The Ritual Violation that Bars Moses and Aaron from Entering the Land
When the Israelites complain about the lack of water in the wilderness (Num 20:3–5), Moses and Aaron turn to YHWH, who instructs them to gather the people and command the rock before them to produce water:
במדבר 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 20:8 “You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and tell the rock before their very eyes order to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.”
After they have gathered the people, Moses calls the assembled group “rebels” (הַמֹּרִים) and asks them if they think the rock can provide water:
במדבר כ:י וַיַּקְהִלוּ מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן אֶת הַקָּהָל אֶל פְּנֵי הַסָּלַע וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם שִׁמְעוּ נָא הַמֹּרִים הֲמִן הַסֶּלַע הַזֶּה נוֹצִיא לָכֶם מָיִם.
Num 20:10 Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels, shall we get water for you from this rock?”
He then strikes the rock twice, and water comes pouring out:
במדבר כ:יא וַיָּרֶם מֹשֶׁה אֶת יָדוֹ וַיַּךְ אֶת הַסֶּלַע בְּמַטֵּהוּ פַּעֲמָיִם וַיֵּצְאוּ מַיִם רַבִּים וַתֵּשְׁתְּ הָעֵדָה וּבְעִירָם.
20:11 And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank.
Despite the success of the miracle, YHWH bars Moses and Aaron from entering the land of Canaan:
במדבר כ:יא 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 YHWH said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me to sanctify me before the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given to them.”
Aaron will die shortly afterwards at Mount Hor (Num 20:27–29), and Moses in Moab (Deut 34), prior to Israel’s entry into the land of Israel.
The Nature of the Sin?
What did Moses and Aaron do wrong? The best known explanation is that YHWH commanded Moses to address the rock, but Moses struck it with his staff. Others suggest that Moses sinned by calling the Israelites rebels, or by expressing doubt in his asking the people whether they thought he can succeed in producing water from the rock, or that his outburst showed a flaw in character, such as anger, cowardice, or insensitivity.
All of these interpretations explain the story as an independent unit. Jacob Milgrom (1923–2010), however, considers Moses’s action in the broader context of biblical religion. In “Magic, Monotheism, and the Sin of Moses,” he draws on an observation made by Yehezkel Kaufmann (1889–1963) that ritual in the Priestly text is almost never accompanied by words, whether speech, song, or incantation. In the exceptional cases that include speech, such as the Priestly blessing (Num 6:22–27) or the sotah ritual (Num 5:19–22), the words are dictated in advance.
In the ancient world, speaking was considered to be an expression of the person’s own powers, and by Moses saying הֲמִן הַסֶּלַע הַזֶּה נוֹצִיא לָכֶם מָיִם, “shall we get water for you from this rock,” he unwittingly implies that the power is his and not YHWH’s. In support of this argument, Milgrom cites Psalm 106. He highlights the end of v. 33, which he translates literally as “he expressed his lips” or “he blurted out”:
תהלים קו:לג כִּי הִמְרוּ אֶת רוּחוֹ וַיְבַטֵּא בִּשְׂפָתָיו.
Ps 106:33 Because they rebelled against Him, and he expressed with his lips (or “he blurted out”).
By adlibbing before striking the rock, Moses violates the requirement that priests keep silent, a mandate that highlights the difference between service to YHWH and the performance of magic, which always includes a spoken incantation.
Milgrom’s approach of looking at the story through a wider lens is incisive. But I suggest that instead of looking at a broader theological context, we look at the broader narrative context.
The Death of Miriam
The account of the sin is preceded by a brief notice about the death and burial of Miriam:
במדבר כ:א וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּל הָעֵדָה מִדְבַּר צִן בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן וַיֵּשֶׁב הָעָם בְּקָדֵשׁ וַתָּמָת שָׁם מִרְיָם וַתִּקָּבֵר שָׁם.
Num 20:1 The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.
What is the connection between the story of the water and the death of Miriam? The 1st/2nd century C.E. Biblical Antiquities of Pseudo-Philo (20:8), followed by the rabbis (t. Sotah 11:1–2), suggests that water in the wilderness was granted on account of Miriam’s righteousness, and thus, her death led the water crisis, and in turn, the sin of Moses and Aaron. This clever interpretation, however, overlooks the chapter that comes immediately before the death of Miriam: the laws of corpse contamination.
The Red Heifer Ritual
The red heifer ritual is a cleansing process for persons and objects that have been contaminated by contact with a corpse. Such contamination affects not only the individual, but also the Tabernacle:
במדבר יט:יג כָּל הַנֹּגֵעַ בְּמֵת בְּנֶפֶשׁ הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר יָמוּת וְלֹא יִתְחַטָּא אֶת מִשְׁכַּן יְ־הוָה טִמֵּא וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל כִּי מֵי נִדָּה לֹא זֹרַק עָלָיו טָמֵא יִהְיֶה עוֹד טֻמְאָתוֹ בוֹ.
Num 19:13 Whoever touches a corpse, the body of a person who has died, and does not cleanse himself, defiles YHWH’s Tabernacle; that person shall be cut off from Israel. Since the water of lustration was not dashed on him, he remains unclean; his uncleanness is still upon him. (cf. v. 20)
It is thus imperative that an impure person perform this ritual lest they defile the sanctity of the Temple/Tabernacle. Right after this set of laws, we are told that Miriam dies. Her corpse will, by definition, contaminate whoever buries her. As the Torah makes no mention of her having a husband or children, presumably her brothers, Moses and Aaron, would have done so, following the Priestly laws recorded in Leviticus:
ויקרא כא:א וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה אֱמֹר אֶל הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם לְנֶפֶשׁ לֹא יִטַּמָּא בְּעַמָּיו. כא:ב כִּי אִם לִשְׁאֵרוֹ הַקָּרֹב אֵלָיו לְאִמּוֹ וּלְאָבִיו וְלִבְנוֹ וּלְבִתּוֹ וּלְאָחִיו. כא:ג וְלַאֲחֹתוֹ הַבְּתוּלָה הַקְּרוֹבָה אֵלָיו אֲשֶׁר לֹא הָיְתָה לְאִישׁ לָהּ יִטַּמָּא.
Lev 21:1 YHWH said to Moses: “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin, 21:2 except for the relatives that are closest to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother; 21:3 also for a virgin sister, close to him because she has not married, for her he may defile himself.
And yet, the narrative provides no indication that Moses and Aaron purified themselves following the burial of their sister, a serious violation that is punishable by karet. Moreover, priests are responsible for any pollution of the sanctuary by disqualified or ritually impure priests:
במדבר יח:א וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל אַהֲרֹן אַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ וּבֵית אָבִיךָ אִתָּךְ תִּשְׂאוּ אֶת עֲוֹן הַמִּקְדָּשׁ וְאַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ אִתָּךְ תִּשְׂאוּ אֶת עֲוֹן כְּהֻנַּתְכֶם.
Num 18:1 YHWH said to Aaron: “You and your sons and the ancestral house under your charge shall bear any guilt connected with the sanctuary; you and your sons alone shall bear any guilt connected with your priesthood.”
While Moses is not a kohen (priest) but a Levite, Numbers designates the Levites as priests and tasks them with maintaining the sanctuary (chs. 17–18).
Thus, the order of the presentation in the book of Numbers—corpse impurity, death of Miriam, punishment of Moses and Aaron—is significant: Moses and Aaron were punished for performing the miracle before YHWH while still contaminated by corpse impurity from the burial of their sister. While this may not be the sin envisioned in the original story—whose older meaning is debated and perhaps lost—this is how the editor of Numbers understood it.
Precedent: Leviticus and the Sin of Nadab and Abihu
This type of editorial arrangement—of placing a law in proximity to a narrative in order to guide the audience’s interpretation—is also found in the account of Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, who are consumed by divine fire after offering incense to YHWH:
ויקרא י:א וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ קְטֹרֶת וַיַּקְרִבוּ לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם. י:ב וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְ־הוָה וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם וַיָּמֻתוּ לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה.
Lev 10:1 Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before YHWH alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. 10:2 And fire came forth from YHWH and consumed them; thus they died before YHWH.
The precise nature of the ritual offense is not specified in the narrative, and, like the sin of Moses and Aaron, is debated by commentators ancient and modern. The editor of Leviticus may be offering his own interpretation by interrupting the story with a set of seemingly unconnected laws:
ויקרא י:ח וַיְדַבֵּר יְ־הוָה אֶל אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר. י:ט יַיִן וְשֵׁכָר אַל תֵּשְׁתְּ אַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ אִתָּךְ בְּבֹאֲכֶם אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְלֹא תָמֻתוּ חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם.
Lev 10:8 And YHWH spoke to Aaron, saying: 10:9 “Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is a law for all time throughout the ages.”
The placement of these laws here suggests that Nadab and Abihu sinned by bringing an offering while intoxicated. From these two examples, we see that editors of biblical books used context, specifically the placement of laws, to explain difficult narratives. In both cases, this insertion does not involve adjusting the wording of the stories and laws.
The Levites in Numbers
The Book of Numbers emphasizes the roles of Levites (Num 3:11; 3:40–51; 8:5–19, chs. 17–18) and Priests. In the chapters preceding the red heifer ritual and incident at the rock, YHWH demonstrates the prominence of Aaron as a priest over the rest of the Levites (in the Korah rebellion, ch. 16), and the place of the Levites vis-à-vis the other tribes (in the story of the twelve staffs, chs. 17–18).
Why did the editors of the book of Numbers use the ritual violation of corpse contamination as the sin which condemns both Moses, the lawgiver, and Aaron, the first priest? The priestly editors wanted to emphasize that the sanctity of the holy precinct and the ritual service of YHWH is of paramount importance. Because of their dereliction of a ritual duty, Moses and Aaron will die and lose the right to enter the sacred land. The harsh punishment is a reminder that YHWH’s law applies to all, including figures as highly placed as Moses and Aaron.
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Prof. Marvin A. Sweeney is Professor of Hebrew Bible at the Claremont School of Theology at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. His Ph.D. is from Claremont Graduate University. He is the author of sixteen volumes, such as Tanak: A Literary and Theological Introduction to the Jewish Bible; Reading the Hebrew Bible after the Shoah: Engaging Holocaust Theology; and Jewish Mysticism: From Ancient Times through Today.
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