I must confess that I am sort of ready to be done with all these passages about Israel’s grumbling in the wilderness. I do not find the repetition to be boring by any means. Instead, I am reminded all over again that God’s Word really is alive and active, slicing like a sword through my thoughts, intention, and desires, leaving me “naked and exposed to the eyes of him whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:12-13). Upon the studying Israel’s grumbling at Marah, I felt the sting of conviction. Their complaint for bread and meat drove that healing thorn in deeper. And now being immersed in Israel’s quarrel with Moses, the Scripture feels like Nathan saying to me, “You are the man.”
If you find yourself in the same place as me, let us not do our best to drown out the painful conviction of the Spirit; rather, let us embrace it for the healing wound that it is and come to Christ, which is exactly where this passage, like all of Scripture, will lead us.
REPITION MEANS PAY ATTENTION // VERSES 1-3 & 7
All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the LORD, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.
If you have a slight sense of déjà vu from reading that verse, you are not alone. We once again begin our passage with an account of where God led the Israelites within the wilderness, and we even have another incident with a lack of water. Indeed, there is enough repetition before us that we ought to begin our study by reminding ourselves of an important principle for reading the Bible: repetition means pay attention.
Too often our eyes gloss over whenever we read the same or similar thing in the Bible, yet we should train ourselves to do the exact opposite. Since we believe that the Bible is the very Word of God, we should take every word with the utmost seriousness. The Infinite God gave to us this revelation of Himself in very finite books. Thus, God was not looking for filler material to meet a designated word count, as I was prone to do in college. Indeed, when we think of all the work and resources it took to write anything down in the ancient world, practicality would urge the author to be as concise as possible. So, whenever anything is repeated in the Bible, we can be assured that it is meant to make us pause to consider why it was deemed necessary.
As I noted in the introduction, I believe that the repetition of Israel’s grumbling against the LORD is intended to be a mirror held up before each us, forcing us to confront how like the Israelites we are.
Of course, there is also another well-used phrase that we can apply here: history doesn’t repeat; it rhymes. Like all good rhymes, this passage follows the same beats as the previous two instances of grumbling, yet it is very clearly a distinct event from them.
‘Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” But the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”‘
Here we find another escalation in their grumbling. First, they quarreled with Moses. This indicates that they were no longer bickering about Moses to themselves; rather, they were openly hostile to him so that in verse 4 Moses feared that they were intending to stone him to death. Second, the people of Israel demanded that water be provided for them. This is no petition of need; it is an entitled demand. Third, Moses was right, therefore, to say that Israel was now testing the LORD.
Of course, the previous two incidents were explicitly said to be the LORD’s testing of Israel. He led them to the bitter waters of Marah and into the wilderness of Sin in order to expose their faith in Him (or lack thereof). Although we are not explicitly told so, we can make the same assumption about God’s leading of Israel to Rephidim. The name Rephidim means “resting place,” and Israel became extremely bitter upon finding no water there. They did not understand that God was trying to teach them what Augustine rightly prayed to the LORD: “You have made us for Your sake, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
Rather than learning that lesson, Israel put the LORD to the test instead, or as Ryken argues, they put God on trial. They made themselves into the LORD’s judges. They were exalting themselves above God and accusing him of bringing them into the desert to die, which is to say that they were following after the pattern of the Accuser himself.
Yet perhaps the greatest evidence that Israel had indeed hardened their hearts here in Meribah (as Psalm 95 says) is found in verse 7 where Rephidim is called Meribah and Massah “because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD by saying, ‘Is the LORD among us or not?'” About this question of the Israelites, Stuart writes:
Had the people said something like, “Does the LORD intend for us to become weaker and weaker while we wait for him to supply us with water?” it would still have been an untrusting statement and evidence of lack of faith. But for the people actually to doubt God’s ‘presence’ among them was outrageously unfaithful. His presence was obviously manifest at all times, as it was at that very time through the pillar of cloud/fire, so the people’s question must be seen as nothing other than a contempt of the Lord’s leadership over them. It would be akin to asking a runner in the midst of running a marathon, “Do you intend to run in this race?” or asking a mother while she is in the kitchen working hard to get the family’s meal ready, “Are we going to have any dinner tonight?” It is an insult. It looks at the obvious and implies by snidely denying it that it is no good. Israel thus incurred God’s wrath and challenged God in a way he could not ignore.
This is why Psalm 95:7-9 gives us this warning:
Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your fathers put me to the test
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
The end of all unrepentant grumbling is a hard, calloused heart that can no longer properly see the goodness of God’s work. Grumbling begins with us complaining about a bitter providence that God bring upon us and ends with us becoming so bitter ourselves that we cannot enjoy even the sweetness of God’s blessings.
Titus 1:15 says, “To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.” I think we could adapt that verse to read something like this: To the thankful, all things are full of joy, but to the grumbling and unbelieving, nothing is joyful; but both their minds and their consciences are embittered. You see, the condition of our heart fundamentally affects how we view everything that happens around us. This is why the antidote to a grumbling and bitter spirit is 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” If even non-Christians are beginning to see the purely physical and psychological benefits of gratitude, how much more ought we to give thanks to God!
WHAT SHALL I DO WITH THIS PEOPLE? // VERSE 4
So Moses cried to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” Here again Moses does what Israel ought to have done by crying out to the LORD. Even so, this time Moses’ cry to God gives us a hint of trouble brewing in the prophet’s heart. Stuart notes:
Even though God did not rebuke him, Moses had handled the people’s protest incorrectly. Previously he had reassured them, taking God’s side and asserting that God would provide for them (16:6-8) or simply acting as their intercessor in bringing their complaint to God (15:25). But here he took seriously the severity of the people’s mind-set and paid special attention to his own welfare above God’s will. Moses understandably feared being stoned because stoning was (and is) such a common way in the Near East of dealing with people seen to be a threat to the survival of a community or of a community’s way of life. Recognized leaders were not above fear of stoning (e.g., Num 14:10; 1 Sam 30:6; John 8:59; Acts 5:26; 7:58; 14:19), and stoning was a legitimate form of legal punishment when one’s crime was thought to be a capital crime against the community (Exod 19:13; Lev 20:2,27; 24:14). In other words, Moses looked here like a person afraid of losing his life for doing his job and showed a lack of confidence in God’s provision for him that is parallel to and resultant from the people’s lack of confidence in God’s provision for them. Accordingly, this rebellion is remembered in Scripture not only as Israel’s (Num 20:13,24; 27:14; Deut 6:16; 9:22; 33:8; Pss 81:7; 95:8; 106:32; Heb 3:8) but Moses’ and Aaron’s (Num 27:14; 20:24; Deut 32:51; Ps 106:32).
Indeed, after Israel refused to enter Canaan and were sentenced to wander for forty years in the wilderness, there is an eerily similar event that occurs:
Now there was no water for the congregation. And they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. And the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the LORD! Why have you brought the assembly of the LORD into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink.” Then Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. And the glory of the LORD appeared to them, and the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” And Moses took the staff from before the LORD, as he commanded him.
Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the LORD, and through them he showed himself holy.Numbers 20:2-13
Moses clearly disobeyed God by striking the rock twice when God told him to simply speak to the rock, and Moses certainly failed to honor God’s holiness through that disobedience. However, Psalm 106:33 says that Israel made Moses’ “spirit bitter, and he spoke rashly with his lips.” What Moses said was just as sinful as what he did. In his bitterness against Israel’s constant rebellion, Moses placed himself alongside God, even suggesting that it was he and the LORD who would bring water from the rock: “shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” Thus, Moses momentarily forgot that he was merely God’s servant and instrument. Whenever I mow the lawn, my wife thanks me, not the lawnmower. Thankfulness ought to be given for the lawnmower, but it can do nothing on its own. Moses was like the lawnmower. He was certainly faithful as God’s servant, yet he could do nothing on his own.
Let us remember that before being sent to Egypt, Moses was utterly terrified by the prospect of speaking on God’s behalf, so that God had to send Aaron to be Moses’ prophet. Clearly, in Numbers 20, Moses had lost that sense of God’s supreme holiness. His sin was the same of Israel’s, so God gave him the same punishment. Moses was so indignant at Israel’s rebellion but failed to see that the same roots of bitterness and unbelief lurked in his heart as well. We certainly ought to take this lesson to heart, for we are never in more danger than when we look down upon the sins of others as being beyond us.
Yet I ultimately bring Numbers 20 into our view so that we might consider where roots of unbelief and bitterness always end. We have already seen this to be true with the Israelites as a whole. Though their grumbling appeared so insignificant at first, it ultimately cost them entrance into the Promised Land and brought many plagues upon them as well. Likewise, Moses’ distancing of himself from Israel here in verse 4 by saying this people appears to be insignificant but proved to be disastrous in the end. Brothers and sisters, let us take care of even our smallest of sins. The wage of all sin is death. If we do not actively kill even the sins that appear to be insignificant, they will, in the end, kill us.
THE TRIAL BEGINS // VERSES 5
And the LORD said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.
Israel was putting the LORD to the test; therefore, God established a trial. The gathering of some of Israel’s elders was the establishment of an authoritative body of witnesses. Verse 6 tells us that Rephidim was apparently at the base of Horeb, which was the mountain upon which the LORD first appeared to Moses in the burning bush. From there, God promised Moses: “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain” (3:12). Thus, being back near the place where God first spoke to him ought to have reminded Moses of God’s faithfulness.
It was also from Horeb that the LORD previously told Moses to gather Israel’s elders and to strike the Nile with his staff. Both of which are purposely evoked again here. Just as God was preparing in Exodus 3 to bring us judgment upon Pharaoh and all of Egypt, He was again making ready to execute judgment, to bring down His wrath upon the wicked. Indeed, reading the words and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile ought to bring God’s warning from 15:26 back into our minds. After Israel’s first grumbling in the wilderness and after God turned the bitter waters of Marah sweet, the LORD warned them:
If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your Healer.
Thus, with this warning in mind, as we read of Moses gathering Israel’s elders with the staff of God’s judgment in his hands, we ought to hear the words and go in fearful expectation. Is this it for Israel? Has the river of the LORD’s patience run dry? Will He now bring His wrath upon them as He did upon Egypt? Was He not justified to do so?
STRIKE THE ROCK // VERSES 6
Yet Yahweh’s instruction continues: Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink. God took Moses and the elders to the rock at Horeb, where the LORD Himself stood before them on the rock. When Moses struck the rock with his staff, water gushed forth, and the people of Israel had their thirst quenched. Let us not leave behind verse 5 and think that this verse simply describes a neat little miracle that God worked for Israel. The striking of the rock with the staff, just as the Nile was struck, is an indication that Moses was indeed dealing God’s judgment once again. And though we rightly expected Israel to be struck, Moses was commanded to strike the rock instead, the rock where God would stand before you. About this phrase, Ryken comments:
The Scripture does not say exactly what this looked like. Perhaps God appeared once again in the cloud of glory. Perhaps he was not even visible at all. But the New Testament makes such a close identification between the rock and Christ that what seems most likely is that God was present in the person of his Son—the pre-incarnate Christ. However he appeared, God was standing there on the rock.
Ryken is referring to the Paul’s startling statement in 1 Corinthians 10:4 about this text, saying, “For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” Jesus’ pre-incarnate presence here should not be as startling to us as it probably is. After all, Jude wrote in his epistle “that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe” (v. 5). Jesus was not sitting in heaven waiting for His incarnation. Just as all things were made through Him and are held together by the word of His power, so Jesus has always been accomplishing the Father’s will. Indeed, if the angel of the LORD is Jesus (as many think), then it was Jesus who spoke to Moses from the burning bush.
Regardless of what Jesus’ presence at the rock actually looked like, it is loaded with significance. As the ESV Study Bible rightly notes, “The command, you shall strike the rock, is thus understood to be God’s command to Moses to strike God himself with the result that God himself is the source of the life-giving water that flowed from the rock.” In other words, the LORD was taking Israel’s judgment upon Himself. In their wickedness, they placed God on trial, yet God in His mercy let the execution be passed onto Him. Israel deserved to receive just as many plagues from God through Moses’ staff as the Egyptians did. They were only spared because God Himself receive their judgment.
Of course, this was Jesus foreshadowing the wrath of God that He would ultimately be struck with upon the cross. We are no less sinful than either the Israelites or the Egyptians and deserve to be afflicted with Yahweh’s divine judgment just as much as they did. We are only spared because Jesus was stricken, smitten, and afflicted in our place, and we are only healed our deep sinfulness of heart through His being wounded for us.
Indeed, just as Moses’ striking of his rock was a symbol of the great work of Christ still to come, the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are our great symbols of what Christ has already done. Through our baptism, we entered the waters of God’s judgment but emerge alive in Christ. Of course, baptism does not justify, but it is rather like our adoption ceremony, where we are formally given our new family name: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit. As a child is only adopted once yet reflects on that day with joy, so it with our baptism.
In the Lord’s Supper, we come to confess our continual need to Christ as our bread of life and the living water. Indeed, just as water came forth from the stricken rock to quench the thirst of the Israelites in the wilderness, this cup that we drink is meant to remind us that Christ the water that quenches the very deepest of our thirst. At this table, we look upon the Rock of Ages who was cleft to be the double cure for our sin: to save from wrath and wash us pure.
 Douglas Stuart, Exodus, 392.
 Stuart, Exodus, 390.