Take the 2-minute tour ×
Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professors, theologians, and those interested in exegetical analysis of biblical texts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

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.

share|improve this question
1  
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

2 Answers 2

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Sticking just to the text:

In the earlier passage, God commanded Moshe to strike the rock and he obeyed. In the present passage, God commanded Moshe to speak and he struck instead. (It's been 39 years, so "that's what we did last time" probably doesn't apply.)

Why is this a problem? Look at what Moshe said:

shall we bring water for you out of this rock?

Who's doing the bringing? See God's reprimand:

Because you did not ... uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel

The text seems to be telling us that Moshe "stole the miracle", so to speak. If he had spoken and water had poured out, that would clearly have been God performing a miracle for the people -- we can't talk water out of rocks. But instead Moshe hit the rock, and one could imagine that if there were a spring there and the rock were positioned just so, perhaps Moshe brought forth the water.1 Never mind whether he did or what he intended; that's what the people would see, especially after he said "shall we bring", and at least some of them, after years of stiff-necked grousing and rebellions, would be predisposed to believe that Moshe, not God, did it. We're nearly at the end of the 40 years of punishment for the spies' rebellion and this risks setting another one in motion.

Further, Moshe lashed out at the people:

Hear now, you rebels

The behavioral expectations for leaders are high. Even though this wasn't what Moshe intended, his actions undermined the enterprise somewhat.

Was the punishment excessive? I don't know; it's certainly severe, but God didn't strike Moshe down on the spot or anything like that. Moshe doesn't get to go into the land, but he completes the transition to Yehoshua, gives the people their final instructions, leads more conquests, gets to see the land, and finally is taken personally by God privately.

1 A question elsewhere notes that the Hebrew uses different words for "rock" in the two incidents, צור the first time and סלע the second. This answer cites the Malbim who says that the first is a hard rock (no water could possibly come out of it so hitting still produces a miracle) but the second is a type of rock that can retain water. (I do not know the Malbim's sources for this.) According to that reasoning, hitting the rock at Meribah wouldn't prove anything; anybody could have done that.


Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of any religious belief or doctrine.

share|improve this answer
1  
He also gets to view it, just not enter it. Great answer. –  swasheck Jul 18 '12 at 21:56
    
@swasheck, good point about him seeing it. I used to think God was being unduly harsh with Moshe, but I can now see divine kindness here. –  Gone Quiet Jul 18 '12 at 22:04

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, "...how 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.

share|improve this answer
    
There's actually a discrepancy in the text (ooh, I feel a question coming on :-) ) about whose idea sending the spies was. Compare Sh'lach L'cha to the repetition in D'varim. –  Gone Quiet Apr 22 '13 at 20:45
    
@MonicaCellio You understand, Monica, that answers that inspire questions are supposed to get upvotes, like tipping the doorman for putting your luggage in the car. ;-) –  Bruce James Apr 22 '13 at 20:52
    
:-) Well, first I had to make sure the question actually came out. Here you go: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/q/4705/208 –  Gone Quiet Apr 22 '13 at 20:56
    
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

protected by Community May 14 '13 at 3:47

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.