The Danger of Doubt and Disobedience

1 And the people of Israel, the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh. And Miriam died there and was buried there.

Now there was no water for the congregation. And they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. And the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink.” Then Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. And the glory of the Lord appeared to them, and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” And Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he commanded him.

10 Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” 11 And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. 12 And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” 13 These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the Lord, and through them he showed himself holy. Numbers 20:1-13 ESV

Nearly 40 years have passed since the Israelites first arrived at the border of the land of Canaan but refused to obey God’s command and take possession of it. Due to their rebellion, they had spent the last four decades wandering through the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan until that generation died off. God was not going to allow them a second chance to take possession of their inheritance. That privilege would be passed to their sons and daughters.

Ever since the Israelites had been delivered from their captivity in Egypt, they had shown a propensity for complaining and, ultimately, rebellion. They had a habit of viewing everything from a negative perspective. And this problem went all the way to the top.

This chapter opens up with the death of Miriam, the elder sister of Moses and Aaron. And what is significant about the timing of her death is its location. She takes her last breath on earth in a place called Kadesh.

This had been a regular camping point for the people of God during their days in the wilderness. They had been here before, years earlier, and had proven their penchant for rebellion and refusal to obey God’s commands.

“You also made the Lord angry at Taberah, Massah, and Kibroth-hattaavah. And at Kadesh-barnea the Lord sent you out with this command: ‘Go up and take over the land I have given you.’ But you rebelled against the command of the Lord your God and refused to put your trust in him or obey him. Yes, you have been rebelling against the Lord as long as I have known you.” – Deuteronomy 9:22-24 NLT

Kadesh was located near the southern borders of Canaan and it came to represent a kind of stop sign in the lives of the nation of Israel. It was as if this spot was as far as they could force themselves to go in their quest to occupy the land that God had given them. And it would be in Kadesh that Miriam’s life would come to an end. She would never set foot in the land of promise. And all because she had chosen to question God’s will by attempting to wrest leadership from the hands of her own brother. This less-than-flattering scene from Miriam’s life is recorded in Numbers 12. She and Aaron joined forces to demand equal billing when it came to leading the nation.

They said, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t he spoken through us, too?” – Numbers 12:2 NLT

There weren’t content in their roles and desired to share the leadership responsibilities with their brother. But God did not agree.

“Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and he departed. – Numbers 12:8-9 ESV

For her part in the attempted coup, Miriam was struck with leprosy. But Moses interceded for his sister and begged God to heal her, which He did. But while Miriam was spared the pain and social ostracization that comes with leprosy, she would be denied entry into the land of Canaan. She paid dearly for her rebellion.

And the story of her death is followed by yet another example of rebellion on the part of the people. The people found themselves in Kadesh once again and, more specifically, at a place called Meribah. That name had a special significance to the people of Israel – for both good and bad reasons. It was at Meribah that God had performed a miraculous sign by providing them with water out of a rock.

All the way back in Exodus 17, we have recorded this first encounter with “the rock.” On that occasion, they had been fairly early on in their wilderness experience. When they came to the wilderness of Sin, they discovered that there was no water for them to drink. So the people did what they were prone to do – they complained. And Moses did what he was prone to do – take the matter to God.

God instructed him to take his rod and strike a particular rock. When he did, water gushed from the rock. In the book of Corinthians, Paul tells us something significant about this rock.

…and all of them drank the same miraculous water. For they all drank from the miraculous rock that traveled with them, and that rock was Christ. – 1 Corinthians 10:4 NLT

Now there was a legend that the rabbis taught that said the rock actually traveled with the people of Israel. There is no Scriptural basis for this theory, but in Numbers 20, the “rock” makes an appearance once again. Whether it was the very same rock or just another rock through which God provided for the peoples’ needs, Paul’s point is that the rock symbolized Christ. It was He who had been with the Israelites all the time they were in the wilderness, providing life-sustaining water for them. In fact, when God told Moses to strike the rock back in Exodus 17, that word means to “strike, beat, scourge, ravage, slay, or wound.” It’s the same word used when God “smote” the firstborn of Egypt. It paints a picture of the scourging and beating of Christ at His trials and crucifixion. Jesus would become the source of living water. During His encounter with the Samaritan woman  Jesus told her, “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who I am, you would ask me, and I would give you living water” (John 4:10 NLT). Just a few chapters later in the book of John, Jesus tells the crowds, “If you are thirsty, come to me! If you believe in me, come and drink! For the Scriptures declare that rivers of living water will flow out from within” (John 7:37-38 NLT).

In chapter 20 of the book of Numbers, we have not a retelling of the story of Meribah, but another Meribah. This is one of those “deja-vu-all-over-again” type of experiences. Meribah means ” argument” or “strife.” And the names stems from the actions of the people of God because they argued or quarreled with God both times. The second time, God instructed Moses to take his rod again, but this time He specifically tells Moses to SPEAK to the rock – not strike it. Back in Exodus 17, His instructions were to strike the rock. But now Moses was simply to speak to it.

But in his anger with the people, Moses disobeys God and strikes the rock twice. His actions produce the desired result, but in disobeying God, Moses incurred His wrath. Think about it. If what Paul says in 1 Corinthians is true – that the rock is a representation of Christ, then Moses is taking out his anger on Christ. The first time Moses struck the rock, it was a representation of the death that Christ must suffer in order that we might have life. But from that point forward, Christ’s life-sustaining power was available for the asking. There was no need to “beat” it out of Him. He had provided before and He would provide again. All Moses needed to do was ask. But instead He struck the rock in anger. And this action would prevent Moses from entering the promised land. Like his sister, Miriam, Moses would die in the wilderness, having been denied entrance into the very land he had strived so long to enjoy. And Aaron would suffer a similar fate.

This is a tough passage. It seems as if Moses and Aaron got too severe a punishment from the hand of God. But in his commentary on the Old Testament, Matthew Henry sheds some helpful light on this passage.

First, They did not punctually observe their orders, but in some things varied from their commission; God bade them speak to the rock, and they spoke to the people, and smote the rock, which at this time they were not ordered to do, but they thought speaking would not do. When, in distrust of the power of the word, we have recourse to the secular power in matters of pure conscience, we do, as Moses here, smite the rock to which we should only speak, Secondly, They assumed too much of the glory of this work of wonder to themselves: Must we fetch water? as if it were done by some power or worthiness of theirs. Therefore it is charged upon them (v. 12) that they did not sanctify God, that is, they did not give him that glory of this miracle which was due unto his name. Thirdly, Unbelief was the great transgression (v. 12): You believed me not; nay, it is called rebelling against God’s commandment, ch. 27:14. The command was to bring water out of the rock, but they rebelled against this command, by distrusting it, and doubting whether it would take effect or no. They speak doubtfully: Must we fetch water? And probably they did in some other ways discover an uncertainty in their own minds whether water would come or no for such a rebellious generation as this was. And perhaps they the rather questioned it, though God had promised it, because the glory of the Lord did not appear before them upon this rock, as it had done upon the rock in Rephidim, Ex. 17:6. They would not take God’s word without a sign.” – Matthew Henry, “Numbers,” Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible

Disobedience, unbelief, and seeking glory for themselves. That was their sin. And it is the sin of many of us today. We disobey God because we do not believe God. And when we do obey, we do it in order to get the glory for ourselves. But God would have none of it from Moses and Aaron, and He will have none of it from us. He will provide, but He will have us obey. He will provide, but He will get the glory. He will provide, but He will expect us to believe. To trust Him. God is holy and demands that we treat Him as such.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

The Painful Price of Pride

1 Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. And they said, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” And the Lord heard it. Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth. And suddenly the Lord said to Moses and to Aaron and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.” And the three of them came out. And the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent and called Aaron and Miriam, and they both came forward. And he said, “Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and he departed.

10 When the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, like snow. And Aaron turned toward Miriam, and behold, she was leprous. 11 And Aaron said to Moses, “Oh, my lord, do not punish us because we have done foolishly and have sinned. 12 Let her not be as one dead, whose flesh is half eaten away when he comes out of his mother’s womb.” 13 And Moses cried to the Lord, “O God, please heal her—please.” 14 But the Lord said to Moses, “If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be shamed seven days? Let her be shut outside the camp seven days, and after that she may be brought in again.” 15 So Miriam was shut outside the camp seven days, and the people did not set out on the march till Miriam was brought in again. 16 After that the people set out from Hazeroth, and camped in the wilderness of Paran. Numbers 12:1-16 ESV

Moses was the God-appointed leader of the nation Israel and Aaron, his brother, had been set apart by God to serve as the high priest. And even when God had agreed to provide His chosen leader with administrative assistance, God poured out His Spirit on 70 men who would serve directly under Moses. They were not to replace him or to assume they served on an equal standing with him. These men were supposed to assist Moses in his oversight of the nation, wisely administering justice and handling disputes among the people so that Moses would not become overwhelmed.

Yet, this chapter introduces a new form of leadership struggle that rose among the people and it started with those who were closest to Moses – his own family. It seems that his brother and sister took issue with a marriage arrangement he had agreed to with a Cushite woman. There is some debate as to the identity of this woman, but it would appear that she was of a foreigner of Ethiopian descent. It could be that Moses’ first wife, Zipporah, had died some time during the last year, and he then married this Ethiopian woman. But whatever the circumstances, Miriam and Aaron took issue with the marriage and used it as an excuse to question Moses’ qualifications to lead the nation.

They saw the marriage as evidence of Moses’ lack of discernment and questioned whether he was really hearing from God. In fact, they claimed to be on an equal standing with Moses when it came to divine insight.

“Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t he spoken through us, too?” – Numbers 12:2 NLT

Miriam was older than Moses and had been the one who helped secure his safety when Pharaoh had ordered the murder all the male babies born among the Israelites living in Egypt (Exodus 1:15-16). Miriam had arranged with the daughter of Pharaoh to have the infant, Moses, nursed by one of the Hebrew women, who just happened to be her own mother (Exodus 2:7-9). Exodus 15:20 refers to Miriam as a prophetess of God, and Micah 6:4 lists her as one of the three individuals whom God appointed to lead the nation of Israel from Egypt to the land of Canaan.

“For I brought you up from the land of Egypt
    and redeemed you from the house of slavery,
and I sent before you Moses,
    Aaron, and Miriam.” – Micah 6:4 ESV

But in Numbers 12, Miriam attempted to convince her brother, Aaron, to join her in staging a coup against Moses. It seems rather odd that she would target Aaron for participation in this little insurrection because he was already second-in-command and served as the high priest of the people. Even before Moses had successfully led the people of Israel out of Egypt, Aaron had served as his second-hand man. God had appointed him as Moses’ mouthpiece.

“What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he speaks well. And look! He is on his way to meet you now. He will be delighted to see you. Talk to him, and put the words in his mouth. I will be with both of you as you speak, and I will instruct you both in what to do. Aaron will be your spokesman to the people. He will be your mouthpiece, and you will stand in the place of God for him, telling him what to say.” – Exodus 4:14-16 NLT

But Miriam and Aaron had decided that they were just as qualified as their brother to serve as the de facto leaders of Israel. After all, they too had been born into the tribe of Levi and had every right to serve in a leadership capacity. And it didn’t help that Moses was a very humble individual who had no desire for the limelight. Of his own admission, he was far from charismatic or overly eloquent.

“O Lord, I’m not very good with words. I never have been, and I’m not now, even though you have spoken to me. I get tongue-tied, and my words get tangled.” – Exodus 4:10 NLT

His lack of self-esteem made him an easy target for Miriam’s attacks. She believed that Moses had been a poor choice by God and the Cushite marriage agreement had proven Moses’ lack of discernment. But God disagreed with their assessment and ordered the three siblings to meet Him at the tent of meeting, located just outside the camp.

And the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent and called Aaron and Miriam, and they both came forward. And he said, “Hear my words…” – Numbers 12:5-6 ESV

God wanted a word with these dissatisfied siblings and, when He was done, they were going to wish they had never opened their mouths against Moses. The first thing God cleared up was His divine right to choose whomever He wanted as His leader. Miriam may have been a prophetess of God, but that did not put her on equal footing with Moses. In fact, God seems to be taking a dig at Miriam’s prophetess status when He states, “If there were prophets among you, I, the Lord, would reveal myself in visions. I would speak to them in dreams” (Numbers 12:6 NLT).

Miriam had experienced no dreams or visions from God. Her demand for equal status was a figment of her own overactive imagination and over-inflated sense of self-worth. And to make sure she understood the vast difference between His relationship with her and the one He shared with Moses, God declared:

“Of all my house, he is the one I trust. I speak to him face to face, clearly, and not in riddles! He sees the Lord as he is.” – Numbers 12:7-8 NLT

That had to have hit Miriam like a brick to the forehead. God’s words stung and burst the bubble of her own sense of self-importance. And, to make matters worse, God demanded to know why she had shown no fear to criticize Moses. Who did she think she was?

Having stated His case against Miriam and Aaron, God departed from them. But He left an unsettling reminder of His displeasure. When Aaron turned to look at Miriam, he was shocked to discover that her entire body was covered with leprosy. And fearing that he was next, he called out to Moses to intervene on their behalf.

“Oh, my master! Please don’t punish us for this sin we have so foolishly committed.” – Numbers 12:11 NLT

The sudden and unexpected sight of his sister covered with leprosy must have reminded Aaron of another day when something similar had happened to Moses. Back when God had called Moses to be the chosen deliverer of the people of Israel, He had given him a series of signs that were intended to prove to the people of Israel that Yahweh had sent him.

“Put your hand inside your cloak.” And he put his hand inside his cloak, and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous like snow. Then God said, “Put your hand back inside your cloak.” So he put his hand back inside his cloak, and when he took it out, behold, it was restored like the rest of his flesh. – Exodus 4:6-7 ESV

Now, more than a year later, Moses and Aaron were staring at their sister, Miriam, whose entire body was covered with this hideous disease. But this time, there was no quick fix. Moses desperately pleaded for her immediate healing.

O God, please heal her—please.” – Numbers 12:13 ESV

But God refused to grant his request. Instead, He graciously announced that her punishment would not match the gravity of her crime.

“If her father had done nothing more than spit in her face, wouldn’t she be defiled for seven days? So keep her outside the camp for seven days, and after that she may be accepted back.” – Numbers 12:14 NLT

In essence, God is declaring that Miriam had defiled herself through her actions. And while God could have left her to suffer from the hideous effects of leprosy for a lifetime, He mercifully restricted her period of suffering to only seven days. But she would be required to spend the entire time on the outskirts of the camp, suffering the indignity of the disease and the social stigmatization of ceremonial impurity. She was to be treated as unclean and unwelcome among the people of God – until God had healed her. And during the seven days of her punishment, the entire nation of Israel was forced to delay their journey to the land of promise. Everything came to a halt because Miriam had decided to question the will of God and the authority of His chosen leader. And this painful punishment from God should have served as a powerful reminder to the entire nation that no one was immune to God’s discipline against disobedience. Even the sister of Moses.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

Prayer For Leadership.

Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep that have no shepherd. – Numbers 27:16-17 ESV

Moses knew that his days were numbered. While had had been the one to lead the people of Israel from captivity all the way to the edge of the land of Canaan, God had told him that he would not be the one to take them into the land. It all went back to an event that had happened during their time of wandering in the wilderness. They had come to the wilderness of Zin. Moses had just recently buried his sister, Miriam. When the arrived at Zin, they found no water, so the people did what they were so prone to do. They complained bitterly to Moses, questioning his leadership and wondering why they had ever allowed him to take them away from Egypt. Their complaining made Moses angry, but he and Aaron took the matter before the Lord, and God gave His answer. “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle” (Numbers 20:8 ESV). God was going to provide water for the people and their livestock – miraculously. But the Scriptures make it clear that Moses did not follow God’s instructions carefully. “Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, ‘Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?’  And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock” (Numbers 20:10-11 ESV). Rather than speak to the rock, Moses chose to strike it. He made it all about him. He let the people know just how angry he was and just how undeserving they were. He really did not believe that God was going to provide for them, which is why he sarcastically said to the people, “shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” We know that Moses did not believe it was going to happen because God immediately responded, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them” (Numbers 20:12 ESV).

As a result of his unbelief at the wilderness of Zin, Moses lost his right to lead the people into the Promised Land. And yet, as disappointed as he probably was, when the time came for the people to make their long-awaited entrance into the land, Moses prayed that God would provide them with a worthy leader. He knew the people of Israel well and recognized that they would be like sheep without a shepherd if God did not provide them with a capable leader. As much as he would have liked to have been that leader, he knew it was not to be the case. But rather than pout and have a pity party for himself, he prayed. While he had been constantly mistreated and disrespected by the people of Israel over the years, he loved and cared for them. He wanted the best for them. And he knew that godly leadership was one of their greatest needs. So he asked God to “appoint a man over the congregation.” He wanted this to be a man of God’s choosing, not the peoples. He also knew that it would not do for some self-appointed leader to step to the fore and claim responsibility for the well-being of the people. His sister Miriam and his brother Aaron had tried that once before and it had resulted in God striking Miriam with leprosy for her insubordination and presumption (Numbers 12). Moses understood that the only kind of leader that would work would be a God-appointed leader. He desperately wanted God to provide the people with someone who could lead well because he listened well to God. He longed for someone who had a relationship with God like he did. God had told Aaron and Miriam, “Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord” (Numbers 12:6-8 ESV). Moses knew what it was like to have God speak to him directly and clearly. He had even been given the privilege of seeing God’s glory and living to tell about it. Moses was painfully aware that godly leadership was only possible with God’s help. He had struggled in leading the people of Israel for over 40 years and, even with God’s help, it had been difficult and, at times, impossible.

The people of God still need godly leadership. But how often do we pray for God to raise up men and women of His own choosing to lead His people? How many times have we prayed for God to appoint the right individual to lead the body of Christ and provide them with godly direction for the future? Moses knew that even God’s people were prone to godliness without godly leadership. And if you study the history of the kings of Israel, you see this fact proven out time and time again. Ungodly kings repeatedly led the people to make ungodly decisions. Ultimately, godlessness if disbelief in God. Just as Moses struck the rock because he doubted God, so godless leaders tend to make decisions apart from God because they don’t truly trust God to lead them. They take matters into their own hands. They rely on their own wisdom and strength. But God’s people must be led by God and we must pray that God provides men and women who have a heart for God to provide leadership for His people.