Thanks to Miriam
Note: For an explanation of the account of Moses striking the rock (Num 20:6-13), please see “Moses’ Big Mistake” under “Free Stuff” on my website.
Back in the book of Exodus, the Torah recounted how the Israelites ran short of water at the start of their wanderings in the wilderness. The people complained bitterly. God then ordered Moses to strike a certain rock so that water would gush out of it and allowthe people to drink—which he did. Commemorating the people’s complaining, he called the place Massah and Meribah (“testing” and “contention”).
Ancient interpreters naturally wondered why there was no further mention of any water shortage after that—until this week’s reading. Here, the Torah notes that when the Israelites arrived at Kadesh, suddenly “there was no water for the community” (Num 20:2). The people again complained, and God ordered Moses to “speak to” (or, rather, to strike—see “Moses Big Mistake”) a certain rock, and once again there was ample water. “Those are the waters of Meribah,” the text says (Num 20:13). But wasn’t that how Moses had referred to the incident back in Exodus?
Rather than supposing that Moses had called these waters by the same name because of the similarity of the two incidents, interpreters concluded that the water in the two incidents actually came from the same rock. Somehow, it must have miraculously followed them during all those years of wandering, supplying the people with water whenever they needed it.
This midrash of the Traveling Rock is quoted widely—not only in rabbinic writings (see Seder Olam 10, Tosefta Sukkah 3:11, and later sources), but in the New Testament (1 Cor 10:1-4), the apocryphal Book of Biblical Antiquities, and other ancient texts.
Interpreters noticed something else. The mention of the lack of water in this week’s Torah reading is immediately preceded by the brief account of the death of Miriam, Moses’ sister: “The whole congregation of Israelites entered the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people settled in Kadesh; there Miriam died and there she was buried. And there was no water for the people” (Num 20:1-2). In fact, from then on, the Israelites were apparently afflicted with chronic water shortage: the lack of water is mentioned again in Num 20:19 and 21:15.
It seemed that the juxtaposition of these two things—Miriam’s death and the sudden lack of water—could not be coincidental: it was thanks to Miriam that the people had had enough drinking water all those years. So it was that the Traveling Rock came to be referred to as the Well of Miriam.
In fact, this divine gift associated with Miriam was connected to two other gifts that likewise accompanied the Israelites during their wanderings: the pillar of cloud that led them through the wilderness, and the manna that was given to the Israelites to eat. These gifts too were associated with individual figures, in fact, Miriam’s two brothers, Moses and Aaron: the pillar of cloud was credited to Aaron, and the manna to Moses (see again Seder Olam 10 and later sources).