"All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, 'Give us water to drink.' And Moses said to them, 'Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?' But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, 'Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?' So Moses cried to the Lord, 'What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.' And the Lord said to Moses, 'Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.' And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, 'Is the Lord among us or not?'” - Exodus 17.1-7
"Now there was no water for the congregation. And they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. And the people quarreled with Moses and said, 'Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink.' Then Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. And the glory of the Lord appeared to them, and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 'Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.' And Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he commanded him. Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, 'Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?' And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 'Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.' These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the Lord, and through them he showed himself holy." - Numbers 20:2-13I heard Edmund Clowney discuss this passage in a lecture series on iTunesU. What we see happening in the Exodus passage is that the people are grumbling and complaining that Moses brought them out of Egypt to die in the wilderness. Moses comes before God in desperation and confesses that the people are on the verge of putting him to death. The people have judged Moses and found him guilty. God is fully aware that this is merely a picture of a greater reality. It is not Moses that the people have found guilty, it is God himself. God, who is long-suffering and filled with mercy and grace toward his people, condescends at this point. While it is the people and their faithlessness that is to blame here, God comes before the congregation and stands on the rock. He commands Moses to raise his staff in judgment, as Moses did in Egypt, and strike the rock.
The people would have known what was going on at this point because they were a witness to God bringing judgment on the Egyptians at the hand of Moses with his staff. As Moses brought judgment upon Egypt by striking the Nile with his staff, so Moses brought judgment upon God by striking the rock with his staff. This passage in Exodus is one of God standing in judgment before his people, taking upon himself the punishment they deserved for their faithless rebellion.
I was having dinner at my pastor's house one evening when this passage was read during devotions with the kids after we had eaten. The conversation came up regarding what was going on with both instances at Meribah. My pastor mentioned that there was a specific reason why Moses was told to speak to the rock the second time; God can't be judged twice. As soon as he said that, my mind raced to the famous apostasy passage in Hebrews 6 and all the dots started to fall into place. Both wilderness generations rebelled against God, and accused him of bringing them out to die in the wilderness. Both generations judged Moses, and ultimately God himself, as guilty for sinning against them. Both times God condescends in grace and mercy by giving his faithless people what they need in spite of their sin. The way he does so, however, is different in both passages. In Exodus God says that he is going forward to rest on the rock and commands Moses to raise his staff and strike the rock. In Numbers God simply tells Moses to speak to the rock. Moses disobeys the second time and strikes the rock, again. Because of this, he himself is condemned to die in the wilderness without stepping foot in the land that he brought the people to.
One might conclude that Moses was kept from entering the land simply because he disobeyed the command of God. This would certainly be just, but thinking about what the author of Hebrews teaches us, I believe that we can understand this text more theologically. Moses was told to speak to the rock in Numbers because he was told to strike the rock in Exodus, and God can only be judged once. In Hebrews 6, we are told that the apostate cannot be restored unto repentance because he is "crucifying once again the Son of God to [his] own harm and holding [Christ] up to contempt". We are told later in Hebrews 10 that "we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all". For Christ to be crucified again is an abomination that undermines the nature of the sacrifice of Christ. It is to equate the sacrifice of Christ on the cross with the sacrifices of bulls and goats in the law that had to be continually repeated.
What we see in the Exodus passage is the people of God rising up to condemn the very God that brought them out of bondage. This faithlessness characterized that generation from this point, to the foot of Sinai where they worshiped the golden calf, and ultimately to the doorstep of the promised land where they refused to believe in the deliverance of God. They were condemned to die in the wilderness lest they taint the promised land with their faithlessness. What we see in the Numbers passage more heinous. Moses, the lawgiver, himself became an apostate. He raised his staff in judgment of God a second time, crucifying once again the Son of God to his own harm. Exodus is a foreshadowing of the apostasy of Israel, and Numbers is a type of apostasy by Moses himself.