Water from a rock. Aaron and Hur holding up the hands of Moses.
I cannot honestly say I ever heard these narratives taught from Scripture. I heard them referenced, but not taught.
Usually the references went something like this:
God made water come out of a rock!
No one can make it alone. Even Moses needed friends to help hold his arms up.
If I’m being honest, I think God had more in mind for us when he had Moses use precious papyrus and ink to write these narratives down. Only ever referencing these texts and never teaching them leads to murky and shallow thought. For example, it never makes a clear distinction between the two water-from-a-rock narratives! Numbers 20:8-13 relates a second and similar event, but Moses’s action in it lead to his barring from the Promised Land.
So the question arises: what do we do with this chapter of Exodus? It’s the true tale of people in a faraway place in the distant past. They grumble and complain, receive rebuke and sustenance, and fight an enemy off by the power of God. They take part in a fairly common cycle in the Old Testament. Even so, how does the Christian read these today?
Luke 24:27 serves as one of the major interpretive keys of the Old Testament:
Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.
What the contemporary Western reader might miss is this: in the Hebrew arrangement of the Old Testament, the Prophets include Joshua through Kings as well as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the 12 Minor Prophets. “Moses and the prophets” is one way of alluding to the entirety of the Old Testament, but referencing the prophets makes explicit the fact that narratives of the Old Testament, whether in Moses (meaning the Torah or Pentateuch) or the prophets point to Jesus. They reveal something about him.
So, to interact with this text, we say, “Alright. This might seem odd to me, but this text informs my understanding of Jesus.”
As Christians reading the Old Testament, we also recall we have a New Testament. Does the New Testament have anything to say about this? The New Testament should inform our understanding of the Old Testament. Does the New Testament speak to Exodus 17 at all? It actually does!
1 Corinthians 10 picks up particularly on Exodus 17:1-7. Paul uses the narrative to state that Christ himself proved the source of water for the children of Israel. He uses figurative language here—the Son of God did not become a geological formation before he became a human being. Paul specifically uses the narrative to dissuade the Corinthian believers from serving idols. He does so by focusing the Corinthian Christians eyes on the source of provision for the people of Israel. No false god served the people in the wilderness. Instead, the Son of God did that. Even so, the people of Israel still fell into idolatry, so the Christians must take warning. So we should as well. Christ serves as the source for our sustainment.
Going further into the next half of chapter, Moses relates the battle against Amalek’s army, which attacked God’s people without provocation. Moses’s staff features again, and as long as it remains held high, Israel holds advantage over their attackers. This remains the case even when Moses’s strength becomes buttressed by others. Again, we want to use Scripture to understand Scripture. Nothing mystical or magical goes on here. The Old and New Testaments contain explicit condemnations of anything like witchcraft (see Deuteronomy 18:14 and Acts 19:19, so nothing like that can be happening. No objective power exists in the staff of Moses, nor does supernatural power abide in Moses just because he’s Moses.
What one does see proves a superior force losing in battle to a bunch of former slaves who likely never received any sort of training in their lives other than thankless hard labor. Hardened though they were, they were no military force. The children of Israel might have held their own in a bar fight, but not a strategic conflict. The staff of Moses represents God’s power as it has throughout the Exodus narrative. God chose to work in such a way at that time. By God’s power, the people of Israel defeated Amalek.
At the root of both narratives, we find the same thing: Christ the provider.
Paul says explicitly that the source of the water in Exodus 17 is Christ. Joshua’s agency as a leader receives recognition in the text, but Exodus 17:14-16 gives final credit in the victory to God. One sees the same in Revelation 17:14. The final victory over the enemies of the people of God is won by Christ, the Lamb. Every victory in the meantime gives Christ’s people a glimpse of what shall come, including Exodus 17.
How did we see Christ in this text?
We looked to Luke 24:27 as an interpretive key.
We saw an explicit reference to this Old Testament narrative in the New Testament. Not all Old Testament texts have this, but more do than one often would think.
We kept the whole of the biblical story in mind.
We sought to give Christ the glory, worship, and praise in this particular text rather than merely draw a moral lesson (though those exist, but they still relate the reader to Christ!) or retell an interesting story.
This sort of work can be hard, and it’s not always quite as simple as what we were able to do here. However, it is always profitable and right to study our Bibles that we would be brought closer to the person of Christ, our Rock and Redeemer.