Moses Strikes the Rock in Exodus and Numbers: One Story or Two?
Two Parallel Stories
The wondrous extraction of water from the rock is described in the Torah twice: first soon after the splitting of the Sea (Exod 17:1–7), and again at the end of the forty years of wandering in the wilderness (Num 20:1–13). The two accounts have a number of overlapping details which reflect their overall similar plotlines. Moreover, some even include strong linguistic parallels (bolded):
1. The Israelites arrive at an area without water
וַיִּסְעוּ כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּדְבַּר סִין לְמַסְעֵיהֶם עַל פִּי יְ־הוָה וַיַּחֲנוּ בִּרְפִידִים וְאֵין מַיִם לִשְׁתֹּת הָעָם
From the wilderness of Sin the whole Israelite community continued by stages as YHWH would command. They encamped at Rephidim, and there was no water for the people to drink.
וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּל הָעֵדָה מִדְבַּר צִן בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן וַיֵּשֶׁב הָעָם בְּקָדֵשׁ... וְלֹא הָיָה מַיִם לָעֵדָה
The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and they people settled in Kadesh… and the community was without water,
2. The People Quarrel with Moses
וַיָּרֶב הָעָם עִם מֹשֶׁה
The people quarreled with Moses
וַיָּרֶב הָעָם עִם מֹשֶׁה
The people quarreled with Moses
This phrase is an exact linguistic parallel.
3. They Complain about Leaving Egypt and Immanent Death in the Wilderness
וַיָּלֶן הָעָם עַל מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר לָמָּה זֶּה הֶעֱלִיתָנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם לְהָמִית אֹתִי וְאֶת בָּנַי וְאֶת מִקְנַי בַּצָּמָא
and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”
וְלָמָה הֲבֵאתֶם אֶת קְהַל יְ־הוָה אֶל הַמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה לָמוּת שָׁם אֲנַחְנוּ וּבְעִירֵנוּ. וְלָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם לְהָבִיא אֹתָנוּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הָרָע הַזֶּה
Why have you brought YHWH's congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there? Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to bring us to this wretched place.
4. Moses Turns to God
וַיִּצְעַק מֹשֶׁה אֶל יְ־הוָה
Moses cried out to YHWH
וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן מִפְּנֵי הַקָּהָל אֶל פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וַיִּפְּלוּ עַל פְּנֵיהֶם וַיֵּרָא כְבוֹד יְ־הוָה אֲלֵיהֶם
Moses and Aaron came away from the congregation to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and fell on their faces, and the Glory of YHWH appeared to them.
5. God Tells Moses to Gather People (or Elders) and Take His Staff
עֲבֹר לִפְנֵי הָעָם וְקַח אִתְּךָ מִזִּקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמַטְּךָ אֲשֶׁר הִכִּיתָ בּוֹ אֶת הַיְאֹר קַח בְּיָדְךָ וְהָלָכְתָּ
Pass before the people; take with you some of the elders of Israel, and take along the staff with which you struck the Nile, and set out.
קַח אֶת הַמַּטֶּה וְהַקְהֵל אֶת הָעֵדָה אַתָּה וְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ
You and your brother Aaron take the staff and assemble the community,
6. Moses Is to Bring Water Forth from a Stone, and He Does So
וְהִכִּיתָ בַצּוּר וְיָצְאוּ מִמֶּנּוּ מַיִם וְשָׁתָה הָעָם וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן מֹשֶׁה לְעֵינֵי זִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Strike the stone and water will issue from it, and the people will drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.
Numbers 20:8, 11
וְדִבַּרְתֶּם אֶל הַסֶּלַע לְעֵינֵיהֶם וְנָתַן מֵימָיו וְהוֹצֵאתָ לָהֶם מַיִם מִן הַסֶּלַע וְהִשְׁקִיתָ אֶת הָעֵדָה וְאֶת בְּעִירָם... וַיָּרֶם מֹשֶׁה אֶת יָדוֹ וַיַּךְ אֶת הַסֶּלַע בְּמַטֵּהוּ פַּעֲמָיִם וַיֵּצְאוּ מַיִם רַבִּים וַתֵּשְׁתְּ הָעֵדָה וּבְעִירָם.
Before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts…. And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff. Out issued copious water, and the community and their beasts drank.
7. The Place Is Renamed Using the Word “Quarrel”
וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם מַסָּה וּמְרִיבָה עַל רִיב בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְעַל נַסֹּתָם אֶת יְ־הוָה לֵאמֹר הֲיֵשׁ יְ־הוָה בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ אִם אָיִן.
The place was named Testing and Quarrel (Massah u-Meribah), because the Israelites quarreled with, and because they tested, YHWH, saying, "Is YHWH present among us or not?"
הֵמָּה מֵי מְרִיבָה אֲשֶׁר רָבוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת יְ־הוָה וַיִּקָּדֵשׁ בָּם.
Those are the Waters of Quarrel (Mei Meribah), meaning that the Israelites quarreled with YHWH, through which He affirmed His sanctity.
While the stories are similar in many respects, they diverge in a number of respects. The most substantial differences are that in Numbers, God commands Moses and Aaron to speak to the rock and Moses instead hits the rock with his staff (as he did in Exodus) and the two are punished. This begs the question: What is the relationship between these two stories?
Two Water from the Rock Stories?
Although modern source critical scholars suggest that the two stories are two alternative traditions, or variations on the same story in different sources, traditional commentators read the Torah as one text from one Source, and thus assume that these are two similar stories that take place at different times in the wilderness.
For example, noting that the story begins with the death of Miriam in v. 1, Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040–1105) adduces the rabbinic midrash about Miriam’s well and writes (Num 20:2):
"ולא היה מים לעדה"—מכאן שכל ארבעים שנה היה להם הבאר בזכות מרים.
“The people had no water”—from here we learn that they had water all forty years due to the merit of Miriam.
Putting aside the midrashic reference to the well, Rashi’s basic suggestion that these are two separate stories that take place forty years apart is the simple implication of the text as we have it. And yet, one traditional commentator takes a very different approach.
A Double Narrative: Bekhor Shor
Rabbi Joseph of Orleans (ca. 1130–1200), who went by the name Joseph Bekhor Shor was a member of the northern French school of peshat. As I discussed in, “The Double Quail Narratives and Bekhor Shor's Innovative Reading,” (TheTorah.com, 2019), one of his unique contributions to this field was the concept of double narratives, i.e., reading two stories with similar content as actually referring to a single event. This is how he reads the accounts of the Moses getting water from a rock in Exodus and Numbers.
His jumping off point is Numbers 20:8, where God tells Moses to take his staff:
"קח את המטה"—להכות בסלע.
“Take the staff”—to strike the rock.
Bekhor Shor notes that if God tells Moses to bring along the staff, it is because he is to use it. If in both stories, Moses is to hit the rock, this brings the two accounts even closer:
לפי הנראה לי זהו מעשה שבויהי בשלח דכתיב ביה "והכית בצור ויצאו [ממנו מים]" (שמות יז, ו).
As it appears to me, this is the episode found in Parashat Beshallach, where it is written: “Strike the rock and [water] will issue [from it]” (Exod 17:6).
אלא שלשָם מסַפֵּר איך פירנס הקדוש ברוך הוא את ישראל במן ושליו ומים במדבר, ואחר כך כתב כל אחד במקומו.
There, however, it tells how the holy One, blessed is He, sustained Israel with manna, quail, and water in the wilderness, and afterward it recorded each in its place.
According to this, the stories in Exodus, such as the account of the quail and the water brought forth from a rock, did not happen immediately after Israel left Egypt, as their placement would imply. Instead, each of these things happened at different points in the wilderness travelling, but the Torah wanted to give the readers a general picture of God’s bounty early on in the wilderness account, and thus included accounts of each at that point, but returned to tell the story in more detail at the proper narrative time as well.
Proof from Moses’ Blessing in Deuteronomy
Realizing that this is a very novel suggestion, Bekhor Shor argues that the fact that both places have essentially the same name (Meribah) is a strong proof that the two accounts are about the same episode. That said, as the names are somewhat different—“Waters of Quarrel” in Numbers vs. “Testing and Quarrel” in Exodus—he points to the reference to the story in Moses’ blessing of Levi in Deuteronomy 33:8 as a third source that links the two names, showing that they refer to the same place:
ותדע שאחד הוא זה המעשה ואותו, דהתם כתיב "ויקרא שם המקום ההוא מסה ומריבה" (שמות יז, ז), ובזאת הברכה הוא אומר על זה המעשה שהקפיד הקדוש ברוך הוא על משה ואהרן: "אשר נסיתו במסה תריבהו על מי מריבה" (דברים לג, ח). אלמא דמעשה אחד הוא.
Know that this is one and the same episode, for there it is written: “The place was named Massah and Meribah” (Exod. 17:7), and in Vezot Haberacha it says regarding this very episode that the Holy One, blessed is He, took issue with Moses and Aaron: “whom You tested at Massah, challenged at the waters of Meribah” (Deut 33:8). Hence it is a single episode.
Sin and Zin
Behor Shor further argues that even the general vicinity of the two places—Wilderness of Sin/Wilderness of Zin—makes it clear that the same events are being narrated:
ואף בכאן כתיב "המה מי מריבת [...] מדבר צין" (במדבר כז, יד), והתם נמי כתיב "ויסעו [...] ממדבר סין" (שמות יז, א).
Further, here it is written: “Those are the Waters of Meribath […] in the wilderness of Zin” (Num 27:14), and there too it is written: “[…] they set out from the wilderness of Sin” (Exod 17:1).
Bekhor Shor does not explain why the spelling is different in Exodus and Numbers, but assumes that they are just variants, referring to the same place.
Filling in Gaps
Having established that the two stories are one, Bekhor Shor continues by explaining why the Torah tells the same story differently in two places:
ומה שלא פירש כאן פירש שם, שאמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא להכות בצור. וכן דרך פרשיות הרבה, שסותם דבריו במקום אחד ומפרש במקום אחר.
And what it did not specify here (Numbers), it specified there (Exodus)—that the Holy One, blessed is He, commanded him to strike the rock. This is the style of many passages: it leaves its remarks opaque in one place and specifies in another.
Rethinking Moses’ Sin
Bekhor Shor’s reading creates a serious problem: How can Moses be punished for hitting the rock if God actually commanded Moses to do so? Bekhor Shor tackles this problem in his gloss on Deuteronomy 32:51, in which God reminds Moses of the sin he committed in this story and his consequent punishment:
"על אשר מעלתם בי" – שלא פירשתם לבני ישראל כי אני נותן להם המים אלא אמרתם "(המן) הסלע הזה נוציא לכם מים" (במדבר כ, י), משמע דדבר זה אינו יכול להיות. וכשבאו המים סברו מקרה הוא ולא הקדשתם אותי. ולכך הוצרכתם להכות שני פעמים, כי המים היו מתעכבות על אשר לא דברתם כהוגן.
“For you broke faith with Me” (Deut 32:51)—for you did not explain to the Israelites that I was giving them the water, but instead you said “shall we get water for you (out of) this rock?” (Num 20:10), seeming to indicate that this was impossible, and when water came, they believed that it was a coincidence and you did not affirm My sanctity, and therefore you needed to strike twice, since the water was delayed because you had not spoken properly.
According to this, Moses speaking as if he himself did not believe that water could be brought forth from a rock was the sin. By putting doubt into the Israelites’ minds about whether this really was a miracle at all, Moses and Aaron’s lack of faith ruins the sanctification of God that was to come from the miracle.
Bekhor Shor then returns to his main point:
אבל מה שהכה לא נענש, שהקדוש ברוך הוא צוה לו להכות, דכתיב "והכית בצור" (שמות יז, ו). כי אני אומר כי מעשה אחד הוא כדמוכחי קראי, כמו שפירשתי.
However, for having struck he was not punished, for the Holy One, blessed is He, commanded him to strike, as it is written: “Strike the rock” (Exod 17:6), for I say that it was a single episode, as the verses prove, as I have explained.
Going on the offensive, Bekhor Shor notes that this interpretation solves an otherwise thorny problem that traditional readings have not successfully explained:
והכי מסתברא, דאי כבוד המקום בלא הכאה, מאי שנא הכא שציוה שלא להכות ומאי שנא הכא שצוה להכות?!
This is sensible, because if it befits the honor of the Omnipresent that there be no striking, what difference is there between this instance, where He commanded not to strike, and that instance, where He commanded to strike?!
Bekhor Shor is polemicizing here against Rashi, who offers the standard interpretation of the sin and God’s rebuke:
"על אשר לא קדשתם"—גרמתם לי שלא אתקדש, שאמרתי לכם: ודברתם אל הסלע (במדבר כ:ח), והם הכוהו, והוצרכו להכותו פעמים. ואילו דברו עמו, ונתן מימיו בלא הכאה, היה מתקדש שם שמים...
“That you did not sanctify me”—you did not cause me to be sanctified, for I said to you “speak to the stone” (Num 20:8) but they struck it, and were forced to strike it twice. But if they had spoken with it, it would have given forth its waters without being struck, and the name of Heaven would have been sanctified…
According to Rashi, Moses (and Aaron) disobeyed God’s command, but in Bekhor Shor’s reading, they did not. Moses followed God’s command by striking the rock, but in speaking with the Israelites and saying “shall we get water for you (out of) this rock?” (Num. 20:10), he undid the power of the miracle, and it was for that that he and Aaron were punished.
Bekhor Shor notes only some of the similarities between the stories (the similar toponyms and staff reference), but these are just two of many other substantial thematic and linguistic similarities between the stories which may have influenced his thinking here. Moreover, as discussed in my quail essay, this is not the only time Bekhor Shor argues that two similar narratives in two different places refer to the same event.
Nevertheless, this is a more extreme case than his claim about the quail story. There he argued only for the editorial insertion of several verse segments about quail into a story about manna. Since the manna story is told at the appropriate chronological time, right when they entered the wilderness, one could see the addition of a brief reference to quail as just a small tweak, with the main story being told in its proper place in Numbers 11.
Here, however, the Massah and Meribah story in Exodus is an insertion of an entire passage out of chronological order. According to this, after the Bitter Waters episode (Exod 15:, the Israelites did not lack water at all until their fortieth year in the wilderness.
The reason for the strange decision to tell the story in Exodus is only to give the reader a general anticipatory description of how God saw to the basic nutritional needs of the Israelites (bread, meat, and water) before they set out into the wilderness. Scripture subsequently went back and described two of these events, the quail and the water, in their proper chronological order.
Conflicting Perspectives in Exodus and Numbers
This interpretation unravels one further knot: The Exodus stories all have happy endings while the Numbers stories end with punishments. In the quail story, God becomes furious with the Israelites and strikes them down. In the water story, Moses and Aaron botch the miracle and although Israel gets their water, Moses and Aaron pay with their lives for it, losing the privilege to accompany Israel into the Promised Land. According to Bekhor Shor, the ideal picture in Exodus is tempered by the harsh reality of Numbers. Both tell the same story but from different points of view.
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Prof. Jonathan Jacobs is a Professor in Bar Ilan University’s Bible Department. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. from this same department, and rabbinic ordination from Israel’s chief rabbinate. In addition to his many articles, Jacobs is the author of Measure for Measure in the Biblical Storytelling, Nahmanides’ Torah Commentary Addenda Written in the Land of Israel [with Prof. Yosef Ofer], and Bekhor Shoro Hadar Lo – R. Joseph Bekhor Shor between Continuity and Innovation (all in Hebrew).
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