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Shemot/Exodus 2:15-16 And Moshe fled from before Pharaoh and settled in the land of Midian. And he sat at the well; and the priest of Midian had seven daughters and they came, and they drew [water]
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View whole verse and interlinear translation ...
Moshe flees from Pharaoh because the news that he killed an Egyptian who was abusing an Israelite has become too widely known. He flees from the palace and his position of privilege as a member of the royal family - the adopted son of Pharaoh's daughter - and settles beyond Pharaoh's immediate reach in the land of Midian.Ibn Ezra points out that "since Midian was within the Egyptian sphere of influence, Moshe was forced to become a shepherd, avoiding urban areas where he might be recognised." The Hebrew text uses the verb - the Qal 3ms prefix form of the root with a vav-conversive to indicate narrative past tense sequential action - twice in close succession with different meanings. Umberto Cassuto explains that "the first signifies 'he settled', and the second that he actually sat. Moshe stayed in Midian, and one day he was sitting by one of the wells."1 Rashi elaborates: "'and he settled' - here means that 'he spent a considerable amount of time there', as it does in the verse, 'And Ya'akov lived in the land of his father's sojournings' (B'resheet 37:1, ESV); 'and he sat' - here is an expression of sitting rather than dwelling."
Why was Moshe sitting beside a well - didn't he have better things to do? Brevard Childs suggests that, "the setting at the well is paralleled in several patriarchal stories and is the traditional setting for human encounter in the semi-desert areas of the Near East."2 Nahum Sarna agrees, adding the background that "wells in the ANE served as meeting places for shepherds, wayfarers and townsfolk. It was the natural thing for a newcomer to gravitate towards them." It was also certainly true, as Walter Brueggemann comments, that "in a pastoral economy, women invariably come to the well for water."3 The ancient rabbis are much less bashful and more direct; they tell us that Moshe "adopted the practice of his ancestors: finding wives at the well - the symbol of continuity and purity" (Shemot Rabbah 1:32). TheSforno sees HaShem's hand at work behind the scenes, telling us that "as [Moshe] was passing through the land he chanced to stop at a well, as we find written 'He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set' (B'resheet 28:11, NJPS) a certain place - a place which he had not planned on as a destination." The reference here is to Ya'akov, who stopped, as it were at random, on his journey from Canaan to Padan Aram at just the place where he would have a dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder and see HaShem and so recognise Beit-El as the house of G-d.
Allow me, at this point, to introduce the work of Robert Alter - the Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1981 he wrote the landmark book, "The Art of Biblical Narrative", in which he explained the way that the Bible's narrators and story-tellers use what we now recognise as literary effects to tie together their material and keep their readers' attention engaged in the unfolding stories about the biblical characters. One of his powerful observations is that the Bible often uses type-scenes, repeated narrative fragments that rehearse the same basic event, but using different characters and slight variations in the narrative sequence to make the audience listen carefully and remember the story; more from the differences than the similarities. In what he calls the "well betrothal" type-scene, there is a hero who is usually a fugitive or a foreigner but will become something of a redeemer or deliverer, a girl who will become the heroine, an act of water drawing, the girl rushing home to announce the presence of the stranger and finally a betrothal. Alter's first two examples concern finding wives for Yitz'khak and Ya'akov. In Yitz'khak's case, Avraham's servant meets Rivkah by waiting at "the well outside the city, at evening time, the time when women come out to draw water" (B'resheet 24:11, NJPS). Ya'akov "looked and behold, a well in the field" (29:2) to which "Rachel came with her father's flock; for she was a shepherdess" (v. 9, NJPS).4
Our text forms part of a story block that has Moshe as its main protagonist, both a fugitive from Pharaoh and as he will later say, "a stranger in a strange land" (Shemot 2:22). Zipporah, one of the daughters of Jethro takes the part of the heroine, rushes home with her sisters to tell her father about the strange Egyptian, and will become Moshe's wife. Here, like Ya'akov but unlike Avraham's servant, it is Moshe who draws the water. The act of gallantry here and in Ya'akov's case is defending the heroine from the aggressive shepherds, although the cause of the aggression may be different; in the first case, Avraham's servant gives a significant gift of jewelry to the heroine. Peter Enns makes a significant observation that "the clear difference between these narratives is that Yitz'khak and Ya'akov marry relatives [or kinsfolk] of Avraham, while Moshe marries a foreign woman."5 Terence Fretheim comments that "there is an ironic relationship between this story [block] and the preceding one [Moshe's interactions with the Israelite community in Egypt]. Moshe is not welcome in the Israelite community, but here Moshe is shown considerable hospitality by strangers, even being given a daughter for his wife. Israel does not appreciate his acts of justice on its behalf; the Midianites welcome it."6
Alter points out that the same type-scene makes a brief appearance in the story of Saul. He and his servant have come to look for Samuel, to ask where his family's missing donkeys might be. "As they were climbing the ascent to the town, they met some girls coming out to draw water, and they asked them, 'Is the seer in town?'" (1 Samuel 9:11, NJPS). Saul is a stranger in town and the well - only implied, but where else could they draw water - is the place of meeting. As the audience prepares for Saul to play the hero, draw water for one of the girls and become betrothed to one of them, the story rushes on and Saul and his servant rush on up the hill to meet Samuel, leaving the girls behind. This is a failed betrothal scene, but the hearers will remember it precisely because it didn't work as expected. Alter suggests that this prepares the audience to hear of Saul's ultimate failure as king: just as he misses the cues for a betrothal, so he will later miss the cues for being a successful king.7
We can go one important step further than Robert Alter and consider what is probably the last example of the well-betrothal type-scene in the Bible: Yeshua's meeting with the woman at the well in Samaria, narrated in John's gospel. Yeshua is on His way from Judea to the Galil. Not being able to take the train from Jerusalem straight through to Tel Aviv and presumably not wanting the longer journey up the Jordan valley, John tells us that "He had to pass though Samaria" (John 4:4, ESV). Reaching the town of Sychar - probably ancient Shechem - Yeshua stopped by Ya'akov's well to rest from the heat of the day, as John says, "He was wearied from his journey, and sat beside the well, it being about the sixth hour of the day" (v. 6). Aha, think the audience, is this? - no, it couldn't possibly be. Not Yeshua. But John's story goes on: "A woman from Samaria came to draw water and Yeshua asked her, 'Will you give me a drink?'" (v. 7). Perhaps the woman cautiously looked over his shoulder first to see if he had any thirsty camels hidden somewhere just off camera, but then recognising that Yeshua is a Jew (read: a foreigner in Samaria), she engages is a serious conversation. Yeshua's act of gallantry is offering her both living water and a revelation of who He is, then, sent by Yeshua to fetch her partner who isn't her husband, she rushes back into the town to tell everyone about the stranger.
Here are all the components of the type-scene: Yeshua is the foreigner, who meets a woman at a well. Although the story doesn't tell us that anyone actually drew any water, the conversation is all about drawing water, living water, from the well of eternal life. The woman rushes home to tell the news and the outcome is not an individual betrothal, but that "many Samaritans from that town believed in Him because of the woman's testimony, 'He told me all that I ever did'" (v. 39, ESV) and Yeshua stayed with the people for a further two days, no longer a stranger, but accepted as the Messiah who was to come. Although He has been - and will be - rejected by the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, He finds acceptance here in the midst of Samaritan country.
Yeshua has met with each of us at His well and has given us His water of eternal life that we might never thirst. We were His enemies, dead in our trespasses and sins, yet He has delivered us and placed a spring of living water within each of us so that we might become the focus of divine encounters and meetings, where others that do not yet know Him may enter into conversation and find their life in Him. Each of us has become a potential focus of hospitality and welcome, a place where heaven and earth meet. We dwell in that country and sit by the wells as Moshe did; we draw water for those whom we meet, introduce them to Yeshua so that they can rush home and tell the news of the stranger they have met who told them everything they had ever done. The question is whether the potential is being realised - are you a focus of hospitality and welcome?
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, (Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983), page 23.
2. - Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), page 31.
3. - Walter Brueggemann, "Exodus", in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 300.
4. - Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1981), pages 51-58.
5. - Peter Enns, Exodus, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), page 83.
6. - Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), page 44.
7. - Alter, pages 60-61.
Further Study: Isaiah 12:2-6; John 7:37-39
Application: How could you make yourself more available for human encounter in the semi-arid conditions of our modern society? Are you sitting at the well and waiting to engage with those who pass by? Why not ask the Chief Hydrologist for a fresh infusion of living water to overflow and bless those around you.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2020
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