The passage in Numbers 20:1-13, which I quote below (in the NIV), has puzzled me in the past. It didn’t sit well with me, and I figured I simply didn’t understand it well.
As with many things I don’t understand well, I often “shelve” them for later consideration. Later is now, as I have just read through the passage again in my yearly journey through the Bible. This is the setting:
“In the first month the whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried.”
Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, had just died. Not much is said about her death, but Moses and Aaron must have been grieving. That grief on top of resistance from the Israelites they were trying to lead according to God’s direction, and the harsh circumstances of the desert must have weighed heavily on them.
“Now there was no water for the community, and the people gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron. They quarreled with Moses and said, ‘If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the Lord!'”
I believe their “brothers” who “fell before the Lord” refers to Korah who led a rebellion against Moses. (Numbers 16) Korah challenged Moses and his right to lead the Israelites, because Korah was not happy with his clan’s roll in caring for the Tent of Meeting. In challenging Moses, he was basically saying, “Who put you in charge?!”
Instead of confronting Korah directly, Moses set up a test before the people to allow God to identify who was in charge. When Korah and his clan burned incense, the ground rumbled, and Moses told the people to back away from Korah and his tribe of rebels as the ground swallowed them up.
Not long afterward, the wanderings of the Israelites brought them to the Desert of Zin, where the Israelites became so angry and distraught about the conditions in the desert that they wished they died with Korah in rebellion against God. The desert conditions must have seemed pretty inhospitable. Moses was losing the hearts of the people, and they were turning against him. Again! The people said:
“‘Why did you bring the Lord’s community into this wilderness, that we and our livestock should die here? Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!’”
Of course, Moses was God’s man. That fact was demonstrated graphically in the Korah situation, but they continued to take their dissatisfaction over their circumstances out on Moses. Instead of God, they blamed Moses for their situation. When Moses and Aaron the assembly of the people, the made a beeline for the entrance to the tent of meeting where they “fell facedown”, and “the glory of the Lord appeared to them.”
Moses and Aaron knew the score. They knew that the people were really finding fault with God, not Moses or Aaron. They were intimate enough with God to know that God was not to be trifled with.
When the glory of God appeared to them, they should have been emboldened to stand resolute on their confidence in God’s direction. They should not have doubted that God was with them. Right?
Of course, the Israelites should not have doubted that God was with them, either. God’s visibly demonstrated Himself to them over and over again. His visible presence went with them in a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. They had seen the demonstrations of the power and holiness of God at the Red Sea, at Mount Sinai and in the ground swallowing up Korah and his band of rebels.
What more did they need to see to understand that God was with them?
Yet, they did not trust that God had their back. God gave them manna every morning, and God gave them so much meat when they demanded meat that it came out of their nostrils. Yet, they continually grumbled and complained and wished they were back in Egypt.
Something had to be done to put down the unrest!
“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.’” (Emphasis added)
The instructions were simple and pretty clear: take the staff and speak to the rock.
“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?’”
Moses started out all right. He took the staff as he was commanded, but things begin to go off the rails after that. Moses was obviously perplexed that the people were so angry, and he might have been taking it personally. Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses turned and spoke to the people, and he was full of wrath for them in that moment.
It’s hard for me to blame Moses for feeling this way. I am sure I would take it personally also. It was personal!
The people were obstinate. What more could Moses do to demonstrate that God put him in charge?! Yet, they continued to challenge Moses and blame him for their unsatisfactory conditions.
Moses knew better, but it seems his own emotions got the best of him. He took their opposition personally, and his anger led him to forget God’s instructions to him:
“Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.”
The result was good, right?
But, Moses didn’t do exactly what God commanded him. God told him to speak to the rock. Instead, Moses spoke to the people, and Moses struck the rock with his staff. These clues pop when God responds:
“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.'”
I have long thought that the punishment didn’t fit the crime. Perhaps, I didn’t understood the significance of these things. God’s response seemed harsh in light of the faithfulness of Moses before Pharaoh, in receiving and delivering the Ten Commandments, and in putting up with the grumbling, and complaining, and obstinance, and waywardness of the Israelites, but maybe I was missing something.
Keep in mind that Moses grew up in luxury and privilege in Pharaoh’s household. The Israelites were “his people”, but only by genetics. Moses put up with a lot with these people he didn’t grow up with and didn’t even know very well. It seemed to me that Moses had been pretty faithful to God but clearly, his disobedience to God was more significant than I have appreciated.
I get the fact that Moses should have spoken to the rock, rather than striking it, but I was previously confused about what difference Moses speaking to the rock would have made, rather than striking the rock.
Would it have made a difference? Or was it just a matter of not following God’s instructions? Or, maybe, something else is going on….
I know enough about God to know that He isn’t arbitrary. The God of the Israelites wasn’t like all the neighboring “gods” who were arbitrary and capricious. This is the great theme of God’s dealing with Abraham, demonstrating to Abraham – the father of faith and of the covenant by faith with God – that the God of the Universe is not a capricious god.
God makes promises with people, and He keeps them. God is constant in his purposes. God is also longsuffering and patient, and his mercies are new every morning.
I don’t think this is just a matter of Moses failing to follow God’s instruction carefully. I have not consulted any commentaries. I come to this passage in my morning devotional time, so my “take” on it this time around is the result of my own meditation. If anyone has any insight, please leave a comment.
Let’s look more carefully at God’s response. He says,
“[Y]ou did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy.”
Maybe Moses was having his own crisis of faith. Maybe Moses, himself, was having second doubts. He didn’t trust God, and therefore he didn’t honor God as holy.
Holy means, roughly, to be set apart. That God is holy means that he is completely set apart. Perhaps, the fact that Moses took it personally when the people’s real contention was against God, is the way that Moses failed to honor God as set apart. Moses, perhaps failed to distinguish himself from God.
Perhaps, Moses took it personally precisely because Moses failed, in that moment, to appreciate fully that the people’s complaints against him were, really, complaints against God. Though Moses previously acknowledged exactly that (Ex. 16:7, perhaps, Moses also was grumbling inwardly against God.
Check out what Moses previously said to God:
“I am your servant, Lord, so why are you doing this to me? What have I done to deserve this? You’ve made me responsible for all these people, but they’re not my children. You told me to nurse them along and to carry them to the land you promised their ancestors. They keep whining for meat, but where can I get meat for them? This job is too much for me. How can I take care of all these people by myself? If this is the way you’re going to treat me, just kill me now and end my miserable life.” (Numbers 11:11-15)(CEV)
Sound familiar? Does not Moses sound just like the people who are complaining that Moses brought them into the desert to let them die there?!
Still, Moses did bring them out; he did follow God’s instructions… mostly. He may have done his own grumbling to God, but he did basically do what God directed him to do. Nevertheless, God decreed that Moses would not enter the promised land.
In my own mind, it seems that striking the rock was a small lapse and a harsh result after Moses had demonstrated his faithfulness to do all that God instructed him to do. It wasn’t easy!
But maybe, it wasn’t a momentary lapse. Maybe Moses had a heart issue all along, and this was the final straw. Moses does seem quite reluctant in the beginning, and the “blow up” with God in Chapter 11 of Numbers seems to suggest some ongoing attitude issues with Moses, despite the intimate encounters Moses had with God with the burning bush, on Mt. Sinai, and in the Tent of Meeting.
I am tempted to wonder, who among us would not identify with the pressure Moses was under? His sister just died. He was grieving. The desert is a harsh and formidable place. The people were continually grumbling, complaining, and challenging his authority. Though he tried to be mindful that their challenge of him was really a challenge of God, it’s easy to see why he would take it personally.
“These were the waters of Meribah, where the Israelites quarreled with the Lord and where he was proved holy among them.”
At the end of the day, God was proven holy among the people, even though Moses didn’t trust God enough to treat Him as Holy. Perhaps God’s dealing with Moses is part of proving His Holiness, his set-apartness. Clearly, not even God’s man, Moses, is on the same level as God, Himself.
When Moses spoke to the people, instead of the rock, he said, “‘Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” It seems Moses “forgot” his place. He took his anger out on the people, and Moses drew their attention to him, instead of God.
At the end of the day, Moses was, perhaps, not much different than the people. Though Moses had a front row seat before God, he was prone to forgetting or failing to appreciate exactly who God is. He certainly had more reason to honor God and obey him then the people, but he inevitably failed to recognize God for who He truly is.
Moses took the people’s rebellion as a personal affront, when he should have conceded that they were rebelling against God, and not him. He knew that in his head, but he let his heart get the best of him.
James cautions, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:20-21); and Paul warns, “In your anger do not sin….” (Eph. 4:26) It seems that Moses let his anger get the best of him, and he regretted it.
I can relate. I have allowed my anger to get the best of me, especially with my children when they challenged my authority when they were younger. I have sinned against God and rebelled in that sense myself.
Here’s one final thought: Though it seems harsh that Moses did not get to enter into the promised land, our sense of harshness is really skewed. We want what we want in this life, but God is preparing us for His Kingdom, and not for a kingdom in this life.
The people commended for their faith in Hebrews 11 are people who trusted in God all the way to the point of their death, not having received what was promised.
“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.” (Heb. 11:13)
The promise of God is not ultimately for this life. The promise is for the Kingdom to come. We may get a taste of what God has promised in this life, but only a taste.
Though Moses didn’t get to set foot in the promised land, he got to see it. He was instrumental in the progression, unfolding, and fulfillment of God’s plans and purposes. He is celebrated for the faith he did have, not for the lapses of faith he also had. We could all hope for as much!
One thought on “Lessons from Moses of Faith, the Lack Thereof and the Purposes of God”
Hi! The KJV of the Bible states in Numbers 20:12
But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.”
Moses was always pleading with God on their behave. I believe Moses knew God more then anyone. Yet he became just like the congregation. Even after God told him , he had no words to say to the Lord. He just sent a message to king of Edom asking to pass through his land.
What’s up with that?!!
This story makes me so grateful to Jesus. Because we all guilty of not listening completely to God and lack the understanding of God’s Holiness. My six year old daughter asked me this morning what does holy mean. I had no words. I know God is a being of power and sovereignty. He is the Creator. Your probably going to have questions for Moses when u get there, huh?
Do you think we will remember the things we wondered on earth about the Bible in heaven. I don’t know. Be blessed!
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