Moses loved God. He cared about his people. He was a human being who discovered a beautiful truth about the world, that it is governed by a king, the very same king who had spoken to Abraham. A lot of us can identify with Moses in that way. Our own life story includes discovering the good news that existence is not random. Like Moses we found meaning and something worth living for.
Yet in spite of our best intentions, even though we love God, regardless of the fact that we mean well and aspire to be loving and good people under God’s blessing, there is a terrible truth about our human condition: we are corrupted, prone to self-rule, liable to believing lies, predisposed to acts of selfishness and cruelty, inclined to mistakes.
Regret. Sorrow. Yearning for redemption. Living with self-disappointment. Relationships harmed. These are part of our reality.
Perhaps it is some comfort to us that Moses, like other key people in God’s historical plan, shares our plight. “You did not trust me,” God said to Moses. “You shall not lead this congregation into the land.”
What did Moses do wrong? What were the consequences? What lessons do we learn from his failure? Where is God in the aftermath of our failures?
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The story of Moses’ sin at Meribah, his transgression in bringing water from the rock, is complicated. There have been at least eleven theories.
First, realize that there are two similar stories about water from the rock: Exodus 17 and Numbers 20. Some see them as two different incidents and others see the second story as a recapitulation of the first, giving more information.
Second, consider God’s words to Moses: “You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water.”
Third, look at what Moses did and said, “He said to them, ‘Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?’ And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod.”
Fourth, listen to God’s response, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”
What was Moses’ error? (I am following the discussion in Jacob Milgrom’s commentary on Numbers in the JPS series.)
One common suggestion is that God told Moses to “speak” to the rock but instead he “struck” the rock.
This interpretation is a clear error. Two bits of evidence prove it according to Nachmanides (Ramban):
— In Exodus 17:6 God told Moses to strike the rock with the rod so water would come out.
— In nearly every mention of using the rod, striking is what God orders Moses to do with it.
Another common suggestion is that Moses’ sin was in his anger. He called the people rebels. His tone seems undignified and vindictive. He lost his temper while representing God to the people. Surely this was his sin.
Not so. Nachmanides (Ramban) disproves the anger theory:
— God’s indictment has nothing to do with anger, but he says, “you did not trust me.”
— Aaron is also condemned in this passage, but he did not speak angrily.
— This is not the only time Moses spoke angrily to the people when they were acting in a petty manner.
— God himself speaks to Israel in anger.
No, Moses’ sin is something else. It is actually a much worse sin. The medieval commentator Bekhor Shor was the first to suggest the interpretation.
Moses’ sin was in saying “shall we get water for you from this rock” instead of “shall God get water for you from this rock.” He said notzi, “we bring,” instead of yotzi, “he brings.” Sometimes the smallest difference in our words makes all the difference.
We may feel love, loyalty, empathy, concern for others, but in the way we speak we reveal what is really inside us.
One of the most effective illustrations I ever heard about this involved a piece of fruit, an orange. Imagine I hold before you a delicious looking orange. But what you don’t know is that before the demonstration I injected it with black ink.
I tell you that on the outside our motives and conduct often look as good as that orange. But hidden inside us is a Yetzer HaRa, an evil inclination, a sin nature.
And it is when life squeezes us that the darkness comes out. So, in the demonstration, I squeeze the orange and let its juice run down my arm. Only its not orange, but black, because I had injected it beforehand with ink.
Moses was squeezed by frustration. He saw what God was doing and believed in it. But the people were foolish, as people are wont to be. They tried his patience again and again. And in a moment of frustration something inside Moses came out. He said “shall we bring water for you from this rock” because — believe it or not — Moses had a very wrong view in his head.
Perhaps it was because he had been raised in Egypt. In that place kings were thought to be possessed by the spirits of gods. Important rulers were god-like. They were even worshipped as living deities.
Even worse, Moses seems to be blind to the Uniqueness of God. Surely Moses should have come to understand who God is. He is the Greater-Than-Whom-None-Exists. Moses will later affirm this clearly: “It has been clearly demonstrated to you that the Lord alone is God; there is none beside Him” (Deut 4:35).
But the Israelites have been living in a polytheistic world. And in that world, gods are not the highest power. The gods came from something that existed before them. They are bound by powers higher than them. Above the gods is a realm of magic.
Moses is God’s leader who should free the Israelites from a low view of his nature. Instead, Moses believes he is some kind of Pharaoh to Israel and that he and Aaron have magical powers.
“You did not trust Me,” God said. He revealed his low view of God by using one wrong letter. He said notzi instead of yotzi, we bring instead of he brings. It is a terrible truth that we make mistakes like this. Was all of Moses’ faith and loyalty completely invalid because of his mistake? Will God throw him away?
We need to know because all of us have sinned with our words. All of us have revealed to God and people we love that we are full of selfish motives and false priorities.
Moses is not discarded by God at all. He does suffer a disappointing consequence of his failure. But Moses remains God’s man, his leader, one loved by God and redeemed by him.
Furthermore, Moses does not give up on God because of his error. He does not quit because his failure embarrasses him. He accepts his lot, learns and grows, and remains God’s servant for the time he is still allowed to fill that role.
When Yeshua went up on a mountain with his disciples to show them his glory, who should appear beside the shining Messiah? It was Moses along with Elijah who appeared.
And if you know the story of Elijah, you know he also was a prophet with a failure on his record. Elijah became discouraged and quit. God replaced him with Elisha.
Yet, as was the case with Moses, God did not throw Elijah away for his mistake. He restored him. Ultimately he took him up in the whirlwind. And along with Moses, Elijah stood beside Messiah on the Mount of Transfiguration.
Don’t misunderstand God. He is not vindictive to those who repent and love him. Mistakes and terrible sin natures do not disqualify us.Repentance and continued faith and trust keep us in God’s love. He forgives and restores and redeems.
In spite of our best intentions we betray God and the people we love. What we have to believe — what Moses believed — is that God is greater than our sins.
“The law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Messiah Yeshua from the law of sin and death.”
“If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
“The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
“We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”
And finally: “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Messiah Yeshua our Lord.”
I am taking sign-ups for people interested in my next Israel educational tour, January 2017. I will be speaking about the faith of the earliest Jewish believers in places in the Land where the faith began. Approximate cost will be $4,500 per person (air, two meals a day, all tips and fees included). Email me to get on the info list: AncientBible at gmail dot com.