17:2 So the people contended 1 with Moses, and they said, “Give us water to drink!” 2 Moses said to them, “Why do you contend 3 with me? Why do you test 4 the Lord?”
1 tn The verb וַיָּרֶב (vayyarev) is from the root רִיב (riv); it forms the basis of the name “Meribah.” The word means “strive, quarrel, be in contention” and even “litigation.” A translation “quarrel” does not appear to capture the magnitude of what is being done here. The people have a legal dispute – they are contending with Moses as if bringing a lawsuit.
2 tn The imperfect tense with the vav (ו) follows the imperative, and so it carries the nuance of the logical sequence, showing purpose or result. This may be expressed in English as “give us water so that we may drink,” but more simply with the English infinitive, “give us water to drink.”
sn One wonders if the people thought that Moses and Aaron had water and were withholding it from the people, or whether Moses was able to get it on demand. The people should have come to Moses to ask him to pray to God for water, but their action led Moses to say that they had challenged God (B. Jacob, Exodus, 476).
3 tn In this case and in the next clause the imperfect tenses are to be taken as progressive imperfects – the action is in progress.
4 tn The verb נָסָה (nasah) means “to test, tempt, try, prove.” It can be used of people simply trying to do something that they are not sure of (such as David trying on Saul’s armor), or of God testing people to see if they will obey (as in testing Abraham, Gen 22:1), or of people challenging others (as in the Queen of Sheba coming to test Solomon), and of the people in the desert in rebellion putting God to the test. By doubting that God was truly in their midst, and demanding that he demonstrate his presence, they tested him to see if he would act. There are times when “proving” God is correct and required, but that is done by faith (as with Gideon); when it is done out of unbelief, then it is an act of disloyalty.
5 sn The name Massah (מַסָּה, massah) means “Proving”; it is derived from the verb “test, prove, try.” And the name Meribah (מְרִיבָה, mÿrivah) means “Strife”; it is related to the verb “to strive, quarrel, contend.” The choice of these names for the place would serve to remind Israel for all time of this failure with God. God wanted this and all subsequent generations to know how unbelief challenges God. And yet, he gave them water. So in spite of their failure, he remained faithful to his promises. The incident became proverbial, for it is the warning in Ps 95:7-8, which is quoted in Heb 3:15: “Oh, that today you would listen as he speaks! Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of testing in the wilderness. There your fathers tested me and tried me, and they saw my works for forty years.” The lesson is clear enough: to persist in this kind of unbelief could only result in the loss of divine blessing. Or, to put it another way, if they refused to believe in the power of God, they would wander powerless in the wilderness. They had every reason to believe, but they did not. (Note that this does not mean they are unbelievers, only that they would not take God at his word.)