Judgment at Meribah

A Need for Water

“There was no water for the congregation: and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron” (Numbers 20:2, ASV unless otherwise noted).

Judgement at Meribah

The 40th year of wandering in Sinai began with behavior by the ancient Israelites that we might have thought had been excised by Jehovah earlier in their wilderness trek of the newly freed Israelites. Yet, astonishingly, many in this new generation did not heed the lessons of history. The immediate and recurring problem, one seen previously, is stated succinctly in the scripture above.

A New Generation

Twice, in the first year of their wandering (Exodus 15 and 17), that first generation of Israelites had run out of water and murmured to Moses about it. Twice, Jehovah provided what they needed. There were valuable lessons there; evidently, that generation learned the lessons, for we do not see that particular complaint again until the end of 40 years. However, by this 40th year, most of that first generation had died in accordance with God’s judgment (Numbers 14:29). This new generation, who did not personally experience Jehovah’s discipline, did not take the lessons of their elders to heart. They fell into the same behavior of faithlessness that had cost their elders so dearly.

“The people strove with Moses, and spake, saying, Would that we had died when our brethren died before Jehovah! And why have ye brought the assembly of Jehovah into this wilderness, that we should die there, we and our beasts? And wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in unto this evil place? it is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink” (Numbers 20:3‑5).

This was a significant confrontation. The account says they gathered “against” Moses and Aaron. This was not just a peaceful dialog. Instead, it was antagonistic and fraught with accusations of incompetence and strife.

One of the baffling things, which continues to amaze us, is their seemingly total lack of awareness of God’s providential and powerful hand in their travels. The pillar of fire and the cloud clearly marks a power and intelligence beyond that of Moses and Aaron. The daily feeding of manna, including the Sabbath exception, was another indicator of supernatural oversight. Add to this that their clothing and shoes did not wear out. How could the Israelites err so severely as to find fault with Moses and Aaron?

Perhaps the answer is found in the “normalcy” of these supernatural occurrences. Most of the Israelites had grown up with these things, and perhaps no longer thought of them as extraordinary and miraculous. Paul writes that the people failed because of “unbelief” (Hebrews 3:19). That may be the simple answer.

“And Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly unto the door of the tent of meeting, and fell upon their faces: and the glory of Jehovah appeared unto them” (Numbers 20:6). Moses and Aaron did not try to converse with this mob at this point. It is impossible to reason with such a group of emotionally charged individuals. Instead, they left them and went to the door of the tent of meeting. Their reverent actions show a humble appeal to Jehovah when they “fell upon their faces.” This was immediately met with the appearance of the “glory of Jehovah.”

The discontented Israelites must have seen the appearance of Jehovah’s “glory.” Surely, it gave them an opportunity to consider how they had addressed Moses and Aaron.

It is interesting that, in this instance, Jehovah’s wrath was not manifest toward this group of complainers. Why were they not punished? Although the attitudes of these Israelites left much to be desired, their complaint concerned a real issue, a real need, namely the lack of water. Perhaps God saw that this new generation of Israelites needed to build faith for the upcoming conquest of the land. He thus directed Moses and Aaron in the resolution of this problem.

“Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Take the rod, and assemble the congregation, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes, that it give forth its water; and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock; so thou shalt give the congregation and their cattle drink” (Numbers 20:7, 8).

Forty Years Earlier

This later experience resembles how Jehovah dealt with the lack of water nearly 40 years earlier. He had told Moses to strike a rock, and the water came out (Exodus 17). Here at Kadesh, the rock was again to become the source of the water. But now Moses was told to “speak” to the rock, not to strike it. Why was Jehovah’s command different this time?

We know from Paul’s words that the experiences of Israel were typical. They prefigured experiences of the church doing the Gospel Age. “These things happened unto them by way of example [type]; and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages are come” (1 Corinthians 10:11).

Could it be that Jehovah intended this second experience to be a different type than Moses’ previous experience with the rock?

Whatever was the original intention of the type, Moses did not carry out Jehovah’s exact instructions and it would cost him dearly. “Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said unto them, Hear now, ye rebels; shall we bring you forth water out of this rock? And Moses lifted up his hand, and smote the rock with his rod twice … water came forth abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their cattle” (Numbers 20:10, 11).

Two unfortunate outcomes arose from this disobedience to Jehovah’s command. First, Moses asked, “Shall we bring you forth water out of this rock?” While we can empathize with Moses in his frustration and anger toward these ignorant and unthankful people, in this case it appears that he did not exercise the meekness he was known for. Jehovah was the one providing the water, not Moses and Aaron. By saying “we,” Moses failed to attribute the necessary reverence and worship to God.

Secondly, Moses disobeyed Jehovah’s explicit instructions to “speak” to the rock. Instead, he struck it, twice. Disobedience to God’s commandment is never permissible nor advisable. Moses should have known better. In doing so, he spoiled the original type intended by God, but he provided a different type — to his regret.

Although Israel got the needed water, there was a sad reckoning for Moses and Aaron. “Jehovah said unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed not in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them” (Numbers 20:12).

What a disheartening punishment! After leading the people for 40 years, Moses and Aaron were prohibited from entering the Promised Land! It is always vital to fully obey God’s commandments. Sad too is how heavy the punishments of God can be for those who know to obey Him, but do not do so.

The account ends with the following epilogue: “These are the waters of Meribah; because the children of Israel strove with Jehovah, and he was sanctified in them” (Numbers 20:13).

Two Different Locations

“Meribah” means “quarrel, provocation, or strife” (Strong’s 4808, 4809). In Exodus 17 it describes the place the initial strife about water took place. In this case it is appended with another name. “He called the name of the place Massah, and Meribah, because of the striving of the children of Israel, and because they tempted Jehovah, saying, Is Jehovah among us, or not?” (Exodus 17:7).

These different experiences share the name “Meribah,” but they were in two different locations. The first location, “Massah and Meribah,” was situated at the foot of Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai. The area was called Rephidim and the Israelites camped there shortly after their deliverance from Pharaoh. The circumstances were similar to what happened at Kadesh; they had no water, and testing and strife occurred. The outcome was identical: Moses struck a rock and the needed water came out.

This was the trial of that first generation that the Psalmist describes: “Harden not your heart, as at Meribah, As in the day of Massah in the wilderness; When your fathers tempted me, Proved me, and saw my work. Forty years long was I grieved with that generation, And said, It is a people that do err in their heart, And they have not known my ways: Wherefore I sware in my wrath, That they should not enter into my rest” (Psalms 95:8‑11).

The location of the second Meribah was in the wilderness of Zin, closer to the Promised Land. And, as we have observed, it was a trial of the new generation in the last year of their wandering. But the outcome of this trial included greater consequences for Moses and Aaron.

This is documented in scripture: “because ye trespassed against me in the midst of the children of Israel at the waters of Meribah of Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin; because ye sanctified me not in the midst of the children of Israel. For thou shalt see the land before thee; but thou shalt not go thither into the land which I give the children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 32:51, 52). “They angered him also at the waters of Meribah, So that it went ill with Moses for their sakes; Because they were rebellious against his spirit, And he spake unadvisedly with his lips” (Psalms 106:32, 33).

Lessons for the New Creation

Considering these accounts, there are at least three important lessons for the New Creation.

● First, obedience to God’s commands is paramount. We can never hope to come into our Promised Land, heaven itself, as members of the little flock, without total and unhesitating obedience to God. We are indeed permitted, day by day, to offer sacrifices to God, which He accepts. But sacrifice is never more important than obedience. “Samuel said, Hath Jehovah as great delight in burnt‑offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of Jehovah? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22).

When God, in His divine omniscience, withholds some blessing from us, we must never murmur or blame others. Rather, trust Jehovah’s providence and, with full faith, watch for His provisions to come in His due time.

● The second lesson is humility. Moses, for a moment, lost the humility that had so long characterized his life. Taking Jehovah’s authority to himself in the words “shall we bring,” was a step toward thinking too much of himself.

The Lord’s people must never permit their attitudes of humble service to turn into personal ownership. Pastor Russell had a constructive observation on this. “So many and so great are our privileges in connection with the knowledge of the Lord and his glorious plan, that if we for one moment think of these as being in any sense of the word our own, we begin to lose our humility and to be in danger of the sin of pride and self‑assertion. Our only safety is in continually watching and praying … lest we should think of the truths we are honoring as being in any sense our own” (R4047).

● Third, the experiences of ancient Israel in the wilderness were typical. Consequently, as New Creatures, we do well to seek to understand and apply these antitypical lessons.

If we consider God’s original instruction that Moses “speak” unto the rock, that action may have typified that petitions to the “rock,” Jesus, will result in the flowing of water of truth. It is true for the church now and will be true for mankind in the Kingdom. It is not necessary for the “rock” to be smitten again. That type was already enacted in Exodus 17 and was fulfilled in the once-only death of Jesus on the cross.

“In this he spoiled a type, while he made another type. Christ Jesus, the true Rock, was to be smitten but once for our sins, and as a result of that one smiting at Calvary the water of life would be obtained for all true Israelites to all time; and if for a season the flow was stopped it was only necessary that the Rock should be invoked in the name of the Lord, that the waters might again flow forth. Christ dieth no more death has no dominion over him; therefore in the type the Rock should not have been smitten a second time. But the second smiting, nevertheless, made a new type, because as the apostle explains, there are some now who crucify Christ afresh, and put him to an open shame — some of his professed followers denying or ignoring the value of the original sacrifice, denying the blood that bought them, are counted as committing the sin unto death — Second Death — and of these Moses became a type, and as a type of a class which would have to do with the antitype of the rock, he was debarred from Canaan” (R3077).

“As touching those who were once enlightened and tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the holy Spirit, and tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the age to come, and then fell away, it is impossible to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame” (Hebrews 6:4‑6).

“These are they who are hidden rocks in your love‑feasts when they feast with you, shepherds that without fear feed themselves; clouds without water, carried along by winds; autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, plucked up by the roots” (Jude 12). Just as Moses, in this type, failed to gain entrance to the Promised Land, this class fails to gain life altogether.

Despite the disobedience of Moses, the needed water still flowed. Jehovah knew His responsibility to the covenanted nation and fulfilled it. God’s faithfulness to His people always abides. As Paul taught, “if we are faithless, he abideth faithful; for he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).

We might also consider a further application lesson in this regard. The church during the Gospel Age is the body of Christ and they have been persecuted, smitten, throughout the age. “We are pressed on every side, yet not straitened; perplexed, yet not unto despair; pursued, yet not forsaken; smitten down, yet not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8, 9). It is the sacrificial privileges and sin‑offering experiences of the little flock that qualify and enable them to dispense the waters of truth to the world of mankind in the Kingdom.

The judgment at Meribah was a terrible disappointment for Moses. But let us remember something very comforting. From Moses’ perspective, the moment of the closing of his eyes in death will seem to be immediately followed by the opening of his eyes in human perfection at the beginning of the Mediatorial Kingdom — since there is no sense of the passage of time in the grave. The span of more than three millennia will appear to pass in an instant. Moses’ supreme disappointment will be quickly followed by supreme joy!1

(1) Martin Luther in a sermon on June 7, 1523, said “And when people shall be resurrected, it will seem to Adam and to the old fathers, as though they had been living only a half an hour before.” Walch 12, pages 2456‑2467. Erlangen, German Writings, First Edition, Volume 18, pages 261‑268, Second Edition, Mount Nebo Memorial Volume 17, pages 48‑56.

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