by Daniel Harrell
We’re talking about water this fall and last Sunday I mentioned how if the earth were the size of a Honda Odyssey minivan, all of the water on the planet—oceans, ice caps and atmosphere (all the liquid, solids and vapor)—would fit into a single, half-liter bottle. What I should have said was that all the surface water would fit into that half liter bottle. Water exists in earth in a fourth form, a form so exotic that despite its abundance and importance, it almost never merits mention outside of scientific circles. This vast reservoir of water—at least as much as in all of the earth’s rivers and oceans and glaciers, and perhaps four or six or ten times that—is locked up in rock, deep inside the earth’s mantle.
Perhaps you’re thinking, this is excellent! The world’s water problems are solved! But when I say “deep inside the earth’s mantle,” I’m talking about 255 miles deep—the distance from here to Fargo. To put this into perspective, the farthest down humans have ever dug is 7.5 miles and that hole took 24 years to dig and cost millions. But even if we managed a 255 mile hole, we still couldn’t get to the water. It would take some serious heat—I’m talking volcanic heat—to pry that water loose. Volcanoes are 70 percent water. Water forces its way out of the magma from deep inside the earth; that’s why volcanoes explode.
So forget about getting water out of rocks—unless you’re Moses that is. Moses was the water master. Last Sunday we encountered him in his most famous water moment—parting the Red Sea. Granted, God did all the work, but it still made Moses look like the man. He raised his staff and cued the Lord to divide the sea and make a dry pathway for the people. It was just like God did at creation when he divided the waters into sea and sky and created dry land as habitation for his creatures. And just like with Noah too. God parted the floodwaters and dried out land for the ark. In Exodus, God took his people through the waters on dry ground, but when their enemies the Egyptians tried to cross too, God collapsed the waters and eliminated them—just as he had eliminated chaos at creation and evil with the flood. Afterwards, we read that, “The people feared the Lord and believed.”
Their fear gave way to exuberance. Moses broke out in song, as did his sister, Miriam. The entire nation celebrated their freedom from Egyptian slavery. But as they were celebrating in the desert, they ran short on water. All they had left was not fit to drink—bitter water that embittered the people. They complained against Moses, who in turn complained to God, and God showed him a piece of wood he could toss into the bitter water to make it sweet.
Turns out if you do the reverse—toss water onto wood chips—you can make motor fuel. A Georgia company reported this week it has overcome a major roadblock in turning agricultural waste into vehicle fuel with a technology that treats the waste with compressed water heated to very high temperatures. The water temperature is so high that the result is neither steam nor an ordinary liquid but water in a type known as “supercritical.” Had Moses done that in Exodus he could have driven Israel to the Promised Land. I mean, he would have needed a bus, but I digress.
Things did get supercritical two chapters later in Exodus. The people were without water again, only this time there was no bitter water to sweeten. So Moses pulled water from a rock, just like he does here in Numbers 20. In what amounts to Biblical déjà vu, we read here that there was “no water for the congregation.” By now they should have known that no water was no problem for God. And not only that, but he fed them with bread every morning from heaven, and all the quail they could eat along with plenty of other miracles. But what had God done for them lately? Here they’d run short on water again and were thirsty. And feeling entitled. And angry. And melodramatic. They griped against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to bring us to this wretched place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there’s no water to drink.”
Numbers 20 marks 39 years of griping. They could have been in the Promised Land already, but all of their whining had bought them something to whine about. God left them out in the desert to walk in circles for 40 years.
This was the beginning of year 40. Moses, old and tired, had frankly, had enough. But being obedient, and still in charge, he did what he was supposed to do whenever the people complained. He went straight to the top. He appealed to the Lord for help. God showed up in glory and told Moses to speak water out of another rock, just as he had done back in Exodus. He’d done it once he could do it again. Nothing was too hard for the Lord. So Moses took his staff and opened his mouth, but instead of speaking to the rock, he yelled at the Israelites. Four decades of griping and moaning had taken their toll. Moses snapped. “Listen, you rebels—you stubborn, ungrateful, pitiful whiners—you want water out of this rock? We’ll give you water out of this rock!” And then lifting his staff, Moses struck the rock twice. The King James says that he smote it. The indication is a violent one. Moses lost his temper. Not that it mattered. Water gushed from the rock and the people drank up. They got what they wanted.
But not Moses. Turned out his little outburst was going to cost him a trip to the Promised Land. The LORD said, “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” It wasn’t just that he wouldn’t lead the people there—that might have been taken as good news—no, Moses was going to get left behind in the desert. Seriously? One measly misstep wipes out 40 years of dedicated, sacrificial service? A single slip-up and you miss out on the fruit of your life’s work that’s so close to you can taste it? OK, so Moses didn’t follow instructions to the letter, so he acted a little unseemly given his office, so he tried to claim a bit of personal glory, he got mad and whacked the rock, but come on, the Israelites had it coming. They deserved it, didn’t they? Certainly God couldn’t fault Moses for being angry at them.
But God didn’t fault Moses for getting angry at them. God didn’t even fault Moses losing his temper. God faults Moses for losing faith. He “didn’t believe in the Lord enough to treat him as holy before the eyes of the Israelites.” It’s hard to know what exactly was meant by this. Most interpret it as Moses giving people the wrong idea about God. But what wrong idea? They drank water from a rock! Just like before. Didn’t that kind of miracle make God look good?
Not necessarily. Page ahead to 1 Corinthians 10 where the apostle Paul identifies the rock as Christ. Not literally, mind you, but literally enough that he has Jesus walking alongside Israel in the desert all those years. He was their spiritual drink, their living water. Paul probably was thinking more about Exodus than Numbers when he wrote that. The first time water came out of a rock, the people were in the desert of Sin (definitely not a good sign). According to form, they ran out of water, complained to Moses, except that the Hebrew word used in Exodus for complain was more like the verb to sue. It meant “to legally challenge somebody’s authority.” The people sued the Lord over their water rights! Moses responded, “Are you crazy? Why do you test the Lord?” He turned to God and said, “Can you believe these people? What am I supposed to do? They’re almost ready to stone me!”
What comes next is truly remarkable. His people want to take Him to court? Fine, he’ll set it up. He tells Moses to choose some of the elders to be witnesses. Moses staff would be the gavel, the emblem of his judicial authority, as well as the means of justice. A rock was the dock—that place in criminal court where the defendant stands. And then we read the absolutely mind-blowing part. God said to Moses, “I will be standing on the rock.” What? “Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Is he saying that the people have a case? More than that. The Almighty God, Yahweh himself, in effect, says to Moses: “Hit me.” Smite me. God’s pleading guilty!
No wonder Paul sees the rock as Christ. It’s a foreshadow of the cross. As Paul would later explain to the Corinthians, “God made him who knew no sin to be our sin, so that in him we might gain his righteousness.” Moses staff smote the rock, condemned God, and sprung forth water for the people. The cross smote Christ, condemned God, and sprung forth living water for all people. Those who thirst for righteousness are finally satisfied. Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks the water I give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Clearly there’s a lot more to be said about this. But for now, as far as Moses in Numbers 20 is concerned, the point simply seems to be that Moses should have known better. God took the hit back in Exodus, but soon after he showed up at that same rock again and this time chiseled a covenant with his people in stone. As long as they kept faith, he’d keep them safe, bless them and get them home. But they kept complaining. They complained about their aching feet. They complained about the lack of variety in their menu. They complained about Aaron as a preacher. They complained about Moses’ as a leader. They complained at the preliminary reports of the Promised Land. They cheated on God with shiny idols—and the Lord punished them severely for it. Paul stresses this as a warning to the idol-loving Corinthians. But the Israelites never learned. They kept on sinning and God kept on loving. He couldn’t help it. Despite all of their infidelity, he gave them grace. He gave them water.
Was it the mercy that made Moses so mad? The Lord accused Moses of not “treating him as holy.” We often equate “holy” with “perfect,” but a better synonym is “devoted.” Deeply devoted to his people despite their disdain, God sought to demonstrate his devotion over and over again. That he would give water from a rock would remind them once again that he alone was the source of their life; who would provide for them when nothing else could. He would always keep his side of the covenant, no matter what. But Moses had had enough. He went along with the water, but he wanted Israel to feel bad about drinking it. He called them rebels and he hit the rock—his own way of indicting them for their unjust accusations and pathetic behavior. “Do you see the heartbreak you’ve brought to the Lord? Do you know how deeply you’ve disappointed Him? Here, let me show you—whack! Here’s your water. Drink up you little babies!” Moses makes God’s provision feel like punishment.
It’s like the parent who takes their daughter to the State Fair and forces her to play one of those midway games because it’s fun and you want her to have fun. But she doesn’t want to play the game even though it only involves lifting a toy duck out of a bucket. So you pick up the duck and make her pick a prize which is way too much pressure now, but you interpret it as her being ungrateful and “doesn’t she realize what a sacrifice it was to take her to the fair in the first place?” So you make her feel bad about coming by telling her that she’d better pick a prize right now or you’ll take her home instead of letting her ride the rides you’ve promised her all week, which makes her cry, and you get angry because she can’t see how much you love her.
Not that I would personally know anything about this.
It’s how plenty of people feel concerning God. Back in Boston they’d call it Catholic guilt, though it’s probably Lutheran guilt around here, or just plain old Christian guilt. God loves you because nobody else will. So you’d better learn to be grateful and behave. One wrong move and you’re toast. The poetic justice in this passage is that Moses reaps what he sows for taking the Israelites on a guilt trip. Moses will not get to cross the river. This is not good news, for Moses or for us. If the great prophet Moses can’t make it into the Promised Land, sinners like you and me are doomed. But that’s always been the case. As the apostle Paul put it elsewhere, “the paycheck for sin is death.”
And yet God does have a thing for sinners. He can’t help it. Moses died and was buried in the desert. However, many years afterward, Jesus and three of his disciples hiked up a mountain. When they reached the summit, Jesus started to glow. His face lit up like the sun and his clothes became as white as light. The disciples shielded their eyes, dazed by Jesus’ transfigured glory. It was the glory of God—just like the glory shone to Moses in the desert. The disciples took another look and realized, to their utter amazement, that Jesus was not alone! If you remember the story of the transfiguration, on one side of Jesus appeared the great prophet Elijah and there on the other side of Jesus stood… you know who. Our man Moses. “The paycheck for sin is death,” Paul wrote. “But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”