And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his rod twice; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their cattle. And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this congreation into the land which I have given them.” (Numbers 20:11-12)
If you find God’s response puzzling here, read the whole story in Numbers 20:2-13. I doubt that you’ll be more satisfied. As Issac Arama puts it (beginning with a proverb from the Talmud),
“’A table, meat, and a knife before us, but no mouth to eat with.’ The commandment of God is clearly outlined, the deed that was performed is not concealed from us and the subsequent wrath of God astonishes us, but no satisfactory explanation emerges.”
If “no satisfactory explanation emerges,” it isn’t because the classic commentators didn’t try. Here are three explanations of Moses’ “sin” (there are other explanations as well, but they are even less persuasive).
1) Rashi, following earlier midrash, says the sin is that Moses struck the rock (as he had in Exodus 17) instead of speaking to it. Nachmanides, however, argues that God’s instruction to ‘take the staff’ implied that Moses should strike the rock. Had God insisted on him speaking to the rock, there would have been no need for the staff. Nachmanides cites the plague stories, where Moses was ordered to take the staff always for the purpose of striking with it. Thus, the text implies that Moses is to strike the rock; moreover the miracle is not enhanced if Moses speaks rather than strikes.
2) Maimonides: “His whole sin lay in erring on the side of anger and deviating from the mean of patience, when he used the expression, “hear now you rebels!” Such words, coming from a man to whom all the people looked up to as a model of good conduct, were a profanation of the Name (hillul ha-shem), in Maimonides’ view.
However, God doesn’t fault Moses for his anger. In fact, a similar “why did you bring us out of Egypt?” complaint elicits God’s own anger in Num 11.
3) Nachmanides “Moses made the fatal mistake of saying, “Shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” instead of saying “Shall God bring forth water for you out of this rock?” The people might have been misled into thinking that Moses and Aaron had extracted the water for them, by their own skill.”
If this was Moses’ first appearance before the people, or if there was any indication in the text that he sought to usurp God’s honor, I might be satisfied with Nachmanides’ explanation. But Moses’ role as “the servant of YHWH” has been well established by this time. Besides, the Psalm has no problem saying of Moses and Aaron, “they performed his signs among them, miracles against the land of Ham” (105:27, my italics)
We can see why Luzzato protested, “Moses our teacher committed one sin, but our commentators have heaped on him thirteen and more, each one of them having invented a fresh one . . . I have therefore hitherto refrained from going into this problem for fear I might attribute a new sin to Moses.”