#262. Where did the Waters of Meribah happen: in the wilderness of Sinai or Zin? (Ex 17:2-7 vs Num 20:2-13)
#263. Do the people quarrel with Moses OR Moses and Aaron? (Ex 17:2 vs Num 20:2)
#264. Is Moses commanded to strike the rock or speak to it? (Ex 17:6 vs Num 20:8)
#265. Was Yahweh’s holiness affirmed OR not (Num 20:13 vs Num 20:12)


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.

5 thoughts on “#262. Where did the Waters of Meribah happen: in the wilderness of Sinai or Zin? (Ex 17:2-7 vs Num 20:2-13)
#263. Do the people quarrel with Moses OR Moses and Aaron? (Ex 17:2 vs Num 20:2)
#264. Is Moses commanded to strike the rock or speak to it? (Ex 17:6 vs Num 20:8)
#265. Was Yahweh’s holiness affirmed OR not (Num 20:13 vs Num 20:12)

  1. contradiction #266—Why was Moses not allowed to enter the promised land: because he rebelled against Yahweh’s word OR because he bore the sins of the people who rebelled against Yahweh? (Num 20:12, 27:14 vs Deut 3:26, 4:21)

    To the former list of verses, I would add Deuteronomy 32:50-52, and to the latter, Deuteronomy 1:37. Also, Psalm 106:32-33 attempts to harmonize the traditions: the people angered Yahweh, which made Moses bitter, causing Moses to say rash things.

    1. Thanks John,

      Oh, Deut 1:37 — I knew there was another verse somewhere here. I had been wondering where that was. I’ll take a look at the Psalms passage, looks interesting.

  2. John,

    I apologize for the late reply. Since I am currently typing up contradiction #266—Why was Moses not allowed to enter the promised land: because he rebelled against Yahweh’s word OR because he bore the sins of the people who rebelled against Yahweh? (Num 20:12, 27:14 vs Deut 3:26, 4:21)—I was drawn to Deut 33. What is striking here, as you’ve already indicated, is that in this tradition, which scholars usually accredit as an older source amended onto Deuteronomy, there is no reference of Moses’ alleged “sin” against Yahweh at Meribah. Considering that this is also absent in the earlier Yahwist version now at Exodus—providing further fuel that P added it to his retelling of the story—I’m included to conclude that Yahweh’s condemnation of Moses was not in these earlier traditions. Or if it was, it was unclear exactly what the issue was. Both P and D, then, seem to be responding, and responding differently, to a question that may have only plagued them: why according to tradition did Moses not enter Canaan? Granted, if Moses is purely fictional, such a question might have had a more pressing need!—perhaps responding to a real historical interest: why isn’t Moses’ remains or tomb found in Canaan? The tradition supplies the response!

    Right too! All of a sudden in Numbers 20:1 we’re at the 40th year! What happened to the other 38? In the biblical narrative these “missing” alleged 38 years are suppressed or disappear between the end of Numbers 19 and the beginning of chapter 20 (P), and between the Dathan and Abiram rebellion in Num 16 and the Edom affair in Num 20 (J), which in the original J narrative occurred earlier in the wilderness period (substantiated by Deut 2). In the Deuteronomic tradition these 38 years are suppressed into 1 verse, 2:14!

    I will address this 40 year literary topos later in Deuteronomy because there our author repeatedly addresses his audience—narratively the generation of Israelites on the plains of Moab—with “you remember” the events “we” suffered in Egypt, etc., thus implying 1 continuous generation, not 2 as the 40 year storyline implies. I think D, although briefly mentioning the 40 years as his sources do, really just ignores it! That will be the contradiction I address.


    I’d be very leery of so-called “biblical scholars” putting their Bibles in the microwave, pressure-cookers, or whatever! Our M.O. is usually not to cook the text! But rather to acquire the expertise necessary in ancient Near Eastern history, culture, language, and most importantly literary conventions, genres, etc. to assess the biblical texts from within their appropriate historical and literary contexts. One of the most substantial discoveries in this context, has been the realization that stories existed!! And scribes and scribal guilds wrote and told different versions of the same and similar stories, and often on the same scroll! All of the contradictions on this website are the result of conflicting and/or different versions of the same story being told throughout Israel’s 1,000+ year history. Furthermore, this is not “what I say” but rather what the texts say about themselves, about their own compositional nature. Pick up copies of the Anchor Bible series, written by real biblical scholars, all of whom address this issue because frankly it’s the biblical text that tells us over and over again that it was compiled from different and competing texts! No biblical scholar denies this or attempts to refute it. It is being honest to the texts!

    Of course when I put my Bible in the pressure-cooker it does put out 1 harmonious and unified message — hisssssss.

  3. Mr. Steve
    I am confused about your website. I just saw a episode about the bible on the discovery channel and there was a bible scholar that said he read the bible for 6 years and even put it in a computer data base to double check his work and he said he didn’t find one proof of a contradictory of the book. Yet, you say there are numerous contradictions in the book. I am trying to win Atheist over and when the look on line they go to your site and crush me down and i am just confused. Thank you

  4. There may even be a third Meribah tradition:

    Deuteronomy 33:8
    8And of Levi he said:
    Give to Levi your Thummim,
    and your Urim to your loyal one,
    whom you tested at Massah,
    with whom you contended at the waters of Meribah;

    It might be tempting to shoehorn this reference into Exodus 17 or Numbers 20, assuming that as Levites, Moses and Aaron represent Levi. However, in neither incident is it said that Moses and Aaron contended with God or are tested. Further, in context Deuteronomy 33 is clearly referring to the tribes in general, including Levi. Here is the passage again, with v:8 ff:

    Deuteronomy 33:8-11:
    8And of Levi he said:
    Give to Levi your Thummim,
    and your Urim to your loyal one,
    whom you tested at Massah,
    with whom you contended at the waters of Meribah;
    9 who said of his father and mother,
    ‘I regard them not’;
    he ignored his kin,
    and did not acknowledge his children.
    For they observed your word,
    and kept your covenant.
    10 They teach Jacob your ordinances,
    and Israel your law;
    they place incense before you,
    and whole burnt-offerings on your altar.
    11 Bless, O Yahweh, his substance,
    and accept the work of his hands;
    crush the loins of his adversaries,
    of those that hate him, so that they do not rise again.

    Read without presuppositions, the passage alludes to an incident at Meribah in which the tribe of Levi proved itself worthy of the Urim and Thummim.

    Giving additional credence to your suggestion that Numbers 20 and Exodus 17 are retellings of the same incident, both of which occurred at the beginning of the exodus, is the fact that as commentators have noted, although much is said about the year of the exodus and the 40th year, almost nothing is said of the intervening roughly 38-year period. The Bible acknowledges that it takes only days to go from Kadesh to Horeb (Deuteronomy 1:2), and given the Bible’s frequent reference to 40 and multiples of it (Moses’ age at death, for example), it appears that the “40” years of wandering may also be a numerical convention. In other words, a journey of a year or two was expanded to 40, and P inserted his version as a bookend to the other.

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