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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.

  • 2
    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
  • Please note that the waters of Meribah are in the Kadesh area where the congregation of Israel stayed (Numbers 20:1 Kadesh, 20:13 Meribah) and the question has been answered as well, under the following heading “In Numbers 20 was Aaron as guilty as Moses in the incident at Kadesh? – Ozzie Nicolas Jun 13 '18 at 19:56
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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.

  • 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
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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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    Indeed, hence: "Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams." (1 Samuel 15:22) – Igor Pashchuk Nov 7 '17 at 12:35
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Numbers 20:7-13 (DRB)

7 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 8 Take the rod, and assemble the people together, thou and Aaron thy brother, and speak to the rock before them, and it shall yield waters. And when thou hast brought forth water out of the rock, all the multitude and their cattle shall drink. 9 Moses therefore took the rod, which was before the Lord, as he had commanded him, 10 And having gathered together the multitude before the rock, he said to them: Hear, ye rebellious and incredulous: Can we bring you forth water out of this rock? 11 And when Moses had lifted up his hand, and struck the rock twice with the rod, there came forth water in great abundance, so that the people and their cattle drank, 12 And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron: Because you have not believed me, to sanctify me before the children of Israel, you shall not bring these people into the land, which I will give them. 13 This is the Water of contradiction, where the children of Israel strove with words against the Lord, and he was sanctified in them.

We can conclude one sure thing: what was commanded and what was done by Moses differed to a degree that made God view it as faithless.

Therefore, we must analyze what was commanded, and what was done, and how they differ.

What was commanded:

  • Take the rod: no mention of using it for anything other than livestock or gathering.
  • Assemble the people together.
  • Speak to the rock.

What was done:

  • The rod was taken.
  • The people were gathered together.
  • Prefaced their asking God for a miracle with "Can/Shall we?"
  • Struck the rock with the rod: namely twice. May or may not also have spoken to it.

In my view, a few things indicate a spirit of faithlessness:

  • Not believing that speaking to the rock was sufficient, or would look foolish, despite the promise of God, so striking it, as something more 'tangible.' Amounting to a concession of and condescension to poor faith.

  • They introduced a spirit of doubt by the interrogative ה (when prefixed to a word, it turns it into the interrogative form: i.e. "We shall" into "Can we?" or "Shall we?"). Whereas they had been assured of it by God, and so should have assured the people in like manner.

  • Striking the rock instead of speaking denoted provocation—like 'poking.' Or a 'works based' approach to receiving the grace, mercy, gifts, etc. of God. 'Our God is on demand.'

  • Striking the rock twice cements the above point, and makes it worse: God 'needs to be told' twice to 'obey.'

This episode served as an embarrassment to God instead of occasioning his hallowing by the people: thus God punishes them and causes them to know His holiness: יקדש "he hallowed" himself.

  • +1 for God needs to be told twice to obey – collen ndhlovu Dec 14 '18 at 6:54
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Restating the problem

The traditional interpretation is well-known that Moses struck the rock rather than speaking to it. The OP himself is well aware of this tradition but is hesitant to accept, because the offense seems too petty to warrant such a harsh punishment. Why make a big deal of how the water is being produced? God asked Moses to perform a miracle in front of the Israelite crowd in order to sanctify His name (this is evident from v. 12), and it seems like this was achieved by Moses’ striking just as much as it would have been through him speaking. So why punish him for this.

Furthermore, v. 12 makes it clear that Moses’ offense was his lack of belief/trust in Yahweh. However according to the traditional approach this can hardly be considered a lack of trust. It would be more appropriate to call it an act of disobedience, but why talk about lack of trust in Yahweh when Moses performed the miracle of hitting the rock in front of their eyes trusting in Yahweh that He will bring forth water from a lifeless rock!

Traditional interpretation vs. others

We may be tempted to just discredit the traditional interpretation and move on to some other more satisfying explanation. But mush to our dismay there are no better explanations. Most of the alternative interpretations are not supported from the text but require some imagination on the readers part, and they rest on speculation and theory rather than on solid hermeneutical grounds. One needs to look no further than Nahmanides’ commentary where the author brings no less than ten different interpretations of the sin of Meribah, only to discount them all. The traditional approach on the other hand is readily apparent to the reader and requires no imagination from the reader and is thus hermeneutically superior to others. That is why I choose to stick with this interpretation. But at the same time there is no denying that there are some serious philosophical problems with this approach, which makes it a bit unappealing to the modern scholar. I myself have been grappling with this problem many years, I read it and reread it many times in the hope that I will find something that I have missed, alas there was nothing to be found. Eventually I resigned and concluded that the answer must lie in the traditional approach as it seemed the most natural reading.

Striking the Rock: Miracle or Natural Phenomenon

To solve this biblical riddle I want to suggest that the author in Num. 20 did not perceive striking the rock as a supernatural act but rather as mundane act of digging. The image of Moses striking a rock with his rod miraculously causing the inanimate rock to bring forth water is so deeply ingrained in our psyche that we take it for granted but its not necessarily how the author in Num. 20 viewed it. According to Issar, Bedouins of southern Sinai dig into crystalline rocks to find wells, and it is not far fetched that Moses engaged in similar practice of digging and chipping away at the limestone with his rod to find a well. Once the wall of an aquifer has been penetrated, gravity would compel the water to rush through rocks and cracks to fill up the newly created basin with water giving the appearance of the rocks giving forth its water, hence the terminology of "stike the rock and water shall spring from it" (Exodus 11:6). According to another source, Bedouins actually dug their wells with pointed sticks. It is quite remarkable that Numbers 21:18 also describes the practice of chieftains digging wells with their staffs and rods,

It's the well that the leaders dug, the one carved out by the nobles of the people with their scepters and staffs. (ISV).

The fact that striking instead of digging is used in v. 11 must not deter us, for a striking motion may have been used to crack open dried up rocks and reveal the water underneath. Thus hitting or striking the rock may have seemed the most natural way to describe Moses’ actions. (I am not saying that the biblical authors understood exactly how this process worked, only that they were aware that it was something natural).

The Solution

If we are right in supposing that this is how it has been originally understood, then I think we may better understand where Moses went wrong here. God specifically told Moses to speak to the rock and not to strike it, because he wanted to teach the Israelites a lesson that nothing is beyond His reach and that they should stop doubting His power. Here the Lord wanted to demonstrate His power by having Moses speak to the rock and command it to give forth water, they in turn would be dumbstruck by this miraculous act and an essential lesson would be learnt. Instead Moses went and dug through the rock to find a well. Perhaps Moses lost himself in an act of desperation, whatever it was Moses demonstrated a lack of trust in God’s word; in a moment of haste Moses doubted God’s ability to perform miracles thereby failing to sanctify God’s name.

In fact, this is not the first time Moses doubted God’s ability to provide for his people, see for example Num. 11:21-24 where Moses demonstrates a lack of faith in the Lord. Here too Moses lost himself and questioned God’s ability to perform miracles, except this time he didn't get away with it and rightfully deserved his punishment of not being able to enter the land of Canaan.


It should be noted though that there are some biblical passages in which the act of splitting rocks clearly have miraculous connotations. In some places (Psalm 114:8) it is even likened to the splitting of the Red Sea and the eating of the manna (Deut. 8:15), acts of wonders which are clearly perceived as miraculous phenomena by the biblical authors. I am merely suggesting that the author of Num. 20 may have viewed it differently.

And contrary to some bible scholars who believe that the Rock narrative in Exodus 17 stands in direct opposition to Num. 20 I think that they actually complement each other. Exodus 17 sheds light on Moses’ actions here to strike the rock rather than speak to it. Moses may have relied on previous experience where he struck the rock and it yielded water. Moses was using the same method he was taught previously by God himself. Only this time God had other plans.

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The key verse is Num. 20:12: "You did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the sons of Israel" (v. 12a). This means that Moses and Aaron had not sanctified God; they had not separated God from themselves. Moses' speaking was wrong and his striking was also wrong. His spirit was completely wrong, and he represented God in a wrong way.

As God's authorial representative, Moses should have represent Him properly. But he implicated God in his error.

God's dealing with Moses and Aaron meant that this act was committed by Moses and Aaron only, and that God had no part in it. Perhaps, Israel's murmuring could have been a rebellion in attitude only; their spirit might have been different. This is why God did not judge them. Moses should not have judged them rashly when God had not judged them. He should not have uttered any unrestrained words according to himself.

So when Moses makes a mistake and does not confess it, God has to step forward to vindicate Himself.

protected by Community May 14 '13 at 3:47

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