Crossfunction: February 2012

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Numbers 20: Moses and the misery of law without mercy

1 And the people of Israel, the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there. 2 Now there was no water for the congregation; and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. 3 And the people contended with Moses, and said, "Would that we had died when our brethren died before the LORD! 4 Why have you brought the assembly of the LORD into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? 5 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." 6 Then Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the door of the tent of meeting, and fell on their faces. And the glory of the LORD appeared to them, 7 and the LORD said to Moses, 8 "Take the rod, 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; so you shall give drink to the congregation and their cattle." 9 And Moses took the rod from before the LORD, as he commanded him. 10 And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, "Hear now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?" 11 And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his rod twice; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their cattle. 12 And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, "Because you did not believe in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them. 13 These are the waters of Mer'ibah, where the people of Israel contended with the LORD, and he showed himself holy among them... 23 And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron at Mount Hor, on the border of the land of Edom, 24 "Aaron shall be gathered to his people; for he shall not enter the land which I have given to the people of Israel, because you rebelled against my command at the waters of Mer'ibah. "

Numbers 20:1-13,23-24 RSV
This passage reminds me of the incident back in Exodus 4:24-26, in which we are told that God almost killed Moses, apparently because Moses had failed to circumcise his son. In that case circumcision, the rite of initiation into the Old Covenant, was at the heart of the matter. This time, the peoples' thirst for water and their anger toward Moses drive Moses and Aaron to present themselves to God, Who promises to miraculously provide water from a rock. But Moses does not seem to mediate God's gift as God desired. He does not speak to the rock, nor does he explain to the people the merciful character of God's gift. Rather, he invokes God's gift in a violent display of anger and condemnation. The people perhaps deserved rebuke for their weakness of faith, but God's mercy was obscured by Moses' rash words (cf. Psalm 106:32-33). Aaron is silent but apparently complicit in Moses' actions.

This incident cost both of them the privilege of entering into the promised land. But even in this punishment God's mercy is not lacking. He reveals to Moses and Aaron exactly why they are to be punished, giving them the knowledge and opportunity to repent in the time left to them.