If Numbers 20 is read in isolation, God’s judgment that Moses not be allowed to enter the promised land seems disproportionate to Moses’s action of striking the rock in anger. Moses seems justified in being angry with Israelites and God’s response seems to be excessive and therefore unjust.
Numbers 20:2-13 Now there was no water for the congregation. And they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. And the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink.” Then Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. And the glory of the Lord appeared to them, and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” And Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he commanded him. Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the Lord, and through them he showed himself holy.
Anybody who has children or knows children can empathize with Moses and Aaron. Israel is whining once again and saying we were better off in Egypt. My own children sometimes see me as a tyrant for limiting their time on the XBox. They would be better off with a ruler who let them play XBox 24/7 or so they think. Why do we have to eat a piece of brocolli? In Egypt, we ate pizza every night.
In this case, God’s instructions are clear. With the authority I have given you (the staff), give the people what they want. They will know God has heard them and provided because water will flow from the Rock. “Take the staff and tell the rock to give them water.”
Yet, Moses out of his frustration with his people calls the people rebels and strikes the rock. Should I be struck with lightning for occasionally losing my temper with my children who have forgotten that I gave them the XBox in the first place, for threatening to sell the XBox on Craigslist? Isn’t that what it seems like God is doing to Moses here?
Here is where reading stories in their broader canonical context is crucial to our understanding of particular passages. Many readers will notice that in the Bible we often have very similar stories told in different places. For instance, think of Abraham or Isaac giving their wives to a foreign ruler (Genesis 12, 20, and 26). Some scholars saw such repetition as evidence of mulitple sources stitched together by a later editor (redactor) who was not particularly skilled at his job.
While their conclusions are questionable, they did draw attention to repetition in scripture and the authors of scripture themselves attest to using multiple sources. In response to this line of thinking, other scholars asked why an editor/author would include what on a cursory reading seem like different tellings of the same event. Robert Alter, in his The Art of Biblical Narrative, taught many of us to attend more closely to repetition as literary device. When we see a story repeated or a statement repeated, the reader should take note of similarities, differences, or the significance of a pattern. In other words, what to earlier scholars seemed like unnecessary repetition began to look like an intentional literary device. With that in mind, let us turn to the earlier account of Moses getting water from a rock.
Exodus 17:1-7 All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And 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 grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” And the Lord said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
So, the beginning of this story seems much the same as the later story. The people are complaining and Moses consults the Lord. So, what else is the same and what is different? Why does it matter? How does it help us understand Numbers 20?
First, in this story, we are reminded that Moses’s staff is the same staff with which he struck the Nile and he is told to strike the rock. The shepherds crook was a symbol of authority and judgment. Of course, it was symbol of guidance. However, it was also the tool of discipline. Notice: Pharaoh too holds a shepherds crook. So, the Israelites would have understood Moses action symbolically as an act of judgment. Yet, who is on trial and who is struck with the rod.
It is God who is on trial and submits Himself to judgment. When Moses strikes the rock on which the LORD is standing, he is striking the LORD.
Now, imagine what would happen if you walked up to Pharaoh (or the President) and slapped him in the face. Certainly arrest in the case of the president and likely death in the case of Pharaoh.
Yet, what happens when God is placed under judgment, water pours forth from the rock. (See also John 19:31-35)
Now, let us return to the story in Numbers. Without God’s permission and contrary to the LORD’s instructions, Moses calls the people rebels and strikes the rock “twice” or perhaps a better translation “a second time.”
Moses misrepresents God to the people and places God on trial once again and symbolically strikes God once again. Moses is way out of line. For this reason, Moses and Aaron are forbidden entry into the promised land.
And yet, the rock still pours forth water “and the congregation drank and their livestock.”
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Does this way of reading help you see what is going on in Scripture? Does it make you want to dig deeper into the symbolic world and learn the literary devices of Hebrew narrative?