The Mystery of Meribah
If you believe you understand the Word of God and the Word commands action without compassion, listen more carefully. For when you truly Understand the Word of God, you will Speak and Act with Compassion in the Spirit of the Lord as Blessing to all. Thus shall the Angels of God guide you.
One of the most profound lessons of the Bible lies shrouded in the Mystery of Meribah.
At Meribah, God told Moses to order a rock to yield water. Instead, Moses struck the rock twice and, as a result, the Lord denied Moses his heart’s desire – entry into the Promised Land. The harsh punishment of so dedicated a servant for such a slight misunderstanding has remained a mystery for four thousand years … a mystery revealed in the reflecting pool of Midian.
At Midian, God told Moses to assail the Midianites, who enticed the Children of Israel to worship false gods. Instead, Moses annihilated the Midianites: first by failing to protect innocent men, and then by ordering the slaughter of innocent women and children. In so doing, Moses treated God’s Word carelessly and twice struck the Rock of Israel – twice violated the Spirit of the Lord.
Meribah, then, is a parable for Midian, a cautionary tale for those who love and serve the Lord. Dire consequences often result when those who sincerely love the Lord hear the Word of God without understanding, act without compassion, and violate His Spirit while seeking His Blessing. Meribah and Midian stand as a warning to those who seek the Promised Land – God holds even His most dedicated servants accountable when they treat His Word carelessly.
When the people of Israel first thirsted in the desert, they grumbled against Moses who, in turn, sought God’s advice. Exodus, 17:1-3.
Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, “What shall I do with this people? Before long they will be stoning me!” Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pass before the people; take with you some of the elders of Israel, and take along the rod with which you struck the Nile, and set out. I will be standing there before you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock and water will issue from it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. The place was named . . . Meribah . . .
Exodus, 17:4-7 (emphasis added). Thus, on God’s command, Moses struck the rock and brought forth water.
Later, as the people of Israel continued wandering in the desert, they once again thirsted and grumbled against Moses. Numbers, 20:1-5.
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “. . . take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.”
Moses took the rod from before the Lord, as He had commanded him. Moses . . . assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank.
But the Lord said to Moses . . . “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” Those are the waters of Meribah . . . .
Numbers, 20:6-13 (emphasis added).
The first time, Moses followed God’s command carefully, striking the rock with his rod. The second time, when commanded simply to order the rock to yield water, Moses struck the rock twice. For treating God’s Word carelessly, the Lord denied Moses entry into the Promised Land. Deuteronomy, 32:48-52.
In the heart of Midian, at a place called Shittim, certain Midianites led the people of Israel to worship a false god – Baal. Numbers, 25:1-3. For an Israelite, the consequence of forsaking God was death. Numbers, 25:4. So Moses decreed the deaths of the offending Israelites, just as God had commanded. Numbers, 25:5.
Here, as when the Israelites first thirsted at Meribah, Moses carefully followed the Lord’s command. Ordering these deaths struck the Rock of Israel no less hard, for even the wicked are God’s Children. But this strike, God Himself had decreed upon those who had freely chosen to live and die by His Law.
Now the Midianites who led Israel astray also deserved punishment. So “[t]he Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Assail the Midianites and defeat them – for they assailed you by the trickery they practiced against you . . . .’” Numbers, 25:16-18. “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianties . . . .’” Numbers, 31:1-2.
But the Lord did not order Moses to slaughter every male, nor did He order Moses to kill women and children – for some were righteous, and many were innocent of wrongdoing. To the contrary God had commanded:
“You shall not murder.” Exodus, 20:13.
“You shall not wrong a stranger . . .” Exodus, 22:20.
“[D]o not bring death on those who are innocent . . .” Exodus, 23:7.
Yet Moses did more than assail the Midianites and avenge a wrong – he allowed, and then ordered, the slaughter of innocents.
When Moses sent his troops into battle, he failed to provide for the protection of innocent Midianite men. He failed to provide for the old, the righteous and those who refused to fight. As a result, Moses’ army killed even innocent men – men such as Balaam.
Balaam, son of Beor and God’s servant within Midian, worshipped the Lord and refused to do anything contrary to His command. Numbers, 22:18. Tempted with riches by King Balak to curse Israel, Balaam told the King’s officials, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the Lord my God . . .” Numbers, 22:18. Risking life and limb at Peor (Numbers, 23:27-28), Balaam remained true to the Lord and thrice blessed Israel in front of the King. Numbers, 24:10.
But since Moses made no provision to protect innocents, Moses’ troops “took the field against Midian, as the Lord had commanded Moses, and [i.e., in addition] slew every male. Along with their other victims. . . . [t]hey also put Balaam son of Beor to the sword.” Numbers, 31:7-8 (bracketed text and emphasis added). By failing to provide for the protection of innocents, Moses treated God’s Word carelessly and violated the Spirit of the Lord – thus striking the Rock of Israel.
Though tragic and troubling, this first wrongful strike paled in comparison with the second. Angry, vengeful and jealous for the Lord, Moses ordered the slaughter of even more innocents – women and children. Belying his error are three glaring mistakes: (1) Moses confuses the innocent with the guilty, confusing Balaam son of Beor with Balak at Peor (Numbers, 31:16); (2) Moses condemns the innocent with the guilty, condemning to death every Midianite woman for the crimes of some (Numbers, 31:15-17); and (3) Moses orders the deaths of the wholly innocent, ordering the death of every Midianite boy though they committed no crimes against Israel (id.).
The Israelites took the women and children of the Midianites captive, and seized as booty all their beasts, all their herds, and all their wealth. And they destroyed by fire all the towns in which they were settled, and their encampments. They gathered all the spoil and all the booty, Man and Beast, and they brought the captives, the booty, and the spoil to Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the whole Israelite community, at the camp in the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho.
Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the chieftains of the community came out to meet them outside the camp. Moses became angry with the commanders of the army, the officers of the thousands and the officers of hundreds, who had come back from the military campaign. Moses said to them, “You have spared every female! Yet they are the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam [sic], induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so that the Lord’s community was struck by the plague. Now, therefore, slay every male among the children, and slay also every woman who has known a man carnally; but spare every young woman who has not had carnal relations with a man.”
After killing all of the boys and their mothers, there remained “a total of 32,000 human beings, namely, the women who had not had carnal relations.” Numbers, 31:32-35. Thus, approximately 32,000 girls survived the slaughter, while nearly 32,000 boys and their mothers were killed in the name of the Lord. The deaths of these innocents, ordered in God’s Name, struck hard at the Rock of Israel.
So the Lord decreed severe punishment. But He tempered His decree because Moses had served Him faithfully for a lifetime and, even in error, had genuinely tried to carry out His Will. God denied Moses that which he valued more than life itself – entry into the Promised Land – but spared him the horror of learning the error of his ways.
Alone, amidst the Darkness, God’s tears flowed like the Waters of Meribah.