Thursday of week 18 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Num 20:1-13

Yesterday’s reading is followed in Numbers by a long section of laws governing sacrifices, powers of priests and Levites (chaps 15-19 incl).
The main theme of the section we are entering is the steady advance of God’s chosen people despite all opposition on their part. Today is the final passage we will be taking from the book and is an account of another sad confrontation between Yahweh and his people.
The Israelites are very near the end of their long journey.
We are told that the whole community of the Israelites arrived at the desert of Zin on the first month of the year and that the people settled in Kadesh. The desert of Zin was a barren region with a few good oases, lying southwest of the Dead Sea.
It is the first month but we are not told in which year. However, based on earlier information, we are led to the conclusion that this passage begins in the 40th year after the Exodus. Those people over 20 years of age, whom the Lord said would not enter the Promised Land because of their disobedience at Kadesh (cf. yesterday’s reading), have now all died.
The larger part of the desert wandering is left without record. The people may have gone through a cycle of roving travels, seeking water sources and the sparse vegetation, supported primarily by manna. But their circular wanderings would bring them back to the central camp at Kadesh, the scene of their great rebellion when, on the very borders of the Promised Land, they refused to enter it (yesterday’s reading). They have now come full circle; once again, the land of promise lies before them.
Here Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, died and was buried.
When they got back to Kadesh, there was no water for the community and, as happened so often before, the people held a council, putting the blame on Moses and Aaron for their situation.
Forty years earlier, the Lord had instructed Moses to take the staff he had used to strike the Nile (turning it to blood – one of the Ten Plagues, Exod 7:17) and to strike the rock at Horeb [Sinai] to initiate a flow of water (Ex 17:1-7). Now, 40 years later, at the place of Israel’s worst acts of rebellion, the scene was recurring. The descendants of the rebellious nation now desire to die along with their parents; they have learnt nothing from their 40 years of wandering.
They ask: Why did Moses brings Yahweh’s own people and their flocks into a desert place to die? Why were they taken out of Egypt in the first place? Where they are now it is impossible to sow crops, there is no fruit, no vines – and not even water to drink.
Leaving the assembly, Moses and Aaron went to the Tent of Meeting which was at some distance from the encampment. As they fell on their faces, the glory of the Lord appeared to them. He was aware of their problem and why they had come looking for him. He immediately gave them instructions:
Moses, with Aaron, was told to take the staff and gather the people together. Then, in full view of the people, he was to speak to the rock and order it to release its water.
Although Moses was told to take his staff, through which God had performed wonders in Egypt and in the desert all these years, this time he was told just to speak to the rock and it would pour out its water for the people.
Moses and Aaron would then release the water from the rock and provide drink for the whole community and its livestock.
Moses then took the staff from before Yahweh, as instructed, and called the assembly together in front of the rock.
He then said to the gathered people: “Listen now, you rebels. Shall we make water gush from this rock for you?” His calling them ‘rebels’ is an indication of years of accumulated anger, exasperation and frustration of 40 years with this rebellious people.
Moses then raised his hand and struck the rock twice with the staff. In his rage Moses disobeyed the Lord’s instruction only to speak to the rock.
Immediately, water gushed out in abundance and people and animals alike were able to drink.
However, Moses’ rash action brought a stern rebuke from the Lord. Yahweh said to Moses: “Because you were not faithful to me in showing forth my holiness before the Israelites, you shall not lead this community into the land I will give them.” ‘In showing forth my holiness’ is an allusion to the name Kadesh, which means ‘sanctified, sacred’. God’s holiness was offended by Moses’ rash action, for he had not shown proper deference to God’s presence. The sin of Moses and Aaron seems to consist in doubting God’s mercy toward the ever-rebelling people.
And Moses is punished by not being allowed to bring the people, whom he had faithfully led for 40 years, into the Promised Land. At first sight, it seems a very severe punishment for something relatively minor.

In fact, the full nature of Moses’ sin is not altogether clear. Perhaps something less creditable to Moses has been suppressed. It is possible that the punishment really belongs to the refusal to enter Canaan (described in yesterday’s reading) which Moses may have endorsed because it was deemed too dangerous. It would have been a serious lack of trust in God’s promise to protect his people, more serious than his striking the rock twice at Meribah.
Whatever the explanation, the result is sure: neither Aaron nor Moses would enter the Promised Land. Of their contemporaries only Joshua and Caleb would survive to enter the land.
The author closes with a final comment. These were the Waters of Meribah, where the Israelites laid the blame on Yahweh and where, by their means, he asserted his holiness. Meribah means ‘contention’.
And whatever the right interpretation, the words of today’s Responsorial Psalm provide an excellent lesson for us:
If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts…
harden not your hearts as at Meribah,
as on that the day of Massah in the desert,
where your fathers tempted me;
they tested me though they had seen my works.
Like the Israelites, it is so easy for us to forget the good things God has done for us just because we have run into some difficulties.
Once again, let us count our blessings.


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