Numbers 20:2-13 – Water from the Rock


Numbers 20:2-13


The people complain for lack of water, which God provides, though the event results in Moses and Aaron being excluded from the Promised Land.


This story continues the series of complaint or murmuring stories that began immediately after the crossing of the sea in Exodus 15. Of particular interest here is the obvious similarity between this story and its counterpart in Exodus 17:1-7. This repetition may provide insight into how the ancient Israelites told and retold their ancestral stories at different times and for different purposes. In Exodus 17, the story occurs even before the arrival at Sinai, showing the early development of Israel’s rebellion and Moses’ frustration. In Exodus, however, the issue is quickly resolved; water is provided, proving God’s presence with them (which the people had doubted), and the place is named Meribah (Hebrew “quarrel”) to commemorate the event. (Actually, in Exodus the place is given two names, Massah [“test”] and Meribah, which some commentators have seen as an indication of different sources or traditions behind the story there. Other early stories are also told, in part at least, to explain place names along the journey–for example, Marah [“bitter”] in Exodus 15:23.) As a story that continues this wilderness theme of rebellion, testing, and grace, the Exodus story has been seen as belonging to the early traditions of Israel’s history writing (sometimes called the JE source). Numbers, however, uses the story for a different purpose. Here, the priestly writers have included Aaron as a leading character alongside Moses and use the story to indicate God’s disfavor with Moses and Aaron that will prevent them from entering the land. As this doublet shows, biblical writers will use the same story as the basis for different “sermons” in different generations.

Paul read the Exodus 17 and Numbers 20 stories not as two different usages of the same “sermon,” but as two separate and closely related events. Paul read this section in continuity with ancient Jewish reading tradition. This was not a story told from two different perspectives, but a rock that accompanied the people as they journeyed in Exodus and Numbers, providing water whenever they needed it. Hence, Paul speaks specifically of a rock that “accompanied” or “followed” the Israelite people in the wilderness and provided water when they needed it.   Since the rock provided life and proved the presence of God, Paul likens the rock to Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4).