Numbers 20:1–13 (NET)
1 Then the entire community of Israel entered the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh. Miriam died and was buried there.
2 And there was no water for the community, and so they gathered themselves together against Moses and Aaron. 3 The people contended with Moses, saying, “If only we had died when our brothers died before the Lord! 4 Why have you brought up the Lord’s community into this wilderness? So that we and our cattle should die here? 5 Why have you brought us up from Egypt only to bring us to this dreadful place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; nor is there any water to drink!”
6 So Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the entrance to the tent of meeting. They then threw themselves down with their faces to the ground, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. 7 Then the Lord spoke to Moses: 8 “Take the staff and assemble the community, you and Aaron your brother, and then speak to the rock before their eyes. It will pour forth its water, and you will bring water out of the rock for them, and so you will give the community and their beasts water to drink.”
9 So Moses took the staff from before the Lord, just as he commanded him. 10 Then Moses and Aaron gathered the community together in front of the rock, and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring water out of this rock for you?” 11 Then Moses raised his hand, and struck the rock twice with his staff. And water came out abundantly. So the community drank, and their beasts drank too. 12 Then the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust me enough to show me as holy before the Israelites, therefore you will not bring this community into the land I have given them.” 13 These are the waters of Meribah, because the Israelites contended with the Lord, and his holiness was maintained among them.
Petty, Demanding, Cruel
Many Christians today believe that the Bible is a liability, especially the Old Testament. This is a famous passage in which again, what appears to perhaps be a procedural error is the basis for a devastating judgment against Moses, who has been the human “hero” of the story in terms of the exodus.
At a previous water emergency God commanded Moses to strike a rock and water gushed forth (see Exodus 17). Now God tells Moses to talk to a particular rock or cliff. We don’t know that he told him what to say. Moses in very understandable frustration with the people (if you read more of Numbers) strikes the rock rather than talking to it. After venting his frustration to the people he strikes the rock and water comes out. God then tells Moses that because he struck the rock instead of talking to it Moses forfeits his opportunity to enter the promised land, the outcome he has been laboring towards for almost 4 decades.
This story has left many commentators with many questions, provoked many theories, and leaves many contemporary readers with some anxiety about the character of the God of Israel.
What did Moses do wrong?
What Moses did wrong was obvious, he struck instead of speaking to it, but was that really such a bad thing? Christian and Jewish commentators and preachers throughout the ages have found numerous serious crimes in this story, most wind up looking like this.
- Simple Disobedience, he struck (twice) instead of only speaking to it
- Lack of faith (verse 12) as revealed in striking rather than speaking. They didn’t believe that God would meet their needs.
- Taking credit for the miracle (“must WE bring water from the rock) instead of emphasizing that this was God’s provision for them. Usurping.
- Anger and violence. Moses is angry with the people when God was not. Moses was not relating God accurately to the people.
- A lesser miracle. If he spoke to the rock rather than striking it (twice) the people would have been more impressed by God’s power.
Other questions remain.
- Why involve the staff at all. Usually when God tells Moses to take the staff there will be striking (Nile, Red Sea, the Rock, etc.)
- Moses did talk in front of the rock. He didn’t address the rock but he did talk.
One Jewish scholar makes a trenchant observation.
Moses our teacher committed one sin, but our commentators have heaped on him thirteen or more, each one of them having invented a fresh one… I have therefore hitherto refrained from going into this problem for fear that I might attribute a new sin to Moses.
Studies in Numbers by Nehama Leibowitz pg. 246
Why do We Want to be specific about Moses’ Sin?
- Perhaps we want to avoid it. Basil the Great noted how severely he was punished for such a small thing. His take away was that God is severe so one needs to be careful about one’s life.
- Perhaps we want to defend God’s revealed nature of mercy “slow to anger, abounding in loving kindness”. That is not what one comes away with from the “plain reading of the text” in this passage.
- Maybe we (like many contemporary sermons) want to derive “leadership lessons” from this.
- Maybe we’re just trying to do our homework to explain it to others in a sermon or lesson. 🙂
Why did Moses Strike the Rock Twice?
The Hebrew Scriptures are notoriously sparse when it comes to unnecessary details yet here it says that he struck the rock twice. Was it because he was so angry and frustrated?
Edmund Clowney on Striking the Rock Again
Edmund Clowney former professor of Westminster Seminary Philadelphia understood Moses striking the rock in Exodus 17 combined with Paul’s identification of Christ as the Rock in 1 Corinthians 10 as a prefiguring of the crucifixion of Christ.
When Moses struck the rock, a stream of life-giving water poured out into the desert. When Jesus was crucified, John tells us that blood and water poured from His side (John 19:34). In reminding us of the water as well as the blood, John recalls for us the cry of Jesus at the feast. At Calvary there flowed from His heart the streams of living water. The water that Christ gives is the water of the Holy Spirit (John 7:38–39). The breath of the risen Christ symbolized the gift of the Spirit (John 20:22–23); so does the water that flowed with the blood of the Crucified. The Spirit of life is given through Christ’s death.
We do not wonder that Moses was judged severely for striking the rock a second time, when he had been told to speak to it (Num. 20:7–13). Only once, at His appointed time, does God bear the stroke of our doom.
Clowney, Edmund P. (2013-08-29). The Unfolding Mystery (2d. ed.): Discovering Christ in the Old Testament (p. 129). P&R Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Does the Punishment Fit the Crime?
While the sin of Moses is the focus of many the specific punishment of Moses isn’t talked about much. If Moses is guilty of rebellion then one might argue the sentence is light. Many who trespass in this way including the sons of Aaron who present “strange fire” are killed immediately, sometimes by fire sometimes by the ground swallowing them up. Miriam is struck with a disease but is healed. Again, her eventual passing leads off this chapter. Moses and Aaron are not struck dead. His punishment is that he cannot enter the promised land.
How the Book of Numbers Illuminates the Promised Land
The whole force of the book of Numbers revolves around the question of rebellion and inheritance. The book is filled with rebellions but the main rebellion is that of the spies who did not sufficiently trust that God would deliver on his promises. The best alignment of this story with the other stories seems to be with the rebellion of the spies because Moses now receives the same initial sentence as the unbelieving spies, the prohibition to enter into the land of rest.
While we in our own rebellion and mockery prefer to imagine the God of Israel as a hothead who lashes out in punishment at any who dare to resist him in most cases the punishments of God are easy to associate with the crimes against him.
- Those who bring strange fire are devoured by God’s fire itself
- Those who wish to be their own life are taken into the ground and buried
- Those who do not believe in God’s good intention nor his ability to deliver on his promises are not allowed into the land where Yhwh intends to be his people’s all-in-all
While in our own judgment we might wish to exempt Moses from such a sentence the punishment does seem to fit the crime.
Misery: CS Lewis and Who Can Tolerate God
The great contribution of CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce is the illustration that God is not a casual roommate.
In 2013 27% of Americans now live alone, this up from 5% in 1920 (Washington Post). We live in a decidedly libertarian age where we preserve our autonomy by affording it to others.
It might be tempting to call Yhwh a control freak given the Mosaic law we should also reflect on the fact that God is more frequently blamed today for being negligent than for being controlling. Every cry that declares “How could God let this happen” expresses an expectation that God should not only underwrite our moralities and desires but enforce them upon others.
The entire point of the Exodus and the rebellions of the book of Numbers is that we are constantly wrestling with God for control not only over our lives but over this world. This Biblical theme goes straight back to the Garden where the Man and the Woman begin their own rebellion. Their sentence is exile from the garden and in an ironic twist given exactly what they’ve asked for, to make their own way and their own life in the field. That field will be place where one son takes the life of his brother whose blood cries out from the ground.
Moses, both great and humble as he is is not ready for the promised land. Rebellion lives in him as it does in us. He uses the rod of God, his instrument of status, power and deliverance against God again in angry self-vindication before the people and steps into God’s place as the securer of the future. For a tiny moment Moses is their savior and lord and he wants the people not to forget it.
Moses problem is our own. We cannot live with each other never mind God. We are determined autocrats spinning our own little stories with us at the center using whatever power we can scrape together to redefine ourselves as we imagine ourselves to be and then demanding that the world get in line with our self-image. In this way Moses is no different from Caitlyn Jenner or any of the rest of us. If even the “world’s most humble man” is guilty of this, what hope do we have?
Deliverance: Why did Striking the Rock “Work”?
Of all the treatments I’ve found I haven’t read anyone ask why water came out of the rock anyway.
I don’t think this was a miracle of a “divining rod” where God simply showed Moses where to dig (with the staff?) and after hitting the rock twice water which had been blocked by the rock was suddenly found. After 37 years of wandering in the desert I’m sure the people were quite adept at finding water. I don’t think their thirst and the threat to their lives and their livestock was due to any lack of being able to find water naturally hidden.
It seems clear that God worked the miracle despite Moses’ rebellion, weakness disobedience and/or unbelief. Why would God do such a thing?
We are not in anyway lead to believe the power lies in the rod, that with the rod Moses has somehow managed to overpower God himself.
Nor does God use the incident to publicly humiliate Moses or take him down. God allows the drama to unfold and the people probably are not aware that Moses has disobeyed. God allows the script of Moses to unfold as if it is the LORD’s.
While we began with our assumption that God is petty, withholding or indifferent we instead see God again as being more lenient, more accommodating and more tolerant than we are with each other. Most of us are so jealous even of our own ego space that we defensively jump into to stake any claim to any space, from a lane on the interstate to our own “good” name so that no one and nothing will even appear to cloud it.
If I were God I would likely have let old Moses make his little speech and then whack that rock all he wanted until his puny rod was a pile of splinters. “No more miracles for you Moses!”
God, however, brings forth the water so the people and their livestock can live in spite of Moses without humiliating him in the process.
This is the same God we find hung naked on a cross by his adversaries not responding to the mockery “he saved others, he cannot save himself” with no defensive or justifying word. He silently endures their mocking, saving others by not saving himself.
Even most Christian readers of this text like to use it as a warning. “You had better be circumspect in your living. If God could disqualify even a great leader and instrument like Moses what makes you think God will spare you if you step out of line!”
This is a true and valid warning. Many of us, however, know we’ve already failed the test. We know we have already blown our chances to qualify for entry the promised land. We know that we are so deeply rebellious, autonomous and selfish that we are not fit to occupy any land with such a God as this, we can hardly tolerate each other.
It is for this reason that Jesus died and rose, to redeem even humble Moses and the likes of us. The Christian life is not a life of qualifying for God’s grace but of receiving it and responding to it in grateful obedience. We recognize that we like Moses when told to speak to the rock just keep hitting it with whatever rod we imagine God has placed in our hands to execute our judgment upon the world and each other. God endures our blows and from his generosity provides us with the water we need.
By the grace of God hopefully our little arms eventually wear out and we relent to see the generosity and beauty of this God. We eventually see that trying to wrest the land out of his hands is utter foolishness rather than trying to rest in the land he is giving us. We may begin to willingly submit to him rather than try to make him submit to us.
Moses was never qualified to enter the land regardless of how mightily he was used by God. This story simply reveals that truth.
If we imagine that by reading this story and figuring out what Moses did wrong, thus armed with the great idol our our age, information, we can by force of will avoid the trespass that he was guilty of and therefore securing for ourselves the qualification we have in that moment succumbed to precisely the same trap. Let us rather trust not in our own righteousness, our own strength, or our own ability and rest in the one able to accomplish the good He imagines and has already secured on our behalf.