Arthur Merric Bloomfield Boyd (1920–99) was born into an Australian artistic dynasty. His works addressed universal themes such as love, loss, and shame, but also issues particular to Australian society, such as the fate of people of mixed Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal parentage. This latter work was painted on an earthenware ‘tile’ measuring 57cm square, with coloured slips and a clear glaze. The choice of this earthy medium may reflect the artist’s sense of connection to the land.
It’s hard to read the expression on the face of Boyd’s Moses. Is he angry, frustrated, confused, determined? We can’t be sure. Thick and black, more weapon than wand, Moses grasps the rod firmly at the centre with both hands. As Boyd depicts it, brute force made the water spring forth, and as much as the rock, Moses’s rod seems to be its source.
Water’s everywhere—drenching Moses’s hands and splashing his feet. Even the sky behind him and the tunic that clothes him share the colours of this elemental cascade. But the effect is far from blessed abundance. The absence of busy Israelites filling vessels or scooping and lapping up the water alongside their thirsty animals gives the scene an ominous dimension. The water threatens an imminent, overwhelming deluge beyond Moses’s control. Without his brother Aaron to share the blame (cf. Numbers 20:2, 10, 12), all the pressure is on Moses, and it’s apparently more than he can handle. His body is crammed awkwardly into the composition, and partially cropped by it. He balances precariously with one bare foot on a rock that must already be wet and slippery. His fall seems imminent.
Boyd’s Moses brings to mind the Little Dutch Boy whose finger could only stop up the dyke for so long, or King Cnut, who could not turn back the tides. He’s in danger of being submerged. This moment of disobedience (Moses struck the rock instead of speaking to it as commanded in Exodus 17:7), or faithlessness (he did not trust God enough to affirm God’s sanctity; v.12), will signal the end of Moses’s long and arduous career as Israel’s leader, depriving him into the bargain of the satisfaction of setting foot in the Promised Land to which he’d spent forty years leading his rebellious flock. How perfectly Boyd captures that moment.
17 All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the Lord, and camped at Rephʹidim; but there was no water for the people to drink. 2Therefore the people found fault with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you find fault with me? Why do you put the Lord to the proof?” 3But the people thirsted there for water, and the people murmured against Moses, and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?” 4So Moses cried to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5And the Lord said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel; and take in your hand the rod with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, that the people may drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7And he called the name of the place Massah and Merʹibah, because of the faultfinding of the children of Israel, and because they put the Lord to the proof by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
20 And the people of Israel, the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there.
2 Now there was no water for the congregation; and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. 3And the people contended with Moses, and said, “Would that we had died when our brethren died before the Lord! 4Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? 5And why have you made us come up out of Egypt, to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink.” 6Then Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the door of the tent of meeting, and fell on their faces. And the glory of the Lord appeared to them, 7and the Lord said to Moses, 8“Take the rod, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water; so you shall bring water out of the rock for them; so you shall give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” 9And Moses took the rod from before the Lord, as he commanded him.
10 And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” 11And 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. 12And 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 assembly into the land which I have given them.” 13These are the waters of Merʹibah, where the people of Israel contended with the Lord, and he showed himself holy among them.