So what's the deal? Why does God tell Moses to strike the rock when it's not a necessary action? When we know that God could bring water out of the rock without Moses's theatrical performance, why put a man in a position to fail? Particularly when something so big as the Promised Land is on the line?
The answer is as it always has been with our God: it's just not His style to do it any other way.
Our God has always been a God who desires relationship with us, who wants to partner with us for His glory and our fullness. There's not one story in the whole Bible where God needed a man for anything, but nor do we find a Bible full of stories of God acting on His own, outside of relationship with His people.
Noah didn't have to build an ark. If God wanted to save Noah from the flood, He could have done it just by speaking the word. God could have lifted two of every animal, and Noah's family, to His storehouses in the heavens if He'd wanted to, but that wouldn't have helped His relationship with His people.
The Israelites didn't have to fight a single peoples in the Promised Land. Not one. There's a story where God confuses an enemy army and makes them kill themselves as they stood in battle array against Israel, without one of God's people ever having to pick up a sword. (Although, we should say, that God made His people actually go to the battlefield.) God could have destroyed the nations without His people, but that wouldn't have helped His relationship with His people.
Jesus didn't need disciples. He was fully capable of the work of ministry all on His own. But He chose twelve men anyway and let them be eyewitnesses to the wonders of the Incarnation. Why? Because it helped establish the relationship between God and His people.
God has always been a God who invites us along for the journey, not because He needs us but because He wants us. All throughout the wilderness journey, throughout the entire story that we know as the Exodus, starting all the way back in Egypt, God has been using Moses. Not because He needs to, but because He wants to.
And it's on the basis of that invitation - God's invitation to play a part in His cosmic drama - that God sends Moses to strike the rock. It's God saying to Moses, one more time, Hey, I'm going to do something neat. Do you want to be part of it?
That's why it's so important that God brought water out of that rock anyway, even after Moses failed. Because if we knew that our human failures had the ability to prevent God from doing the good He desires to do, who among us would ever accept His invitation?
It is precisely because God doesn't need us, but rather, wants us, that so many of us choose to go with Him.
God didn't set Moses up to fail, although He had to have known that at some point, Moses's flesh was going to get in the way. God set Moses up to be part of something bigger than himself. ...Moses failed all on his own.
And while it may seem harsh that on account of one failure, particularly after so many successes, Moses never got to enter the Promised Land, the Lord did have mercy on him and let him see it. The Lord continued to affirm all the things Moses had gotten right, all the adventures they'd had together. All the face-to-face chats on the mountain. God continued to remind Moses of the very special relationship that they shared and just how much the Lord loves this man. Moses didn't get the Promised Land; he didn't have the whole world. But he had the Lord, and the Lord had him.
And I think that if you asked Moses all over again if he wanted the chance to be part of what God was doing, he'd say without hesitation - absolutely. If God asked Moses to walk over and strike another rock, I think he'd do it. Wholeheartedly.
Because it's not a trap.
It's an invitation.