Today’s reading: Numbers 18-20.
Moses’ signal shortcoming tells us more about God than about Israel’s leader. Moses isn’t defined by this one moment: he is still the friend of God, the man of God, the most humble man, obedient, and a man of great faith. Even after the failing at Kadesh he remains true to his calling to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.
It’s the beginning of the fortieth year of the wilderness journey, thirty-eight years after the people failed to invade Canaan because of their fear. They are back at Kadesh, and once again complaining. One thing has changed, however. The older generation is dying out. Numbers tells us that Miriam dies as a way of reminding us that all those that rejected God are passing away.
The multitude, now mostly of the younger generation, need water. At the beginning of their journey the people received water from a rock. Then God told Moses to strike the rock, and he obeyed. Now, God tells Moses to take his staff and speak to the rock. But Moses, tired of putting up with endless complaints, breaks down in anger.
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.” Numbers 20:9-12
Look how the shortcoming of one person leads to problems for another. The people are complaining. Moses gets caught up in their emotion and fails to obey God. Moses’ failure in turn draws in Aaron who, almost as a bystander, follows Moses and ends up dishonoring God. Here’s how the Psalm writer saw it:
By the waters of Meribah they angered the LORD, and trouble came to Moses because of them; for they rebelled against the Spirit of God, and rash words came from Moses’ lips. Psalm 106:32-33
So what did God see in Moses’ actions that displeased him so much that he decided he could not lead the people all the way into the Promised Land?
- He failed to give God the glory for releasing the water, instead claiming that he and Aaron were giving it.
- He spoke angrily to the people, when God expressed no anger towards them.
- He disobeyed God, not releasing the water by the word of his mouth but by striking the rock.
I think Moses was experiencing caregiver burnout, and God mercifully prepared for his retirement. Even so, God could not overlook Moses’ failure to honor him and obey his word. God places a very high premium on these actions in those who are closest to him.
Paul had something to say about the rock that broke Moses:
For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. I Corinthians 10:1-4
Jesus Christ is the living water. He is the cornerstone. He is also the stumbling stone upon which we must all be broken (Matthew 21:44) and over which we will all fall if we depend upon our own actions rather than our faith (Romans 9:32). Moses acted in his own strength and stumbled. To his credit, he picked himself up and once again followed the LORD.
Image by John Spooner on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0