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Exodus 17:4:

וַיִּצְעַ֤ק מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־יְהוָ֣ה לֵאמֹ֔ר מָ֥ה אֶעֱשֶׂ֖ה לָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֑ה ע֥וֹד מְעַ֖ט וּסְקָלֻֽנִי׃

My translation:

And Moses cried to G-d, saying: ‘What shall I do to this people? It will be a short while and they will stone me.’

Questions (besides the one Moses asked G-d, here :)

  • Why does Moses think that the people will stone him? There were other places were the people were upset at him about the lack of food and water, and we don't see any such claim anywhere else? What was unique about this situation?
  • There are numerous ways the people could have killed Moses. Why specifically stoning? (In this question, I'm asking if somehow, Moses "sin" in the people's minds, was punishable via stoning vs. choking, burning, etc.)
  • "In a short while..." - How long did Moses think this would happen?
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I couldn't find many references to the specific act of stoning, since I think most would think of this as using a popular phrase. But I agree with the premise of your question, that the Torah doesn't write stuff for no reason, so it would be interesting to learn why Moses picked stoning specifically. This is a suggestion for a partial answer.

Sanhedrin 7b:

אמר ריש לקיש כל המעמיד דיין (על הציבור) שאינו הגון כאילו נוטע אשירה בישראל

Translation: Resh Lakish said: He who appoints an incompetent judge over the Community is as though he had planted an Asherah in Israel.

The Maharal explains this concept in Chidushei Agadot:

כי הדיין נקרא אלקים בכל הכתוב, מפני כי המשפט לאלקים, ולכך זה שהוא דיין ראוי שיהיה נקרא אלקים. ואמרו כל הדן דין אמת לאמתו כאלו נעשה שותף להקב"ה במעשה בראשית, כמו שבארנו בפ"ק דשבת (י' א'). ולכך דיין שאינו הגון נקרא אשירה, כי האשירה היא אל זר וכיון [ש]הדיין נקרא אלקים, וכאשר אינו הגון הוא אל זר, ולכך אמר כאלו נטע אשירה

(In short, one who judges others is doing Hashem's work, so when he is incompetent, he is like a "false god", and whoever appoints such a judge is appointing a "false god".)

So any leader, who appoints himself as leader, and who is incompetent, is as one who "planted an Asherah", and the punishment of basic avoda zara is death by stoning.

We encounter many places, during the travels in the desert, where Bnei Yisrael complain and even blame Moses for their troubles (why did you bring us here, etc.). Here too, Bnei Yisrael might be blaming Moses as an incompetent leader, as a competent one would supply water to his people. If Moses is incompetent, based on the gemara and Maharal above, his punishment would be stoning.

(By the way, Hashem tells Moses then to "pass on before the people", to prove to him that they do not really want to stone him. The midrash even says that Hashem scolds Moses for accusing the people of such thoughts.)

  • At this point, I find this answer weak. The cited Gemarah and Midrash refers to a judge, not a leader. While it is true that, as we see in Yitro, they did appoint Moshe as a judge (together with helpers), it is unclear if at this point (in Beshalach) they appointed that role to Moshe. Even if they did, from the text, they were complaining about Moshe's leadership, not his judgment. – DanF Jan 22 '16 at 14:53
  • I agree, I myself do not believe my suggestion is correct. I actually lean more towards the usage of stoning as a general/popular way of killing in the past, and not as this specific death by law/halacha (compared to burning, hanging, etc.). Some things were simply said as one would say them back then. However I would be happy to hear of another sensible suggestion :) – Cauthon Jan 22 '16 at 14:58
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Ateres Hamikra - page 80 brings this question. He says that Moshe feared that they would punish him as a false prophet whose punishment is with stoning.

  • I just read it. I still don't understand the premise. How would he be a false prophet? Based on what? – DanF Jan 22 '16 at 16:24
  • Good queston, DanF! Didn't he just announce HaShem's splitting the sea for them and all the other stuff at plaguetime? ...then they just wake up and decide it was all coincidence and get ready to stone him? – Gary Jan 23 '16 at 1:29

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