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David Frankel





The Grain and Pomegranates of Mei Merivah (מי מריבה)



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David Frankel





The Grain and Pomegranates of Mei Merivah (מי מריבה)






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The Grain and Pomegranates of Mei Merivah (מי מריבה)

Faced with a lack of water, the Israelites complain to Moses that they “have no grain or pomegranates.” This narrative discontinuity together with other textual anomalies suggest that interwoven into the Merivah story is the missing opening verses of the non-Priestly spies story.


The Grain and Pomegranates of Mei Merivah (מי מריבה)

Parashat Chukkat relates the famous story of the sin of Moses and Aaron at the “Waters of Merivah” (Numbers 20:1-13). Moses was told to gather the people together with Aaron and to command the rock to produce water. After Moses hits the rock with his staff and produces the water[1] God informs him that both he and his brother failed to sanctify God in the sight of the people and that they, therefore, will not be allowed to bring the Israelites into the land.

Two Accounts of the Waters of Merivah

The story of Merivah in Numbers has a parallel in Exodus 17:1-7. There too, the Israelites complain of thirst and Moses turns to God for help. Heeding divine instruction, Moses takes his staff and strikes the rock at Horev, thereby producing water for the people and their cattle. Both stories end in the bestowal of similar names – in Exodus 17, מסה ומריבה and in Numbers 20, מי מריבה.

The details between the stories vary, including geographic details: Whereas the story in Exodus 17 takes place in the Wilderness of Sin, the story in Numbers 20 takes place in the Wilderness of Zin (Transjordan). Critical scholarship explains this phenomenon by suggesting that each account derives from a different source, a Priestly and a non-Priestly source.

Exodus 17: מסה ומריבה 

A number of factors point to the non-Priestly character of the story in Exodus 17:

  • Aaron is absent.
  • The Israelites are designated as העם (verses 1b[2], 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) rather than העדה, the typical P term for the nation.
  • The story refers to the זקני ישראל (the elders of Israel) rather than, as in P, נשיאי העדה (the princes of the group; verses 5, 6).
  • The story depicts God “standing” by the rock without allusion to the “divine glory.” P does not depict God is such an anthropomorphic fashion.

Numbers 20: מי מריבה

The story in Numbers 20, however, is clearly Priestly for the following reasons:

  • Moses and Aaron act together.
  • They turn to the “tent of meeting.”
  • The “divine glory” (‘כבוד ה) appears (verse 6; cf., e.g., Numbers 16:19; 17:7).
  • The Israelites are referred to as the עדה or the קהל (verses 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 11).
  • The staff is taken from “before God” (verse 9; cf. Numbers 17:25—26).
  • The purpose of the miracle is to “sanctify God” (verse 12).

All of these are typical elements of Priestly writing.[3]

Grain and Pomegranates in the Wilderness?

The people’s complaint in מי מריבה (Numbers 20) is strange. In Exodus, the people complain that Moses led them into the wilderness to die of thirst; this complaint makes sense for people who are dying of thirst. In Numbers, however, the people say something different:

כ:ה וְלָמָ֤ה הֶֽעֱלִיתֻ֙נוּ֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם לְהָבִ֣יא אֹתָ֔נוּ אֶל הַמָּק֥וֹם הָרָ֖ע הַזֶּ֑ה לֹ֣א׀ מְק֣וֹם זֶ֗רַע וּתְאֵנָ֤ה וְגֶ֙פֶן֙ וְרִמּ֔וֹן וּמַ֥יִם אַ֖יִן לִשְׁתּֽוֹת:   
20:5 Why did you bring us up from Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? And there is no water to drink.”

It is somewhat baffling to hear people dying of thirst mention the lack of water almost as an afterthought to their main complaint about the lack of grain, figs, vines and pomegranates. Moreover, the very portrayal of the wilderness as a place lacking grain, figs, vines and pomegranates is extremely odd. Most places in the world lack such plentiful conditions, not just the wilderness. And why would the people expect the wilderness to be a place of grain and vineyards to begin with?

Foreign Elements in the מי מריבה Story

The problematic nature of verse 5 goes hand in hand with another observation critical scholars have made about this story. Though the bulk of the story is Priestly in character, a closer examination reveals several non-priestly passages present in the opening part of the text – verses 1b, 3a and 5. Let us look at each non-P section in turn (P = Blue; Non-P = Indented Red).

The Second Half of v. 1

כ:a וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ בְנֵֽי־יִ֠שְׂרָאֵל כָּל־הָ֨עֵדָ֤ה מִדְבַּר־צִן֙ בַּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הָֽרִאשׁ֔וֹן
20:1 The Israelites arrived, the entire congregation, at the wilderness of Zin on the first month.
וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב הָעָ֖ם בְּקָדֵ֑שׁ וַתָּ֤מָת שָׁם֙ מִרְיָ֔ם וַתִּקָּבֵ֖ר שָֽׁם:
The people (העם) stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.
כ:ב וְלֹא־הָ֥יָה מַ֖יִם לָעֵדָ֑ה וַיִּקָּ֣הֲל֔וּ עַל־מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְעַֽל־אַהֲרֹֽן:
20:2 The community (עדה) was without water, and they gathered against Moses and Aaron.

The Israelites come to the Wilderness of Zin, and the people camp at Kadesh. These two phrases seem unrelated. The death and burial of Miriam at Kadesh is also evidently extraneous. The people are referred to as העם and the words, “The people stayed at Kadesh” serve as a perfect opening sentence (cf. Numbers 25:1: “Israel stayed at Shittim…”). While Kadesh can be associated with the Zin wilderness (cf. Numbers 33:36-37), it stands perfectly well on its own. Furthermore, the verse is easily removed from the text without causing harm to the narrative flow; in fact, verse 2 seems like the more natural continuation of v. 1a.

Dividing Verse 3

כ:ב וְלֹא־הָ֥יָה מַ֖יִם לָעֵדָ֑ה וַיִּקָּ֣הֲל֔וּ עַל־מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְעַֽל־אַהֲרֹֽן:
20:2 The community (עדה) was without water, and they gathered against Moses and Aaron.
כ:ג וַיָּ֥רֶב הָעָ֖ם עִם־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּאמְר֣וּ[4]
20:3 The people (העם) quarreled with Moses, and they said,
לֵאמֹ֔ר וְל֥וּ גָוַ֛עְנוּ בִּגְוַ֥ע אַחֵ֖ינוּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְ-הֹוָֽה: כ:ד וְלָמָ֤ה הֲבֵאתֶם֙ אֶת־קְהַ֣ל יְ-הֹוָ֔ה אֶל־הַמִּדְבָּ֖ר הַזֶּ֑ה לָמ֣וּת שָׁ֔ם אֲנַ֖חְנוּ וּבְעִירֵֽנוּ:
saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished before Yhwh. 20:4 Why have you brought the Lord’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there?

The extraneous and non-Priestly character of verse 3a is the most obvious. The people are referred to as העם again, rather than הקהל or העדה, and the quarrel with Moses alone stands in tension with the gathering of the עדה against both Moses and Aaron in verse 2.

Verse 5

כ:ד וְלָמָ֤ה הֲבֵאתֶם֙ אֶת־קְהַ֣ל יְ-הֹוָ֔ה אֶל הַמִּדְבָּ֖ר הַזֶּ֑ה לָמ֣וּת שָׁ֔ם אֲנַ֖חְנוּ וּבְעִירֵֽנוּ:
20:4 Why have you brought the Lord’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there?
כ:ה וְלָמָ֤ה הֶֽעֱלִיתֻ֙נוּ֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם לְהָבִ֣יא אֹתָ֔נוּ אֶל הַמָּק֥וֹם הָרָ֖ע הַזֶּ֑ה לֹ֣א׀ מְק֣וֹם זֶ֗רַע וּתְאֵנָ֤ה וְגֶ֙פֶן֙ וְרִמּ֔וֹן וּמַ֥יִם אַ֖יִן לִשְׁתּֽוֹת:  
20:5 Why did you bring us up from Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is no water to drink.”
כ:ו וַיָּבֹא֩ מֹשֶׁ֨ה וְאַהֲרֹ֜ן מִפְּנֵ֣י הַקָּהָ֗ל אֶל פֶּ֙תַח֙ אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֔ד וַֽיִּפְּל֖וּ עַל פְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וַיֵּרָ֥א כְבוֹד יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֲלֵיהֶֽם: 
20:6 Moses and Aaron came away from the congregation (הקהל) to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and fell on their faces. The glory of Yhwh appeared to them.

Verse 5 is easily removed. Its contents parallel verse 4, except, as stated above, the specific complaint is odd in context. Although the Masoretic pointing of the word העליתנו in the plural form indicates that the complaint is addressed to both Moses and Aaron, it is very easy to imagine that its original pointing was in the singular, indicating that the complaint was addressed to Moses alone. This would coincide with verse 3a which depicts the quarrel as directed at Moses alone.

Another “Thirst in the Wilderness” Account?

If we put the three pieces of non-Priestly text together, we get the following, which reads beautifully as a little narrative:    

וַיֵּשֶׁב הָעָם בְּקָדֵשׁ וַתָּמָת שָׁם מִרְיָם וַתִּקָּבֵר שָׁם. וַיָּרֶב הָעָם עִם-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמְרוּ לָמָה הֶעֱלִי[תָ]נוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם לְהָבִיא אֹתָנוּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הָרָע הַזֶּה: לֹא מְקוֹם זֶרַע וּתְאֵנָה וְגֶפֶן וְרִמּוֹן, וּמַיִם אַיִן לִשְׁתּוֹת.
The people dwelled at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. The people quarreled with Moses, and they said, “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? And there is no water to drink.”

Most scholars think that these verses constitute yet another parallel story about the provision of water from a rock in the wilderness, yet this small fragment hardly constitutes a parallel account. In fact, the theme of the provision of water is almost completely lacking. Some scholars maintain that the continuation of the story has simply been removed. Others find this suggestion unconvincing and question whether there is really a solid basis for isolating the verses from the larger narrative.

A New Solution: A Fragment from another Story

I believe that the verses indeed must be isolated from the larger Priestly narrative. At the same time, it must be admitted that these verses hardly add up to a parallel narrative about thirst in the wilderness. Furthermore, the parallel-narrative theory does not explain why the Israelites in the wilderness complain about grain and pomegranates. In light of all this, I would like to suggest a very different interpretation of these verses.

The “Grain and Pomegranate” Story does not Take Place in the Wilderness

The solution to these questions begins to emerge when we note that the “grain and pomegranate” speech of verse 5 never mentions the wilderness. The complaint is directed against “this evil place.” This must refer to the location mentioned in the non-priestly material of verse 1 – Kadesh. 

Kadesh(-barnea?) sits on the southern border of the Promised Land.[5] It is thus understandable that the people complain that there is no grain. As the beginning of the Promised Land, the area of the Negev lacks the fertile attributes necessary for agricultural settlement. Now Kadesh (-barnea?) is also the location where the non­-Priestly story of the Spies takes place (Num. 13:26 [associated here with the Paran wilderness rather than the Zin wilderness][6]; Deuteronomy 1:19, 46). This raises the possibility that the non-Priestly verses in Numbers 20 really belong in the Spies story!

The Missing Opening of One Version of the Spies Story

The non-Priestly story of the Spies in Numbers 13-14 begins abruptly in Num. 13:17b.[7]Scholars have attempted to reconstruct its beginning based upon references in Deuteronomy 1,[8] which is likely dependent on this non-P story, but have not solved the puzzle of why the original verses have been omitted.

I would like to suggest a new solution, that these verses have not been lost, but have been preserved in our parasha. The non-Priestly verses of Numbers 20 belong to the Spies Story and constitute its missing beginning. This is supported by several additional observations: 

  • It surely can be no coincidence that the fruits that the spies bring back from the land to Kadesh in the non-Priestly account are specifically grapes, pomegranates and figs (Num.13:23) – exactly the fruits said to be found lacking in Numbers 20:5!
  • It makes perfect sense that the spies are told to determine whether the land is “good or bad” (Num. 13:19) in light of Israelite assertions about “this bad place” (Num. 20:5).

Understanding the Complaint about Lack of Produce in its Original Context

At this point, we can resolve the questions raised above concerning verse 5. The original murmuring-speech had nothing to do with thirst whatsoever. Nowhere in the non-Priestly verses in Numbers 20 is there any reference to thirst!

The murmuring-speech reflects the disappointment of the Israelites upon first arriving at Kadesh, which is located in the south of the Promised Land. They complain that the Land of Promise is not the fertile land that it is supposed to be.

With the arrival at Kadesh, Moses has succeeded in “bringing up” the people to the land (note that העליתנו of v. 5 implies entrance into the land, not just exodus from Egypt). This, however, was of little value since the land lacked signs of fertility. It was not the land of fields, vineyards, figs and pomegranates that it was supposed to be (cf. Deuteronomy 8:8, “A land of wheat and barley, grapes, figs and pomegranates, a land flowing with honey and oil”). It was this Israelite complaint that led Moses to send men forward to confirm that the land is indeed a good, fertile land (Num. 13:17bff.). This is why he told them, והתחזקתם ולקחתם מפרי הארץ, “be of strength and take of the fruit of the land.”

Adding the Water: A Harmonistic Redaction

In its original form, the complaint of Numbers 20:5 was likely about “this bad place,” that is, the allegedly unfertile land of Israel. The final editor of Numbers 13-14 and 20 removed the beginning verses of the non-Priestly Spies story from their original context and transferred them to the story of water provision at the Zin wilderness. This required adding to the complaint concerning the infertility of the land a complaint concerning thirst in the wilderness. This conversion was accomplished by supplementing verse 5 with the final words ומים אין לשתת; these words, coming at the end of the sentence, betray their secondary, editorial origin.

Incorporating the Verses From Numbers 13

Why did the editor remove the non-Priestly verses from their original context in the Spies story and incorporate them into the story about the provision of water from the rock? This happened because the editor of the story of the spies in Numbers 13-14 essentially adopted a story-line that did not coincide with the non-Priestly spies story, more specifically, one that asserted that God initiated the sending of the spies (Numbers 13:1-3). This made it very difficult to incorporate the non-Priestly story-line, which narrated that people were sent in response to a complaint about the land. Rather than dispense with these verses, the editor found a new home for them in the story of Numbers 20.[9]

The new context was fitting for several reasons. This non-Priestly section spoke of the death of Miriam, so placing it in Numbers 20 connected it to the death of Aaron in v. 24, and the prediction of Moses’s death in v. 24, both of which seem to have occurred in the fortieth year (cf. Numbers 33:38). Originally, Miriam died before the forty-year period of wilderness wandering, not after it.

Also, the reference to the “quarrel” (וירב) with Moses fit the story of Numbers 20 that was referred to as מי מריבה, the “waters of contention.”[10] Finally, since most murmuring speeches in the Torah relate to the harsh wilderness conditions, it was natural to present Numbers 20:5 as another instance of this type of complaint.

The Complex Work of the Redactors

This analysis has important ramifications for source analysis of the Torah. It shows that the editorial work of the redactors was far more complex than is often imagined. The simplest approach is to assume that composite texts in the Bible simply juxtapose parallel versions of the same basic story in a continuous narrative. The case of the non-Priestly verses in Numbers 20 should alert us to the fact that biblical editors may often have been much more flexible and creative while integrating their sources.  


June 21, 2015


Last Updated

August 29, 2021


View Footnotes

Dr. Rabbi David Frankel did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Professor Moshe Weinfeld. His publications include The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp. 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns). He teaches Hebrew Bible to M.A. and Rabbinical students at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.