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.
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.