A Most Interesting Reading of Moses at Meribah (Numbers 20)

Recently I stumbled on what might be the most interesting reading of Moses at Mirebah I have seen. It comes from the book Emergency Politics by Bonnie Honig (also on Kindle). In it, she is engaging the theology of Franz Rosenzweig – a contemporary and rival to the German (later Nazi) Carl Schmitt who famously said “” Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.”

In Numbers chpt 20, Miriam passes away. She had been a prophetess for the people and had challenged Moses’ authority on occasion. Immediately after her passing (this will become important) the people realize that there is no water and press Moses and Aaron for solutions. Moses and Aaron step away from the people to seek God and receive instruction to “take the staff and speak to the rock – it will pour out water before their eyes”.

Moses, as you may remember, doesn’t follow instructions to the ‘T’. He ad libs a little bit.  He does indeed gather the people but then he veers from the plan. He chastises the people and then strikes the rock. Two things happen:

  • water does indeed come out
  • God is displeased with Moses and will not let him enter the land that is promised.

I have preached this passage many times and have read lots of treatments. I am intrigued by this passage and have always been unsettled by one detail in the story, which I have never been able to resolve:

why does the Lord tell Moses to take the staff if he is just going to speak to the rock? Why even mention the staff?

Here is where Honig and Rosenzweig bring a unique reading. The staff represent something magical like sorcery – or the miraculous for the early 20th century. This is a political theology and what is at stake in the suspension of law in emergency conditions. Can a sovereign power suspend law in the same way that  God suspends the laws of physics in order to preform miracles? Leaders, being empowered by God, the thinking goes, could suspend ‘normal’ activity if they determined an exceptional circumstance.

In Honig and Rosenzweig’s hermeneutic the dispersed empowerment of the people (multitude) is the location for God’s will and is intended to be home to the will/voice of the Lord. But, as we know, this responsibility had been too overwhelming and was resisted by the people in selecting Moses as a king type who would speak to God for/instead of them (Exodus 20:19). This was an abdication by the people of what the Lord had desired for them as a people – to be prophets all.

This resistance is reinforced when the voice of the people rises in the absence of water, and Moses (along with his brother Aaron) turn away from the ‘stiff necked people’ and receive instruction to speak to the rock. Moses then, probably importing the top-down authoritarianism of his Egyptian upbringing, disobeys the command to speak and instead, chastises the people and strikes the rock with his staff in an act of magical sorcery. God, though it produces water, reprimands this act, and Moses is disallowed from entering the promised-land with the people.

This event is placed within the historical context, earlier in the passage, where Miriam passed away and immediately the people realized that they had no water and held a council against Moses and Aaron. Miriam’s name alludes to water and she was the sister who placed Moses in the Nile’s water when he was an infant. She had been the only one to challenge Moses’ authoritarian ways and she provided, as a prophetess, a check to Moses’ power. Without her, this reading states, Moses proved he will give the people … “not authentic prophecy, but sorcery.” In not recognizing the predictive prophecy of the people (and Miriam), Moses loses his leadership of the people.

Honig utilizes Rosenzweig’s two types of prayer – one that spontaneously arises in a situational moment, and another that is used by the community and creates an openness or receptivity – to analyze the judicial deliberation surrounding the Bush v. Gore presidential ruling. By imagining that the people could have risen up in expectation of a serious effort to count valuable democratic votes instead of waiting for a Schmittian top-down rule from the authorities. The sovereign power might have been within the people prepared for and receptive to the sign instead of what came from above it – a rupture from beyond them. This expectation is foreshadowed within the Mosaic tradition that one day all of the people would be prophets (like Miriam).

Honig asks if this metaphorical reading (which it expressly is)  is a good model for democratic politics and a comparison of the  “state of legal exception to the divine rule of god”. The people, she says, when bound together can give to themselves the powers of state and can again decide to suspend them when, as a multitude, they are oriented and receptive (having been prepared) to the consequences of such action and what they point toward as a sign.

This, in the end, is the problem with magical thinking! We abdicate our power as the people – to be receptive to and bring forward the voice and will of God – in favor of looking to magically empowered leaders to suspend the rules that govern due to exceptional (or emergency) circumstances and hand down solution (metaphorically) through sorcery.

It makes sense then why the Lord even mentions the staff if Moses is ultimately to speak to the rock. It is a metaphor (symbol) of concentrated power that is present but to be resisted in lue of the prophetic possibility of speaking. In that speaking, which is to be located in the people (multitude) prepared by prayer, that a sign is revealed that points to a greater reality. We never hear that voice if a receptive people continually abdicate that potential to exceptional leaders who are expected to provide magical results.

 

Share
If you enjoy all the Homebrewed Christianity Podcasts then consider sending us a donation via paypal. We got bandwidth to buy & audiological goodness to dispense. We will also get a percentage of your Amazon purchase through this link OR you can send us a few and get us a pint!

7 comments
David Smith
David Smith

Hi Bo, You are right, it is important to compare the Numbers and Exodus texts.  In Exodus Moses IS told to strike the rock, but in Numbers told only to speak.  It certainly seems a test on how well Moses is paying attention to and remaining faithful to God's word.  I do appreciate the idea that this might be the point where the people begin to live into the promise of become prophets, spured on by recognizing their lack of real and prophetic water, but I don't think the text really supports it.  1) Yes, the people appear to abdicate their authority to Moses in Exodus 20, but it's not like Moses is Saul.  God has already chosen Moses to lead them, so what they are really doing is conceding to God's choice and not to a leader of their own choice. 2) It is not the people's faith in God that leads them to question Moses and Aaron's leadership, but their lack of faith. 3) Isn't God to blame for the people's magical thinking, and not Moses?  It's God who has the habit of doing the miraculous and bringing water from a rock certainly prophetic.  If God had said that he would lead them to an oasis and Moses said, "nah, I'll get it from this rock instead", then Moses would be complicit in leading people away from God through sorcery.  In the end it doesn't seem that we so much abdicate our power to leaders hoping for a magical solution, but that we do so to those who appear (rightly or wrongly) to be the faithful choice.  It's only when the leader's unfaithfulness is shown that we become aware of a poor choice.  Isn't this how we are to become aware of false prophets?  We will see by their efforts that either they die or the things they speak don't come true.

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

David, I kinda see where you are headed but just let me throw out two things: 1) It only seems like a stretch because you have not entered into the premise. You have kept the Moses-focus and then evaluated on those terms. It would, in a Moses-focus seem like a stretch. But if you let go of that and see the loci of the people then this reading has some merit. 2) I'm not sure Occam's razor was designed for this per se, but if I go with you here - then it seems that if you are right about the staff being a symbol of God's power - then Moses is not acting as if he controls God (as you suggest) but is acting as god (the decider). IT IS IMPORTANT to remember that Moses had already done this one with success in Exodus 17. That time he struck it once.... that is why this second incident is so intriguing . -Bo

David Smith
David Smith

Sorry, I have to agree this seems a bit of a stretch. To apply Occam's Razor it seems the simplest reason for telling Moses to bring his staff is that the staff is a symbol of God's authority. By using the rod to tap the rock, God sees Moses as thinking that he is controlling God, instead of the other way around. My Jewish Study Bible (JPS) notes that Moses and Aaron (and not God) are being blamed for bringing the people into the Wilderness (in vv.4-5). Thus when Moses says "shall we bring water for you out of this rock", he really meant the personal "we", he and Aaron, and not he and God. On the good side, this still fits in with your post on Jesus and the swords. God has given Moses great power (his connection with God as evidenced by the staff), and the temptation to use it was just too great. On a side note, I find it interesting that Aaron's stick is called a rod, while Moses' is called a staff. Hmmm... I wonder if David is alluding to something else when he mentions "Thy rod and Thy staff"? Peace

Damien Parks
Damien Parks

"...concentrated power that is present but to be resisted..." great line. I have seen this tension present in SO many areas during my time in ministry. thanks for posting this and the Honig book has been ordered.

tad delay
tad delay

Bo, I think the lesson you get at in your last paragraph is a fantastic analogue for to how Schmitt had to repent later in life. His earlier work on sovereignty naturally lead him to support fascism, but in the aftermath of that, he meets the Pauline anarchism of Taubes. Schmitt ends up understanding that citizenship itself has to be taken somewhat lightly (or located in the kingdom of god, as Taubes says) in order to avoid absolute trust in a single leader. I'm still kindof new to Schmitt and Taubes, but I think there are some good connections here worth thinking on.

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

By strained do you mean contentious? or do you mean forced? It is definitely the former - but not as much the latter :) all it requires (initially) is to a priori commit to the idea that the authority resides in the people and God wills this. Then every concession is either a temporary measure or a deviation. (that is my take on it anyway) Once that initial commitment is in place, reading from there does indeed get interesting !! -Bo

Craig L. Adams
Craig L. Adams

Yes, that is interesting. I need to think about it a little more. It seems a bit strained, really.