Psalm 78-A Table in the Wilderness

Christians pray that God will give them each day their daily bread. The idea of daily bread goes back to the Israelites in the wilderness. The Israelites believed that God had taken care of them.

Any group that left the Nile valley would have been in a precarious situation. There was little food and very little water. So if a group of people survived, something quite fortuitous must have happened. No wonder they felt that God had shepherded and guided them.

God, who had saved them by ripping open the sea, now saved them by ripping open rocks so that the people could drink (Ps. 78:15). Streams flowed from the rocks. Verse 20 is odd. The Psalm frames it as a quotation from the rebellious people. It sounds like they are talking about Moses. “He struck the rock and water gushed out.” But the Psalm never mentions Moses. Everything is about God. The people are rebelling against God, not Moses. So verse 20 repeats the thought from verse 19. There the people ask the poignant question, “Is God able to prepare a table in the wilderness?”

When I was an interim minister, my job was to lead congregations through the “wilderness” between pastors. I often refered to this scripture. Individuals, as well as congregations face their own wilderness experiences, times that test their faith. Can God prepare a table laden with the things we need, even in such conditions?

The Psalmist believed that it was a faithless question. We are talking about God. Of course, the same God who had brought the people out of Egypt and opened up the sea could provide for them. We can understand, though, why the people were anxious. How would they find water? What would they eat? The psalmist doesn’t expect people to have blind faith. He expects them to bring to mind what God has already done, who God is, and who they are as God’s people. Based on these realities, they should have had faith.

Now I want to reiterate a less devotional point. The 78th Psalm tells the same broad story as Exodus and Numbers. But I am thinking that the Psalm may carry a tradition that doesn’t come from the epic sources in Exodus and Numbers.

In the other epic sources God also feeds Israel in the wilderness with manna and quail (Exodus 16-17 and Numbers 11). But in Psalm 78:19-29 the water from the rock comes before these miracles. In Exodus and Numbers it comes after. Also Exodus and Numbers make the water from the rock incident the occasion of a sin by Moses or Moses and Aaron. Psalm 78 has God make flowing water available as an act of grace. The sin is in the people’s ingratitude and unwillingness to trust God. In another Asaph psalm, Psalm 81, the water-from-the-rock event (Meribah) seems to be God’s test or challenge for the people (Psalm 81:7).

The plagues that Moses and Aaron brought upon Egypt occur in both Exodus 7-11 and in Psalm 78:43-51. In Exodus there are 10 plagues. In Psalm 78 there are 6 or 7 plagues. They come in a very different order. And the details are strikingly different. For instance, in Psalm 78 both vegetation and livestock seem to be killed by the hail. In Exodus the livestock die of a plague that comes before the hail. This is all part of what makes me consider Psalm 78 independent and early.



About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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