Moses and Aaron Misuse an Asherah to Draw Water from the Rock
Immediately after the death of Miriam, the Israelites quarrel with Moses and Aaron at מֵי מְרִיבָה (me meribah), “Strifewater,” because the Israelites are unable to find sufficient water (Num 20:1–5, 13). YHWH instructs Moses and Aaron to take “the staff,” gather the people, and speak to the rock, so that the Israelites can witness water being produced for them (vv. 6–8). Moses and Aaron take the staff and gather the people, but instead of speaking to the rock, Moses calls the Israelites rebels and then strikes the rock with his staff:
במדבר כ:י וַיַּקְהִלוּ מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן אֶת הַקָּהָל אֶל פְּנֵי הַסָּלַע וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם שִׁמְעוּ נָא הַמֹּרִים הֲמִן הַסֶּלַע הַזֶּה נוֹצִיא לָכֶם מָיִם. כ:יא וַיָּרֶם מֹשֶׁה אֶת יָדוֹ וַיַּךְ אֶת הַסֶּלַע בְּמַטֵּהוּ פַּעֲמָיִם וַיֵּצְאוּ מַיִם רַבִּים וַתֵּשְׁתְּ הָעֵדָה וּבְעִירָם.
Num 20:10 Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” 20:11 And Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank.
In response, YHWH tells Moses and Aaron that they have been disloyal and declares that they will never enter the promised land:
במדבר כ:יב וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל אַהֲרֹן יַעַן לֹא הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם בִּי לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לָכֵן לֹא תָבִיאוּ אֶת הַקָּהָל הַזֶּה אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לָהֶם.
Num 20:12 Then YHWH said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not show loyalty to me by affirming My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”
Their error is presumably that they deviated from YHWH’s instructions, but why does YHWH characterize them as disloyal and punish them so severely?
YHWH’s Odd Instructions
The extensive debate about what Moses and Aaron did wrong has diverted readers’ attention from the strange character of YHWH’s instructions to them. First, YHWH tells them to take the staff, but does not instruct them to do anything with it:
במדבר כ:ז וַיְדַבֵּר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. כ:ח קַח אֶת הַמַּטֶּה וְהַקְהֵל אֶת הָעֵדָה אַתָּה וְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ וְדִבַּרְתֶּם אֶל הַסֶּלַע לְעֵינֵיהֶם וְנָתַן מֵימָיו וְהוֹצֵאתָ לָהֶם מַיִם מִן הַסֶּלַע וְהִשְׁקִיתָ אֶת הָעֵדָה וְאֶת בְּעִירָם.
Num 20:7 And YHWH spoke to Moses, saying, 20:8 “You and your brother Aaron take the staff and assemble the community, and in their sight speak to the rock so that it yields its water. Thus you [singular] shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.”
Second, they are instructed to talk to a rock, but YHWH does not specify what they should say to it. Third, both of them are to talk to the rock causing it to “yield” its water, and yet YHWH’s final comment addresses Moses as “you” singular, suggesting that it is only Moses, not Aaron, who will be “producing” water from the rock. If Moses is the one producing the water, why does Aaron also need to speak to the rock?
The first key to answering these questions is the identity of “the staff.” Many have assumed that it is Moses’ staff, as is the case in the account of striking the rock to produce water at Massah and Meribah right after the Israelites left Egypt:
שׁמות יז:ה וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה עֲבֹר לִפְנֵי הָעָם וְקַח אִתְּךָ מִזִּקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמַטְּךָ אֲשֶׁר הִכִּיתָ בּוֹ אֶת הַיְאֹר קַח בְּיָדְךָ וְהָלָכְתָּ.
Exod 17:5 Then YHWH said to Moses, “Pass before the people; take with you some of the elders of Israel, and take along the rod with which you struck the Nile, and set out.”
Here at Strifewater, however, the staff is introduced simply as הַמַּטֶּה, “the staff,” with no contextualization. This suggests that it is the staff that is given prominence in the preceding narrative: the flowering staff of Aaron, with which YHWH affirmed the role of Aaron from the tribe of Levi as priest (Num 17:16–26). This staff was placed “in front of YHWH”:
במדבר יז:כב וַיַּנַּח מֹשֶׁה אֶת הַמַּטֹּת לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה בְּאֹהֶל הָעֵדֻת.
Num 17:22 Moses deposited the staffs in front of YHWH, in the Tent of the Pact.
In our story, using the same words, Moses takes the staff “from in front of YHWH”:
במדבר כ:ט וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה אֶת הַמַּטֶּה מִלִּפְנֵי יְ־הוָה כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּהוּ.
Num 20:9 Moses took the staff from in front of YHWH, as he had commanded him.
Later in our story, the Masoretic Text, the Samaritan Pentateuch, and the Targumim do state וַיַּךְ אֶת הַסֶּלַע בְּמַטֵּהוּ, “he struck the rock with his staff” (v. 11), where the antecedent for “his” is Moses. The Septuagint and Vulgate, however, read “with the staff,” reflecting במטה, as before. It seems plausible either that the Masoretic reading is due to a scribal change influenced by Exodus 17:5, or that it is original but merely expresses the idea that the staff is being held and used by Moses at the moment in question, not that he owns it. This comports with the text calling the staff “Aaron’s” once he uses it (Num 17:21, 23, 25), although technically it belongs to the tribe of Levi (Num 17:18).
Aaron’s Staff Was an Asherah
After Aaron’s staff was originally placed in the Tent of Meeting, it sprouted buds, blossoms, and almonds, so in form it is more like a tree than a staff:
במדבר יז:כג וַיְהִי מִמָּחֳרָת וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה אֶל אֹהֶל הָעֵדוּת וְהִנֵּה פָּרַח מַטֵּה אַהֲרֹן לְבֵית לֵוִי וַיֹּצֵא פֶרַח וַיָּצֵץ צִיץ וַיִּגְמֹל שְׁקֵדִים.
Num 17:23 The next day Moses entered the Tent of the Pact, and there the staff of Aaron of the house of Levi had sprouted: it had brought forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne almonds.
In “Aaron’s Flowering Staff: A Priestly Asherah?,” I argued that the account of the staff is the Priestly origin story for the “asherah,” apparently a stylized tree, that was a cultic focus in the Jerusalem temple according to the book of Kings. Similarly, the Torah’s account of Moses’ bronze snake in the wilderness is the origin story for the bronze snake “Nehushtan” destroyed by Hezekiah, and the account of the golden calf in the wilderness is an origin story of sorts for the golden calves at Bethel and Dan.
Other biblical authors fiercely opposed the asherah and viewed it as completely illegitimate. For example:
דברים טז:כא לֹא תִטַּע לְךָ אֲשֵׁרָה כָּל עֵץ אֵצֶל מִזְבַּח יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה לָּךְ. טז:כב וְלֹא תָקִים לְךָ מַצֵּבָה אֲשֶׁר שָׂנֵא יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיך.
Deut 16:21 You shall not set up an ashera—any kind of pole beside the altar of YHWH your God that you may make—16:22 or erect a stone pillar; for such YHWH your God detests.
The Priestly author, however, thought that the asherah could be legitimate if understood correctly, namely, as a mere sign and reminder that YHWH’s blessing is facilitated exclusively by the descendants of Aaron. This is why the Priestly literature and its related work, Ezekiel, express no hostility to the asherah and do not mention it in their lists of illegitimate cultic objects (Lev 19:4; 26:1, 30; Num 33:52; Ezek 6:3–6).
A Cultic Object
Aaron’s staff was placed in the sanctuary permanently as a sign, to remind the Israelites not to rebel against YHWH:
במדבר יז:כה וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה הָשֵׁב אֶת מַטֵּה אַהֲרֹן לִפְנֵי הָעֵדוּת לְמִשְׁמֶרֶת לְאוֹת לִבְנֵי מֶרִי וּתְכַל תְּלוּנֹּתָם מֵעָלַי וְלֹא יָמֻתוּ.
Num 17:25 YHWH said to Moses, “Put Aaron’s staff back before the Pact, to be kept as a lesson to rebels, so that their mutterings against Me may cease, lest they die.”
That it is an important ritual object that represents Aaron’s role as priest explains why YHWH instructed them to take it when producing water from the rock. But how did YHWH want them to use the staff?
The Roles of Aaron and the Staff in the Priestly Blessing
One of Aaron’s jobs as priest is to facilitate the granting of YHWH’s blessing to the Israelites through his speech, using specific formulae that call upon YHWH to grant the blessing and thereby remind the hearer that YHWH is the sole source of the blessing (cf. Num 6:22–27). Thus YHWH instructs Moses and Aaron to speak to the rock, a metaphor for YHWH, to produce water, a paradigmatic blessing in the Bible. Taking the staff thus reminds the Israelites of Aaron’s role in facilitating YHWH’s blessing.
Misusing the Staff at Strifewater
Moses, however, accompanied by Aaron, perversely treats the cultic object as an instrument, as something that gives its wielder power. He uses it in a forceful manner, lifting his arm and hitting the rock with it twice (Num 20:11). As misusers of cultic objects tend to do, he also glaringly ignores YHWH’s agency in his description of what he is doing: שִׁמְעוּ נָא הַמֹּרִים הֲמִן הַסֶּלַע הַזֶּה נוֹצִיא לָכֶם מָיִם, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (v. 10).
The Priestly authors are very sensitive about cultic objects being used, and cultic procedures being performed, properly. Recall the story of Nadab and Abihu being incinerated by YHWH for offering unrequested incense (Lev 10:1–2).
The Strifewater narrative was the Priestly author’s vehicle for criticizing what he saw as a misunderstanding and fetishization of the asherah, namely, the popular view that it was an instrument in its own right, and perhaps that it could be used to manipulate or even force YHWH into giving his blessing. This is indeed faithlessness and defiance that warrant a severe punishment.
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June 28, 2023
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Prof. Raanan Eichler is an Associate Professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He received his Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and completed fellowships at Harvard University and Tel Aviv University. He is the author of The Ark and the Cherubim (Mohr Siebeck, 2021) and many academic articles.
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