God is good.
We’re supposed to believe that. We’re supposed to trust in that.
But what about when real life doesn’t seem that way? What about when God seems harsh and cruel?
Today I had two different conversations about God not letting Moses go into the Promise Land because he struck a rock instead of speaking to it as God told him to do. I turned on the TV and the first words I heard were from some historical drama that had a kid telling his daddy that God didn’t seem fair and sited when God killed Moses instead of taking him into the Promised Land as proof.
What do you think? Does it seem fair that after all his hard work, after all his obedience and putting up with whiny, stiff-necked, pessimistic, faithless followers, after walking around a desert because of someone else’s rebellion, after a coup, snakes, and bitter water Moses—of all people—didn’t get to go into the Promised Land?
Let’s read how the story goes:
On that same day the Lord told Moses, “Go up into the Abarim Range to Mount Nebo in Moab, across from Jericho, and view Canaan, the land I am giving the Israelites as their own possession. There on the mountain that you have climbed you will die and be gathered to your people, just as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his people. This is because both of you broke faith with me in the presence of the Israelites at the waters of Meribah Kadesh in the Desert of Zin and because you did not uphold my holiness among the Israelites. Therefore, you will see the land only from a distance; you will not enter the land I am giving to the people of Israel.” (Deut. 32:48-52, NIV)
Seems pretty harsh so far, but is that the whole story?
We just read from Deuteronomy 32. Chapter 33 is Moses giving a final blessing to the tribes of Israel. Then chapter 34 says this:
Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the Lord showed him the whole land—from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea, the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar. Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.”
And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is. Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone. The Israelites grieved for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days, until the time of weeping and mourning was over.
Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands on him. So the Israelites listened to him and did what the Lord had commanded Moses.
Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, who did all those signs and wonders the Lord sent him to do in Egypt—to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land. For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel. (Deut. 34:1-12, NIV)
So what do we know so far?
- Moses is 120 years old and could no longer lead the people but not because he was physically feeble.
- Moses cannot go into the Promised Land because a) he broke faith with God, and b) he didn’t uphold God’s holiness.
- Moses was to go to mount Nebo to die and be gathered to his people because of what happened at Meribah.
Well, what really happened at Meribah that was so bad? The people got the water they needed, right? So why was hitting the rock so much worse that speaking to it? The pivotal story is found in Numbers 20.
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.
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! 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!”
Moses and Aaron went from the assembly to the entrance to the tent of meeting and fell face down, 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.”
These were the waters of Meribah, where the Israelites quarreled with the Lord and where he was proved holy among them. (Num. 20:1-13, NIV)
Here they are, the people of Israel, quarreling and complaining again about Moses bringing them some place terrible—worse than the horrible slavery he rescued them from. If only they were dead! Why are you such a crappy leader, Moses?!
Notice why they had stopped at this place with no water. Was it because Moses was too stupid to lead them? No. Verse one tells us Moses and Aaron’s sister had just died. They were in the days of mourning for the loss of not only family, but also of their right hand girl—their helper, their trusted team member. By tradition they were to mourn for 30 days before they returned to marching through the wilderness. The pillar of fire and cloud had not moved. God had not signaled that they should cut their mourning short because there was no water. But did these dreadful people have an ounce of sympathy? No! They acted like Moses purposefully brought them to camp in the desert just to be spiteful. Are you kidding me!
Notice next, Moses and Aaron went from the people and fell on their faces before God. It does not say that they prayed for water for the people. Moses had once interceded for the people so that God would not wipe them out during a similar episodic fit. That does not mean that he was interceding for them during this highly emotional time of mourning for his sister. The brothers could have just as easily been casting their cares on the Lord and cursing the sick jerks who did nothing but complain without sympathy or empathy for their pain. David did it; would it have been so bad for Moses?
“There’s no pomegranates here in the desert!” The people said. These guys had never had pomegranates that we know of. First, pomegranates were royal food, not slave fodder. Second, they’d lived on manna and quail their whole lives. They’d grown up wandering the desert because their parents, the ones who might have actually eaten pomegranates in Egypt, didn’t have enough faith to enter the Promised Land the first time around. These are the kids of those people, many may not have even been born when the Israelites left Egypt. Apparently their parents had taught them about pomegranates, but not what God had done for Israel last time they had to stop at Meribah (Ex. 17). Last time God made water come out of a rock when Moses struck it with his staff.
Moses and Aaron had been putting up with these people’s complaints for FORTY YEARS! The same yant-yah, mouthy kids all grown up. They learned nothing from their parents’ wasted lives.
God told Moses to provide for them anyway. The brothers were told to take the staff with them, the staff that had turned into a snake for Pharaoh, that had parted the Red Sea. The one that budded to prove they were chosen by God to lead the people. It was a sign of the power of God they held. It was a reminder to the people who they were.
They were instructed to speak to the rock and if they did, water would come out of it. God did not say hitting the rock was an alternative way to get water out of the rock. Moses only had the authority to do miracles because God endowed him with power. Moses didn’t get to make it up as he went along.
Striking the rock should have done nothing. It might have been the way God did things in the past, but there was no indication it would work if now if they disobeyed.
When Moses stood in front of the people and struck the rock instead of obeying God, he was essentially saying, “I will not lead these people to the Promised Land any longer.” In fact, Moses actually said, “Listen here, you contentious bunch of rebels. Why should we bring water from this rock for you!?” He had no intention of doing so. He would not be their magic, fix-it man any longer. If God wanted to bring water from the rock, then let him, but Moses wasn’t going to be part of it. Whack! No.
Aaron conspired with him. Aaron, who was assigned as Moses voice, did not speak to the rock in his stead. They plotted this with malice aforethought (Num. 20:24). This was not a crime of passion. This was not Moses getting angry and hitting a rock. He was making a statement. “I will not!” Notice they hit the rock with the sign of their authority over the power of God. It was a non-verbal curse. No stutter. Just straight up refusal to save the people with the power God endowed to them for that purpose.
By refusing to provide for a rebellious and treacherous people, Moses did not “uphold [God’s] holiness.” By this act, Moses was not a perfect representation of the character of God. Portraying the proper image of God for all the world to see is what we were created for, all of us. It’s humanity’s job to fill the earth with his image (Gen. 1:26-28). Failure to meet this expectation is called missing the mark, sin. We’ve all done it (Rom. 3:23). The result is death (Rom. 6:23). In this, Moses is not unique.
Moses hit the rock because he “broke faith” with God. God put it another way, “You did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites.” God loves even the wicked and rebellious. You’d never know that by the way Moses represented him here.
Moses rebelled against the will of God, but water gushed out of the rock anyway. There was no way that Moses could have known that his curse would result in a blessing instead. Yet, despite Moses and Aaron’s rebellion, God graciously saved the sinful people. That’s what God does. That’s the true character of God. In fact 1Cor. 10:4 says that the water from the rock in the wilderness was a spiritual picture of Christ.
Moses and Aaron made a mistake. In a deliberate conspiracy, they refused to obey God. By doing so they misrepresented God’s grace and kindness. They also broke faith with him. God had called Moses to lead the people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land (Ex. 3). Aaron was to be his mouth piece (Ex. 4:15). By disobeying and striking the rock they were effectively saying they didn’t believe in their mission any more. No one could help these people–not God, not anybody. They quit.
God, consistent with his character, did not force them to do it anyway. He granted Moses and Aaron their wish. They did not have to lead those naughty, rebellious children into the Promised Land.
So now, what are some conclusions we can draw instead of judging God as mean for denying Moses entrance into the Promised Land?
First, Moses was 120 years-old. Genesis 6:3 tells us that 120 years was going to be a full lifespan for a human. Moses’ time was simply up—with or without whacking a rock.
Second, God didn’t just strike Moses with a lightning bolt because he sinned. God told him the time of his death was near. He gave him time to get his affairs in order and pass the mantle of leadership to someone else—an orderly transfer of power as it were. Moses was still as strong and clear as a young man. No one was really expecting that their magic man might leave them. He’d been a feature of Israelite culture for as long as the people could remember. If he had died suddenly the people would have fallen apart, probably gone back to their beloved Egypt—they weren’t known for their strong constitution even when their miracle-worker was there to assure them everything would be fine. Moses didn’t suffer a long drawn out sickness, yet everyone still had time to prepare. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always loathed the idea of a long, drawn out sickness. On the other hand, I want to be able to kiss the ones I love goodbye and set my affairs in order. At the fullness of his days, God compassionately gave Moses that perfect combination.
Third, at 120 years-old Moses probably almost seemed immortal to the people of Israel. No one ever expects the pillar of the family to go—even after a long, drawn out sickness it can be hard for us to believe the glue that holds the family together is mortal after all. We know it’s going to happen eventually, but it is still a shock when it happens for real. For these folks, it was even worse. Except Joshua and Caleb, the oldest of them was no older than 60. Moses was twice that. No one older than twenty when the spies scoped out Promised Land was still alive. These guys had now been marching around the wilderness for 40 years. They never knew a time when they hadn’t been walking around the desert with Moses at their head, doing miracles and taking care of them, telling them what to do, and shielding them from all the monsters, real and imagined. They all needed time to get ready.
Was God being trite or vindictive? I don’t think so. God didn’t even mention Moses hitting a rock . Instead he said Moses could not cross into the land because “you broke faith with me in the presence of the Israelites… and because you did not uphold my holiness among the Israelites.” In other words, “I told you to save the people, and you disobeyed. You lied to them about my love and refused to serve them any longer.” Moses fell short of being the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). He misrepresented God. He “broke faith.” By breaking his connection to the Source of life, he cut his own life short. Even at 120, he was not immortal.
Moses could not live forever because of sin. God reminded the people of Moses’ sin not just to be accusatory but also because the people needed to have a reason this was happening. They’d grown up with Moses’ face glowing with God’s own glory. The people had known no other life but him leading them about the wilderness with miracle after miracle. These people saw Moses as their source for God and needed a reminder that Moses was not God–nor could he go on leading them forever. Therefore, God gave the whiners a very good reason that he was taking their magic man away from them. God wasn’t petty and vindictive; it was Moses’ time to retire.
Two more points and I’ll be done. In Deut. 32 God says, ”There on the mountain that you have climbed you will die and be gathered to your people, just as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his people.”
When Aaron died Moses and Aaron’s son were in attendance. They were Aaron’s people who “gathered him in.”
Who was in attendance when Moses died? Who gathered him? Who was his people?
And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is. (Deut. 34:5-6)
Jude tells us someone else was there with God:
But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” (Jude 1:9, NIV)
Who gathered in Moses? The Lord and Archangel Michael! THAT was Moses’ people. No other mortal man can boast that. He was gathered home, not to the earthly Promised Land, not to the shadow of things to come, but to the real thing in heaven! He was relieved of the hard work of getting the people to actually fight giants. No more whiny complainers. 120 years. That was enough. God didn’t kill him on the mount for hitting a rock instead of speaking. It says Moses died. (I imagine he gave up his spirit just like Christ on the cross.) Then God buried him. God himself!
Last point, from Deut. 31:1-6:
Then Moses went out and spoke these words to all Israel: “I am now a hundred and twenty years old and I am no longer able to lead you. The Lord has said to me, ‘You shall not cross the Jordan.’ The Lord your God himself will cross over ahead of you. He will destroy these nations before you, and you will take possession of their land. Joshua also will cross over ahead of you, as the Lord said. […] Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deut. 31:1-6, NIV)
The first time the people of Israel crossed through a body of water on dry land their magic man was leading them. They had someone standing between God and them, a buffer, another person to take responsibility for them. When God gave the Law from the mountain, the people quaked and asked him never to speak to them again.
When the Israelites crossed the Jordan, the presence of God himself in the form of the Arc of the Covenant stood in the river and opened the path to their future (Josh. 3). The people each had to choose to follow Him. Cross the river. Follow God. Trust. Or don’t. God was moving forward. It was just him and the people now. Joshua never did the types of miracles Moses did. He wasn’t a magic man replacement. The Arc led the people across the Jordan and into victory at Jericho. The Arc replaced Moses as the provider, protector, sustainer. It was a new dynamic for a people whose time it was to grow up, to take personal responsibility for securing their piece of the Promised Land, to fight their giants–God said he’d do it for them, but they had to trust that was true. If Moses had still been there to do it for them, they would never have learned to walk on their own…many of them still refused. At some point the training wheels have to come off. Moses was sick and tired of leading the babies who refused to grow up. God took that responsibility off his hands and preformed the work himself.
Was this a simple case of whack a rock and die for your crime? I think it was far more complicated a dynamic than that.
Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses,
whom the Lord knew face to face. (Dt. 34:10)
God’s love–his intimate relationship with his friend, his merciful release from a difficult duty–not petty vindictiveness, is what we should see from the story of Moses on Mt. Nebo.
Photo of Mt. Nebo by Berthold Werner, Wikipedia Commons.