On striking rocks, instead of speaking to them

Last week, in the final session of the pastoral retreat in Germany, we reflected on the incident in Numbers 20 where Moses struck the rock to provide water for the people.

The incident was sparked by yet another bout of complaints from the people under Moses’ leadership, complaints that had started early in their journey and had often featured issues of food and water. 

God had an answer to the problem: Moses was to take the staff and speak to the rock. Water would emerge and the people would have something to drink.


Speak to the rock.

Not hit it.

Just speak.

All Moses had to do was obey God and God would take care of the rest.

It started well enough. Numbers 20:9 records the fact that ‘Moses took the staff from the Lord as he commanded him.’ So far so good. Obedience. Simply doing what God said.

But then it gets ugly. Having assembled the crowd, Moses speaks out of the bitterness of his heart. They have got to him with all their complaining.

Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?

Neither speaking nor acting out of a bitter heart is a wise thing to do. Besides which, God had not told Moses to deliver a lecture.

To be sure, Moses did not err when he seemed to suggest that he and Aaron, rather than God, would bring water from the rock. God had said that it would be Moses who would give water from the rock to the people. But he is about to make a serious mistake.

Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his hand twice.

That is not what he was asked to do. All he was asked to do was speak. He had struck the rock before (Exodus 17), but that was what God had asked him to do on that occasion. But when God says ‘speak’, you don’t strike.

Interestingly, in spite of Moses’ disobedience, water still flows from the rock. But what follows is a pronouncement of judgment on Moses. He will not get to see the conclusion of his mission.

You shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.

What was going on? What do we need to observe? What do those of us in leadership need to learn?

  1. Anger. Although Moses was described as gentle – no one more meek on the face of the planet – he was capable of strong anger. Anger was a trait that had manifested itself earlier in his life. His reaction to the Egyptian mistreating a Hebrew slave. His smashing of the stone tablets at the sight of the people’s sin. Somehow, over the course of time, this man who knew what it was to burn with righteous indignation, nonetheless learned gentleness. But once again his anger manifests itself. This time it is a self-focussed anger. The anger of an embittered heart.
  2. Provocation. It’s hard not to feel at least a bit of sympathy for Moses given all that he had had to put up with. Relentless criticism and complaint. Personal attacks and the impugning of his motives. Psalm 106 says that the people made his spirit bitter and that ‘it went ill for Moses on their account.’ But it was in this embittered state that Moses disobeyed.
  3. It workedIf you wanted to judge his action on a purely pragmatic basis, you’d have to say that he got results. Good results too, for the text says that there was abundant water, enough for both people and animals. It’s sobering to think that not every act that gets results meets with God’s approval.
  4. Unbelief. God views Moses’ action as a manifestation of unbelief. It was because Moses did not believe in God to uphold him as holy that he forfeited his place in the land of promise. Later (Deuteronomy 32), Moses’ failure is described as breaking faith with God. Faith is a two way path. Faith and faithfulness belong together. True obedience is an expression of both.
  5. The rock was Christ. While Moses celebrated God as ‘The Rock’, it is Paul, in 1 Corinthians 10, who sees Christ in the story of the Israelites’ journey. For him the journey was filled with spiritual significance. The cloud and the sea were a form of baptism; the food was spiritual food; the Rock was a spiritual rock – and the Rock was Christ. Paul was keen that the Corinthians learn from the example of people who experienced such spiritual blessings and yet fell into idolatry. And he leaves us with this intriguing connection between the rock and Christ. Was Moses guilt increased because he had ruined the typological significance of the rock (Christ was only to be struck once)? At any rate there is an important lesson for all of us who have the privilege – whether full time or part time – of being servants of Christ and ministers of his grace. We may get results – because Christ’s blessings may flow to others in spite of us and not because of us – but how we present Christ and serve him – with faithful obedience that honours him as holy – is vital.

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