Thursday, May 31, 2007

Numbers 20:1–13

Numbers 20:1–13: Water from the Rock

Synopsis

In this chapter, the Israelites continue their 40 year trek in the desert. They come to the Desert of Zin, where Miriam passes away, and is buried.

Unfortunately, there is no water for the people, and, as a result, they begin grumbling again. And, as is usual when the Israelites grumble, the refrain is the same: If only we’d stayed in Egypt!

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 desert, 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!” (verses 3–5)

The Israelites often do this—claim they were better off in Egypt—and it strikes me every time: They’re either exceptionally short-memoried, or they’re just like petulant children. (Of course, now they’ve added a new verse to the song: If only we’d died when the other grumblers had died!)

However, there is one problem that is genuine: They need water to drink. So Moses and Aaron go to the Tent of Meeting, and fall facedown before the LORD. He tells Moses to get the staff, and speak to a particular rock, out of which will pour water for the Israelites and their livestock to drink.

Unfortunately, there is a slight hitch with the way that Moses carries out the LORD’s command:

[Moses] 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. (verses 10–11)

Their handling of the situation displeases the LORD. In fact, it displeases Him so much that He decides to deny Moses and Aaron entry into the Promised Land! When the Israelites get there, Moses will not be allowed to enter. (Aaron will die in a few verses, although I’m not covering it in this entry.) What displeases the LORD so much about the way Moses and Aaron handled it? Because they did not trust in Him enough to honour Him as holy (verse 12).

This passage is summarized in verse 13:

These were the waters of Meribah, where the Israelites quarreled with the LORD and where he showed himself holy among them.

Thoughts

The main question in this chapter is this: What was Moses’ sin? My main Bible, for most of my life, has been the New Student Bible (NIV version), and it has the following annotation:

20:12 Moses’ Sin

After so many displays of loyalty and courage, Moses faltered. Numbers does not specify exactly what Moses did that upset God. Was it striking the rock rather than speaking to it as God commanded? Regardless, Moses lashed out angrily against the Israelites and was faulted for his lack of trust in God. In Deuteronomy, God describes the sin as “breaking faith” with him and tells Moses that he “did not uphold my holiness among the Israelites” (32:51).

The scene at Meribah brought a tragic end to a great man’s career: Moses, footsore and weary, was told he too would die in the desert, before the Israelites crossed into the promised land. Deuteronomy 3:23–27 adds a postscript: Moses pleaded with God to reverse the punishment, and, when that failed, he threw the blame back on the Israelites.


After reading this, as a teenager—and every time I read Numbers 20 after that—I was left wondering what Moses’ sin might have been. Ironically, it was when I was reading a non-Christian novel that the answer was explained to me: It was that Moses (and Aaron) tried to take the credit for God’s actions. (“Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?”) The Israelites were in the desert, and there was no water; the bringing forth of water from a rock—enough to quench the entire community, and their livestock—should have been a great testament to the LORD’s power, and control over nature, but Moses and Aaron tried to take the credit for it.

This is a very striking thing because Moses was the most humble man on Earth. If someone that humble would be tempted to take the credit for something God had done, then mightn’t I be tempted to do the same? I’m nowhere near as humble as Moses was!
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