Moshe's sin in striking the rock, as described in Bemidbar 20, has fascinated readers throughout the centuries. Both Tissot's painting1 and the engraving from the LaHaye Bible2 portray Moshe standing next to the rock as it brings forth water to the thirsty Israelites. The artists differ in many aspects of their retelling, from the cast of characters they include to their portrayals of both the rock and water. These variations raise questions regarding the role that both Aharon and the complaining nation play in the sin and the nature of the miracle itself.
Tissot divides his image into two groups of figures. Moshe and Aharon stand together in the foreground, while the daughters of Israel, each carrying a jug to be filled with water, stand in a row in the back. They appear calm and collected; no one rushes to fill their pitchers. In between the two groups, a puny stream of water leaks out of a small stone. One wonders how it could possibly provide enough water for the entire nation.
The engraving is a much busier and more frenzied composition. In contrast to Tissot, the artist depicts not a small stone but a massive rocky cliff from which an entire waterfall spews forth. Men, women, children, and even animals crowd around the water. Thirstily, they scoop it into their parched mouths, and rush to fill their varied vessels with the precious liquid. In the front of the image, one woman languishes on the floor as she is fed by a fellow Israelite. In the background, Moshe stands with his head and staff raised towards the hole in the rock. Aharon, though, is not defined anywhere in the image.
Relationship to the Biblical Text
The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:
Role of Aharon
While Tissot depicts Aharon and Moshe standing side by side at the site of the miracle, the artist of the LaHaye Bible chooses not to depict Aharon at all. The difference highlights a central question in the Biblical text – What was Aharon's role in the sin? Was he an active partner in hitting the rock? Tanakh is not explicit. Though Aharon participates in gathering the nation to witness the miracle, the text has only Moshe speaking to the people and striking the stone. Nonetheless, Aharon too, is punished. This leaves one to wonder what constituted Aharon's sin,3 and whether Moshe's guilt lay not in hitting the rock but in some other action of which his brother, too, took part.4 See Moshe's Misstep and Mei Merivah for elaboration.
The LaHaye Bible's rocky cliff and waterfall contrast sharply with Tissot's small stream and stone. Which depiction is closer to the miracle as described in Bemidbar? The word סלע appears dozens of times in Tanakh and from context, could sustain both the definition of cliff,5 or simply rock, allowing for both depictions. As far as the quantity of water which came forth, Bemidbar 20:11 says explicitly "וַיֵּצְאוּ מַיִם רַבִּים". Yet, in explaining why Moshe hit the rock twice, Tanchuma suggests that the first time, only a few drops came forth.
The Nation – Room For Complaint?
While Tissot's figures appear to be not particularly bothered by the lack of water, the characters of the etching rush to the stream, thirstily lapping up the sought after water. The difference raises a question regarding the original episode - How legitimate was the nation's grumbling for water? Were they really dying of thirst, or was this similar to other incidents in which their complaints were not justified? The text does say that there was lack of water, but many commentators, nonetheless, fault the nation for not expressing their complaints appropriately. Netziv, further suggests that, being very close to settled cities, there was no need for great quantities of water.
Animals in the desert
The etching displays a dog lapping water together with the Israelites, while no animals are shown in Tissot's painting. Did the nation really have animals with them in the desert? The incident at Mei Merivah would suggest that they did as Bemidbar 20:11 explicitly states, "וַיֵּצְאוּ מַיִם רַבִּים וַתֵּשְׁתְּ הָעֵדָה וּבְעִירָם". Not everyone agrees, though, whether these animals were with the nation throughout the forty year trek.6 For elaboration, see Life in the Wilderness.