In this chapter, we see part of what it means to say that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children. It doesn’t mean that God arbitrarily punishes children who have wicked parents. It doesn’t mean that He "takes out His anger" over sins committed by the older generation on the younger generation. It does mean that the evil tendencies and influences that children grow up with have an effect on them too, and often, they repeat the same behaviors and hold the same attitudes as their parents. (Look no further than our own society for modern-day examples of this.)
In Numbers 20, we hear a familiar refrain: "Now there was no water for the community, and the people gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron. They quarreled with Moses and said, 'If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the Lord! Why did you bring the Lord’s community into this wilderness, that we and our livestock should die here? Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!'" (vs 2-5)
Here’s the interesting thing, though. There is at least a 38-year gap between Numbers 19 and 20. All of a sudden, we have fast-forwarded through all the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness, and four decades later, the children of that original generation are... still sounding like their parents. (The clue that we have time-traveled forward comes at the end of the chapter, with the report of Aaron’s death. In Numbers 33, it says that he died in the 40th year following the exodus from Egypt.)
And not only do we have a familiar refrain from the Israelites, but we also see an event repeated from Israel’s history — water from a rock. But this time, there’s a significant difference, and I think it tells us something about God.
The first story of water from a rock is told in Exodus 17. And at that time, immediately following the escape from Egypt, God was dealing with a special situation. He had a lot of scared people who didn’t know what they were doing or where their next meal was coming from. They were superstitious and terribly prone to idolatry. Priority number one was to get their attention and keep it. So, in Exodus 17, God has Moses bring forth water from the rock with a fantastic display of power: "Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink." (Ex 17:6) And that’s exactly what happened.
But that’s not what God asked Moses to do in Numbers 20. Here, when the people took up the familiar complaint, grumbling against Moses and Aaron and God for the "hardships" they were enduring, God said, "Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink." (vs 8) Interesting, isn’t it? The difference?
What this says to me is that God, at heart, is a tender person. He wants friends, not servants. He wants relationship, not authority. He wants agreement, not blind obedience. He wants to speak, not shout. But don’t let it be said that God is above shouting. Oh, He will. He will rant and rave and thunder and lightning and do whatever is necessary to get our attention. Once He has our attention, however, He wants us to know that He doesn’t much care for the shouting. He is, at heart, a tender person.
It reminds me very much of the story in 1 Kings 19, when Elijah climbed up a mountain to meet with God. And first came a great and powerful wind, followed by a mighty earthquake, and then a devastating fire... but the Lord wasn’t in any of these. He came afterward, in a whisper. A quiet, tender voice.
This is why Moses’s decision to strike the rock and speak angrily to the people on this occasion was so egregious. God was about to bring these complaining Israelites into the Promised Land, and He desperately wanted to move them forward a step in their relationship with Him. He wanted them to know that, when they needed to be cared for, He was a tender shepherd. He wanted them to know that a single word from His mouth could provide for all their needs. He wanted them to know that He was not angry and displeased with them — even though they were still complaining 40 years later.
God has a very tender heart. He’s a Lover — I really don’t think He can help Himself. And because He loves us so fiercely, He will produce the smoke and lights and loud noises when we need them. But, in His heart, He is whispering: I love you... I love you... I love you...