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Numbers 20:2-13 – Water from the Rock


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. The repetition provides 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. (See "The sin of Moses and Aaron" in Theological Themes.) As this doublet shows, biblical writers will use the same story as the basis for different "sermons" in different generations.

Paul refers to this water from the rock as the "spiritual drink" provided to Israel in the wilderness. Since the rock provided life and proved the presence of God, Paul calls the rock "Christ" (1 Corinthians 10:4).

Numbers 20:2-13

Now there was no water for the congregation; so they gathered together against Moses and against Aaron. 3The people quarrelled with Moses and said, ‘Would that we had died when our kindred died before the Lord! 4Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness for us and our livestock to die here? 5Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to bring us to this wretched place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink.’ 6Then Moses and Aaron went away from the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting; they fell on their faces, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. 7The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 8Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock before their eyes to yield its water. Thus you shall bring water out of the rock for them; thus you shall provide drink for the congregation and their livestock.

So Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he had commanded him. 10Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, ‘Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?’ 11Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank. 12But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.’ 13These are the waters of Meribah,* where the people of Israel quarrelled with the Lord, and by which he showed his holiness.

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