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.” Numbers 20.7-12.
The incident in this morning’s passage takes place towards the end of the wilderness journey of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt to the promised land, at a place called Kadesh-barnea that is located quite near Canaan at the north-eastern end of the Sinai peninsula. In the book of Exodus, however, we have the story of a very similar incident to this one, but the one in Exodus took place forty years earlier at a place called Rephadim, 200 miles to the south (Exodus 17.1-3).
In both stories the people are deperately thirsty, so Moses brings the problem to the Lord, and the Lord says he will bring water from “the rock”. But here the stories begin to differ. In the first story, Moses is to strike the rock with the staff that he used to bring judgment on Egypt (Exodus 17.5-6), but in this second story, Moses is to take Aaron’s staff — the staff that was kept with the ark of the covenant in “the Lord’s presence” (Numbers 17.10) — but there is to be no striking of the rock with it; Moses is merely to “speak to it” and the water will flow. But Moses disobeys God; he does in fact strike the rock, twice, and though the water flows, Moses is barred from the promised land.
A bit harsh, surely? After all, he was only doing the second time what God had told him to do the first time. On one level, yes; on another level, no. The key to all this lies in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. There he says that the Hebrews journeying through the wilderness, all “drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10.4).
What! The rock was Jesus! And it moved? It travelled with them? Well, yes, says Paul — figuratively. (There is the suggestion in Isaiah 48.21 that there was only one rock.) And, he says, we need to see in that one rock a picture of Christ. That’s why those incidents happened — so that we would have this picture of Christ — solid, dependable, always there, always pouring forth the water of life for the thirsty. And Paul is right. It is a great picture. But, when I see that rock as a picture of Christ, I begin to see why what Moses did when he struck the rock a second time was so dreadful.
Jesus died once for the sins of the world. “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people” (Hebrews 9.27-28). When Jesus died, he said “It is finished” (John 19.30). And it is that once-and-for-all death from which there springs the water of life that is represented by the smiting of the rock with the rod of judgment at Rephadim. That smiting was necessary. Without it there would be no water of life, no salvation. But thereafter all that was necessary to obtain the water was prayer. On this second occasion, Moses was to take to the rock not the rod of judgment but Aaron’s priestly rod of prayer — “speak to the rock”.
I am enjoying letting my imagination carry me away a bit this morning — Travelling with Moses through the wilderness, I settle down with the Hebrews after a long march. And close by me someone say: “It’s there again.” “What is?” says another. “The rock,” says the first. “What rock?” says the second. “The rock that was there last time we stopped — the one we got water from when we were thirsty.” “Don’t be daft,” says the other, “a rock can’t move.” “Well this one can,” says the first. “It’s always there — and I must say, I find that kind-of comforting.”
So do I.