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We read that God commanded Moses to speak to the rock at Meribah so that water could flow out of it. Instead, Moses struck the rock with his staff:

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.—Numbers 20:10-13 (ESV)

In Exodus 17, we read a similar story (or perhaps another telling of the same incident) and God commanded the rock to be struck with the staff Moses struck the waters of the Nile with. It seems that God did not censor Moses then the way he does in Numbers. Further, the punishment seemed excessive to the crime. So:

  1. Was Moses' mistake in striking the rock rather than speaking to it?

  2. What factor made that mistake worth barring Moses from the Promised Land?

I'm particularly interested in evidence from the text itself to answer the second question.

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The unique analysis offered here is the most compelling of any I've ever seen. Part I deals with the classical medieval Jewish commentators but Part II is an extremely thorough and close reading of the text. I may try to summarize the main points in this essay and offer it as an alternative answer. – Amichai Sep 10 '12 at 3:29
Are we in a position to decide if the punishment was excessive? I would say no. – user2067 Feb 22 '13 at 5:14

What Moses did wrong is exactly what the Hebrews did wrong when they sent the spies and they believed the pesimistic report given by the spies. In both cases, G-d told them that they could do something that in any other circumstance would be considered a miracle . . . and they didn't believe Him.

Consider these facts. At Exodus 6:8 G-d promises to the Jewish people who were rising from slavery that "I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the LORD." G-d had already delivered the Hebrews from the Egyptians -- His hand was not only evident but obvious. And yet, the nervous nellies among them wanted Moses to send out spies to scout out the area. Reluctantly he consents, and they came back with reports that indicate that the people living there seemed too formidable for them. The people panic (Numbers 14), wail and rebel. G-d asks Moses, " long will they not believe in Me, for all the signs which I have wrought among them?" Their punishment: They cannot enter the Land they had been promised; i.e. since they had no faith that G-d would get them there, He had no obligation to deliver the Land to them.

Turn to Moses at Meribah. G-d tells Moses to speak to a rock and water would come (Num. 20:8). What? Until then, every miracle Moses had done was through actions. He raised his cane; he threw it down; he parted his hands; he threw up dust. Never had Moses done a miracle at the directin of G-d through speech. Afterall, G-d created the world through speech, and not action (Gen. 1:3 "And G-d said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light"). Moses, for whatever reason, is unable to get water from a rock through speech, so he falls back on using his cane as he had done before (Ex. 17:4). G-d is furious with this man with whom he had been speaking "face to face." "Because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the Land which I have given them." Numbers 20:12 (referring to the second generation of Hebrews following the Exodus).

What do we learn? G-d means it when He gives you a commandment -- if He told you to do something, that means you have the capacity to be successful at that task. You can keep kosher, you can keep the Sabbath day, you can observe even the year of leaving farmland alone to lie fallow. If your own self-doubts lead you to question your ability to follow-through on G-d's commandments, you not only do not believe in yourself, but you also don't believe in G-d.

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The connection between the punishment the people received for listening to 10 of the 12 spies with Moses' punishment is one I hadn't considered before. I don't see in the text that Moses actually tries speaking to the rock. It makes me wonder: did he feel foolish for trying or did he just neglect to do it in his anger and frustration. At any rate, thanks for the answer; it's helpful. – Jon Ericson Apr 23 '13 at 22:33

Moses did the same thing that Nadab and Abihu did in Leviticus 10, and the same thing that Saul did in 1 Samuel 15--almost what God said but not quite.

  • God told Moses to speak to the rock and water would come out. Moses strikes the rock. As a result he is not allowed to go into the Promised Land.

  • God gave specific instructions as to how priests were to offer incense, but Nadab and Abihu used profane (or common) fire instead of the fire from the altar, kindled by God. As a result they were consumed by fire from the Lord.

  • God told Saul to totally destroy the Amalekites, including all their animals. Saul kills everything except for King Agag and the best of the animals. The animals he intended to offer as sacrifices later. As a result Saul is rejected by God as king over Israel.

All of these are examples of disobedience, and illustrate that even what us humans might consider 'small' things matter a great deal to God.

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