The Traveling Rock

The Israelites continued their journey into the wilderness and eventually came to a place called Rephidim. Once again, there was no water to drink, and the people fell to complaining. God then ordered Moses to strike a certain rock so that water would gush out of it for the people to drink. The Bible notes that Moses "called the place Massah and Meribah ("testing" and "contention" in Hebrew).

The Israelites moved on. But what happened to the gushing rock? Ancient interpreters found some indication that the rock did not stay at Rephidim, for, some time later, in a different place — Kadesh — a similar thing happened: water was miraculously produced when Moses truck a rock with his staff (Numbers 20:7-12). The text then add, "These were the waters of Meribah" (Numbers 20:13). If these were the "waters of Meribah," then they must somehow have moved from Rephidim to Kadesh!

And that is just what interpreters concluded. They deduced that the gushing rock had traveled with the Israelites from Rephidim to Kadesh, indeed, that it went on to accompany them during all their subsequent wanderings - a traveling water supply.

Now He led His people out into the wilderness; for forty years He rained down for them bread from Heaven, and brought quail to them from the sea and brought a well of water to follow them. And it [the water] followed them in the wilderness forty years and went up to the mountains with them, and went down into the plains. [Pseudo-Philo, Book of Biblical Antiquities 10:7, 11:15]

I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and . . . all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them. [1 Corinthians 10:1-4]

And so the well that was with Israel in the desert was like a rock the size of a large container, gushing upwards as if from a narrow-neck flask, going up with them to the mountains and going down with them to the valley. [Tosefta Sukkah 3:11]

Such a conclusion could only be reinforced by the observation that, although the Israelites were in the desert for forty years, from the time of that first incident at Rephidim, shortly after they left Egypt, until near the end of their travels at the end of the book of Numbers, there is no mention of the people lacking water to drink. Here, then, was another indication that water had been miraculously supplied to them for all those years - by this same traveling fountain.

A scientific explanation by Prof. Nahum Sarna:

"The phenomenon is most likely to be explained by the presence of water-forming formations of soft porous limestone, which has high water-retaining capacity. A sharp blow to such a rock may crack its crust and release a flow of groundwater. What is of importance is that the miracle is credited to God and not Moses, something that is emphasized several times in the Bible. As often in times of crisis, Moses acts only by divine instruction as the agent of God's will; he does not act on his own initiative." (From The JPS Torah Commentary, 1991)


From Prof. James Kugel's new book The Bible as It Was, The Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1997. James Kugel is Starr Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard University and Prof. of Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. His books include The Idea of Biblical Poetry, Early Biblical interpretation, and In Potiphar's House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts.



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