In the description of the Children of Israel’s wandering in the desert, several components recur: the people complaining about a lack of water and food and their doubts over Moses’ leadership; Moses appealing to God to resolve the problem; the Divine supply of water and food. Particularly well known is the story of the taking of water from the rock, which actually appears twice, in Exodus 17 and again in Numbers 20. The version in Numbers is known in particular as the reason why Moses was not permitted to enter the land of Israel. Below is the text:
1 Then the sons of Israel, the whole congregation, came to the wilderness of Zin in the first month; and the people stayed at Kadesh. Now Miriam died there and was buried there.
2 There was no water for the congregation, and they assembled themselves against Moses and Aaron.
3 The people thus contended with Moses and spoke, saying, If only we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord!
4 Why then have you brought the Lord’s assembly into this wilderness, for us and our beasts to die here?
5 Why have you made us come up from Egypt, to bring us in to this wretched place? It is not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, nor is there water to drink.
6 Then Moses and Aaron came in from the presence of the assembly to the doorway of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. Then the glory of the Lord appeared to them;
7 and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,
8 Take the rod; and you and your brother Aaron assemble the congregation and speak to the rock before their eyes, that it may yield its water. You shall thus bring forth water for them out of the rock and let the congregation and their beasts drink.
9 So Moses took the rod from before the Lord, just as He had commanded him;
10 and Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly before the rock. And he said to them, Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?
11 Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation and their beasts drank.
However, in addition to the account of water flowing from the rock, there are stories about the purification of a spring (Exodus 15:22-25), the discovery of springs (Exodus 15:27) and the digging of a well (Numbers 21:16-21). Although it is possible to understand the recurring stories as a reflection of the harsh reality of desert wandering, the midrashic imagination of the Sages saw in them more than just a chain of separate coincidences and more than a mere logistical problem. This view is reflected in numerous explanations in the Midrashim from various periods that seek to link all the events together and to understand them symbolically.
Below is a wall painting an ancient synagogue uncovered in 1932 in the city of Dura Europos, Syria. The synagogue there was built and destroyed in the 3rd century CE.
A large menorah dominates the center of the painting; below it is an oval structure from which or to which several gray strips lead. Beside the oval structure stands a large figure pointing at it with its two hands. And 12 small figures stand before houses arrayed in an inverted U-shape. When the painting was uncovered, various interpretations were suggested. Based on a comparison of the large figure, dressed in the style of a Hellenist teacher, and other paintings in the synagogue , the figure has been identified as Moses; the 12 small figures, dressed as Persian princes, were identified as the tribal chiefs. In other words, two major cultural influences on Dura Europos are recognizable in these figures: Roman and Persian. What we have here, then, is a painting of the camps of Israel, with the Tabernacle located at the top of the inverted U. Once one discerns that Moses is holding a staff that he inserts into the round structure, it becomes clear that this is a painting of the miracle of the water described in Exodus 15, the sweetening of the bitter waters of Mara.
But unexplained elements remain:
• The inverted U-shape and the placement of the Tabernacle at its top do not correspond to the description of the camps in the Torah, according to which the Tabernacle stood in the center of the camp, and the 12 tribes surrounded it on four sides in a square.
• The strips linking the spring/well to the homes of the tribes are not mentioned in the Bible at all.
• Neither the relationship between the spring/well and the Tabernacle nor the placement of the Tabernacle’s vessels (the menorah, the two altars for incense and the table of the shewbread) have not been explained adequately.
As for the Tabernacle, a look at
Numbers 20:6f.clarifies that at least in this story, there is indeed a close connection between the Tent of Meeting, i.e., the Tabernacle and the rock from which the water emerged. In addition, it appears that there is a connection between the twelve princes/tribal encampments and the twelve springs in Exodus 15:27. And the oval structure appears to be the mouth of a well, in accordance with Numbers 21. Therefore, it seems that our painting relates to some sort of combination of all the water miracles in the Torah. But the meaning of the strips has still unclear.
Since it is known that rabbinic Midrashim underlie many of the Dura Europos synagogue paintings, scholars searched sources that discuss the water miracles that occurred in the desert, in order to solve these mysteries.
Tosefta Sukka features a description of the well which is also a rock filled with compartments that spurt water out of all of its openings. The well wanders with the children of Israel and halts at every stop opposite the Tabernacle.
Targum Yonatan, which contains extensive midrashic material, adds to the text in Numbers 21 that Miriam’s well wandered with the children of Israel throughout their journey and its waters flowed to the entrance of the tent of each and every one of the children of Israel.
And in the book Biblical Antiquities, a composition dating to the Second Temple era, there is a Midrash that deals with the water crisis at Mara, which occurred at the beginning of the period of wandering (Exodus 15). In this composition too, the well travels with the nation, but here Moses sweetens its waters using the Tree of Life, identified as a metaphor for the Torah. This identification, also found in Proverbs 3:18 (“she is a tree of life”), is based on the unique wording of the text in Exodus 15:25:
And he cried to the Lord and the Lord showed him a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet. There he made for them a statute and an ordinance and there he tested them.
Note the use of the Hebrew word, vayoruhu, `and the Lord showed/taught him.`
It seems that according to the Midrashim, the rock, the well and the spring are none other than symbols or metaphors for one thing – the Torah.
The source of fresh water [i.e., the Torah] traveled with the Children of Israel for 40 years and stood opposite the entrance to the Tabernacle at every camp and disappeared when they were idle from Torah study Targum Yonatan
Now let us again consider the painting from Dura Europos, here shown only with the basic structure of the camp. Next to the painting from Dura Europos is a medieval depiction of the layout of the Israelites camp. As in the painting from Dura Europos, tents are used to portray the tribes encamped around the Tabernacle.