11 May 2016

Numbers 20:1-13

“Moses 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?’ Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank.” (vv. 10-11)

Psalm: Psalm 89:19-37


This is one of those stories where, if you don't pay close attention, the conclusion can come as a surprise! The people needed water (fair enough); God told Moses how water could be provided; Moses provided water; the people were happy... but God was angry! So what went wrong?

Let's wind back a bit - since yesterday's passage quite a lot has happened, much of it relevant to today's tale. Whilst Caleb and Joshua encouraged entry into the Promised Land, the other spies disagreed, saying that the inhabitants were like giants and they would all be killed. The people listened to these alarmist reports and decided not to enter (Numbers 13:28 - 14:4). Impatient with the repeated lack of trust of the Israelites, God decreed that none of that generation would enter Canaan (Numbers 14:5-25), so they were doomed to tramp around the wilderness until the last person present in Numbers 13 has died off. There has been a nasty case of rebellion at Korah (Numbers 16:1-35) leading to some unpleasant deaths and (significantly) Aaron's rod has blossomed (Numbers 17:1-11).

Now we have an incident which explains why, along with all their people, leaders Moses and Aaron were also barred from the Promised Land (Miriam having died at the start of the story). Not for the first time lack of water is a real problem for this wandering race. The story has very close similarities to Exodus 17:1-7 with one key difference. The name Meribah, meaning 'quarrel', is used in both - whether it did occur at the same place or the later use is a reference to the earlier story is unclear. In Exodus Moses is told to strike the rock with his own staff (the narrator is very specific here - he is to use "the staff with which you struck the Nile" (Exodus 17:5)); in Numbers 20 the instruction is subtly different. Here Moses is to take "the staff" (v. 8), ie. Aaron's staff which is now kept in the Ark of the Covenant (cf verse 9 where "Moses took the staff from before the Lord"), but there is no mention of striking the rock, rather Moses is to "command the rock". It seems that Moses (the "most humble man on the face of the earth" (Numbers 12:3)) gets a little above himself for a moment and falls into the trap which lies in wait for all spiritual leaders. Instead of following God's instructions to the letter he finds himself in a familiar situation and does what he always does - strikes the rock twice (probably with his own staff) and, sure enough, water flows. His authority is affirmed, the dying nation is saved, but God is not pleased.

Disobedience has a cost; Moses' words, "Listen, you rebels" were certainly not in God's script and perhaps give us an insight into Moses' attitude at that point. God reprimands both Moses and Aaron because they did not "trust in me to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites" and so they too will die before the entry into Canaan.

To Ponder

  • Have you ever been in a situation where your own way of doing things has taken over from God's vision? What resulted?
  • The continued grumbling of the Israelites clearly wears both Moses and God down. How can we better consider the effect of negative words on our leaders (and on God) before complaining?
  • 'Rock of ages, cleft for me' (StF 434) draws parallels between the water supplied by God in the wilderness and the water and blood flowing from the body of Jesus on the cross. Reflect during the day on how we can discover the guiding light of Christ in the Old Testament stories too. 

Bible notes author

Jill Baker

Jill Baker lives in Glasgow and is glad to be part of the small but distinctive Methodist Church in Scotland. She is a local preacher and local preachers’ tutor in the Strathclyde Circuit, where her husband Andrew is superintendent minister. For Jill, the past 20 years have included all sorts of roles within Methodism – further afield (as a mission partner in the South Caribbean) and closer to home (with WFMUCW, MWiB, leading pilgrimages and as part of various committees and groups) and is currently the Vice-President of the Conference 2017/2018. When not engaged in these ways, Jill enjoys walking in the beautiful mountains of Scotland, gardening and writing; she blogs at and "Thanks, Peter God", her book about the life of her son, Peter, who died in 2012, was published in 2016.