Water was a serious issue as the hordes of people and herds of animals journeyed through the wilderness wasteland. Water had been their great need at Marah, and it was again at Rephidim. At Marah God instructed Moses to pitch a log into the bitter waters. When Moses obeyed, the bitter water miraculously became sweet. At Rephidim God instructed Moses to strike a huge bolder with his shepherd’s staff. (Get your old Louisville Slugger out of the attic, step up to a nice big rock, and take a mighty swing. What will happen? Something might crack. Probably not the rock.) When Moses obeyed God, the great rock quivered, creaked and cracked. Splitting apart, the boulder released a bountiful stream, bubbling, gurgling, and springing forth with an abundance of cool clear water.
Two things happened before Moses struck the rock.
First, the people complained. “The people thirsted there for water and grumbled against Moses. They said, ‘Why did you ever bring us up from Egypt to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?’ ” (Exodus 17:3). Moses later “named the place Massah and Meribahbecause the Israelites complained, and because they tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’ ” (Exodus 17:7). In the Hebrew language, Massah means testing and Meribah means quarreling.
Second, Moses prayed. He sought God’s help. “Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God—who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly—and it will be given to him” (James 1:5). Moses was smart enough to know when he needed help. He was in a real pickle, so he “cried out to the Lord, ‘What should I do with these people? In a little while they will stone me!’ ” (Exodus 17:4). God graciously, and greatly, answered Moses’s plea.
Just as the Old Testament commentates on the New Testament, the New Testament also reveals truths concerning the Old Testament. A student of the Word needs both the Old and the New. In Paul’s letter to Corinth, he reveals the Gospel’s connection to God’s miracle at Rephidim. “They drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4). The rock, from which flows the water of life, prefigured Jesus. Jesus is the Rock!
Forty years later (Numbers 20:1, 28; 33:38), there was a moment of Déjà vu. “There was no water for the community ... The people quarreled with Moses and said, ‘If only we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord. Why have you brought the Lord’s assembly into this wilderness for us and our livestock to die here?’ ” (Numbers 20:2-4).
This time, God’s instruction was different. God didn’t tell Moses to strike the rock, but to “speak to the rock while they watch, and it will yield its water” (Number 20:8). Interestingly, “Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff, so that abundant water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank” (Number 20:11). For this act of disobedience, God imposed a harsh punishment. “Because you did not trust me to demonstrate my holiness in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this assembly into the land I have given them” (Number 20:12). Moses didn’t make it to the Promised Land.
Can you envision it? One-hundred-twenty-year-old Moses steps up to the rock and takes a might swing, fully expecting that a whack with his staff would do the trick. It didn’t. Moses then draws back for a second shot. Under his breath he says, “you better bust wide open, you dumb rock!” Whack! God had mercy upon him, and the rock split open... not because Moses hit it, but because God did what only God can do!
Why such a severe punishment? I think it’s because Moses spoiled the story. Jesus, our Rock, was smitten and died only once. If Moses had obeyed, the foreshadowing would have been clear. After being broken at Calvary, the resurrected Jesus is eternally willing and able to hear our prayers. He invites us to speak to Him. In response, our Gracious Savior and Sustainer willingly meets our needs and pours out His many blessings. “Speak to the Rock!”