What I mean by this is perhaps Moshe, as he stood at the rock, stick in hand, was unable to see the people for what they were.Cogent, concise and compelling--predicated, of course, on the assumption that Moshe is addressing the new generation (G2), that the generation which left Egypt (G1) is dead. This, of course, is what we were all taught, based on Rashi's famous comment on Num. 20:1, "Then the entire congregation of Israelites entered the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh. Miriam died and was buried there." Rashi comments: "'The entire congregation'--the complete congregation, for the ones destined to die in the desert had already died and these were assigned for life." The source for this is Midrash Tanhuma (Hukkat 37), and thus it turns out that all of those condemned must have died by the last day of year 39. (The Ramban notes that the phrasing "the entire congregation" is far from unusual and offers his own explanation; indeed, the phrase appears more than two dozen times in this book alone.)
Instead of recognizing that the people in front of him were the children and grandchildren of the nation that had sinned so many times during the first eventful year in the desert, Moshe treated them as if they were their own parents.
It is not clear if Rashi here is presenting an alternative to what he writes in his Talmudic commentary. On BT Taanit 30b, he quotes the Jerusalem Talmud (Taanit 3:7), which describes the annual grave-digging ceremony on the 9th of Av: in year 40, no one died, so the last time G1 men died would have been 9 Av, 39, eight months before G2 arrived at Kadesh.
The problem is that this seems to directly contradict an explicit passage in Deuteronomy (2:14-16):
This passage unequivocally identifies Wadi Zered as the Jewish Rubicon, the line between G1 and G2. When do the Jews cross Wadi Zered? Not in year 39, but in year 40!Now the length of time it took for us to go from Kadesh Barnea to the crossing of Wadi Zered was thirty-eight years, time for all the military men of that generation to die, just as the Lord had vowed to them. Indeed, it was the very hand of the Lord that eliminated them from within the camp until they were all gone. So it was after all the military men had been eliminated from the community.
From there they moved on and camped in Wadi Zered. (Num. 21:12)
Note that Aharon dies on 1 Av (33:38), and the Jews spend a full month mourning him (20:29). They would be crossing Wadi Zered sometime in the summer of year 40, about six or fourteen months after the Midrashic dates.
Moreover, this tidbit fits in beautifully with the picture given to us in Hukkat. Just three stops before Wadi Zered, we have the final episode in which the people resent the Exodus (21:5): “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread or water, and we detest this worthless food!" It is almost identical to the complaint at Mei Meribah, which motivates Moshe to call them "rebels" (20:5): "Why have you brought us up from Egypt to bring us to this dreadful place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; nor is there any water to drink!” These are classic G1 complaints.
So how are we supposed to react to this? Certainly, intra-Midrashic contradictions are nothing new; they are not really contradictions, but differing opinions. Similarly, we often find the Midrash altering our view of the text by adding elements that are not written in it. However, in this case, the Midrash is actively sidelining the simple meaning of the text. Are we to ignore it? Is Deuteronomy irrelevant when discussing Numbers? Is Masei irrelevant when discussing Hukkat? I've been puzzling over this for 15 years, but perhaps the DovBear community has a solution.