The water is flowing but the Moses of the so-called Jonah Sarcophagus still holds his rod aloft, a further continuation of his already extended right arm. There’s no hint of exertion on his part; this strike must have been a tap, not a whack.
Exodus 17 suggests a ritual component to this event: ‘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. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb’ (vv.5–6).
But here there’s no element of ceremony. The fact that the sarcophagus artist overlooked it is understandable. In Exodus’s narrative context, the striking of the rock was a divinely stage-managed response to the people’s question, implied at the beginning of the episode and stated explicitly at the end: ‘Is the LORD present among us or not? (17:7). But here on the sarcophagus, the question of God’s presence is eclipsed by the people’s other, earlier question: ‘Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to kill us [in Hebrew, me and my sons] and our livestock with thirst?’ (v.3). They speak as though death by dehydration in the wilderness is a foregone conclusion.
The three figures (perhaps a father and sons as in verse 3’s original Hebrew), shown scooping the water into their mouths with their hands, are an answer to that question. But also, in this context, they are an answer to a question that plausibly preoccupied the sarcophagus artist: will the dead be resurrected? These three men were ‘dying of thirst’. Water sprang forth from the rock, they drank and—with all that entails—they lived.
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.