Imagine the angst you would feel if you were caught in a desert place with your children in tow, but no water and no visible means of attaining any. Imagine if you were there at the behest of a man who had promised you entry into a land of plenty, yet without water whatever dreams you had and whatever credibility he had would both evaporate like the dry well before you.
I would bet you would have something to say to the man who led you there. And indeed the people of Israel did just that. “Why did you bring the Lord’s community into this desert, that we and our livestock should die here? Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!" (Numbers 20:4-5 NIV)
The rest of the account shows a frustrated Moses twice striking a rock with a staff in order to miraculously produce water for a parched people, angry at their outburst, in contradiction to God’s instructions to speak to the rock, and claiming credit for the result (“Must we bring water for you out of this rock?” – verse 9).
All of which betrays a disgusted Moses calling his own people a pack of rebels because they complained of having no water while in desperate need of some.
Being a bit of an iconoclast in Biblical exegesis, I tend to reject the standard commentary surrounding this passage. Most commentary agrees with Moses’ assessment that the people were in a bad attitude, indeed a pack of rebels, because they, their families, and their livestock were in danger of dying of thirst and daring to call their leadership to account for it.
I know they should have trusted God for deliverance because he had promised just that, but I know that I would not have done much better in those circumstances and probably a lot worse given my cushy lifestyle compared to their rugged existence. For a people hardened by forty years in the desert, this situation must have been a terrible one for them to complain so. I have been known to whine about less!
Here is what God said to Moses about their predicament. “Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink." (Verse 8)
I might be missing something, but I don’t hear even a whiff of condemnation in God’s comments. Essentially, he is telling Moses to get the people some water. For whatever reason, Moses’ empathy for the people’s plight was lost in a fit of anger. The people were thirsty, but Moses could see only their challenge against his personal integrity. “Must we bring you water from this rock?” But it was God who was bringing the water. To him the glory should be.
Maybe this reading is a stretch, and maybe not. But I am sure of one thing, that God has more compassion than Moses. In fact, he has more understanding of all our tribulations than we might think. Hebrews tells us that we “do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are-yet was without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15 NIV) He understands, and maybe God was frustrated with Moses because Moses did not. And maybe God gets frustrated with all leadership when it ceases to identify with the travails of the folks.