Connections 09.27.2020: What’s In a Name?

Exodus 17:1-7

An etiology is a story that explains the origin of a name or a custom. The writers of the Pentateuch skillfully wove etiologies into their narratives.

This week’s lesson text explains the origin of the place names Massah and Meribah. That’s not the main purpose of the story as it now stands; the primary purpose is to demonstrate God’s faithfulness to the people despite their lack of faith.

The events in the story occur as the people are journeying from the sea to Mount Sinai. They come to a place where there is no water. People can’t live long without water, so this is a genuine crisis. They quarrel with Moses, demanding that he supply them with water.

Moses says that in complaining to him, the people are actually putting God to the test. Moses has a point, seeing as how providing water is beyond his capability. Somewhat ironically, but also understandably, Moses complains to God about the people’s complaining to him.

God tells Moses what to do. He is to take some of the elders with him and strike a rock with his staff. God says that when Moses strikes the rock, water will flow from it. Moses does so, and water comes from the rock.

Moses then names the place “Massah,” which means “Test,” and “Meribah,” which means “Quarrel.” He does so “because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” (v. 7).

One can’t argue with the accuracy of the names Moses chose. On the other hand, one could make a case that he chose to accentuate the negative. I mean, Moses could have named the place “Grace,” because God in God’s grace gave the people water. Or he could have called it “Plenty,” because evidently God provided plenty of water. Or he could have named it “Joy,” because surely there was much joy among the people when the water poured from the rock.

But no. Moses gave the place names that would perpetually remind the Israelites of their heritage of distrusting God and of complaining about their situation. Five hundred years later, when an Israelite child asked her parents why they called the place Test and Quarrel, they’d have to tell her the story of their ancestors’ failure. Hopefully they’d also remember to mention God’s faithfulness.

Of course, the people could have done better, couldn’t they? Let’s be realistic—it’s hard not to say something when there’s no water for your children, your grandchildren, and for you. But given that the people had just seen God part the sea to deliver them from the Egyptian army, you’d think they might suspect that God could also provide them with water in the desert. I wouldn’t expect them to say, “There’s no water, but everything’s fine!” But I wish they’d at least have said, “There’s no water, and we need water, and I don’t know where we’re going to get water, but I believe that God will give us water. And meanwhile, I think I’ll look around for water.”

Then maybe Moses would have named the place “Okay, we had our doubts and struggles. But we trusted as best we could. And God came through.”

It’d be hard to fit it on a sign, but don’t you think it’s a better name?


  • What does it mean to “test the Lord“ (v. 2)? Do we ever do that? If so, how?
  • Why do you think God told Moses to strike the rock with his staff?
  • The Israelites wanted to know whether or not God was among them (v. 7). How do we know that God is among us?
  • If your church’s name reflected the kind of faith you have, what would its name be?

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan and Isabella. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.


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