See William H.C. Propp, “Did Moses Have Horns?” BR 04:01. The reading proposed there is not, so far, generally accepted.


Yahweh is the God of Israel’s personal name. In English versions, it is conventionally rendered “the Lord.”



These literary strata probably represent independent documents. They are usually referred to as J (the Jahwist/Yahwist source), E (the Elohist source), JE (J combined with E), D (the core of Deuteronomy) and P (the Priestly source). See Baruch J. Schwartz, “What Really Happened at Mount Sinai?” BR 13:05; Richard E. Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (New York: Summit, 1987), and “Torah (Pentateuch),” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), vol. 6, pp. 605–622.


See Jeffrey H. Tigay, “‘Heavy of Mouth’ and ‘Heavy of Tongue’: On Moses’ Speech Difficulty,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 231 (1978), pp. 57–67. While the idiom elsewhere connotes an inability to speak a particular language (Ezekiel 3:5–6), I do not think this is relevant here, given God’s answer in Exodus 4:11, “Who gives man a mouth, or who makes dumb or deaf or percipient or blind? Is it not I, Yahweh?”


In creating the unique expression “uncircumcised of lips,” the Priestly source may have drawn inspiration from Exodus 4:10–31, in the older JE document. There we find Aaron’s mission as Moses’ interpreter (Exodus 4:14–16, 27–31 [E]) treated together with an obscure tale about circumcision, the so-called bridegroom of blood story (Exodus 4:24–26 [J]). For my interpretation of the latter, see “That Bloody Bridegroom,” Vetus Testamentum 43 (1993), pp. 495–518.


Compare also Psalm 12:4–6, which contrasts the purity of God’s word with humanity’s sinful speech.


When reading this account and the following narrative about slaughtering the Midianites, one should remember that in non-Priestly tradition Moses’ own children were half Midianite (Exodus 2:21–22, 18:1–6).


Frank Moore Cross, who has exposed in greatest detail the rivalry between priest and Levite, thinks the conflict is specifically between Aaronid priests and Mosaic, or Mushite, priests (Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic [Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1973], pp. 195–215); see also Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? I do not doubt that there was a Mushite priesthood, but I think its traditions are not preserved in the Bible. In a specifically Mushite text, Moses’ sons would presumably play a greater role.


This Priestly story (Numbers 16:1a, 2b–11, 15–24, 27a, 32b, 35) has collided, as it were, with a non-Priestly account of the earth swallowing Dathan and Abiram (Numbers 16:1b–2a, 12–14, 25–26, 27b–32a, 33–34). To smooth things over, Dathan and Abiram were later added in Numbers 16:24, 27; they are absent from our oldest witness, the Greek Septuagint. Significantly, Deuteronomy 11:6 mentions Dathan and Abiram but not Korah, suggesting that the two stories were not yet combined when Deuteronomy was composed.


The following chapter, Numbers 19, is not obviously relevant to what precedes and follows. Yet it treats what may be the priest’s supreme task: removing, through the red heifer rite, Israel’s blood-guilt, which would otherwise cause its destruction. Thus chapter 19 continues to stress the priesthood’s unique role in maintaining communal purity before God.


The spring is located at Mount Horeb—a point missed by almost all interpreters (but see the 13th-century commentary of Nachmanides). Horeb thus exemplifies the holy mountain running with life-giving water, a theme more often associated with Zion (Ezekiel 47:1–12; Joel 3:18; Zechariah 13:1, 14:8; Psalms 36:7–10, 46:4, 65:10, 84:6; Revelation 22:1–2; also compare Isaiah 2:2–3 [= Micah 4:1–2] and Jeremiah 31:12). Horeb’s waters reappear in Exodus 32:20 to absorb the ashes of the golden calf. Levi’s blessing in Deuteronomy 33:8–11 also seems to associate Massah-and-Meribah with the golden calf; compare Exodus 32:26–29. See Propp, Water in the Wilderness, Harvard Semitic Monographs 40 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987), pp. 51–93.


Accordingly, the name Massah-and-Meribah is changed to Meribath-Kadesh (Numbers 27:14; Deuteronomy 32:51; Ezekiel 47:19, 48:28) or Meribah for short. Psalm 95:8–10 also appears to associate Massah-and-Meribah with Kadesh, where God decreed 40 years of wandering for Israel.


The solution was rediscovered independently by me and the German scholar Erhard Blum in the late 1980s, though we were both anticipated by Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, known as Rashbam, c. 1100 C.E. See Propp, “The Rod of Aaron and the Sin of Moses,” Journal of Biblical Literature 107 (1988), pp. 19–26; Erhard Blum, Studien zur Komposition des Pentateuch, Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 189 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1990), pp. 271–278.


This itself is not a new insight, see most recently Katharine D. Sakenfeld, “Theological and Redactional Problems in Numbers 20.2–13, ” in Understanding the Word, ed. J.T. Butler et al., Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 37 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1985), pp. 133–154.


Note that the source is P, which replaces Moses’ rod with Aaron’s. Admittedly, Moses splits the sea with his rod in Exodus 14:16, which most assign to P. Apparently, we must either attribute the words “raise your rod” to the editor who combined P with JE or conclude that in P Moses uses his rod once only, for the supreme miracle during the Exodus. Note also that in its first two appearances the staff is simply called “the rod.” No owner is specified, merely its location in the Tabernacle. But in the rod’s third appearance, Moses strikes “with his rod” (bmthw); here the pronoun seems to refer to Moses himself. This is a problem. Either the staff is called Moses’ because he now holds it, or else an editor or a later scribe added the letter waw to make it seem the rod was Moses’, as in Exodus 17:1–7. In the latter scenario, which I consider more likely, the original reading was bmth, “with the rod.” The Septuagint has “with the rod,” but this could reflect either bmth or bmthw.


For Jacob Milgrom, Moses’ real crime is speaking while performing a miracle, like a mere magician (“Magic, Monotheism and the Sin of Moses,” in The Quest for the Kingdom of God, ed. H.B. Huffmon et al. [Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1983], pp. 251–265). Milgrom’s analysis, however, presupposes an original text in which God commands Moses to strike the rock! And it relies upon and even extends Yehezkiel Kaufmann’s far-fetched speculation that silence had to be maintained during Temple worship.


In Hebrew hmrw is ambiguous, perhaps deliberately so.


“We” may refer to Moses and God or to Moses and Aaron.


Why he hits twice is unclear. I imagine Moses striking as he says “this rock” (hasselahazzeh), a blow per word. Abraham ibn Ezra (c. 1150) suggested that nothing happened after the first blow. If so, the scene is almost comic.


In Numbers 20:1–13 the entire family is finished off: Miriam, their sister, died and was buried at Kadesh (verse 1). Locating Miriam’s death at Meribath-Kadesh could be a play on words, for her name, miryaµm (true meaning uncertain), could be punningly translated “their rebellion,” chiming with meri³Æ (rebellion) (Numbers 17:25) and moµri³Æm (rebels) (Numbers 20:10).


Scholars have recently readdressed their attention to the Torah’s final form, reading “holistically” again, as Jews and Christians did for centuries. As we have seen, D and P maintain different concepts of why Moses had to die. As often happens, the combination of sources has yielded new meanings. In the Torah as we have it, Deuteronomy 1:37, 3:26 and 4:21 must be assumed to refer to Numbers 20:1–13. This changes the meaning of Deuteronomy: At Kadesh God punished Moses for Israel’s “sake”—not because they sinned, but because Moses insulted them, calling them “rebels.” This was the view of some rabbis, and it probably underlies Psalm 106:33.