Thirty-nine years into their desert wanderings Moses and the Israelites were on the brink of entering the Promised Land. Just when it was finally within their grasp, Moses and his brother, Aaron, committed a sin so grievous that God barred them from leading the people into Canaan. They were doomed to die in the desert. It all started with a familiar problem: the Israelites were grumbling because they had no water. Once again, Moses and Aaron sought help from the Lord:
“Moses and Aaron went from the assembly to the entrance to the tent of meeting and fell facedown, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. The Lord said to Moses, ‘Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.’
So Moses took the staff from the Lord’s presence, just as he commanded him. He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, ‘Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?’ Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank. But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.’” (Numbers 20:6-12, NIV)
In this week’s study Priscilla Shirer asks: “How did Moses offend the Lord? Why do you think the Lord withheld entry into Canaan rather than assigning a lesser punishment?” (One in a Million p. 116) For me, these weren’t easy questions to answer. If you’re feeling the same, continue reading to see what I learned from consulting different teachers and commentaries. It may help you understand the reason for God’s severe punishment of Moses and Aaron in spite of their prominent positions.
Disobedience to God’s Clear Instructions
God gave a simple direction to Moses and Aaron. They were to speak to a specific rock while the community watched. God promised that water would pour from the rock as a result. However, Moses chose to respond to the people’s grumbling with exaggerated anger. Instead of simply speaking to the rock, he struck it twice with his staff. Psalm 106:32-33 provides some commentary on this:
“By the waters of Meribah they angered the Lord, and trouble came to Moses because of them; for they rebelled against the Spirit of God, and rash words came from Moses’ lips.” (NIV)
Pinpointing What Went Wrong
In his anger, Moses over reacted to the Israelites’ complaints about having no water. He let his emotions take control and spoke rashly to the people. “It was not God but Moses who was angry at the people. Therefore, the pronoun we was a form of blasphemy… If Moses had merely spoken to the rock, as the Lord had directed, the miracle would have pointed to the power of God. As it was, Moses took God’s place both in word and deed. Moses’ sin was a willful refusal to point away from himself to God’s power and thus sanctify the Lord in the eyes of the people. Moses and Aaron shared the chastisement for this sin.” (Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p. 138)
Several things stand out to me in this explanation:
1) Moses let his emotions get the best of him–his anger led him to sin
2) Moses characterized God inaccurately to the people
3) Moses spoke for God when he was not instructed to do so (the commentary labels this as a form of blasphemy)
4) Moses demonstrated pride in his “willful refusal to point away from himself”
The truth is, we’re not much different from Moses:
-There are times when we let our emotions take control and lead us into sin.
-We all have moments of inaccurately portraying God to others. It’s called hypocrisy. (Have you ever encountered someone who wants nothing to do with God because they’ve previously had a negative experience with a hypocritical Christian?)
-There are times when we’re tempted to speak for God or to bend His Word to fit our agendas.
-All of us also struggle with pride. It’s human nature to place us in the center of the universe and to want everything to revolve around our personal wants and needs.
One thing that is easy to overlook in this story is that despite Moses and Aaron’s sin, God still provided water from the rock to meet the people’s needs that day. In fact, the fingerprints of God’s grace are smeared all over the Israelites’ story. Jesus is present throughout their wanderings even though He’s never mentioned by name. Consider this: God’s daily provision of manna and water give tangible examples of what Jesus does for us spiritually as the Bread of Life (John 6) and the Living Water (John 4 & 7).
The apostle Paul links Jesus directly to the Israelites:
“For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.” (1 Corinthians 10:1-4, NIV)
One commentary explains the rock mentioned in Numbers “was the visible means of the supply of water which came ultimately from Christ. Since people of Israel obtained this water in the opening years of their wilderness wandering (Exodus 17:1-9) and in the closing years (Numbers 20:1-13), it is only natural to infer that he, Christ, the Supplier of the water, was with them all along the way.” (Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p. 1245) Sometimes we forget that as a member of the Trinity, Jesus was with God from the beginning:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:1,2,14,17 NIV)
Looking at the story of the rock from Numbers 20, God’s punishment to Moses may seem harsh. However, the stark reality is that we are all sinners in a fallen world who deserve to be barred from entrance into the Promised Land of heaven. In the same way God’s grace provided water in spite of Moses’ sin, His grace provided Jesus to pay for our sins when we didn’t deserve it. Because of this, we’re freed to receive God’s grace so that we can enjoy His abundance in our present lives and spend eternity with Him.
Moses first encountered God in the burning bush at the foot of Mount Sinai. He returned with the Israelites to worship there later. From the heights of Mount Nebo, he had sweeping views of the Promised Land that he would never enter. Because of this, it seemed fitting to include a song describing the spiritual moments that happen in our mountain top experiences. Click on the link to hear Crowder’s “This I Know.”
Pfeiffer, Charles F. and Harrison, Everett F.; Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Editors; Moody Press, 1962, 1990.
Shirer, Priscilla; One in a Million: Journey to Your Promised Land; Lifeway Press; 2010, 2014.