In this post, I’m going to talk some about Jacob Milgrom’s Excursus 50 in his Jewish Publication Society commentary on the Book of Numbers. The Excursus is entitled, “Magic, Monotheism, and the Sin of Moses (20:1-13)”. In Numbers 20:8, God commands Moses to speak to the rock before the eyes of the children of Israel, and then water will come out. Instead, Moses asks the children of Israel if we (Moses and Aaron) will bring out water. Then, Moses strikes the rock, and water comes out. But God then excludes Moses from entering the Promised Land because Moses did not sanctify God before Israel.
God told Moses to speak “to” the rock. Or so say many translations. But Jacob Milgrom discusses some alternative understandings of Numbers 20:8 by the Jewish thinker, Ramban. Ramban presented two possibilities. First, he proposed that the word translated as “to”, “el”, should be repointed as “al”, which means “of”. Ramban cited Jeremiah 27:19 as a precedent (even though Jeremiah 27:19 has ayin-lamed, not aleph-lamed). In this reading, Numbers 20:8 means that Moses is to speak “of”, or concerning, the rock before the children of Israel.
The second option is to see “el”, not as “to”, but as “by, at, in the vicinity of”, which occurs in Scripture (Deuteronomy 16:6; Joshua 5:3; I Kings 8:30; Jeremiah 4:12). And, in Numbers 20:10, Moses and the assembly gather el-penei (before) the rock.
So what is the big deal? One issue is that Moses actually strikes the rock in Exodus 17:5-7, and there are some who think that the events in Exodus 17:5-7 and Numbers 20 are the same event, or (if they are different events) wonder why Moses could strike the rock the first time, but not the second time. Milgrom discusses this issue, but that’s not what I want to focus on in this post. What intrigues me, rather, is that Milgrom argues that, were Moses to speak to the rock, he would be performing magic, for magicians in the ancient Near East recited incantations before they manipulated nature. But Moses was not a magician. According to Milgrom, Moses does not even act like a magician in Exodus: he performs his miracles while silent, or he prays to God when he’s alone to remove the plagues from Pharaoh (rather than commanding the plagues to leave when he’s in Pharaoh’s presence). But Moses does use his vocal chords before Pharaoh and Israel in one sense: he tells them in advance what God is about to do, so that they would know that God is the one doing it.
And Milgrom presents the view that this is what’s going on in Numbers 20. Moses is to tell the Israelites what God is about to do, namely, bring water from the rock. Moses is not speaking to the rock, but about or near the rock, for Moses is not making an incantation. God is the one who gets the glory. But, instead, Moses glorified himself—acting as if he and Aaron were the ones bringing water from the rock. Moses violated the intention of the divine command: to glorify God.