June 12, 2014

Psalm 114

When Israel went forth from Egypt,

the house of Jacob from a people of strange language,
Judah became his sanctuary,
 Israel his dominion.
The sea looked and fled,
 Jordan turned back.

What ails you, O sea, that you flee?

O Jordan, that you turn back?
—Psalm 114:1-3, 5 (Theophany, 1st Antiphon)

…the God of Jacob,
who turns the rock into a pool of water,

the flint into a spring of water.
—Psalm 114:8

Blessing of water at Theophany, Ethiopia

Psalm 114 is familiar from the Divine Liturgy of Theophany. In Judaism the psalm is part of the “Hallel” (Ps 113-118) used on many feastdays, and Psalm 114 in particular is a joyous song of thanksgiving to God for three miraculous saving events in Israel’s memory, all of them involving water. First, the parting of the Red Sea at the Exodus, as Moses led the people from bondage in Egypt (Exodus 14). Second, the stopping of the River Jordan and crossing into the Promised Land of Canaan. Third, in the midst of their desert wandering, the miraculous water from the rock (Ex 17, Num 20; see also 1 Cor 10, where Christ is identified as the supernatural rock who was the source of the water then, in the same way as He is now the source of the living water of the Spirit).

Baptism, “of water and the Spirit”

If you read the biblical passages about these events you’ll see that none of them, were without fears and temptations. They were told to move forward step into the Red Sea before it parted, and they were terrified. Once in the desert they lost trust in their leaders and complained often and bitterly; Moses lost his temper with the people and angrily struck the rock that poured out the miraculous water. And as they crossed over Jordan into the Promised Land the people worried about all the powerful enemies they would encounter before they could settle down peacefully.

Time and again the people must be reassured. “The Lord will fight for you, you have only to be still” (Exodus 14:14). “The living God is among you…he will without fail drive out from before you the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Hivites…” (Jos 3:10). And even when the people are whining and unreasonable, the Lord can be trusted to provide life-giving water.  But pastors take note: the Lord rebukes Moses for losing his temper (Num 20:12). As an elderly Russian parishioner told me once, “priests are not allowed to get offended.”