Numbers 20:1-13

We have before us this evening one of the most fascinating and, in a sense, troubling episodes in the entire Bible. In the middle ages the famous Jewish rabbi, Moses Maimonides, called our text one of the most difficult problems in the Torah and modern scholarship continues to regard it as one of the most enigmatic incidents in the biblical narrative. [J.A. Beck, “Why Did Moses Strike Out? The Narrative-Geographical Shaping of Moses’ Disqualification in Numbers 20:1-13,” WTJ 65 (2003) 135] After all that Moses had so faithfully done what precisely did Moses do that was so wrong that it should have disqualified him from entering the Promised Land? Moses was prevented from entering the Promised Land just as the unbelieving Israelites were. Isn’t that overkill for what most of us are inclined to think was a relatively small misstep? Well, let’s see.

Text Comment

The notice of the death of Miriam introduces the third and last travel narrative in Exodus-Numbers. The first took Israel from Egypt to Sinai (Exodus 13-19). The second took Israel from Sinai to Kadesh Barnea (Numbers 11-12). The last takes Israel from Kadesh to the Plains of Moab opposite the Promised Land above the Dead Sea (20-21). The reference to the community arriving at the Wilderness of Zin and staying at Kadesh may suggest that, after some time of wandering after their failure at Kadesh, they returned there a second time. In Num. 33:36, in the list of the stages of Israel’s journey, we find a stop at Kadesh near the end of the 40 years, just before the death of Aaron. Is that this stop? Did Israel stay at Kadesh for most of the years she was condemned to remain in the wilderness or did she return there after years in other places? If the account of Numbers 20 is the stop recorded in Numbers 33:36, we are now near the end of the wilderness wanderings. In 33:37-39 we read that Aaron died in the 40th year after Israel left Egypt and his death was shortly after Israel left Kadesh for the second time. However, the reference in v. 3 to the brothers who had died before the Lord suggests that this incident may have happened relatively soon after the rebellion against Aaron reported in chapter 16. Otherwise they would have spoken of the dead as “our fathers” not “our brothers.” In that case, this incident would have happened long before Aaron’s death and nearer the beginning than the end of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness.

The problem of date is compounded by the uncertainty of the location of Kadesh. The Kadesh ordinarily understood to be the place from which the scouts were sent to explore the Promised Land is a fertile oasis, hardly the place described in v. 5. But there are other possible identifications of the site that would fit that description. [Milgrom, 164]

Miriam, Moses’ sister, was the principle female figure in the story of the exodus from Egypt and Israel’s life in the wilderness. It may only be only an interesting coincidence, but it is certainly worth noting that the principal woman in the narrative of the greater exodus, the salvation of which the first exodus was an enacted prophecy and anticipation, was also a Miriam, known to us through Greek and English as Maria or Mary.

One reason for thinking that this incident occurred earlier in Israel’s wilderness wanderings is that the people identify so closely with the rebels of chapter 16. Their death is still fresh in mind. Indeed, the people are still so spiritually clueless that they are ready to say that they wish they had died with the other rebels who were so dramatically executed by the Lord. This is an argument for taking the speakers here as part of the first generation of Israel, the exodus generation, not their children later grown up many of whom, at the end of Numbers, seem to have at least a little more spiritual sense.

As we have noticed already in considering Israel’s penchant for grumbling, they did what all grumblers do: they exaggerated their complaints and played the blame game. It was always someone else’s fault.

Now you may remember that a very similar incident is recorded in Exodus 17:1-7. There too the people complained against Moses because of a lack of water, there too Moses struck a rock and provided water for the people, and there too the place was called Meribah to commemorate the people’s quarreling and the Lord’s provision (cf. Exodus 17:7; Numbers 20:13). As you might imagine, liberal scholarship assumes that Numbers 20 is simply the story of Exodus 17 told again, a doublet. That certainly is not the impression of the text itself, however. In v. 3 there is a reference to the recent history of the people’s rebellion against Aaron and the Lord’s summary execution of the ringleaders: “when our brothers fell dead before the Lord.” And, as we shall see there is, in fact, a striking difference between the two accounts and it is in that difference that the significance of Moses’ action and the reason for his punishment may be found.

Whether the staff in question is Aaron’s staff – the one that budded in chapter 17 – as the phrase “from the Lord’s presence in v. 9 suggests, or Moses’ as the “his staff” in v. 11 suggests, is a matter of discussion in the commentaries. [Milgrom, 165]

Hebrew narratives often seem repetitive and over-wordy to modern readers. First we get the instructions in detail, then we get the account of what was done in detail with almost the same wording. But the two together make the narrator’s point: either the instructions were followed to the letter or in one particular or another there was a failure to do so. We are not told that Moses disobeyed his instructions; we are shown him doing so. What Moses did was not precisely what he was told to do. More on that later. What is more, there is the appearance of anger in what Moses said and did. We read in Psalm 106:33 that on this occasion he spoke “rashly.”

The phrase “in the sight of the Israelites” is significant. Moses had displayed a lack of faith before this. In Numbers 11:22 he had expressed his doubts that the Lord could provide meat for such a great company of people. But he had expressed his doubts in private. Here he displays his unbelief in full view of the people, a much more damaging failure of faith. [Milgrom, 166]

The Lord demonstrates his holiness in this incident both in faithfully providing for his people and in punishing those who did not honor him.

As I said, the great question that faces us here is this: what was the great crime in Moses’ behavior that warranted such a drastic penalty? It has always been the question posed by this narrative. In seeking to answer that question Jewish rabbis through the ages proposed no less than ten different answers.

  1. There is no answer given in the text. The narrative intentionally leaves the answer to our question obscure and thereby prevents Moses’ reputation from being tarnished.
  2. Moses spoke harshly and rashly to the people. In Psalm 106:32-33 we read “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.”
  3. Although Yahweh told Moses to strike the rock once, he struck it twice.
  4. Moses sinned when he asked, “Shall we bring water out of this rock?” The question could reflect either doubt or reluctance on Moses’ part.
  5. The use of “we” in v. 10 suggests that Moses is ascribing miraculous powers to himself and Aaron.
  6. Moses was distracted by the death of his sister and showed callous indifference to the thirst of the people.
  7. Moses was afraid of the people and fled to the sanctuary of the Lord instead of facing them head on.
  8. Moses selected some other rock than the one the people wanted. According to one Jewish tradition, the rebels criticized Moses and said, “Moses knows the properties of this particular rock. If he wishes to prove his miraculous powers, let him bring water out of this other one.”
  9. Moses struck the rock rather than speaking to it.
  10. It was the people’s sin, not Moses’. As we read in Deut. 1:37, Moses later said, “The Lord became angry with me because of you.” [Beck, 136]

Now what are we to do with all of that? Which of the ten shall we choose? Well, actually the situation is even more complicated as there are two relatively new perspectives on this passage that are now favored by Reformed commentators. In other words we have twelve not ten choices! The first of these newer proposals understands Moses’ striking the rock as itself an actual attack on God. This is based on an interpretation of the Exodus 17 episode that I don’t happen to agree with, but in which the rock is viewed as representing God himself. Remember Paul, in 1 Cor. 10, saying that the rock that followed Israel in the wilderness was Jesus Christ. The idea, it is thought, is that in Exodus 17 God commanded Moses to strike the rock and, in so doing, symbolically took upon himself the punishment for his people’s sin. In striking the rock Moses was striking God himself. Yahweh was struck that Israel might not be. It is an act of substitution that anticipates the cross. As I said, I don’t think that is what is happening in Exodus 17 but those who think it is go on to say that here in Numbers 20 the situation is very different. It is one thing to strike God when he tells you to do so; it is another thing altogether to strike him when he has not. Moses’ act was therefore a direct attack on God himself! [Duguid, 253] All of that depends on the idea that the rock represents God, which I don’t think is very likely in either text, Exodus 17 or Numbers 20. I have a hard time believing that Moses thought he was attacking Yahweh with a stick! Nor do I have any idea why he would have done that. The text certainly doesn’t supply a motive.

An interpretation more interesting to me is based on the notice that this incident occurred in the Wilderness of Zin, that is, in the trackless, almost waterless rugged wasteland between the Arabah – that is, the Rift Valley between the bottom of the Dead Sea and the top of the Gulf of Aqaba – and the Mediterranean Sea. Rainfall is scarce in that area, perhaps four inches a year. The rain that is absorbed percolates down through the softer layers of limestone until it encounters harder, impermeable layers of rock further down. The water then runs laterally through the rock and in various places breaks out of the hillsides as springs. [Beck, 138] Rainwater that is gravity fed through the upper layers of limestone rock dissolves the soft chalk and carries the minerals with it as it goes. As the water exits the rock at a spring evaporation occurs leaving behind crystals that had been dissolved in the water. Given time a mineral cap forms sealing off the flow. The water pools under pressure behind the cap waiting a blow from a shrewd seeker for water who knows how to read the rock. A sharp blow breaks the cap and lets the water flow. [Beck, 140]

Here then lies the great difference between speaking to the rock and hitting it. In Exodus 17 the Israelites are standing before impermeable granite. No amount of striking granite is going to produce water. Thus the striking of the rock and the flow of water is an unmistakable miracle, a provision only God could have made for his people. In the Desert of Zin, however, striking a rock might very well produce water. Strike the right rock and it will produce water. Therefore, God told Moses to speak to the rock, not to strike it so that the miraculous element would once again be unmistakable. No human being can penetrate rock by speaking to it! Everyone knows that. Moses by hitting the rock was choosing the way of human calculation, not the way of faith. He was doing what a man might do to find water, not trusting the Lord to provide the water. His act produced water but did not produce it in such a way that gave glory to God or exemplified the wisdom of trusting in the Lord for the provision of what we need. [Beck, 140-141]

So, Moses was prevented from entering the Promised Land because he struck the rock instead of speaking to it, because by so doing he disobeyed the instructions the Lord had given him, because in doing it his own way he as much as took to himself a measure of the credit for providing the water when it was the Lord’s gift to his people, and because he failed to trust the Lord for the provision that he had promised. He robbed God of the glory for the gift he was giving his people and undermined Israel’s faith in the Lord. That, I think, is very likely the right way to understand what happened here.

In any case, whatever else you say about Moses’ behavior, it is clear in the text that he did not do what Yahweh commanded him to do. He was told to speak to the rock and he hit it instead. There are important lessons here for us.

Perhaps the first lesson, all the more if Moses’ sin consisted in choosing a human calculation – striking the rock in hopes of releasing water pent up behind the mineral cap – rather than faith – speaking to the rock – is that we should not, must not shy away from the challenge of faith. The Lord wants his people to live by faith. Israel’s problem was that she didn’t believe! Moses’ great sin was that he encouraged Israel in her unbelief. Faith is precisely the assurance of things not seen, the conviction that wonderful things will be given simply because we trust the Lord to be true to his promise. For many of us, I’m sure; and for all of us much of the time, our faith is considerably less than this. It is more a set of beliefs, an intellectual assent to the doctrines of biblical Christianity, than it is a living, breathing, daily, hour by hour dependence upon God to do for us what otherwise cannot be done. Dr. Schaeffer used to say that every Christian ought all the time to be praying for things that would be impossible of achievement apart from the blessing and working of God. When we pray only for those things that might very well happen whether or not anyone is praying, we do not keep alive within ourselves the spirit of active dependence upon the Lord, of his actually intervening in the world to meet our needs or to bless others as we have asked him to bless them. In other words, there should be in your life and mine all the time some speaking to a rock.

A dramatic illustration of this principle is furnished by the purchase of the Swiss chalet, Chalet les Mélèzes, that was to become the setting of L’abri and the location of the beginning of the Schaeffer’s worldwide influence. They prayed to know whether the house ought to be purchased, large enough as it was to host the young people who they wanted to come to visit and to talk, but poor as they were and unable to afford it, at least humanly speaking. They thought they needed $1000 as an indication to proceed. And so they prayed. The next day a check in the mail was received for $1000 dollars with a note explaining that it was sent to help with the purchase of a house that would always be open to young people. Then there was the need for 8,000 francs for the promissory payment, a very considerable amount of money for them. They prayed and the gifts that were received in the next few days amounted to 8,011 francs. Then, finally, they still had to pray for the down payment and closing costs, another $7,000, again a lot of money in 1955. Without any direct appeal for funds, the amount of money on hand on the date the funds were due was three francs more than what was needed. Prayers of that kind are very like speaking to a rock and expecting water to flow from it! They spoke and the water flowed.

The point is that just as speaking to a rock rather than striking it places all the burden upon the Lord to intervene and to provide the water, so, in the same way, when we ask the Lord for what we otherwise, in terms of human calculation, have no reason to expect, we keep alive in our souls an active, working, restless dependence upon the Lord. We are looking to him, counting on him, trusting him for something we really want and need but that only he can supply. We are presuming upon the veracity and the power of God: precisely what Moses was supposed to have done! All our prayers will not be of this type, surely; but Dr. Schaeffer’s point was that some of our prayers should always be of this type because the spirit of faith depends upon there being in our hearts an active counting on the Lord to work.

Secondly, we can take caution from the evidence of sin’s foolishness on display here. Here is Israel grumbling about the Lord’s provision after so many times having done the same thing and been proven wrong. Israel absolutely could not seem to learn from past mistakes. The Spanish philosopher George Santayana’s famous dictum, “Those who will not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” is the story of man’s life in sin and unbelief. And so it is your story and mine. How many times do we think and say and do the same stupid things even after having learned our lesson for the umpteenth time! If anyone thinks sin is easy to control, easy to kill, let him consider Israel and even Moses in the wilderness. I have always remembered A.B. Simpson’s comment on Rom. 8:13: “if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body you will live.” He said, “The Holy Spirit is the only one who can kill us and keep us dead.” [emphasis added] We cannot. Sin is too powerful for us. The attraction of sin – whether grumbling or pride or fear or whatever – is so powerful that we can succumb to it even after we have learned not to the hard way a hundred times. We must be relying upon the Holy Spirit for help or sin will resume its mastery of our lives.

Or, in the third place, we can consider Moses’ sin and learn that all manner of faithfulness in one’s life does not excuse our failures to believe and obey. We tend to think that Moses should have been given a pass – he had done so much so well, and suffered so much at the hands of these ungrateful people – but righteousness does not excuse sin nor does it shelter us from the consequences of our sins. If anything should make us take sin seriously and make us determined to rid our lives of all of it, it is this fact. Being a faithful man or woman in so many ways did not excuse Eli or David for their pathetic parenting, nor did it save their children. David’s devotion to the Lord was wonderful, but it did not prevent his adultery and murder from causing his kingdom and his family to unravel. A legalist may think that if he piles up enough points his demerits won’t count against him. No one reading the Bible should ever think that.

A fourth lesson is the fact that the believer and the unbeliever are both sinners. Non-Christians tend to think that Christians are judgmental people and that they regard those who don’t believe as bad people, worse than they are. But, actually, being bad, committing sins is what we havein common with unbelievers not what distinguishes us from them. There is no question that Moses’ failure to enter the Promised Land did not mean what it meant for the rest of Israel. Israel’s failure to enter Canaan was a demonstration that she would never enter heaven either. Israel’s failure to enter the Promised Land was a prophetic enactment of her failure to obtain eternal life. But not so in Moses’ case. He was a godly man, a faithful man, a believing man. He is numbered among the faithful in the New Testament as he is in the Old. His failure to enter Canaan was specific temporal punishment imposed upon him for a specific sin, that and nothing more. The entire Bible honors Moses as a hero of the faith and as a man in whom God’s saving grace produced wonderful fruit. But both Israel and Moses were sinners. They both failed to trust the Lord and both failed to obey him. And both suffered for their failure to trust and obey however in different measure. The life of sin and God’s judgment for sin is not unknown to the believing man or woman.

But, finally, a still greater lesson of our text is the one that the text itself draws our attention to. The Lord himself identifies the great wrong of Moses’ disobedience: “You did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites.” Moses’ disobedience, in other words, was a failure of faith, an act of unbelief. Moses’ failure scrupulously to obey the Lord’s commands was as much a failure of faith as Israel’s grumbling against the Lord’s provision for her welfare.

We have learned from the Apostle Paul to make a clear cut distinction between faith and obedience in order to do justice to the emphasis Paul places on the difference between faith and works as an instrument of justification. We are justified by faith and not by works. We receive our forgiveness and our righteousness before God as a gift – that is by faith – and we do not earn it by our moral achievements – that is by works. The distinction between faith and obedience in this sense is the difference between salvation by grace and salvation by human achievement. In that sense faith and obedience are two different things needing to be carefully distinguished from one another. All of that is gloriously true. In 2 Cor. 9:13 Paul speaks of “the obedience that accompanies your confession…” Obedience accompanies faith, is produced by faith, and bears witness to faith. It is correct certainly to speak of faith and obedience as related to one another in that way: faith the root and obedience the fruit. “Faith without works is dead,” James says, and in that sense faith and obedience are different things.

But it is only in that single respect that we are to distinguish so carefully between faith and works. Ordinarily, the Bible does not make such a careful distinction. Quite the contrary in fact. In the Bible faith is obedience and obedience is faith.

Even Paul and even in his Letter to the Romans speaks of faith as an act of obedience. He speaks in Rom. 1:5 of the “obedience of faith” and means by such a phrase that trusting the Lord is an act of obedience. The NIV, under the influence of evangelical sensibilities regarding justification and sanctification, translates “the obedience that comes from faith,” but that is not what Paul wrote. Our own John Murray, as well as many other commentators, explains that what Paul meant to say is that faith itself is an act of obedience. We are commanded to trust him and when we do we are obeying his command. It is in this sense that we read in the New Testament a statement such as that in Hebrews 5:9: “[Jesus] became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him…” It is in this sense that Peter can summarize the gospel as a message that “God accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” [Acts 10:35] As the Puritans used to say, “faith is one of the commandments of the gospel.” [John Rogers in Packer, Quest for Godliness, 173]

And, on the other hand, obedience is an act of faith. “I believe in your commands,” writes the author of Psalm 119 (v. 66). True obedience always has in it the principle of faith. A man or woman who truly obeys the commands of God believes that God has uttered those commands and that they are God’s will; he or she believes that God will care that he or she obeys, believes that there will be reward for obedience and judgment for disobedience. All of that is faith even as it is obedience. And so again and again in the Bible disobedience is regarded as a failure of faith and vice versa. In 2 Kings 17:14-15 Israel’s rejection by God is explained in this way:

“…they would not listen and were as stiff-necked as their fathers, who did not trust in the Lord their God. They rejected his decrees and the covenant he had made with their fathers….and they did the things the Lord had forbidden them to do.”

So much are faith and obedience two sides of the same coin, or even, at bottom, the same thing, the same motions of the heart, the Bible is always artlessly interchanging the two concepts just as it does here in Numbers 20:12. Moses didn’t trust the Lord. How did he fail to trust the Lord? He didn’t obey the instructions that he was given.

There is a deep-seated assumption in the modern American evangelical mind that faith and obedience are different things, so different, indeed, that a person could have the one and not the other, could have faith but not obedience. He assures himself that he is a believer even though he is doing what God forbids or failing to do what God commands. But the Lord himself says to us, and not by any means only here, “you do not trust me when you do not obey me.” That is a word for us carefully to consider and to take to heart. Let there be no thought of faith without obedience. Really to trust the Lord is to obey him.

Now it is for us to come away from this text asking ourselves: in what way am I doing what Moses did? For what reason might the Lord say to me: you did not trust me enough to honor me as holy? In what way is my profession of faith nullified by my disobedience to God? We want to claim, even in the face of our disobedience, “but I am still a believer.” But we must stop that and admit that in that disobedience we are in fact unbelievers not men and women of faith. We may be real Christians, as Moses was a real Christian, but when we are disobedient we are an unbeliever. That was Moses’ great sin – a failure of faith – and that is why he suffered so terrible a punishment. No man ever wanted to see the Promised Land as much as Moses did. No man felt the failure to enter in as keenly as Moses did. No man regretted his unbelief and his disobedience as much as Moses did. The point of this history is not first that you can be a believer and still disobey God. It is rather that disobedience being unbelief has serious consequences. Always has, always will.