Close Close
Zoom in Zoom in
Zoom out Zoom out
Reset image Reset image
Close Close
Zoom in Zoom in
Zoom out Zoom out
Reset image Reset image
Close Close
Zoom in Zoom in
Zoom out Zoom out
Reset image Reset image

Arthur Boyd

Moses Striking the Stone, 1951–52, Ceramics, earthenware, coloured slips, 57 x 57 cm, National Gallery of Australia; Gift of Denis Savill 2012. Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program, NGA 2012.819, Photo courtesy National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Reproduced with the permission of Bundanon Trust.

Unknown artist

Jonah Sarcophagus, Late 3rd to early 4th century, White marble, 66 x 223 x 19 cm, Musei Vaticani, Vatican City, MV_31448_0_0, Alinari / Art Resource, NY

Bacchiacca

Moses Striking the Rock, After 1525, Oil and gold on panel, 100 x 80 cm, National Galleries Scotland; Purchased 1967, NG 2291, © National Galleries of Scotland, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Three Strikes

Comparative Commentary by

Moses strikes a rock on two separate occasions, once soon after the Israelites leave Egypt (Exodus 17:1–7), and again just before they enter the Promised Land (Numbers 20:2–13). There are significant differences between these two narratives, most notably the fact that in Exodus God orders Moses to strike the rock (17:6) while in Numbers Moses strikes the rock (20:11) in defiance of God’s command to speak to it (v.8). But beyond the miracle that underlies both narratives, there are also significant similarities: the Israelites fear death in the wilderness (Exodus 17:2–3; Numbers 20:2–4); they doubt God’s presence in their midst (Exodus 17:7; Numbers 20:12); and there is a dispute (Exodus 17:2, 7; Numbers 20:3, 13).  

These similarities generate a question about visual representations of Moses striking the rock: which narrative is being represented? Titles and contexts may not be original and are not determinative. As a rule, works in which Moses’s anger is an explicit theme—signalled perhaps by how he holds his rod—are likely to be inspired by Numbers 20, where his anger translates into a twofold striking of the rock (v.11) to which he should have spoken (v.8). Moses exhibits anger in Exodus 17 (v.4) too, but there the striking of the rock is not an expression of emotion; he is simply following God’s command (v.6). If Moses’s anger is not an explicit theme, the artist is probably representing Exodus 17, where the miracle is untainted by Moses’s disobedience and his subsequent failure to enter the Promised Land (cf. Numbers 20:12).

Yet a qualification is in order. When it comes to visual representations, the boundaries between these two narratives are porous. Details drawn from Numbers 20 seep into representations of Exodus 17. For example, in Exodus 17 the people ask Moses why he brought them out of Egypt to kill them, their children, and their livestock with thirst (v.3), but they request water only for themselves (v.2), and they alone, not their animals, drink (v.6). Numbers 20 by contrast reports that both the people and the animals drink (v.11), so a visual representation of Exodus 17 that shows animals drinking was plausibly influenced by (images of) Numbers 20. 

The so-called Jonah Sarcophagus originated in Rome at the end of the third century and is the oldest known representation of Moses striking the rock. There are several indications that the artist associated this latter image with death and resurrection. The Israelites are dying of thirst; with no time for vessels, they are using their hands to scoop up the water. The scene is surrounded by others that that depict death, near-death or symbolic death, and resurrection, most obviously Lazarus (top left), and Jonah, whose three days in the fish’s belly are analogous in Christian typology to Jesus’s three days in the tomb. And finally, there’s the context: a sarcophagus.

Moses striking the Rock by Bacchiacca, was painted sometime after 1525. Bacchiacca was born into a Florentine family of painters, goldsmiths, and embroiderers, and worked as a decorative artist as well as a painter, which helps explain his passion for detail. His focus in our painting seems to be God’s presence. His assembled masses are emphatically not shown dying of thirst. Only one (lower right) is lapping up the water, and many are not drinking at all. These are exquisitely clad and bejewelled pilgrims, equipped with an astonishing variety of vessels ready to be filled with the miraculous water.

Though not a religious man, Arthur Boyd was attracted to the Bible, perhaps by its abundance of intense personal struggles, often tinged with danger. His many portraits of Jonah fall into this category, as does Moses Striking the Stone (1951–52). Boyd’s Moses is a solitary figure who grasps his rod—a far cry from Bacchiacca’s delicate gold pointer—in both hands. The water that spurts forth from his rock speaks less of divine blessing, as for Bacchiacca, or the hope for life eternal, as on the Jonah sarcophagus, than loss of control.

Not only are all these different interpretations supported by the biblical text, but each artist makes accessible an aspect of the narrative that, though strongly present, can easily get lost in the confusion.