A Bit Too Confident
This week’s reading relates that, toward the end of their forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites ran out of water. They complained bitterly to their leaders, Moses and Aaron: “Why did you take us out of Egypt only to have us die here of thirst?” Thereupon, God instructs Moses to pick up his staff and go with Aaron to a certain rock. “Speak to the rock,” He tells them, “so that it gives forth water, and there will be enough to drink for all the Israelites and their flocks.” The two then proceed to carry out this instruction:
Moses took the staff from before the Lord as He had commanded him. Then Moses and Aaron gathered the people in front of the rock, and he said to them: “Hear me now, you rebellious ones: can we get water for you from out of this rock?” Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff, and abundant water flowed from the rock, so that the congregation and their flocks could drink. Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Since you did not show your trust in Me, sanctifying Me in the Israelites’ sight, you will not lead this congregation to the land that I am giving them.” (Numbers 20:9-12)
The last sentence comes as a shock. Didn’t Moses and Aaron do exactly as they were told? Then why should they now be prevented from finishing their mission of leading the Israelites into the Promised Land?
This passage has posed something of a challenge to biblical interpreters in every period. Some have suggested that Moses had erred in striking the rock. After all, God had told Moses to speak to the rock, but He didn’t say anything about Moses hitting it with his staff—so he was punished. But this explanation seems unlikely on two counts. First, this wasn’t the first time that Moses was told to produce water from a rock. The same thing had happened years earlier, at the very start of the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness. On that occasion, too, there was not enough water for the people to drink; then as well, the people quarreled with Moses, and God instructed Moses to go to a certain rock with his staff.
[God said:] “I will be present there, next to the rock at Horeb, and you will strike the rock with your staff and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. (Exod 17:6)
In that incident, there was apparently no problem with striking the rock: it gave up its water and God said nothing to Moses in the way of a reproach. So if there was no problem the first time, what was wrong the second time?
Those who blame Moses for striking the rock instead of talking to it have another problem as well. In the incident with which we began, no less than in the one just cited, God orders Moses to take his staff. What would be the point of such an order if all that Moses had to do was speak to the rock? What is more, the Hebrew word for “speak” (here dibbartem) seems to be connected to the root that appears elsewhere as a verb meaning “strike” or “smash.” True, in the latter sense it is usually in the hiph‘il (“causative”) form, but some scholars have suggested that dibbartem here may simply be an alternative to that form with the same meaning—that is, “strike.” After all, what sense does it make for Moses to speak to a rock? At least hitting it is an action that might conceivably open some crevice through which water could then flow, perhaps from an underground stream beneath it. What would talking accomplish?
Considering such evidence, other commentators have ventured that Moses’ big mistake was striking the rock twice. After all, God had said nothing about striking it two times; if Moses had deviated from his instructions even in this one detail, wouldn’t this be enough to merit punishment? But this, too, seems unlikely. God’s instructions did not specify that Moses was to strike the rock any specific number of times; He certainly didn’t say “once and no more.” Even if Moses had struck it ten or twenty times, could that really be construed as disobeying God’s order?
Actually, the thing that has misled many commentators is the word he’emantem. Normally, this form of the root ’-m-n would mean “believe, put one’s trust in”—and indeed, that is how many modern translators render Num 20:12, “Because you did not trust in Me…” “Because you did not trust me enough…” and so forth. But this makes little sense in context. Moses had plenty of trust that everything would turn out well; that’s why he could give his swaggering challenge to the people, “Hear me now, you rebellious ones: can we get water for you from out of this rock?” Rather, it was precisely his overconfidence that led him to omit a crucial step, namely, his failure to declare publicly his reliance on God. The correct translation of this crucial verse is: “Since you did not show your trust in Me, sanctifying Me in the Israelites’ sight, you will not lead this congregation to the land that I am giving them.”
(A technical matter: this sense of the hiph‘il form of the root ’-m-n is paralleled in the root b-y-n, whose hiph‘il form usually means “understand.” But while it usually refers to the verb’s subject understanding something, it sometimes refers to the subject causing someone else to understand, thus Neh 8:7 “The Levites who were explaining (hmbynym) the Torah to the people” (cf. Neh. 8:9, Ezr 8:16). Similarly in our passage, Moses’ fault was that he did not he’emin b- in the sense of causing others to put their trust in, or believe in, God.)
Moses’ slipup is somewhat understandable. After all, faced with the same situation some years earlier, Moses had been ordered by God to strike the rock and everything turned out fine. Moses was silent that first time; perhaps it was hard for him to believe that striking a rock would produce anything. But now, God gives Moses what looks like the same order, and Moses—having no reason to fear that the outcome would be any different this time—confidently used the occasion to reprove the Israelites for their lack of faith: “Hear me now, you rebellious ones: can we get water for you from out of this rock?” But it was precisely his overconfidence that led him to omit a crucial step, namely, his failure to declare publicly his reliance on God—“show your trust in Me”— and thereby “sanctify Me in the Israelites’ sight.”