In his sermon, “The Death of Moses,” Henry Melvill vividly colors the scene in which Moses defies his Lord’s command and smites the rock which he had been told to speak to. This rock embodies a typification of Christ himself in that in being smote it brings the salving balm of water, quenching drought in a physical sense whereas Christ resolves a spiritual thirst. Moses, frustrated at the grumblings of those he has been sent to save, cannot bring himself to speak to the rock (pray to it, in some sense, for water) and instead feels the need to act, to take control and show his importance in the eyes of God and in the role of leader of the Israelites. Melvill emphasizes Moses’ humanity, his frustration seeming to lead to a most un-prophet-like bout of disbelief. Moses’ choice to act, to smite the rock not once but twice, rather than surrender and ask for water, raises tangential questions about not only Christ’s role as the antitype of the rock but also Moses’ widely accepted position as the type of Christ.

Can you fail, my brethren, to see that herein Moses sinned grievously? It is evident that he was chafed and irritated in spirit; his language shows this, "hear now, ye rebels:" rebels indeed the Israelites were; but it was manifestly in a burst of human passion, rather than of holy indignation, that Moses here used the term. And, then, observe how he proceeds — "Must we fetch you water out of this rock?" What are ye, O Moses and Aaron, that ye should speak as though the virtue were in you, when ye are verily men of like passions and feebleness with ourselves? The Psalmist, when giving us the history of his nation during their sojourning in the wilderness, might well describe Moses as provoked, on this occasion, to hasty and intemperate speech. "They angered God also at the waters of strife, so that it went ill with Moses for their sakes, because they provoked his spirit, so that he spake unadvisedly with his lips."

But this was not the whole, and perhaps not the chief of his offence. In place of doing only as he had been bidden, and speaking to the rock, he lifted up his hand, and smite the rock, yea, smote it twice. Was this merely in the irritation of the moment, or in actual unbelief ? Did he only forget the command, or did he fear that a simple word would not suffice, seeing that, on the former occasion, the rock yielded no water until smitten by the rod ? Probably there was a measure of distrust; he would hardly else have struck twice; and faith was not likely to be in vigorous exercise, when an unholy wrath had possession of his mind. And thus the lawgiver displayed passion, and arrogance, and Unbelief: passion, in that he addressed the multitude in the language of an irritated man; arrogance, in that he spake as though his own power were to bring forth the water; unbelief, in that he smote where he had been commanded only to speak. It seems probable that it was the unbelief which specially provoked God; for when he proceeded to the rebuking the sin, it was in these terms, "Because ye believed me not to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel." [“The Death of Moses” ]

Melvill condemns Moses’ act of disbelief soundly, but seems to hold a conflicting image of Moses in his mind. First he notes that Moses calls the Israelites “rebels” out of “human passion, rather than of holy indignation,” indicating Moses’ clear mortality, and yet soon after rebukes him for speaking as if he were not a simple man. This torn view on Moses continues through the text; for example, Melvill first treats the command from God for Moses to go to die on a mountainside as a most terrible way to die, alone and bereft of all material and comforting ties even with God at his side, and yet Melvill also reveres it as the most magnificent way to die, carried by the holy hands of angels to a paradise far surpassing Canaan. Moses embodies the man most revered on earth, the only of his ilk to see the face of God himself—and yet also the only man to be picked out of the crowd of disbelieving and passionate mortals, the only one to be punished to never complete that task which had previously consumed his existence. But this dichotomy of Moses’ role seems appropriate, whether intentional or not, given the nature of the God Melvill describes — a God both gentle and severe. And can it not further be connected to that twofold nature of Christ, the Godly aspect living within a flesh-and-bones body? This repeated representation of duality only reminds the reader that Moses is a type of Christ.


1. Given that the smitten rock is generally accepted as a type of Christ, and that Moses is also a type of Christ, what does this mean in relation to all three? What is Moses’ relationship to the rock he himself smites? Can they be linked? Is Moses more than a man — in other words, how does his role as “type” of Christ affect his humanity?

2. Melvill rationalizes Moses’ punishment by explaining that as a prominent and pious man it would be all the more necessary for God to demonstrate that all mankind must abide by the same Law, even a prophet, and no form of sin would be tolerated. Is this a logical conclusion? (On one hand, do you treat a first-time offender with the same harshness as a hardened criminal? But on the other side, Moses sinning as the ‘lawgiver’ seems almost akin to a Supreme Court judge breaking their own precedent.)

3. Furthermore, is Moses punished? “It is true that God was angry with Moses , and that He showed his anger by disappointing one of his most cherished hopes: but the anger was exhausted in the one decree, that he must die upon Nebo; for this mountain was to be as the gate to paradise.” He never fulfills the task which God sets for him, but he also never sees the eventual decay of the Israelites and Canaan. He gives up physical paradise for spiritual paradise, but is this a fair trade? Did Moses fail God?

4. What is the significance of Moses’ dual disobeyal — meaning, why is it explicitly mentioned that he strikes the rock twice?

5. Does Moses distrust or disbelieve? Is there a difference? Why does Melvill suggest that it is the “unbelief” that angers God more than distrust (or even the arrogance that seems so out of character with Moses’ meek personality)?

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Last modified 31 January 2011