THERE ARE FEW PASSAGES in the Pentateuch which on first reading are more discouraging than the outcome of Numbers 20:1-13.
Yet the account carries some subtle complexities. It begins with more of the usual griping. The need of the people is real: they are thirsty (20:2). But instead of humbly seeking the Lord in joyous confidence that he would provide for his own people, they quarrel with Moses and charge him with the usual: they were better off in slavery, their current life in the desert is unbearable, and so forth.
Moses and Aaron seek the Lord’s face. The glory of God appears to them (20:6). God specifically says, “Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water” (20:8). But Moses has had it. He assembles the crowd and cries, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” (20:10) — which rhetorical question, at its face value, is more than a little pretentious. Then he strikes the rock twice, and water gushes out. But the Lord tells Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them” (20:12).
(1) God does not say, “Because you did not obey me enough . . . ” but “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy . . .” There was, of course, formal disobedience: God said to speak, and Moses struck the rock. But God perceives that the problem is deeper yet. The people have worn Moses down, and Moses responds in kind. His response is not only the striking of the rock, it is the answer of a man who under pressure has become bitter and pretentious (which is certainly not to say that any of us would have done any better!). What has evaporated is transparent trust in God: God is not being honored as holy.
(2) Read the Pentateuch as a whole: the final point is that Moses does not enter the land. Read the first seven books of the Old Testament: one cannot fail to see that the old covenant had not transformed the people. Canonically, that is an important lesson: the Law was never adequate to save and transform.
(3) In light of 1 Corinthians 10:4, which shows Christ to be the antitype of the rock, it is hard to resist the conclusion that the reason God had insisted the rock be struck in Exodus 17:1-7, and forbids it here, is that he perceives a wonderful opportunity to make a symbol-laden point: the ultimate Rock, from whom life-giving streams flow, is struck once, and no more.