OseWalrus on Chukat.
I'd like to begin by laying out my basic schizophrenic style of analysis. I'm going to hew very closely to the written text and try to ignore most of the commentary and midrash around this. At the same time, I am going to adhere to some basic principles for Orthodox exigesis. I assume the Torah is true and written by Moses as dictated by God. I also assume that the text must mean what it says, but that it can be subject to ambiguity.
My conclusion on rereading the text, as well as some relevant Text from Deut., is that God treated Moses with kindness and compassion. By right, Moses and Aaron should have been publically humiliated and torn apart by an angry mob. Alternatively, Moses' and Aaron's sin here was sufficiently grave that God would have been justified in blasting them to death as he did to Aaron's sons, who committed a far lesser transgression (albeit of a similar nature). No doubt God's comapssion was a reward to Moses for his years of devoted service and also served a valuable political purpose. Too sudden a transition would have caused panic in Israel.
This view is rather the polar opposite of the question typically asked on this story- Why is God so hard on Moses? One little slip and he is denied the completion of his life's goal. I will argue that such an interpretation is contrary to the plain language of the text and emenates from a critical error -- identification of the reader with Moses. But the Torah is not the story of Moses. If it is the story of anything, it is the story of how God forged a relationship with Israel as a nation, rather than with righteous individuals.
Further muddying the waters is the conflicting goals of Midrash and the Rabbis. The commentaries are deeply disturbed by the idea that Moses, who is the highest level of holy man ever in Israel, could sin, however slightly. The Rabbis and Midrash therefore actively seek to minimize Moses' "sin" by suggesting, for example, that Moses acted from confusion, speaking to the wrong rock first and then deciding that he should repeat the previous incident from Ex., where God had commanded Moses to bring forth water from the rock by hitting it with his staff. At the same time, it is unthinkable that God acted unjustly or arbitrarily, so Moses must have done something wrong. The result is various lessons drawn about the impossibly high standard of behavior that applies to the truly righteous.
Pardon my appostasy, but this explanation just sucks rocks. The notion that I, as a sinner and ignoramous, can escape my responsibilities because the truely righteous will meet a higher standard is a very, very dangerous idea. Far more dangerous than the idea that Moshe, for all his holiness, was a human being, subject to the frailties to which humans are heir and that God, however merciful and compassionate, must protect the people by providing for them a proper leader.
O.K., now how about the text? According Num. 20:1-13, the assembly moved to the "desert of Tzin" where Miriam died, and the people ran out of water. (I am aware that Midrash makes a connection between the two events). The people therefore complained against Moses and Aaron saying "Why did you bring us out of Egypt to this terrible place?" Moses and Aaron then withdrew and "fell on their faces" before God.
It is very important to note what is said here and what is not said here. The object of the people's ire is not God, but Moses. There is no talk of returning to Egypt. There is no rebellion against God. There is not even rebellion against Moses. Complaint, yes. But no rebellion. No command is disobeyed. There is no cry to return to Egypt or appoint another leader.
Let us resume the text. God manifests himself to Moshe and Aaron and instructs them that they should assemble the people and command the rock to bring forth water. God does not display any anger toward the Children of Israel. To the contrary, he does not even order Moses to rebuke them. Instead, God tells Moses and Aaron to provide for the people's need in a manner that will emphasize God's power over nature.
Moses and aaron gather the people together, but they do not follow God's instructions. Instead, they shout "Rebells! Shall we bring forth water from this rock?" Whereupon Moshe hits the rock twice and water gushes forth.
Subsequently, God then says to Moshe and Aaron "Because you did not believe in me, and because you did not sanctify My name to the Children of Israel, therefore you shall not lead this Congregation into the Land I have given them." A final coda, in odd grammar concludes the episode. "These are the waters of Rebellion, where they [ambiguous] rebelled against God, But He was sanctified."
This is not merely a case to follow instructions precisely, which is the usual focus of the story. I argue that the failure of Moses and Aaron was that they, as God says "failed to sanctify [God's] name." Moses and Aaron assign credit for the comming water to themselves. "Shall we bring forth water from the rock." Furthermore, they equate the mere act of complaint against their leadership with an act of rebellion. Yet the people did not rebell, and no where did God do anything to imply that a complaint against Moses and Aaron, on its own, constituted rebellion (Korach sought to replace Moses and Aaron). Even if we assume that Moses and Aaron did not intend to imply that they themselves, rather than God, were the ultimate source of the miracle, it appears that they intended to take credit for it as the necessary conduits of God's authority.
Seen in this light, Moses' and Aaron's attempt to usurp God's miracle to their own political purposes is on par with Nadab and Avihu's attempt to usurp the ceremony of the incense at the dedication of the Mishkan. In that case, God acted instantly to assert control over the nature of ceremony. To have permitted Nadab and Avihu to alter the Divinely ordained service in the Temple would have been to allow the priests, rather than God, to exercise control over the manner of offering. Their immediate and public punishment was absolutely necessary to prevent the Temple service from devolving from a Divinely ordained service to one managed and manipulated by a human priesthood.
Similarly, one should have expected God to punish Moshe and Aaron publicly. At the least, we might have expected that God would have withheld the miracle. "Will, you, Moshe and Aaron, bring forth water? No. But will God? Yes."
We are therefore left with the question of why God actually provided water in the manner designated by Moshe. My only answer is that God showed great compassion for Moshe and for the Children of Israel. He recognized that Moshe acted out of two human failings. First, Moshe demonstrated that he was incapable of discerning the difference between the new generation and the old. The previous generation was indeed a generation of rebells. But this generation is not. They are, as the people describe themselves in v.2 "the Congregation of God." Even if they doubt their political leaders of the moment, they do not doubt God or their mission to go to the promised land and not return to Egypt. But Moses, after 40 years, remains blind to the change. As a consequence, he is no longer a suitable leader. That is why Moses will not lead "this Congregation" into Israel -- because Moshe is unable to distinguish this congregation from the previous, rebellious one.
Second, Moshe knows fear. This is the only explanation of the cryptic "because you did not have faith in Me" of v.12. Moshe's desire to bolster his personal political power demonstrates a lack of faith in God's judgment that the people will continue to accept him unquestioningly as leader.
[I do not wish to imply that Moshe acted from personal ego. As the text informs us in the matter of Miriam and Aaron, Moses did not care to defend himself from personal insult. But Moses remebered the uprising of Korach, and understood the dangers of political instability. It is the most human of rationalizations to regard oneself as indespensable and one's leadership as critical. Is it so hard to believe that Moshe and aaron believed that solidification of their political power was critical to preserving political stability? But this rationalization lacks faith in God, as it concludes that God's political judgment, that a miracle that emphasized God's miraculous nature would suffice, was somehow lacking or insufficient.]
[It also explains how Moshe "failed to sanctify [God''s] name." Moshe did not invoke God once in the course of the miracle. Only himself and Aaron.]
Third, God must have considered the impact on the Congregation if Moshe and Aaron were immediately punished or if the miracle failed to occur. God is not blind to political effects. As Ex. tells us, God declined to take the people directly to the Promised Land by way of the Plishtim "lest they see war" and lose heart. Similarly, God recognizes that the immediate execution of Moshe and Aaron, or even the failure to bring forth water, would have cast the Children of Israel into a panic. Accordingly, God arranged for an orderly transfer of power.
As a final word, I offer this explanation of v.13. How is it that, if Moses and Aaron failed to sanctify God, God was sanctified? Because the Children of Israel recognized that the source of the miracle was indeed God, not Moshe and Aaron. In this way was God truly sanctified, by the recognition of his Congregation.