“At Massah and at Meribah

THE VENITE SERVES as the Invitatory for Morning Prayer. It calls us, invites us, to worship. The Antiphon, “O come, let us worship”, underlines this. Presumably it is the concentration on worship to the exclusion of everything else that has caused the loss of the last four verses and the reference to Massah and Meribah. One does not need to be distracted by uncomfortable episodes of ancient history when one is trying to worship! But this is very sloppy and shallow thinking. If you are genuinely engaged in worship then sooner or later His Voice is going to be heard, and this will confront you with the inescapable choice between obedience and disobedience, and the danger that hearts may be hardened – just as they were long ago at Massah and Meribah.

Massah and Meribah as a proper name or names – Strife and Temptation – the place name(s) of an oasis somewhere in the Sinai desert, just as Dead Man’s Gulch and Tombstone, Arizona, are to be found in the Wild West. The story of the name was given is told in Exodus, 17. No sooner had the children of Israel made their escape from the Egyptians at the Red Sea than they began to regret leaving the land of their slavery. First, in chapter 16 their supply of food ran out. The people murmured and grumbled until they were provided with the bread of heaven, the Manna in the wilderness. In the next chapter it was the turn of their water to fail, and the situation threatened to turn extremely ugly. “Are you trying to kill the lot of us with thirst, not to mention our sheep and cattle as well?”

But all is well that ends well. Moses took his wonder-working staff, and struck the rock. The water flowed forth. The danger is over. But the episode has left a nasty lingering taste ever since. Massah and Meribah are proverbial for national rebellion and the ultimate unforgivable sin. “For forty years I loathed this generation and said, It is a people who err in their hearts, for they do not know my ways. To whom I swore in my wrath, They shall not enter my rest”. No more they ever did!

Why, one wonders, with all the seven deadly sins to choose from, should the Almighty have found grumbling, murmuring and whingeing so provoking? Having to listen to people moaning on and on for forty years must have been extremely irritating, but, surely, there must have been more to it than this. Persistent grumbling and murmuring certainly betrays a sorry lack of faith and trust. Had they not recently been delivered from slavery with a mighty hand and outstretched arm? Had they not just been fed with the bread of heaven? Their memories were pitifully short. The trouble, however, goes much deeper. The murmuring and grumbling carry very unpleasant overtones. God is being challenged to prove himself. ‘The day of temptation’ is a day of people being tempted to misbehave, but a day when people were tempting God. They were trying it on, experimenting on him, to see if he was really there, and how he might react. In the same way disruptive pupils will try it on with a new teacher to ascertain what are the limits (if any) beyond which he, or she, may not be driven! To tempt God like this is not only highly disrespectful, it is the ultimate blasphemy. It wounds his love to suggest that he cannot be trusted.

He is to be related to as a person, not scrutinised as an object. Murmuring may sound trivial, but it may well be deadlier than all the other sins put together, because more people are more likely to commit it, and more frequently as well. Cheerfulness, assisted by a firm discipline of thanksgiving, will need to break in more often. It may not sound much, but it is actually the first step on the road to spiritual fitness, on which reaching the promised land is going to depend

Hugh Bates is a retired priest in the diocese of York