Commentators have long wondered about Moses’ mysterious sin at the rock in Kadeish (Numbers 20:1-13), the sin that caused yhvh to decree the death penalty for both Moses and Aaron (Numbers 27:12-14; Deuteronomy 32:48-51). The Torah relates that the Israelites arrived at Kadeish, where Miriam died, and that there was no water. The people then complained to Moses.
And yhvh spoke to Moses saying: “Take the staff and convene the Assembly, you and Aaron your brother, and you shall speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will give its water, and you shall bring forth for them water from a rock . . . .” (Numbers 20:7-8)
And Moses took the staff from before yhvh, as he commanded him, and Moses and Aaron convened the congregation before the face of the rock, and he said to them: “Listen now, rebels! Out of this rock we shall bring forth for you water.” And Moses raised his hand, and he struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came forth greatly. . . . (Numbers 20:9-11) These are the Waters of Contention [at] which the descendants of Israel strove with yhvh . . . . (Numbers 20:13)
And yhvh said to Moses and to Aaron . . . , saying: “Aaron shall be gathered to his people [(i.e., he shall die)], for he shall not come to the land . . . , because you [plural] defied [the word of] my mouth at the Waters of Contention.” (Numbers 20:23-24) And yhvh said to Moses: “Ascend to this mountain of the Hebrews . . . , and you shall be gathered to your people — also you — just as Aaron your brother was gathered, because you defied [the word of] my mouth in the Wilderness of Tzin, in the strife of the Assembly, [failing] to cause me to be sanctified in the waters before their eyes; they are the Waters of Contention, Kadeish, Wilderness of Tzin.” (Numbers 27:12-14)
In short, yhvh told Moses that he and Aaron should “speak to the rock” to obtain “its waters.” Instead, Moses angrily called the congregation “rebels,” after which “Moses raised his hand, and he struck (vayakh) the rock with his staff twice,” bringing forth “abundant waters.” (Numbers 20:11) yhvh then condemned Moses and Aaron to die. (Numbers 20:23-24, 27:12-14; Deuteronomy 32:48-51)
For centuries, readers have probed this text, looking for some hint about the sin that would justify such a harsh decree. Moses was certainly disobedient — that is, Moses struck the rock instead of speaking to the rock — but his disobedience hardly seems to merit the death penalty for both him and Aaron. Why does yhvh decree the death penalty for the act of merely striking a rock?
The prophet Isaiah discloses the secret: “A man was . . . like a shadow, a heavy rock in a land of thirst.” (Isaiah 32:2.) Kadeish was “a land of thirst” — a land, that is, where the people had no water to drink — and Isaiah is telling us that the “rock” in that land was really a man. And Ali ibn Abi Talib, the successor to the prophet Muhammad, discloses the same secret: “An ignorant man is a rock from which no water flows.” (J.A. Chapman, Maxims of Ali (1963), p. 25.) In other words, the “rock” in Kadeish that would not give forth its water was really an “ignorant man.”
Photo credit: Pierre Richer
Moreover, the verb vayakh (“and he struck”), which is the verb the Torah uses to describe Moses’ striking of the rock in Kadeish, means “to strike down” or “to slay,” not merely to “hit.”
With the benefit of these clues, we recognize the truth about the sin at the rock: Moses and Aaron were opposed by members of the Assembly, Moses angrily called these opponents “rebels,” and he struck down the leader of the rebellious cabal, who sought to replace Aaron as Chief Priest. And we later learn that this rebel leader — the man whom the Torah euphemistically calls the “Rock” — was a prominent member of the tribe of Levi, for at the end of Moses’ life, when he is blessing the various tribes, he says to the tribe of Levi: “Your Tumim and your Urim are for the man of your devotion [(i.e., for the Chief Priest, Aaron)] whom . . . you disputed at the Waters of Contention.’ ” (Deuteronomy 33:8) And the book of Psalms adds yet another detail about this tragic and deadly confrontation. Moses did not merely strike down a man in anger; he also blurted out God’s secret name when doing so, thus committing not only homicide but blasphemy: “They provoked at the Waters of Contention, and it was bad for Moses because of them, for they defied his spirit, and he pronounced [God’s secret name] with his lips.” (Psalms 106:32-33.) “My Word is like fire, declares yhvh, and like a hammer that explodes a rock.” (Jeremiah 23:29.)
Significantly, the book of Numbers explicitly confirms Moses’ act of blasphemy. First, it reveals in chapter 15 the euphemistic code it will use to signal that someone is a blasphemer — “the soul that acts with a raised hand, . . . he is a blasphemer of yhvh” (Numbers 15:30) — and then it tells us in chapter 20 that “Moses raised his hand, and he struck the Rock with his staff twice . . . .” (Numbers 20:11) The Torah could not be more clear that in striking down the “Rock” in Kadeish, Moses was “a blasphemer of yhvh.” (For more detail on Moses’ act of blasphemy, click here.)
It appears, then, that Moses struck down the leader of a group of Levite rebels by means of a blasphemous curse, a curse that invoked God’s secret name in anger, causing the rebel leader to die an unnatural death. And that, of course, is exactly what Moses did in the case of Korach, the Levite who aspired to be Chief Priest and led a rebel band that opposed the leadership of Moses and Aaron:
And Moses said [before Korach]: “If yhvh creates a new creation, and the soil opens its mouth and swallows them and all that is theirs, and they descend alive to the netherworld, then you will know that these men provoked yhvh.” And it was, when he finished speaking all these words, the soil that was beneath them split, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their houses and all the people that were for Korach and all the possessions, and they . . . descended alive to the netherworld . . . . (Numbers 16:30-33)
Here then is the secret: Moses’ sin at the rock is a retelling of his confrontation with Korach, and we learn from the rock incident that for standing together and cursing Korach to die, Moses and Aaron suffered the death penalty. But the secret of the sin at the rock is even more incredible, for Moses and Aaron do not merely suffer death — they are in fact executed and die as martyrs. That assertion may seem incredible, but the evidence in its support is hard to refute.
According to the rule set forth in the Torah itself, every utterance of a genuine prophet manifests itself as an actual event in the world. (See Deuteronomy 18:22; see also Genesis 31:32, 35:19; Isaiah 55:10-11.) Thus, for example, Jacob foretold the death of Rachel when he rashly uttered the words “with whom you find your idols, he will
not live” (Genesis 31:32), for Rachel was the one who had Laban’s idols, and she soon died (Genesis 31:34, 35:18-20). With this principle in mind, it is worth noting the exasperated statement Moses made about the Israelite people shortly after he and the Israelites left Egypt: “Moses cried out to yhvh, saying, ‘What will I do for this people? In a little while they will stone me!’ ” (Exodus 17:4, italics added; see also Numbers 14:10.) Moses, of course, was a genuine prophet whose every utterance necessarily came true. In a little while, therefore, they do stone him.
You are invited to read Parts Four and Five of Torah Nondualism: Diversity, Conflict, and Synthesis in the Pentateuch to learn many more clues about the martyrdom of Moses and Aaron, after which you can evaluate the evidence for yourself.
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Copyright © 2011 James H. Cumming