Massah and Meribah is the name given to a place near Rephidim where the Israelites arrived on their Egyp. exodus after moving on from the Wilderness of Sin. Not finding drinking water there, they murmured against Moses and were almost ready to stone him. At the command of the Lord he went on before the people to the rock at Horeb which he struck with his rod so that it brought forth water. Moses named the location “Proof and Contention” because of the Israelites’ faultfinding and their putting the Lord to the test (Exod 17:1-7).
The account in Numbers 20:1-13 refers to an event in Israel’s history some forty years later. This Meribah must be distinguished from Massah and Meribah. It is located in southern Pal. and received its name from an incident rather similar to the one related in Exodus 17. Here, instead of speaking to the rock as the Lord had commanded him to do, Moses struck the rock and as a consequence forfeited the right to enter the Promised Land (Deut 32:51).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
mas’-a, mer’-i-ba (maccah umeribhah, "proving and strife"; peirasmos kai loidoresis): These names occur together as applied to one place only in Ex 17:7; they stand, however, in parallelism in De 33:8; Ps 95:8. In all other cases they are kept distinct, as belonging to two separate narratives. The conjunction here may be due to conflation of the sources. Of course, it is not impossible that, for the reason stated, the double name was given, although elsewhere (De 6:16; 9:22) the place is referred to as Massah.
1. First Instance:
This scene is laid in Ex 17:1 at REPHIDIM (which see) and in 17:6 at HOREB (which see). It is near the beginning of the desert wanderings. In dearth of water the people murmur and complain. Moses, appealing to God, is told what to do. He takes with him the elders of Israel, and smites with his rod the rock on which the Lord stands in Horeb, whereupon water gushes forth, and the people drink. Here Moses alone is God’s agent. There is no hint of blame attaching to him. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because of the of the striving of the children of Israel, and because they tempted the Lord (17:7). In some way not indicated, here and at Meribah, God put the Levites to proof (De 33:8).
2. Second Instance:
The second narrative describes what took place at Kadesh (i.e. "Kadesh-barnea") when the desert wanderings were nearly over (Nu 20:1-13). The flow of water from the famous spring for some reason had ceased. In their distress the people became impatient and petulant. At the door of the tent of meeting Moses and Aaron received the Lord’s instructions. In his speech of remonstrance to the people Moses seemed to glorify himself and his brother; and instead of speaking to the rock as God had commanded, he struck it twice with his rod. The flow of water was at once restored; but Moses and Aaron were heavily punished because they did not sanctify God in the eyes of the children of Israel. The "Waters of Meribah" was the name given to this scene of strife. The incident is referred to in Nu 20:24, and De 32:51 (merobhath qadhesh, the King James Version "Meribah-Kadesh," the Revised Version (British and American) "Meribah of Kadesh"). In Ps 81:7 God appears as having tested Israel here. The sin of Israel and the ensuing calamity to Moses are alluded to in Ps 106:32.
The place appears in Eze 47:19; 48:28, as on the southern border of the land of Israel, in the former as "Meriboth-kadesh," in the latter as "Meribath-kadesh" (Meriboth = plural Meribath = "construct singular") where the position indicated is that of `Ain Qadis, "Kadesh-barnea."
In De 33:2, by a slight emendation of the text we might read meribhoth qadhesh for meribhebhoth qodhesh. This gives a preferable sense.