The wilderness is a training program for Israel, teaching them to grow up into maturity as a son. This means lots of testing (15:25, 16:4, Dt. 8:2). Although Israel is born out of Egypt, it is ultimately not until Israel is born again as a new generation that they are ready to enter the land.
The Text: This is the third in a series of complaints from the Israelites since they have left Egypt behind (15:24, 16:2-3, 17:2-3). We have gone from bitter water to no food to no water. In addition to the Exodus itself, the generous grace of God has responded in both previous cases with overwhelming provision: sweet waters, an oasis, magic bread, and a steady supply of meat for dinner. This episode sticks in the memory of Yahweh and Israel and becomes something of a short hand for the Israelite sojourn in the wilderness (e.g. Ps. 81:7, 95:8, 106:32). Part of this significance is that they return to this place later, and the people respond the same way again, and this time even Moses falls into sin (Num. 20:1-13).
The Lord has been leading this expedition from the beginning (13:17-18), and continues to do so here (17:1). They haven’t accidentally stumbled into the wilderness. One of the running patterns is the Israelites’ complaining directed at Moses (15:24) or Moses and Aaron (16:2), and here they are “contending” with Moses and complaining against him (17:2-3). This contention can refer to a physical fight or struggle (21:18) or a lawsuit (23:3). It should be recognized that this complaining and strife is as much between the Israelites as it is between God and the Israelites. The people once again object to the whole Exodus project (17:3), and apparently the complaints were verging on physical harm to Moses (17:4). The instructions of God highlight the rod which struck the waters, again explicitly insisting that the same God is still performing the same Exodus (17:5). This miracle occurs at Horeb, the mountain of the Lord, also known as Sinai (17:6, cf. 3:1, Dt. 5:2). It is the place of God’s holiness where living water flows. The place is named for the contention and testing of Israel because their actions and words denied God’s presence with them (17:7).
God With Us
The gospel of God with us in Jesus is the good news of renewed community and loving provision. God’s forty year training program was meant to teach Israel that man does not live by bread alone (Dt. 8:3), and this is because God is with us.
The Lord Tests His Sons
We are not our own fathers. This means that we are neither smart enough nor qualified to design our own curriculum. We have one Teacher, one Father, one Lord. He chastens those He loves (Heb. 12:3-11).
You Must be Born Again
Israel was born again in the wilderness, and Jesus says that unless we are born again, we will not see the Kingdom of God (Jn. 3:3). This is not merely an instantaneous, internal change; this is a total reformation of body and soul, habits and beliefs which usually occurs in fits and starts over a lifetime. Or you might say that we have been born again to a life of being born again. And this is because our faith is in the Son who was born again from the dead.