in the activities of the prophets but do not treat them with a vast amount of respect, overwhelmed their sergeant with cries of ‘Look at him! Prophet Moses’!”
God commanded Moses to break the crust of deposit on the surface of the rock and cause the water beneath, pent up from rains of years gone by, to break forth on the dry landscape (Exodus 17:6). What a miracle God demonstrated at the rock! Though it is possible to get water in this way from the desert, the amount of water necessary to care for the children of Israel was excessive and unprecedented. Major Jarvis’ team had only a few gallons compared to the stream that would have cared for Israel’s thirst. Think about it, in order for such a large cask of water to have been stored in the rock ledge deposit, the rain waters would have begun to accumulate long before Joseph had even led the children of Israel into Egypt!
God may have instantly stored the necessary water, but there is no reason to believe He did not begin to supply the answer long before the question! It may well be that hundreds of years before rains began to form in the water deposit so that it was ready for God’s thirty children. It would be just like our God to create the solution before we face the problem. Is that not like His character?