Numbers 20:1-13 describes an episode in the life of Moses, while he was leading the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt, during their forty year journey. As a consequence of his actions at Kadesh, Moses, the man of God and faithful servant, who spoke with God face to face, was not permitted to enter the Promised Land. This story, as part of the Old Testament narrative, had meaning for its original Israelite audience. However, how this text is significant to a Christian audience will serve to illustrate whether Old Testament narratives may also be read as Christian Scripture.
Text and Translation
The Death of Miriam
20 And the people of Israel, the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh. And Miriam died there and was buried there.
The Waters of Meribah
2 Now there was no water for the congregation. And they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. 3 And the people quarrelled with Moses and said, “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! 4 Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? 5 And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink.” 6 Then Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. And the glory of the Lord appeared to them, 7 and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 8 “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” 9 And Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he commanded him.
Moses Strikes the Rock
10 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?” 11 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. 12 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.” 13 These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarrelled with the Lord, and through them he showed himself holy.
Numbers 20:1–13 (ESV)
Philip Budd notes that in verse 4 the LXX has “to kill us” rather than “that we should die here,” which accentuates “the tension between Moses and the people.” Budd also records that in verse 8b “you” and “drink” are both singular in the MT referring to Moses, but are plural in the LXX which involves “Aaron more directly.”
Form and Structure
The passage is a prose type, being an historical narrative explaining the popular history of why Moses and Aaron did not enter the Promised Land.
The structure of the passage is arranged as follows:
A) Chronology and location (v. 1)
B) The people quarrel with Moses (vv. 2-5)
C) Moses and Aaron enquire of YHWH (vv. 6-8)
D) Moses’ and Aaron’s actions (vv. 9-11)
E) The consequences of their actions (vv. 12-13)
It begins with the death of Miriam as the Israelites reach Kadesh קָדֵשׁ in verse 1. Kadesh in Hebrew means sacred and comes from the Hebrew word for holy קֹדֶשׁ (vv. 12 & 13). Often a place name is derived from something that happened there (e.g. Num. 11:34), although that is not certain in this instance. Verses 2 to 5 show the people quarrelling with Moses over the lack of drinking water. Moses and Aaron go to the tent of meeting, or tabernacle, to enquire of YHWH in verse 6. In verses 7 to 8, YHWH instructs Moses to take the staff – it is unclear whether this is Moses’ staff or Aaron’s – and speak to the rock. Verses 9 to 11 reveal how Moses instead strikes the rock, twice, with the staff. The passage concludes with YHWH passing judgement on Moses and Aaron in verses 12 to 13.
Historical and Literary Context
The book of Numbers is traditionally known as the fourth book of Moses. Kent Sparks explains that it covers a period “stretching from the second to the fortieth year after the exodus,” and is an account of Israel’s journey from Mount Sinai to the border of the Promised Land. The book details the duties of priests and Levites and takes its name from the two censuses it records. The book also relates the grumbling and complaints of the Israelites to Moses about the conditions they experienced. The people looked back to life in Egypt and they rebelled against Moses’ leadership. The generation that left Egypt were on the verge of entering the Promised Land, but because of unfavourable reports from all but two of the twelve spies who had been sent into Canaan, they refused to invade. Sparks writes that it is because of this rebellion that “God forbids that generation of Israelites from entering the land and condemns them to death in the wilderness.”
The passage under discussion describes events towards the end of the forty years in the desert, although the text does not indicate the year, and is similar to an earlier episode in Exodus 17:1-7 at Rephidim in the wilderness of Sin. There was no water to drink and the people again quarrelled with Moses. On that occasion YHWH told Moses to take his staff and to strike a rock. Water came out of the rock and the place was named Massah מַסָּה (which means testing) and Meribah מְרִיבָה (which means quarrelling).
Sparks explains that the consensus of modern Biblical scholarship is that Moses was not the author of Numbers, but instead there were “several authors and editors working over a lengthy period of time and at some remove from the so-called Mosaic period.” He continues that there were “at least two major writers, the preexilic or exilic Yahwist (J) and the postexilic priestly writer (P).” And that “the basic narrative contours of Numbers were laid down by J.” Budd further argues that this passage is actually the Yahwist’s account of Exodus 17:1-7 which has been rewritten by the priestly writer in order to explain “the exclusion of Moses and Aaron from the land.”
James Kugel describes how ancient interpreters believed that the rock Moses struck at Rephidim had not stayed there because of the two separate accounts from Exodus and Numbers. Kugel explains that as Exodus 17:7 and Numbers 20:13 both refer to “the waters of Meribah” they must “somehow have moved from Rephidim to Kadesh.” The interpreters had concluded that “the gushing rock had travelled with the Israelites from Rephidim to Kadesh, indeed, that it went on to accompany them during all the subsequent wanderings – a travelling water supply.” Kugel explains that this conclusion was “reinforced by the observation that, although the Israelites were in the desert for forty years, from the time of that first incident at Rephidim, shortly after they left Egypt, until near the end of their travels at the end of the book of Numbers, there is no mention of the people lacking water to drink.”
Kugel illustrates this point with reference to these quotations:
Now He led His people out into the wilderness; for forty years He rained down for them bread from Heaven, and brought quail to them from the sea and brought forth a well of water to follow them.
And it [the water] followed them in the wilderness forty years and went up to the mountains with them and went down into the plains.
– Pseudo-Philo, Book of Biblical Antiquities 10:7, 11:15
And so the well that was with Israel in the desert was like a rock the size of a large container, gushing upwards as if from a narrow-neck flask, going up with them to the mountains and going down with them to the valleys.
– Tosefta Sukkah 3:11
Kugel writes that the ancient interpreters had noticed that the water supply had stopped immediately following the death of Moses’ sister Miriam (Num. 20:1). They drew the conclusion that the water had continued to flow for all these years because of Miriam and so it “came to be known as the Well of Miriam.” Kugel again provides these quotations:
And these are the three things that God gave to his people on account of three persons; that is, the well of the water of Marah for Miriam and the pillar of cloud for Aaron and the manna for Moses. And when these came to their end [i.e. died], these three things were taken away from them.
– Pseudo-Philo, Biblical Antiquities 20:8
And the king of Arad heard … that Miriam the prophetess had died, thanks to whose merit the well had sprung up, and that the well was hidden away.
– Targum Neophyti Num. 21:1
And there was no water there for the people of the assembly, because Miriam the prophetess had died and the well had been hidden away.
– Fragment Targum Num. 20:1
Budd writes that “the nature of the sin committed by Moses and Aaron has caused much debate.” It was serious enough that it prevented their entry into the Promised Land. In verse 8, Moses was told by YHWH to speak to the rock, but in verse 11 he strikes it twice. Budd lists the possibilities as unbelief, unwillingness, haste or ill-temper and disobedience.
M. Margaliot argues that Moses, who is acting in anger as a reaction to the rebellion by the people, desecrates the name of YHWH by asking the rhetorical question “shall we” in verse 10. This in effect was questioning whether or not YHWH would be able to produce water for the people. Striking the rock twice was a further expression of Moses’ anger. Aaron is also guilty because, from Moses’ return to Egypt early in the book of Exodus, it was he who spoke Moses’ words to the people. Margaliot continues to argue that the punishment given for Moses’ and Aaron’s transgression was according to the nature of their transgression, and is the same punishment that was given to the generation of the exodus.
In verse 12, YHWH makes it clear that Moses and Aaron are being punished because they “did not believe in me [YHWH], to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel.” There are further references to this episode in the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy which demonstrate that Moses and Aaron were punished for their rebellion. Joseph Blenkinsopp, commenting on the passages from Deuteronomy, says “the D author understands Moses to have taken on himself the sin of the people, and therefore absolves himself of any wrongdoing.” Moses was provoked into anger by the rebellion of the people, and so the theme of rebellion in this passage reflects one of the themes that run through the book of Numbers.
Application for the contemporary reader
The passage under discussion may cause problems for the contemporary reader, because it presents a harsh view of God in the way that Moses and Aaron were punished. After all that Moses has been through with the people of Israel and how he had faithfully served YHWH, this one outburst of anger was the cause of him missing out on the completion of his mission.
For the Old Testament narrative texts to be read as Christian Scripture, they must be read as a witness to Jesus Christ. Christopher Wright comments that the Old Testament is “a store house which provides images, precedents, patterns and ideas to help us understand who Jesus was.” Wright further argues that “it was the Old Testament which helped Jesus to understand Jesus.” He says the “rich tapestry of figures, historical persons, prophetic pictures and symbols of worship,” provided Jesus with the shape for his identity.
Wright suggests typology as one possible way to understand the relationship between the Old Testament and Jesus. He explains that “the images, patterns and models that the Old Testament provides for understanding [Jesus] are called types. The New Testament equivalents or parallels are then called antitypes.” So the events in Israel’s history become examples or warnings to heed.
Wright continues to say it is therefore possible to see analogies between the life and ministry of Jesus and events portrayed by Old Testament writers. However, he also warns that “it is not the exclusive way to understand the full meaning of the Old Testament itself.” Not all events recorded are directly related to Jesus himself, but do still have meaning for the contemporary reader.
Wright also looks at the way metaphor is used in the Old Testament which helps our understanding of Jesus. He gives the example of the relationship between YHWH as Father and Israel as Son (e.g. Ex. 4:22; Deut. 32:6), which Wright argues is a metaphor for how Jesus understands his relationship as the Son of his Father God.
The New Testament writers used these ways of seeing Jesus in the stories from the Old Testament. Returning to the passage from Numbers, the Apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians, describes Jesus as the rock that travelled with the Israelites providing them with spiritual water.
For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.
1 Corinthians 10:1–4 (ESV)
This idea of spiritual water is also in the Gospel according to John. Jesus has a conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well and tells her of living water that “will become … a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Jesus goes on to indicate that this living water is the Holy Spirit, when, later in the same Gospel, he refers to “rivers of living water.” This is also the image that the writer of Revelation uses when he describes the Lamb, who is Jesus, guiding the great multitude to “springs of living water.”
Another image from the Numbers passage is that in taking on the sin of the people following their rebellion, Moses is a type of Christ who took on the sin of the world. Moses died in the wilderness in place of the generation who would enter the Promised Land. The instruction to Moses in verse 8 to “tell the rock” to yield water evokes the Genesis 1 account of God speaking creation into existence. Finally, that YHWH, in verse 11, produced water “abundantly,” is a demonstration of God’s character to the Israelite’s that Jesus ascribes for himself in John 10:10: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
The Old Testament narrative texts are significant to the ancient Israelites. They are the source material for their nation’s history and tell the story of the relationship between God and his people and how he has fulfilled his promises to them. As has been seen from this exegesis of Numbers 20:1-13, there is also much in this text, about Moses and the waters of Meribah, which would enable the contemporary reader to regard the Old Testament as providing meaning for an understanding of who Jesus Christ was and is. Therefore, based on the exegesis of this passage, it is possible to say that the Old Testament narratives may be read as Christian Scripture.
Holy Bible, English Standard Version, (Anglicized Edition, London: Harper Collins, 2002).
Blenkinsopp, Joseph, The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible, (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992).
Budd, Phillip J., ‘The Exclusion of Moses and Aaron (20:1–13),’ Word Biblical Commentary: Vol. 5, Numbers, In Logos Bible Software 4, (Dallas, TX: Word, Incorporated, 2002).
Kugel, James L., How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now, (New York, NY: Free Press, 2007).
Kugel, James L., Traditions of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible As It Was at the Start of the Common Era, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).
Leithart, Peter J., Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture, (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009).
Margaliot, M., ‘The Transgression of Moses and Aaron – Num. 20:1-13,’ Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 74, No. 2 (October 1983) pp. 196-228.
Sparks, Kent L., ‘Numbers,’ Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament: A Book-by-Book Survey, (Ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Craig G. Bartholomew, & Daniel J. Treier London: SPCK, 2005) pp. 59-66.
Stuart, Douglas, Old Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Know Press, 2009).
Wright, Christopher J. H., Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament, (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2005).