In Numbers 20:1-12, Moses and Aaron are disqualified from leading Israel into the Promised Land. This text continues to confound interpreters. Here are my thoughts on the text:
1 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.
2 Now there was no water for the community, and the people gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron. 3 They quarreled with Moses and said, “If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the LORD! 4 Why did you bring the LORD’s community into this desert, that we and our livestock should die here? 5 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!”
6 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. 7 The LORD said to Moses, 8 “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.”
9 So Moses took the staff from the LORD’s presence, just as he commanded him. 10 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?” 11 Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.
12 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.”
Num 20:1 Death of Miriam
The book of Numbers consistently reports the itinerary of Israel as it marches and camps in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan. At this point in Numbers, the Exodus generation is wandering around the desert waiting to die. This happens gradually over the forty years of Israel’s time in the wilderness. The people had chosen rebellion against God over entrance into the promised land. This led to their disqualification.
Miriam was a key leader among God’s people so her death marked a significant passing. Miriam was the sister of Moses and Aaron. Many believe that she was the unnamed sister in Exodus 2:1-10 who followed the baby Moses’ basket and facilitated Pharaoh’s wife’s hiring of Moses’ mother to serve as Moses’ wet nurse. Miriam was recognized as a prophet among the people (Exod 15:20). She led the victory dance and celebration on the eastern banks of the Red Sea following the dramatic crossing and God’s destruction of the Egyptian forces to complete the deliverance of God’s people from Egypt (Exod 15:20-21). In Numbers, she participated with Aaron in a challenge to Moses’ authority (Num 12:1-16). The prophet Micah affirms her importance as an early leader among God’s people by listing her with Moses and Aaron as the three leaders who the LORD set over Israel (Mic 6:4). Sadly, in burial she joined the others of her generation who would not see the promised land. Her death serves as an ominous foreshadowing for the rest of our Scripture lesson.
Num 20:2-5 Water Rebellion
God’s people find themselves in a familiar spot—in the desert with no access to fresh water. Years before they had twice faced the same problem (Exod 15:22-25 and 17:1-7). In both cases, God’s people grumbled against Moses. But each time Moses cried out to the LORD and God provided water for the people. Subsequently, God also provided a steady diet of manna and occasionally quail for the people to eat. The key is that the grumbling of the Israelites makes less and less sense in light of God’s faithfulness to them over the years.
In response to the lack of water, the congregation of Israel gathered against Moses and Aaron. As we have seen in the past lessons, Moses and Aaron receive the brunt of Israel’s grumbling. As leaders, they are blamed for the problems that the community faces.
Verses 3-5 record the content of their complaint. Their words are directed at Moses specifically. Verse 3 records a wish that they would have died in one of the earlier expressions of grumbling. But there is something more insidious. Their complaint associates the LORD only with the death of their kindred. Through grumbling and complaint, Israel has reduced the LORD, the Creator of the World and the deliverer of Israel from Egypt into a killjoy and executioner.
Having marginalized the LORD, they turn to accusations against Moses. These accusations are framed as questions. Both questions place blame on Moses for the community’s troubles. It is Moses’ fault that the people and livestock are dying in the wilderness. It is Moses’ fault that the people are in the wilderness rather than in Egypt. These are words of a demoralized and defeated people who have forgotten their identity and mission. More profoundly, they have forgotten their relationship with the LORD. When we lose trust in the LORD, our grounding disappears. This leads to poor decisions and disobedience. Life is reduced to mere existence rather than a resilient focus on fulfilling God’s mission for God’s people. Israel is reduced through its grumbling to an embittered people who misrepresent God, blame Moses for their problems, and worry only about their next meal. All of this occurred despite the LORD’s ongoing faithfulness to them and daily provision of food.
Num 20:6-8 The LORD’s Provision
Moses and Aaron immediately respond in their typical fashion. In the face of grumbling and complaining, they turn to the LORD for help (v. 6). They withdraw from the congregation and fall on their faces in humble submission before the entrance of the Tabernacle. The LORD’s powerful presence appears before them.
Verses 7-8 record the LORD’s response. The LORD orders Moses and Aaron to take the staff that they have carried since returning to Egypt to rescue God’s people and assemble the people before them. They are then to command a rock to produce water. This act will provide enough water for all the people and their livestock.
The LORD continues to provide the necessities of life to Israel. There is no hint that God is angry. The LORD remains gracious and merciful.
Num 20:9-11 Moses and Aaron Provide Water
Moses takes the staff in obedience to commandment of the LORD (v. 9). Faithful obedience has been a hallmark of Moses’ leadership since answering God’s call in Exodus 3-4.
Verses 10-11 record the actions and words of Moses and Aaron. In accordance with God’s commands, they assemble the people before a rock. At this point, Moses interjects a rhetorical question: Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock? Moses then took the staff, struck the rock twice, and watched the water pour out of it for the people and their livestock.
Num 20:12-13 The LORD Rebukes
Everything may have appeared fine to God’s people. They had received water. Moses and Aaron were probably relieved that another crisis had been averted. But there was one character in the story, who was not pleased—God. The LORD responds to the actions of Moses and Aaron in a way that has confounded many Bible readers. The LORD disqualifies both from leading the people into Canaan. They will die in the Wilderness just as the rest of the Exodus generation (with the exception of Joshua and Caleb).
What did Moses and Aaron do in this episode that justified their disqualification from leading the people into Canaan? Our text reads Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites…. The LORD suggests that Moses and Aaron through their actions did not represent the LORD well before the people.
There are multiple possibilities at play here in this text. First, Moses calls the people “rebels” (v. 11). We are left to judge the tone that Moses used when he spoke to the Israelites. Regardless, God does not deploy this language to describe God’s people. Moreover, God does not appear to view this episode as a rebellion. The only persons punished on this occasion are Moses and Aaron. The people’s desire for water was a legitimate one. Perhaps Moses and Aaron are disqualified for making a rash pronouncement on God’s people. They had endured the grumbling and complaining for too long in the wilderness and simply had enough. The Psalmist in 106:32-33 understands Moses’ failure in terms of his speech: [God’s people] angered the LORD at the waters of Meribah, and it went ill with Moses on their account; for they made his spirit bitter, and he spoke words that were rash. But by acting in this manner, Moses claimed as his own the LORD’s role as judge.
Second, Moses deploys “we” language when addressing the Israelites. The implication of his words shall we bring water for you out of this rock? was that he and Aaron had usurped the LORD role as Israel’s source of provision in the Wilderness. Moses and Aaron did not bring water out of the rock for Israel—God did. By using “we” language instead of crediting God, Moses and Aaron missed an opportunity for the LORD to demonstrate his power, grace, and mercy before a watching world. The world did not need more miracle working religious leaders—it needed a true encounter with the Living God. Moses’ words were particularly ill chosen given the words of the people in verses 4-5 where they blame Moses for bringing them out of Egypt. They have already forgotten the LORD. Moses’ words do nothing to call them back to faith.
Last, Moses deviates from the expressed plan of the LORD. God had ordered Moses to take the staff in his hand and command the rock verbally to pour out water. Instead, Moses takes the staff and strikes the rock twice without saying any words. In Exod 17:1-7, God had commanded Moses to strike a rock with his staff as the means for bringing out its water. Perhaps Moses’ moving beyond the LORD’s expressed commands was the cause of the disqualification. God’s people needed to learn faithful obedience, and Moses and Aaron as leaders needed to serve as standard bearers of such a life.
The LORD also diagnoses Moses and Aaron as having a lack of faith: because you did not trust in me. They did not trust the LORD to do what was right. From this angle, perhaps we do not need to choose from among the above three observations as the reason for the LORD’s anger at Moses and Aaron and instead see all of their actions as a demonstration of a lack of faith in the LORD’s ability to respond adequately to the grumblings and complaining of God’s people. If we do not trust God to act, who will we trust? Generally, we turn to ourselves and trust our own actions. As this story shows, a reliance on self apart from a life of faithful obedience to the LORD is a risk not worth taking.
One of the key roles of spiritual leadership is live so that the LORD gets the credit and glory. John the Baptist modeled this. After Jesus’ baptism as the crowds moved away from John and flocked to Jesus, John confounded his own followers by saying this of Jesus: He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:29-30). There is no room for self-aggrandizement in God’s kingdom. God’s mission is to bring wholeness, hope, and reconciliation to the world. The LORD has chosen to use a peculiar people—the people of God—as agents of this mission. Leadership must model the necessity of always serving as clues to the mystery of God. Our lives must point to the LORD and not merely bring fame to ourselves. This was the error of Moses and Aaron in their lapse of judgment, but with the salvation of the world in balance, there was no margin for missteps.
What do you think?