Moses and the Amazing Technicolor Water Fountain

Anyone who has been to Sunday school is familiar with the stories of the Wilderness wanderings — how the Israelites were made to spend forty years wandering in the parched desert between Egypt and Palestine after their escape from Pharaoh, forbidden to enter the lush and bountiful lands of Canaan. In one often-told story found in Exodus 16, the Israelites find themselves going hungry and yearning for their days in Egypt when they could eat their fill of meat and bread. God hears their complaints and promises the Israelites he will provide them their fill of meat in the evening and bread in the morning. Sure enough, from that point on, the camp is overrun with quail every evening, and in the morning, the dew deposits flaky “bread” — manna — for the people to gather and eat. Exodus 16:35 reads:

 The sons of Israel ate manna for forty years, up to the time they reached inhabited country: they ate manna up to the time they reached the frontier of the land of Canaan. (JB)

In an alternate version of the story found in Numbers 11, we read that the Israelites are given just manna at first, but that they soon tire of it, and complain that they want some meat. That really rustles God’s jimmies, so he decides that not only will they get their meat, he’ll make them eat it till they get sick of it. And so it happens, that a stiff wind blows in so much quail (“from the sea”), the ground around the camp is covered with them two cubits deep! (It’s just like “The Trouble with Tribbles”, but set in Bible times.) And then, for good measure, God strikes the Israelites with a plague while they are still eating the quail, killing a whole bunch of them. (Why don’t I remember that part from Sunday school?)


Imagine this, but with quails.

Of course, the people needed water too. In Exodus 17, immediately following the quail-and-manna story, we find the Israelites in the Wilderness of Sin without any water. (However, they do have livestock. Why didn’t they eat that while they were complaining about having no meat? But I digress…) God commands Moses to strike a rock, and when he does, it produces a spring of water. Incidentally, this account is etiological in purpose, as it is used to explain how a place called Massah or Meribah¹ got its name.

There is a similar story, in Numbers 20, in which we read that the people came to the Wilderness of Zin (not the same place as the Wilderness of Sin, the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary informs me), where they complained about not having any water and being on the verge of death (some people are just never satisfied!), so Moses performed a miracle and struck a rock to produce a spring of water. Again, the tale serves as an aetiology for how the place called Meribah (not that Meribah, the other one) got its name², even though it gives a slightly different reason than Exodus 17 did.

It seems that these passages became a cause for concern to later Jewish exegetes. The Israelites’ food needs had been taken care of for the entire forty years, but they only had access to water twice — near the beginning of their journey, at Sin, and near the end of their journey at Zin. What did they do for the decades in between? A vexing question indeed.

The answer lay in yet another passage unrelated to the ones we’ve been looking at. In Numbers 21, the Israelites are on their way to Moab, and they stop at Beer (meaning “well”) to drink from the well. They sing a song about the well — “Spring up, O well!” — and verse 19 provides an itinerary of their ensuing journey as they continue singing. However, Targum Onqelos (an Aramaic translation of the Torah used for synagogue readings) was corrupt at this point, and it turned the place name “Mattanah” into a similarly-spelled verb meaning “give”. So instead of reading “from the wilderness to Mattanah”, the text said something like “it was given to them in the wilderness” and that it (whatever “it” was) followed them to Moab.³

Aha, some Jewish interpreter must have thought. There was only one rock that produced water, not two. It followed the Israelites throughout their Wilderness journey, like a portable water fountain rolling through the desert behind the procession of people and livestock. Indeed, this very tradition shows up in several texts from the early common era, including Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities and the collection of oral law known as the Tosephta.⁴

So you might think that this tradition is purely an extra-biblical one — and a rather strange one at that. (Though not really stranger than the Quail Incident.) It didn’t make it into the Bible itself… or did it?

In fact, it did. The authors of the New Testament were immersed in creative reinterpretations of the Old Testament, and frequently inserted details from later traditions when they retold its stories, applying its lessons to new situations. Paul of Tarsus was particularly steeped in Jewish traditions, and he had this to say in 1 Corinthians 10:1–4:

 I want to remind you, brothers, how our fathers were all guided by a cloud above them and how they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in this cloud and in this sea; all ate the same spiritual food and all drank the same spiritual drink, since they all drank from the spiritual rock that followed them as they went, and that rock was Christ. (JB)

So it’s official — as far as the Bible is concerned, anyway. The Israelites were supplied with water by a holy rock that followed them through the Wilderness, and according to Paul, that rock was Christ.


¹ So named because the Israelites quarrelled with God.

² So named because Moses quarrelled with God.

³ Enns, Peter. “The ‘Moveable Well’ in 1 Cor 10:4: An Extrabiblical Tradition in an Apostolic Text”, Bulletin for Biblical Research 6 (1996) 23-38 

⁴ Pseudo-Philo, Biblical Antiquities 10:7, 11:15, 20:8. Tosephta Sukka 3.11.


4 thoughts on “Moses and the Amazing Technicolor Water Fountain

  1. Great post. That’s super interesting. As someone who grew up in Sunday school I’m surprised (except at this point it’s no longer surprising) that I never noticed a bunch of these: 2 mana stories, and Paul mentioning a rock that followed them.


  2. Thanks for the comment, Mike. I remember getting a vague sense of déjà vu in Sunday School every time the teacher told us a new Bible story, like I’d already heard that a variation of the same story in a previous lesson. However, when you actually compare the Bible’s many story parallels side-by-side, you see the deliberate literary craft and remarkable inclusion of contradictory traditions. For some reason, they never want you to notice that in church.


  3. Not only does Paul claim, contra Exodus 17 and Numbers 20, that the rock was “Christ,” the very tradition that he appropriates is inconsistent with the OT, since Numbers 20:2 says that “there was no water for the congregation,” a strange thing to say if there were a water-producing rock following them. Also, note Deuteronomy 2:5b-6:”I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession. 6 YOU SHALL PURCHASE FOOD FROM THEM for money, so that you may eat; and YOU SHALL ALSO BUY WATER FROM THEM for money, so that you may drink.” Why would the Israelites need to purchase water, or for that matter food?


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