...from there to the well, which is the well about which Hashem said to Moshe, "Gather the people, and I will give them water." Then Israel sang this song: "Rise up, O well - answer it - A well dug by princes, carved by the leaders of the people, with the staff, with their rods" (Bamidbar 21:16-18)Even in this short passage, we see apparent inconsistencies.
- First, God says that He will provide the people with water.
- Then, the people say "Rise up, O well", which perhaps sounds like a well is rising miraculously, as God might do in these circumstances.
- However, then the people say that the well was dug by human beings, not by God!
- Then they say that the digging was done by the leaders (not normal manual laborers), and it used their staffs (not normal digging tools)!
I think the answer is to look at how miracles were often performed in earlier events in the Torah. In Egypt, for example, the norm was for Moshe to point his staff at something, or hit something with his staff, and a miracle would then occur involving that something.
What is the parallel here? God announced to Moshe that God would provide water. Moshe and Aharon got their staffs, and pointed at or hit a certain rock. This caused water to miraculously come from the ground. At which point the people sung their song.
This explains how all the events could logically have happened. But there is still one inconsistency. Initially God announced that He would provide water. But in the song, the people do not mention God's role, but only the role of humans who "dug" the well. Why the difference?
To answer this, let's examine a very similar story from just one chapter earlier. At Mei Merivah, Moshe was commanded to take his staff and provide water for the people. It's not clear exactly why, but God saw Moshe's ensuing actions as a failure to "sanctify God" before the people. One common interpretation is that Moshe hit the rock, rather than speaking to it, which indicated that Moshe rather than God was the one providing water.
If so, at the time of our story with the well, the people might still have believe that Moshe not God was providing them with water. Here Moshe pointed his staff at the ground and water rose from it, which should have been a sign of God's miraculous intervention. But the people mistakenly saw it as an act of Moshe. And when they sang their song, cheering the rise of the well, they chose to praise Moshe and Aharon rather than God.
This understanding resolves all the loose ends in the story. How does it fit with our understanding of the rest of the Torah?
The most obvious question is about "song". There is a midrashic idea (appearing in the Mechilta, Tanchuma, the beginning of Targum Shir Hashirim, and other sources, generally searchable on Bar Ilan CD with the words "eser shirot") which lists ten "songs" that have been sung throughout history. The exact list varies slightly between sources, but here is a common version: in Egypt; after the splitting of the sea; at the well (our story); around parshat Haazinu; by Yehoshua; by Devorah and Barak; by David; by Shlomo; by Shlomo in Shir Hashirim; and the final song which will be recited in the future messianic era. The common element in these "songs" is that they are Divinely inspired, righteous, and holy. But according to my interpretation of the well song, rather than being holy, it was based on a massive theological mistake. It seems that my explanation of the story is incompatible with this view of "song". Accepting this midrash is not an article of faith, but we should be clear what we would have to give up by accepting my explanation.
The second question is the place of the story in Sefer Bamidbar. It is commonly accepted that the Jewish people's behavior was different in the second and fourtieth years of their desert journey. The second year was full of rebellions, culminating in the stories of the spies and Korach. The fourtieth year, in contrast, showed a Jewish people that had learned their lessons, and were now spiritually ready to enter the land of Israel.
But this picture is not so clear. The story of the snakes (21:4-9) was yet another rebellion ending in punishment (though for several reasons it might be more positive than the previous rebellions). And the episode with the daughters of Moav was so serious that God raised the possibility of destroying the people entirely (25:11). Of course there are also more positive stories, such as the people making and keeping a vow to God (21:1-3). So I think there is enough room here for another negative story. The people was still quite flawed, but after 40 years in the desert, they were sufficiently improved that they could handle conquering and living in the land of Israel.