The present contradictions concerning the story of the Waters of Meribah should be seen in the broader context of other duplicate stories from the wilderness tradition (e.g., #125, #127, #128, #171, etc.), which were redacted together centuries after these once independent versions circulated as oral and/or written stories in differing cultural settings and time periods, and for different purposes.
What many modern “readers” fail to acknowledge is that storytelling was part and parcel to many ancient cultures, especially the Israelites. Stories defined their identity, traced in fanciful fashion the origins of their customs and religious traditions, validated their perception of the world, etc. They were told and retold, recited at cultic festivals, even modified, and eventually written down. Centuries later, editors who collected Israel’s various stories preserved both versions of the story, even when—or especially when—they contradicted one another, or a later story was written to replace an earlier version! This is the fact, period! The biblical texts themselves bear this out.
The problem is that modern “readers” of the Bible lack the required contextual knowledge to properly understand the Bible and its stories. They fail to understand anything about ancient literature in general, about the ancient cultures that produced these texts, about the reasons why these stories were told, retold, and modified, and to whom and by whom. We can except and understand variant versions of our own traditional and cultural stories (e.g., Cinderella, Spiderman, Superman, etc.), but we fail to acknowledge this same tendency in this collection of ancient literature. In large part this is because of our culture’s pervasive ignorance about the cultures that produced these variant stories, ignorance about ancient literature in general, and specifically ignorance about the Bible, its textual history and composition. This ignorance is a growing problem! People would rather argue from personal, traditional, and/or subjective viewpoints and beliefs rather than learn anything about these ancient texts, their authors, their historical crisis and concerns, and their beliefs and the hows and whys behind these culturally-conditioned beliefs. Our culture throws a mask over these questions and indeed over these ancient texts themselves, and the study of these ancient texts and their cultures and literary conventions never get addressed nor discussed in the public realm.
So, for example, our current story—the story of the waters of Meribah—was told variously in different cultic settings and in different time periods, and these variant versions were collected together and preserved in the making of the wilderness “narrative.” Scribes and editors, in other words, sought to preserve both versions! How did they do this? Again, allowing the biblical text itself to respond to this question—by preserving one version of the story early in the wilderness narrative and the other version later. It is thus that we have the older 8th century Elohist version of the Meribah story now preserved at Exodus 17, before the Israelites even reach Sinai, and the later 6th century Priestly version preserved in what is now Numbers 20. However, it would seem that the original place of P’s rewritten version in P’s originally independent scroll before it was amended onto the JE narrative was where E’s version currently is. First, let’s look at the different ways in which these two traditions told the story, focusing in on P’s retelling.
- The Priestly writer keeps the people’s quarrel with Moses, but is obliged to add Aaron into the mix, so P’s version of the story also becomes another questioning of Aaron’s sole right to be Yahweh’s priest (see #254).
- The theme of “if we had only expired in Egypt” and both the people and cattle’s thirsting is also retold by P. Its present context, however—the 40th year of the wilderness campaign—makes these details hardly coherent. Besides, according to the chronology imposed by the later Priestly redactor, we are not only in the last months of the 40th year of the wilderness period, but also have a completely new generation of Israelites (see Num 26)—all of whom, except Caleb and Joshua, were never in Egypt and know nothing about Egypt!
- P adds the additional detail of the Tent of Meeting since Yahweh’s appearance, his glory, before the people must happen there and only there according to this Aaronid priestly guild.
- For some reason P rewrites what Yahweh commands Moses to do. In E, the scribe has Yahweh tell Moses to take his staff and strike the rock, which he does. But in P, the priestly writer has Yahweh command Moses to take his staff and speak to the rock—a detail our priestly writer has Moses fail to do!
- Finally, P adds the detail of Moses’ disobedience to the narrative to explain both Moses’ and Aaron’s failure to enter the promised land. This reason contradicts D’s reason (see forthcoming #266).
Given these textual data, we might infer that when the later Priestly writer rewrote the story of the Waters of Meribah, it originally stood in its original place in the wilderness narrative, where the Elohist version presently sits—Exodus 17. Only in this light does P’s motive of “if we had only expired in Egypt” make sense and only here does the “we”—”why did you bring us up out of Egypt” (v. 5)—of P’s text makes sense. It can only refer to the original Egyptian generation of Israelites!
Thus it’s clear that the later Priestly writer, before his version of the story was placed in its current position by an even later redactor, was retelling the older Elohist version and understood its position in the overall wilderness narrative in the same point as E’s version’s current position, Exodus 17! There is yet another clue to substantiate this view—the contradiction between verses 12 and 13.
And Yahweh said to Moses and to Aaron, “Because you did not place your trust in me, which would have affirmed my holiness before their eyes…”
Those are the Waters of Meribah, where the children of Israel quarreled with Yahweh, and through which his holiness was affirmed.
Verse 13 seems to be the original conclusion of P’s version of the story and perhaps when it sat in its original place prior to the arrival at Sinai. Moreover, it accords with the Elohist’s conclusion where in that version of the story Moses had not been punished, and although not explicitly stated in E’s text, Yahweh was made holy through Moses’ deed.
It would appear then, that perhaps both verse 12 and the motive of Moses’ disobedience might have been added to P’s story when the story was moved to Numbers 20, and thus served as a reason for why Moses and Aaron did not enter the promised land. Yet, apparently too, it would seem that the redactor left both conclusions to the story in place, thus creating the contradiction between verses 12 & 13.
Granted, there may be other reasons to account for these textual anomalies; but in either case, it is apparent that P’s version is a rewritten version of the earlier Elohist story and that it was later placed in its current position by a later redactor.