The heading on the psalm chosen as one of our texts for this week’s worship says “A Maskil.” Well, it actually says “A Maskil of Asaph.” Many biblical scholars understand “Asaph” to be referring to temple singers; Asaphites, they were called. So this set of psalms (which includes Psalm 50 and 73 to 83) represent that group. Or, possibly they are psalms in the style of the Asaphites. Or maybe even written by the leader of the group who was called Asaph. In other words, we don’t know for sure.
So, let’s go to the other descriptor of this psalm. A maskil, it says. Most of the time, we just bleep over that and get on to the verse. How many times have you seen that word and never really bothered to figure out what it means? Well, lots. And the truth is we get tired of the “we don’t really know” kind of response that biblical scholars give all the time. So, we usually ignore it, and probably should this week too.
Except a little digging brought forth this fruit: “a maskil is a member or adherent of the haskalah.” Helpful. Don’t you just love dictionaries? Haskalah is a European Jewish intellectual movement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Wait. What? A word that appears in the Hebrew scriptures is a reference to eighteenth century Judaism? Call Tim LaHaye; there’s a book coming on.
Dig a little deeper, and you discover that the “maskilim” (the plural form of maskil) chose that descriptor because of the references it held in Jewish tradition. The Hashalah movement was designed to reclaim the Jewish culture and tradition, but not so much in terms of artifacts or even of rituals, but in philosophy or theology. It was an intellectual movement, remember. It was a way of thinking, and thinking deeply about what it meant to be Jewish, to be a part of the chosen people, the beloved of God.
A way of thinking. We tend to separate thinking and doing into different categories of human existence, and that makes sense on some levels. But followers of God know that believing (which is a way of thinking) is effective only when the thinking comes out in living. We understand that to claim certain intellectual certainties without concurrent behavioral responses is to live an inauthentic life.
But since we are all prone to such living, to acting in ways that are often contrary to our beliefs, to living in ways that deny our commitment to our faith, we need reminders from time to time. We need an intellectual kick in the pants to get us back on track. A maskil psalm is just such a kick in the pants. It is a reminder that we live in certain ways. A psalm that teaches you something, is one definition. We could call it a psalm that reminds you of something. There may not be an “aha” moment in the reading for this week, but it is certainly an “oh, yeah, I knew that” moment.
So, what is the thinking and the doing, or the thinking and the living implied in this psalm? Teach your children. This is not the only place in the Hebrew Scriptures where we are told to teach the children, but it is a good reminder. This faith thing is something to be passed on. Often, we assume that they’ll pick it up when they are ready. Like a habit, or a belief system. When in fact, it is a way of life. And it isn’t really caught; it is taught. It is lived. It is taught by those who are living it. “So that they should set their hope in God.” Because they were taught by those who have set their hope in God. They have seen it and they have heard it, so now they will step into the place too—in part by remembering the things that God has done.
The second section of the psalm text is a recitation of those things. We tell the story again and again and again. We can’t fall back on, “Oh, they’ve heard it already.” Maybe they have, but let them hear it again. The best family stories are the ones you keep repeating. “Tell it again!” You remember when … We love those stories. No matter how many times you’ve heard it. When we gather again as the family, we tell those stories over and over again. For the children. But also for those adults who have forgotten, or never heard, or just need a reminder of what has already happened. “Do you remember the time water poured from a rock in the desert?”
The Exodus passage is a continuation of the God’s care of the people as they wander through the wilderness. On the surface, it is a simple story of need recognized and then met. We can certainly celebrate the care of the people who are wandering in the wilderness by a God who knows their need and is willing to go to extraordinary means to satisfy them. Yet, this kind of surface exposure to the text turns God into a utilitarian satisfier of human thirsts when the “whine is right.” This approach sounds good until it has to be laid alongside the many times when our human needs are not met, no matter how much we plead. There is a suspicious lack of miracles in our experience for those who base their faith on miracles.
So, let’s dive a little deeper. What is this text really about? Yes, water from a rock, but look again. It is really about faith and unfaith. And about a people who say they will only believe in a God who satisfies their needs. Did you ever notice in the larger story how no one seems to come to Moses and say, “Can we talk?” There is no assessment of needs, no petition to explore possibilities, no delegation to solve the problem. What there is, is whining. And complaining. And casting doubt on the leader. “Why did you bring us here to die?” Anyone else amazed that this current crisis (like previous crises) causes the pilgrims to remember slavery fondly? What they left behind looks better from this distance. This thirsty distance. Granted, the need for water is critical to survival. But there seems to be a quick rejection of the one who has brought them safe thus far.
Let’s be honest, it isn’t Moses’s finest moment either. First, he says that to complain to him is to test God. That’s a dangerous correlation to make. And then when he does go to God, he doesn’t bring the people’s need but his own fear. “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” And oh, by the way, they’re thirsty. Maybe he knows that God is already aware of the need; he just wants to save his own skin. Then, when God gave Moses the instructions, the narration simply says, “Moses did so.”
Yes, the people got water, or at least we can assume so, since God said they would if Moses struck the rock. But where is the celebration? Where is the worship? Where is the dancing before the rock spewing clean water for them to drink? When the transaction between God and God’s people becomes so utilitarian, what gets left out is joy, and gratitude, and worship, and life. What gets left out is everything that matters in a life worth living.
So, the question that Exodus 17 presents in a way is, “Do you want to survive, or do you want to live?” Go back to the beginning of these notes. A maskil is inviting us to not only get what we need from God, but to think about how we want to live as God’s people. We can strike the rock, do as little as possible. Or we can live into the moment and experience the fullness of God’s grace, the abundance of God’s providence, the joy of God’s salvation. Yes, all of that even in the wilderness. We don’t have to wait until we’ve reached the destination, until we’ve all been brought into the kin-dom of God. We can live that life; we can think that life right now. It makes going through the wilderness all that much more sweet.