23 “And I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying, 24 ‘O Lord God, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your mighty hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts as yours? 25 Please let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and Lebanon.’ 26 But the Lord was angry with me because of you and would not listen to me. And the Lord said to me, ‘Enough from you; do not speak to me of this matter again. 27 Go up to the top of Pisgah and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward, and look at it with your eyes, for you shall not go over this Jordan. 28 But charge Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him, for he shall go over at the head of this people, and he shall put them in possession of the land that you shall see.’ 29 So we remained in the valley opposite Beth-peor.” – Deuteronomy 3:23-29 ESV
For more than 40 years, Moses had been the God-appointed leader of the people of Israel. He had been the one God had chosen to rescue His people from their captivity in Egypt and to lead them across the wilderness to the land of Canaan. Now, the long-awaited ay to enter the land had arrived and Moses would not be going with them. But why?
Verse 23 opens up with Moses recounting a conversation he had with God, where he pleaded that he be allowed the privilege and pleasure of entering the land of promise. Moses knew what God had already decided and had lived with the knowledge of his ban from the land for some time. It all began at a place called the Wilderness of Zin on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Moses had just recently buried his sister, Miriam and was still dealing with the grief over his loss. But this didn’t stop the people of Israel from coming to Moses with their most recent complaint.
There was no water for the people to drink at that place, so they rebelled against Moses and Aaron. The people blamed Moses and said, “If only we had died in the Lord’s presence with our brothers! Why have you brought the congregation of the Lord’s people into this wilderness to die, along with all our livestock? Why did you make us leave Egypt and bring us here to this terrible place? This land has no grain, no figs, no grapes, no pomegranates, and no water to drink!” – Numbers 20:2-5 NLT
They were literally “unhappy campers” and they voiced their complaint to Moses. In doing so, they accused Moses of trying to kill them. They questioned his leadership by stating that he had somehow managed to guide them one of the most uninhabitable places on the face of the earth.
Frustrated by yet another wave of grumbling and complaining from his wards, Moses went straight to the tabernacle in order to seek guidance from God. He was at a loss as to how to respond to his ungrateful followers. And the Lord told Moses exactly what to do.
“You and Aaron must take the staff and assemble the entire community. As the people watch, speak to the rock over there, and it will pour out its water. You will provide enough water from the rock to satisfy the whole community and their livestock.” – Numbers 20:8 NLT
God gave Moses very specific instructions. And the text tells us that “Moses did as he was told.” But did he? The book of Numbers records exactly what Moses did and provides the explanation for his eventual ban from entering the land.
He took the staff from the place where it was kept before the Lord. Then he and Aaron summoned the people to come and gather at the rock. “Listen, you rebels!” he shouted. “Must we bring you water from this rock?” Then Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with the staff, and water gushed out. So the entire community and their livestock drank their fill. – Numbers 20:9-11 NLT
Moses was angry. He was put out with the people and fed up with their constant complaining and their unpleasant habit of blaming all their problems on him. So, he took this opportunity to do a bit of grandstanding before these ungrateful and unworthy whiners. You can tell what Moses thought about them by how he addressed them. He called them rebels. The Hebrew word, marah, carries the idea of bitterness or unpleasantness. These people were difficult to live with because they were always complaining about everything. They were ungrateful and disrespectful and Moses had had his fill of them. But he allowed his anger with the people to get the best of him, and rather than do what God had told him to do, Moses improvised. He raised the rod over his head and brought it down in rage, striking the rock two times. Rather than speaking to the rock as God had instructed him to do, Moses took out his anger on the rock.
Amazingly, in spite of Moses’ disobedience, water flowed from the rock just as God had promised. But as Moses watched the miracle of the water flowing from a rock, he heard these fateful words from God.
“Because you did not trust me enough to demonstrate my holiness to the people of Israel, you will not lead them into the land I am giving them!” – Numbers 20:12 NLT
Like the burning bush where Moses first met with God, this rock was going to be a symbol of God’s presence and power. In fact, the apostle Paul would later explain that the rock was Jesus Himself.
For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they were all drinking from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. – 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 NLT
God had manifested His presence in a variety of ways, including the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. The manna was another proof of God’s presence and provision. And now, the rock was to have been yet another sign of God’s miraculous power and gracious, life-giving presence.
In striking the rock, Moses took out his anger on God. He lashed out at Savior of his people. And yet, the life-giving water still flowed and the peoples’ thirst was slacked. But why was God so angry with Moses? Couldn’t He understand the frustration Moses must have felt? Yes, God most certainly understood what Moses was going through. After all, the complaints of the people were ultimately aimed at Him. But there is something telling in how Moses spoke to the people that day. He gathered them together and said, “Must we bring you water from this rock?”
Moses was attempting to take credit for something God was going to do. In a sense, he was telling the people, “So, you want to question my leadership? Well, watch this!”
He was hoping to use the power of God to bolster his own reputation among the people. Rather than pointing the people to the majesty and holiness of God, he attempted to steal some of God’s thunder. He wanted the people to respect him. But God does not share His glory with anyone.
“I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to anyone else, nor share my praise with carved idols.” – Isaiah 42:8 NLT
Moses was guilty of setting himself up as a god. He wanted the people to worship and fear him. He was attempting to portray himself as their source of sustenance. He was the one who was meeting their needs. This was a dangerous game to play. Moses was supposed to be pointing the people to God, but in striking the rock, Moses showed disrespect for God.
There is another interesting insight found in the account in Numbers. The whole episode is summarized by the following statement:
This place was known as the waters of Meribah (which means “arguing”) because there the people of Israel argued with the Lord, and there he demonstrated his holiness among them. – Numbers 20:13 NLT
Notice those last seven words: “There he demonsrated his holiness among them.” In spite of Moses’ disobedience, God revealed His holiness. He displayed His “otherness” or transcendence. The Hebrew word translated as “holiness” is qadash. It means “to show oneself sacred or majestic” (“H6942 – qadash – Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible.). Through His miraculous provision of water from an ordinary rock, God was demonstrating His set-apartness. In the same way He caused manna to appear each morning and quail to fall from the sky, God was revealing to the people just how powerful He was. He was fully capable of meeting all their needs and He wanted them to trust Him.
But Moses had tried to steal God’s glory and make it his own. And God made perfectly clear what Moses’ sin was. He told Moses that he was guilty of “failing to uphold me as holy at the waters before their eyes” (Numbers 27:13 ESV). Moses was guilty of trying to use God as a prop or tool to reinforce his own significance.
We can see the gravity of this particular sin by looking at the severe consequences it incurred. Moses was banned from the land of promise.
“…because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people of Israel at the waters of Meribah-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, and because you did not treat me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel. 52 For you shall see the land before you, but you shall not go there, into the land that I am giving to the people of Israel.” – Deuteronomy 32:51-52 ESV
But there’s one more interesting insight into Moses’ outlook on his punishment from God. When informing the people of Israel about his fate, he blamed them.
“But the Lord was angry with me because of you, and he would not listen to me.” – Deuteronomy 3:26 NLT
Not exactly the truth. God had been angry with Moses because Moses had allowed his anger with the people to cause him to steal glory from God. But Moses was not the savior of the people of Israel. He was not their deliverer. God had never intended Moses to be their provider. Moses was nothing more than a servant of the Almighty, and his job was to point the people to the one who had promised to rescue, lead, and provide for them. It was God who would go before the people into the land of promise, not Moses.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.