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When the Israelites were desperate from thirst during their desert wanderings, the Lord instructed Moses: "Behold, I will stand before thee there on the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink" (Exodus 17:6). As Numbers 20:1-13 tells, the prophet brought forth water again when he struck a second rock, even though this time he had been instructed only to pray for water. Henry Melvill, the "Evangelical Chrysostom" who was the favorite preacher of Ruskin and Browning, makes the standard Victorian interpretation of the first incident when he holds that "this rock in Horeb was typical of Christ" and its yielding water when struck by Moses signifies "that the Mediator must receive the blows of the law, before he could be the source of salvation to a parched and perishing world." Melvill also cites the New Testament authentication of this type when he explains that "it is to this that St. Paul refers, when he says of the Jews, 'They did all drink of the same spiritual drink; for they drank of that spiritual rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ' [1 Corinthians 10:4]."

Three examples of the stricken rock. Left to right: (a) The Israelites drink from the water that flowed from the rock de Gustave Doré (note Moses in the background). (b) Moses striking the rock by Joseph Durham. (c) Instinctive Critical Acumen (1893) by George DuMaurier. [Click on the thumbnails for larger images.]

English literature alludes to the smitten rock in several chief ways, the most obvious of which is the embodiment of God's sustaining the Israelites and all human beings. Less common in literature is Paul's use of it as type of baptism, although this interpretation occurs in the visual arts. The smitten rock appears most often as (1) a type of Christ, who when struck (crucified) produces waters of grace or as (2) the stony heart of the believer that when struck by God or Christ produces waters of grace. Both these typological readings appear in secularized forms.

Seventeenth-century poets characteristically make ingenious variations on these typological applications. George Herbert, for example, presents the smitten rock in "The Sacrifice" as the type of the saviour's sufferings when Christ himself describes how his tormentors "strike my head, the rock from whence all store/ Of heav'nly blessing issue evermore" (ll. 169-71). The same poet's "Love Unknown," on the other hand, invokes the second major intonation of this typological commonplace when it describes in visionary terms how a servant of his lord seized his heart "And threw it in a font, wherein did fall/ A stream of blood, which issu'd from the side/ of a great rock" (ll. 12-15). This concatenation of biblical images, types, and emblems turns the waters of the Old Testament scene into the blood of Christ's sacrifice, thus making explicit the prophetic blending of times and beings always potential in a type. In "Easter Day," Richard Crashaw most unusually makes the smitten rock a type of Christ's tomb, from which issues forth the risen Christ and immortality for all believers.

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century hymns and devotional verse make extensive use of the smitten rock to generate a typological universe surrounding the reader. Like Gerard Manley Hopkins's dramatic monologue, "Soliloquy of One of the Spies left in the Wilderness" (c. 1864), Isaac Watts's "Go, worship at Immanuel's feet" (1709), William Williams's "Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah!" (1774), and John Newton's "When Israel, by Divine command" (1799) make the general situation rather than the smitten rock itself a type and thus emphasize the contemporary believer's postfiguration of the sinful wandering Israelites. In contrast, John Newton's "That Rock was Christ" (1772), Augustus Montague Toplady's "Rock of Ages" (1776), and Horatius Bonar's "The Cross" present the smitten rock simply as a type of the Crucifixion.

Another, perhaps less strictly orthodox type occurs when poets use Moses striking the rock to prefigure Christ bringing forth tears of repentance from the stony heart of the individual worshipper. This version of the type, which has had a long history in English verse, appears in the "author's emblem of himself," which opens the first part of Henry Vaughan's Silex Scintillans (1650), and in book six of The Excursion (1814), where Wordsworth has Ellen explain that God "'at whose command the parched rock/ Was smitten, and poured forth a quenching stream' has softened her hardness of heart" (VI, 920-21). This use of the smitten rock, which occurs again in John Ruskin's "The Broken Chain," John Keble's "Sixth Sunday after Trinity" and "Easter Eve," and Tennyson's "Supposed Confessions" (1830), provides the climax and poetic center of Tennyson's In Memoriam (1850), (section 131) and of Christina Rossetti's "Good Friday" (1862).

Purely secular applications of the type -- those that require the reader to perceive the existence of the Christian reading of the Old Testament event as a prefiguration of Christ and his dispensation but that have no religious theme -- appear occasionally throughout the nineteenth century. Robert Calder Campbell's untitled love sonnet, which appeared in the Pre-Raphaelite periodical The Germ (1850), tells the speaker's beloved that when she departs he has "no speech -- no magic that beguiles/ The stream of utterance from the harden'd rock," and Emily Dickinson in "A Wounded Deer -- leaps highest" makes the "Smitten Rock that gushes" one of several instances of sharp reaction to a blow. Both these examples, like the following from Meredith's The Egoist (1879), draw upon commonplace traditions of biblical exegesis primarily for emphasis: "We cannot quite preserve our dignity when we stoop to the work of calling forth tears. Moses had probably to take a nimble jump away from the rock after that venerable Law-giver had knocked the water out of it" (Ch. 31). The allusion achieves it full effect only if one recognizes the traditional association of Christ's calling forth tears of repentance from the sinner. A more elaborate allusion to Moses striking the rock appears in Robert Browning's "One Word More" (1855), which emphasizes that just as the ungrateful Jews failed to appreciate Moses's bringing forth water from the rock, so, too, the Victorian audience fails to appreciate what the poet produces on its behalf. A characteristically complex multiple use of the smitten rock appears in A.D. Hope's "An Epistle from Holofernes" (1946), when the ghost of Israel's enemy meditates upon myth, truth, and poetry.

Related materials

Print version published 1980; web version 1998; link added 23 September 2001; images added 2 May 2011