There are two stories in the Pentateuch concerning Moses striking the rock in the desertExodus 17:5-6; Numbers 20:7-13. In the first reference Moses is instructed by the Lord to strike the rock before the elders. In the second reference he is told to simply speak to the rock in the presence of the people. Because he struck the rock in anger in the Numbers account, God placed a penalty on Moses that he would not enter the Promised Land. Scholars have puzzled over the difference in Moses' actions and the significance behind the striking of the rock itself.
The context of chapter 17 is the quarreling and the rebellion of the people in the wilderness wandering. They were short of water and had lost their trust in the Lord to provide. In their anger against Moses they were on the verge of stoning him to death (v. 4). God instructed Moses to take the staff, the rod that he carried, and lead the elders up to Horeb and strike the prominent rock so that these men could view his actions (v. 6). The staff represented the authority of God that was carried about by Moses. It was called "the staff of God" (4:20; 17:9).
The Jews later would not be reminded of the spiritual blessing of this event, but instead, they would have to recall their sin of quarreling and testing the Lord. Moses named the place Massah (to test) and Meribah (to quarrel) (v. 7). But it is in the New Testament that we would see the blessing side of this event. God's Spirit was providing the people food (the Manna) and the Jews in the wilderness would be drinking "the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the Rock was Christ (1 Cor. 10:4). Interestingly, though the rock in Exodus 17 represents Christ, the Lord says of Himself that "I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb" (v. 6). This is a Theophany in that it was actually Christ, the Angel of Jehovah, in appearance before Moses and the elders. He is standing on the rock signifying that the rock represents in actuality Him and His presence before them.
In the wilderness only the Jewish elders were to be witnesses to the event of the striking of the rock. But Zechariah speaks of the striking of the Shepherd with the results, that "the sheep may be scattered" (Zech. 13:7). This would take place by the authority of the elders and by the actions of the Romans. This prophecy was fulfilled by the elders of Israel and by their hatred of Christ when He stood before them at His trial. The priests and leaders, all of them, condemned Christ to be worthy of death. They buffeted Him and turned Him over to the temple officers who struck Him with blows from their hands (Mark 14:64-65). But of course, in God's strange providence, He Himself was the final cause of the Shepherd being stricken for sinners. Isaiah prophetically writes: He would be "smitten of God, and afflicted" (Isa. 53:4). As the rock that would be struck, Christ would be delivered up to the elders of the Sanhedrin, "to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death" (Matt. 20:18).
On the other occasion when the people were thirsty, the events that transpired were different. Aaron was to accompany Moses, with Moses' staff of God's authority, and come before the people, the congregation, and simply "speak to the rock before their eyes" which would yield its water (v. 8). Before the assembly of the people Moses showed his great anger toward them and cried out: "Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?" (v.10). Though it may have been tongue-in-cheek, Moses received his instructions from the Lord. He was not to ask the people what they wanted!
In his anger, Moses struck the rock twice instead of simply speaking to it as God instructed (v. 11). Now the Lord was angry because Moses and Aaron had disobeyed His instructions. If the rock represented Christ it had already been struck just one time, which was a type of His death on the cross. He is not to be struck a second time.
The Lord said: "Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them" (v. 12). Moses would be able to see the land before he died but he would not enter it.
The Rock, Christ, had to be struck the first time because this was a type of His death on the cross. But the second time pictures God's grace. We, as Moses, only have to ask for the blessings that come from His provision, i.e. the water.
Other lessons come from these accounts. We have to do things God's way and not ours. Another lesson comes from Numbers 20:10. Moses said to the rebellious people, "Shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?" The provision of the water was a miracle from God. Moses and Aaron were not the cause of the blessing; they were simply the Lord's servants. On their own they could do nothing!
Though Jesus is represented in this rock in Exodus and Numbers, the rock also represents God the Father as well. Moses says of the Lord that He is "The Rock! His work is perfect" (Deut. 32:4). The power of the Egyptians was like a rock but not like the Rock of Israel (v. 31). Though the world may be strong in its sins it does not have the final power and authority that belongs to the God of Israel!