Place names often have stories behind them. Around here many towns trace their names to colonial taverns – like Blue Bell or King of Prussia – or landholders – like Pottstown or Downingtown or Coatesville. Paoli was named for a general who tried to kick the French out of his native island of Corsica in 1768. Wayne was named for Mad Anthony Wayne who fought the British in the Battle of the Brandywine and the Battle of Paoli. The source of many names is conjectural, like 84, PA. Some people say it’s from a mile marker on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and some people say it was from the year that a post office was built there.
Massah and Meribah is a place mentioned in Exodus, the story of whose naming is provided – and no wonder, because if you translate those words into English, you find out it was named “Test and Quarrel”
“because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” [Exodus 17:7]
An earlier incident in the Israelites’ wanderings sort of set this one up. That was what we heard about last week, when they were hungry and complained to Moses, who complained to God, who sent them (on a regular basis) quail in the evening and every morning a sort of bread they called manna. This time, though, they weren’t hungry. They were thirsty. They came to a place named Rephidim (which means “beds” or “places of rest”, so it could be interpreted appropriately enough as “campsites”)
“…but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’ But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’ So Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’” [Exodus 17:1b-4]
Word for word, it’s pretty much parallel to what happened with the bread and quail.
Like the other incident, too, God provided what was needed.
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.’” [Exodus 17:5-6]
What makes this incident different, however, isn’t the people’s faith but their attitude. They sound almost entitled. ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” [Exodus 17:7]
God’s mercy is such that he gave them what they needed, but along with it came a new place name as a reminder and an implicit warning. When you start ordering God around, even if you are telling God to do what he wants to do, “Resting Places” turn into “Test and Quarreling”. You may find your physical needs provided for, but your inner peace displaced.
You don’t have to be a great theologian or sage to see what happens. P.J. O’Rourke, a comedian, criticizes rock bands that turn angst about the state of the world into commercial success. In his words,
“Any religious person – whether he worships at a pile of gazelle bones or in the Cathedral of St. Paul – will tell you egotism is the source of sin. The lust for power that destroys the benighted Ethiope has the same fountainhead as the lust for fame that propels the lousy pop band. ‘Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ Let alone everyone that saith sha la la la la and doobie doobie doo.”
Honestly, we all fall into that at some point. I’ve seen a picture on the internet multiple times of a sign outside a café someplace that says something like,
Coffee, please $1.50
May I have a medium
Thank you. $0.75”
Perhaps God isn’t so unlike us on that score. Maybe in our prayer life, as in any other part of life, things might not go differently but would go better if we would simply maintain a proper level of the most basic respect. Don’t toss his name around idly or turn it into a curse word. Say, “please” and “thank you”. Don’t assume you always know what he has in mind or that he has no idea what he’s doing if you aren’t consulted.
If we all did better at that, there might be more places named Providence.
Moses Striking the Rock by Luca Giordano
(from Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of the
Metropolitan Museum of Art)