Exodus and Numbers contain several parallel accounts of events on the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Scholars often disagree about whether these narratives record two similar but distinct events, or the same single event seen through the eyes and perspectives of two different authors. (The latter position is often held by proponents of the documentary hypothesis of Torah authorship.)
The stories in Exodus 17:1-7 and Numbers 20:1-13 provide one key example. Let’s compare them.
The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?” But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile,and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
In the first month the whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Zin,and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried. Now there was no water for the community, and the people gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron. They quarreled with Moses and said, “If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the Lord! Why did you bring the Lord’s community into this wilderness, that we and our livestock should die here? Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink! ” Moses and Aaron went from the assembly to the entrance to the tent of meeting and fell facedown, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. The Lord said to Moses, “Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.” So Moses took the staff from the Lord’s presence, just as he commanded him. He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank. But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.” These were the waters of Meribah, where the Israelites quarreled with the Lord and where he was proved holy among them.
Let’s notice some key similarities and differences between these accounts. I’ll make a brief list but feel free to add your own observations in the comments.
- geography: Desert of Sin (Zin), and “Meribah,” which means “quarreling” in Hebrew
- Israelites’ “quarreling” with Moses about lack of water, and asking why Moses brought them out of Egypt at all
- God provides instructions when Moses (and Aaron in Numbers) go to him in prayer
- the result: water miraculously comes from a rock by the power of God through Moses striking the rock, and quenches the people’s thirst
- God’s command to Moses: in Exodus, it’s “strike the rock,” and in Numbers, it’s “speak to the rock”
- the involvement of Aaron only recorded in Numbers
- God’s judgment of Moses’ (and Aaron’s) action: in Exodus, it’s implicitly affirmed by God; in Numbers, God says Moses and Aaron “did not trust” him and did not “honor [him] as holy in the sight of the Israelites,” and thus they are prevented from entering the Promised Land
The traditional view holds that these were two separate events, albeit with many similarities, and that the key hinge to understanding their relationship is that, in the Numbers account, Moses trusted in his own strength and experience (bringing water from the rock by striking it as he did in Exodus) and let his temper get the better of him (“Listen, you rebels…”), when really he should have trusted in God alone and paid more attention to God’s new and different instructions (“speak to the rock”). Some modern Biblical scholars have challenged this view and suggested that these two narratives describe the same event but originate from different source texts, and that the differences reflect the (different) author’s rhetorical strategies and attempts to “frame” the story for their (different) audiences.
Whichever position you adopt, it seems clear that from Numbers we are to learn that God’s word is not to be trifled with, approximated, or altered. If God gives us a command, it’s not a suggestion. It’s a command. And failure to obey will have disastrous consequences for us and for those we love. We are also to see, however, that despite our sinfulness and inadequacy, God can still work a miracle through us, even when we don’t obey with the exactitude with which we should.
What do you think of the similarities and differences between these two narratives? Share your thoughts by commenting below!