Hit That Rock
Some thirty-eight years after wandering in the wilderness, it appears that Israel once again returns to the oasis at Kadesh, the place from which the spies had been set out (12:16; 13:26). The death of Miriam here serves as a solemn reminder that none of the rebellious generation who came out of Egypt would enter Canaan, and foreshadows the similar fate that was to befall her brothers, Aaron and Moses (20:12; 24-29; Deut. 34).
Challenges Moses Faced
First there is the death of his sister Miriam (20:1). Secondly, even after 38 years of wandering and continual correction by God and vindication of Moses, the people have not humbled themselves nor have they exhausted their complaints.
“If only we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord!”(20:2-3). What a horrible attitude, the Israelites avowed that they would rather have died when their relatives were struck down by the Lord’s anger (16:32-35). Here they are on the verge of the Promised Land and yet they wished they were dead. In addition, they viewed the people who had previously perished in rebellion to God as “brothers”. The idea seems to be that they identified themselves far more with dead apostates than with the living and faithful Moses. In the next verse (20:4), we find that they are still telling the old worn out story of… “Why did you ever deliver us from Egypt?” Much like the miserable and ungrateful believer who complains that learning the truth has ruined their chances to enjoy a carefree life in sin. Nothing has been learned over the almost forty years of seeing God’s power and His daily provision of the manna has had zero impact upon the hearts of these people. The third complaint is found in the next verse, “It is not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates” (20:5). The idea is that Moses and Aaron have been doing nothing but lying about the supposed “Promised Land” and that their preaching has been one big scam.
“Fell on their Faces”: 20:6
This occurrence seems to reveal their desire that Moses and Aaron intercede for the people for fear that God would wipe them out for such ingratitude. It’s quite understandable that Moses and Aaron are completely frustrated with 40 years of absolutely no spiritual progress with a particular generation. I stand amazed that God does not at this point simply remove such complainers from the face of the earth, rather, He ever so graciously will bring water from the rock for them.
“Take the Rod”: 20:8
This rod had been before the Lord, that is, placed in the tabernacle. This is probably the same rod that had been used in the presence of Pharaoh during the plagues and which was used when parting the Red Sea (Exodus 14:16). Notice at this point how taking the rod had nothing to do with using it. The rod was to be taken with them, yet he was clearly instructed to speak to the rock. There is a valuable lesson here about not jumping to a conclusion or seeing only part of a command. Moses focused on taking the rod and forgot about “speaking to the rock”. Just like some people today only see “believe” in Mark 16 and completely miss “and is baptized” in the same verse.
“Struck the rock twice”: 20:11
Moses appears to be clearly frustrated with the people that he rightly labels as “rebels” (20:10), in fact, they had never ceased to be rebels for the entire forty year journey.
“Because you have not believed Me”: 20:12
Many commentators are completely puzzled as to why God is so harsh with Moses or why his actions were called “unbelief” on this occasion. The reason for this failure to comprehend is that most people, even religious people, do not understand what it truly means to believe in God. Failure to carry out God’s orders with precision is itself a lack of faith. Moses had been told to speak to the rock (20:8), yet he struck it two times (20:11). Some religious scholars attempt to contrast faith and obedience, or argue that a careful adherence to the text is legalism, yet this distinction is unknown in the Scriptures. Rather, obedience is always linked with love and faith (John 14:15).
“Faith is the correct response to God’s word, whether it is a word of promise or a word of command... The opposite of faith is rebellion or disobedience... Thus Moses’ failure to carry out the Lord’s instructions precisely was as much an act of unbelief as the people’s failure to trust God’s promises instead of the spies pessimistic reports (Numbers 14:11). Both were punished by exclusion from the Land of Promise” (Wenham, p. 150). Compare with John 3:36; Hebrews 3:18-19; and 1 Samuel 15:22-23.
Disobedience is also failing to treat God as holy (20:12). When we ignore, change or add to what God has said, we are indeed treating God with disrespect, and are treating His word as so common as to be dispensable. When we allow our anger, frustrations, disappointments, and human opinions to overrule Scripture, we are equally detracting from the glory of God. Harrison notes, “They (Moses and Aaron) acted as though they possessed the power to produce water from the rock (“we”) (2:10)” (p. 267). God will later point out that the words of Moses on this occasion were rash (Psalm 106:32-33). We need to remember this lesson. The temptation to lash out or express our anger is often a desire to put ourselves in the spotlight and highlight our own feelings. In hitting the rock Moses put the spotlight on himself – rather than on God where it belonged.
What is the Big Deal?
Various writers have noted that a command like “speak to the rock” is a command not rooted in moral obligations (towards others), and it may be one reason why God at times was hard on people who violated commands that were not rooted in any sort of moral obligation (other than to serve God). Because such a command is an absolute test of loyalty, for the command really has nothing to do with how to treat other people and failure to obey the command may not even harm anyone else. The only reason or sole motivation then for obeying such a command is a loyalty and love for God. Therefore, the man or woman who will obey such laws is truly a believer and lover of God. Such laws are tests of our true loyalty because they reveal whether or not we will obey God when the only motivation for obedience is our loyalty and love for Him. One might argue that hitting the rock can work or should work just as well as speaking to the rock, but when God says speak to the rock, then the test is whether or not we will completely trust Him on this point. Such laws then become the highest test of respect for divine authority, and violation of such laws reveal in our hearts a spirit of disobedience at that moment. This is one reason why people who appear to be sincere believers can at the same time be rebels in relation to God’s word (Matthew 7:22-23). Hell will contain many “good moral people” who kept various moral laws because of various incentives and reasons, but who equally ignored and violated other commands of God, like the command to be baptized (Mark 16:16), assemble (Hebrews 10:25), or honoring how the Lord’s church is to be organized (1 Peter 5:1-3).
Lessons to be Learned: Romans 15:4
This example gives us a clear picture of how we are to regard His instructions. Every word is important. God does not argue that we can take the text of Scripture too seriously (2 Timothy 2:15; Matthew 5:17-18).
How a command is carried out is extremely important to God if He has been specific. Speaking to the rock excluded all other options.
The details of a command matter if God provided those details.
We are expected to obey even when we have endured an extremely bad day, week or year. Moses had experienced the loss of his sister and then endured one false accusation after another, and yet God did not cut him any slack when it came to obeying a command. I think this is one place where we tend to do the opposite. At times if we are having a bad day we will justify our poor attitude by saying something like, “Well, everyone is just going to have to accept my mood right now because of what I have been through today”.
Application to Instrumental Music
Some have tried to argue that Biblical commands do not “exclude” other options, rather they only include. So when God commanded us to “sing” in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, some would argue that the command to “sing” does not exclude instrumental music but only includes it. That is, we can sing “and play”. Yet this is clearly not how God has viewed His commands in the past. In Numbers 20 the command to speak to the rock did not include anything else and it certainly did not include hitting the rock. Thus, if speaking to the rock did not include hitting the rock, then singing does not include playing.
As we close the chapter we learn that though Aaron is not allowed to enter the Promised land, his death is far from violent. Aaron was 123 years old when he died (33:39), and Israel legitimately honored him for his contributions. He was not a perfect man, but he did have the desire to serve God even after committing some serious offenses. Hence, the right attitude toward our sins is what enables imperfect people to be saved (1 John 1:8-10). If Aaron could be saved, then certainly we too, upon our repentance, can approach the throne of grace with confidence.