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“And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,

Take the rod, and gather thou the assembly together, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock: so thou shalt give the congregation and their beasts drink. 

And Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation together before the rock, and he said unto them, Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?

And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice; and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also.”

Numbers 20:7-11

Slowly the years passed while Israel waited to enter the promised land. This was the burden of punishment which they had to bear for rejecting the way of the Lord. One by one the members of that generation fell in the barren waste of the wilderness to be replaced by the new generation which had not taken part in their fathers’ sin. Finally only a handful of the older generation was left. Forty years had passed and the time drew near for them to take up the last lap of the journey once again. Through the years the people had scattered out through the surrounding territory of the desert. Now once again they were called together into the wilderness of Zin at Kadesh. This was a new generation of Israelites. Some of them had been small children during the early part of the wilderness journey; most of them had been born here on the borders of Canaan while Israel waited to enter in; none of them had lived and shared in the wickedness of Egypt like their fathers who had fallen in their sin. These had been raised under God’s law with the promise ever present before their minds. There was a new zeal and dedication such as had never pervaded the nation before. They looked forward with enthusiasm to the promises that set them apart from all other nations of the world.

It was here, however, in Kadesh that a great sorrow was brought into Moses’ life. Miriam, Moses’ sister died. It was a great loss for Moses and also for the nation. Miriam had been active in the affairs of the nation from her youth. It was she who had watched the infant Moses in his ark on the shore of the Nile and had negotiated with Pharaoh’s daughter for the child’s care. Through the wilderness journey she had served as a prophetess before the Lord. She had contributed to the women of Israel a certain leadership which no man could ever supply. She had guided the women in song and dance and worship of the Lord. Her death left a certain vacuum in the camp, and all Israel stopped to observe it. But it was Moses and Aaron who felt the absence of their sister more than anyone else.

Hardly had the burial of Miriam taken place before an even greater burden entered Moses’ life. In a way it was nothing new. The people were suffering for lack of water. All through the forty years of waiting to go into Canaan they had managed to find enough water for themselves and their flocks. Now, just as they were ready to move on to the land of plenty, a drought settled down around them. It brought to the people an almost frantic sense of frustration. Morning after morning the people arose to find the manna upon the ground to give them their needed food; but when the sun arose it was always in a cloudless sky that showed no sign of giving the water that they needed also to live. Death seemed to be closing in upon them with its cruel grip of thirst. Would the promise of God in the end prove to be too late and in vain?

Frightened and dismayed, the people turned again to Moses to vent upon him their frustration. “Would God that we had died when our brethren died before the LORD!” they cried in their rage. “And why have ye brought up the congregation of the LORD into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there? And wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in unto this evil place? it is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink.”

With a cruel shock these words fell upon the ears of Moses and sunk into his consciousness. It was the very familiarity that hurt. It stung like the lash of a whip. Almost forty years before he had heard this same language from the lips of their fathers. He had tried everything in his power to show them the evil of talking like that. He had pleaded; he had scolded; he had punished; he had prayed for them. It all had been in vain. They had continued in their rebellion until God had refused to them the right to enter the promised land. Now they had waited all of this time for the old, rebellious generation to perish and a younger, guiltless generation to take its place, and the same old thing was starting all over again. New fears began to lay hold upon Moses’ heart. Could it be that this new generation was no better than the old? Had he waited patiently through all these years only to see a new generation repeat the sins of their fathers and like them be barred from the promised possession? He was already approaching one hundred and twenty years of age, and he could never live long enough to see yet another generation replaced by the hand of God. Might it be that after all he would never come to see the promised land? His soul was left cold by the very thought.

Still Moses was a man of much spiritual experience. He knew better than to respond to the demands of the people impetuously. With Aaron his brother he left the assembly of the people and retired to the tabernacle of the congregation to consult with the Lord in prayer. In humility they prostrated themselves in God’s presence expressing their dependence upon Him. In grace God answered and revealed His glory unto them.

The instructions that the Lord gave to them were simple: “Take the rod, and gather thou the assembly together, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock: so thou shalt give the congregation and their beasts drink.”

To Moses and Aaron these instructions of God were disappointing. They did not seem to recognize the seriousness of the situation as they saw it. The two brothers were convinced that the nation of Israel was standing at a very critical juncture. If this new generation would repeat the sin of their fathers and continue on this way of rebellion which they had begun it would surely lead to catastrophe. They too would eventually be turned back from the borders of Canaan. It did not seem to them that when God said merely to go and to speak to the rock that that would supply sufficient warning for the people. They would have liked something stronger. Even the sign of Rephidim where the rock was struck as a sign of judgment seemed more emphatic in its warning than this. How could just speaking to the rock ever affect the rebellious hearts of these people. Moses and Aaron were dissatisfied.

Nevertheless, it was an almost natural response on the part of Moses and Aaron to obey the commands that came to them from the Lord. They returned to the people and instructed them to assemble themselves before a high rock cliff that stood nearby in the wilderness. Even as they assembled the people, however, the two men continued to be troubled about the command of God. Finally they decided, after deliberating together, that Moses would have to add the warning for which the Lord had not provided. The people could not be left off so easy. Moses would have to let them know that they were walking in a way of rebellion and sin.

Finally the people were gathered together before the rock. Agitated but determined, Moses stepped forth before them. Rarely before had he stood before the people under circum: stances such as this. Through conscious deliberation he had decided to go beyond the command of God to say and do what he thought was best. It made a difference. He possessed calmness and certainty before. Usually he spoke deliberately with conviction. Agitation was to be seen on his face, and when he spoke the words were curt and harsh. “Hear now, ye rebels i must we fetch you water out of this rock?” And then it was done. Once having said that in that spirit, Moses could not turn back. It just was not possible for him to speak quietly to the rock as God had commanded. Rather in his anger he lifted the rod which was in his hand and brought it down with all of his might upon the rock as though he were striking the rebels themselves. Once and once again he did it until water did gush forth and the people had plenty to drink.

Quickly the people stooped to wet their dry lips and throats; but somehow it did not satisfy as might have been thought. There was a tension in the air that was hard to explain. Especially was this felt by Moses: He had passed through many troubled times with Israel, but never before had he felt like this. Indeed, God had not denied him the miracle. Before the people he had not been put to shame. But maybe it would have been better if God had left him vainly beating the rock without effect. Now he felt as though God had been shamed because he had perverted the divine command. He stood there now as the greatest rebel of them all.

Could either Moses or Aaron have been surprised when God came to them again and spoke. “Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into, the land which I have given them.”

These were harsh words; but they were just, and they were true. Moses and Aaron had sinned a great sin. Entrusted with the Word of God, they had changed and perverted it according to their own discretion. In doing this they had actually substituted their word, the word of man, for the Gospel of God. The rock was in type and, in figure a picture of the promised redemption, a picture of the Christ to come. There had been a day when God desired to reveal to Israel that the Christ would bear the stripes of their sin. Thus Moses had been commanded to strike the rock at Rephidim. But now it was the will of God to reveal that just a word spoken sincerely in prayer would bring forth God’s blessing upon His people. When Moses refused to speak to the rock but struck it once again, he was thereby denying that the prayer of a righteous man could be effective enough. He was denying the validity of the Gospel. This had to be punished. All most know that no one, not even Moses, could be allowed to change the Word of God. Because he had tried, Moses was denied the right to enter the land of promise. God would be justified also in him.

“This is the water of Meribah; because the children of Israel strove with the LORD, and he was sanctified in them” (Num. 20:13).

—B.W.