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Chukat, Numbers 19:1–22:1D'VAR TORAH Moses and Magic Kristine Garroway
Parashat Chukat contains two narratives that initially appear to be unrelated. The first story, one familiar to most, appears in Numbers 20:2–12. Here the Israelites are complaining again that they had a better life as slaves in Egypt, that God is not with them, and that Moses has brought them to the wilderness to die of thirst. God responds by commanding Moses to bring forth water from the rock. Moses strikes the rock, as he did previously (Exodus 17:2–7), and water gushes forth. Soon after, God chastises Moses and Aaron for not affirming the sanctity of the Eternal and prohibits them from entering the Promised Land. The second narrative is found Numbers 21:4–9. This less-familiar story recounts how, even after the miracle at the rock, the Israelites are still complaining that life was better in Egypt. As punishment for their complaints, God sends a plague of fiery serpents.
While one may find a link in the narratives based on their setting (people complaining in the wilderness), a more nuanced link exists, one that touches upon the role of magic and religion, in the ancient Israelite cult. To see this link, one needs to explain two things: how did Moses bring forth water from the rock and how exactly did the copper snake heal the Israelites? The first question is related to why Moses was punished for bringing forth the water from the rock. Commentators have weighed in with various opinions on this question, including: Moses struck twice, he struck instead of speaking (Rashi), and he struck the wrong rock (the people had chosen a different one).1 Each of these suggestions can be refuted. First, there is no evidence supporting the idea that Moses should not have struck the rock twice. Second, it’s reasonable to expect he would strike the rock as he did previously (Exodus 17:2–7). Finally, there is absolutely no evidence that he struck the wrong rock. So what did Moses do? Moses engaged in magic: he spoke and acted at the same time.Continue reading.