What happened at Meribah?

Do you ever think about what Moses’ great sin was that made God say that he would never set foot in the Promised Land? I was mulling some things over this morning, and wondered if there’s a lesson for me there.

For those who need a reminder, it happens in the Book of Numbers; this takes place well after Moses has led the Israelites out of Egypt and into the desert. They have come to the Desert of Sin in Kadesh, and with no food or water to be had, the nation starts up its usual gripe to Moses: “Why did you bring us us up out of Egypt, to bring us to this evil place?” And Moses and Aaron seek out the Lord’s answer:

The Lord then spoke to Moses, saying ‘Take the rod; and you and your brother Aaron gather the congregation together. Speak to the rock before them, and it will give its waters; thus you shall bring them water out of the rock, and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.’

So Moses took the rod from before the Lord as the Lord ordered him. Then Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation together before the rock; and he said to them, ‘Hear me, you disobedient ones. Must we bring water for you out of this rock?’ Moses then lifted his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their cattle drank.

But the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron. ‘Because you did not believe Me, to sanctify Me before the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this congregation into the land I am giving them.’

This was [Meribah,] the Water of Contention [another translation reads ‘Water of Strife’], because the children of Israel scoffed before the Lord, and He was sanctified before them. (Numbers 20:7-13)

It’s an amazing passage, because you feel like doing a double-take. What? Why doesn’t the punishment fit the crime? And come to think of it, what IS the crime? Looked up footnotes in both the Orthodox Study Bible and  the Scofield Bible, (I know, I know. Look, it was my grandma’s favorite), and they both focus in on Moses striking the rock when he had been directed to speak to it. Both also note that the rock was a prefiguring of Christ. In striking it, Moses was acting the part, so to speak, of the unrighteous Jews who would do violence to God’s Anointed One. Scofield also throws in that Moses was out of line to refer to the Israelites as rebels (in the King James translation), and that Moses seems to be claiming that he was the originator of the miracle to come.

But I can’t help my childish sense of fairplay being a little affronted. And I know I’m not the only one. In “Walking Through the Bible,” author and Jewish scholar Bruce Feiler is speaking with assembled Muslims about this passage (which doesn’t have any parallel in the Koran) and he calls it ‘a disappointment.’

“Moses doesn’t make it to the Promised Land. It’s one of the saddest moments in the whole book.” I raised my voice in emphasis and frustration.

I have my own thoughts on this passage. I actually think there’s a little humanness going on here. I think that the author here is Moses, and I don’t think he told the entire story. Not out of some kind of editing to make himself appear to be the good guy, but out of an inability to express his own lack of faith. The OSB footnote says that he ‘struck the rock in disbelief.’ I think that somehow, in that one moment, there was a near-complete failure. And the reason it’s not spelled out is that, in my experience, you can’t really explain these things. To be sure, my puny little lapses don’t merit the kind of punishment meted out here, but then, as I’ve heard a monastic say, ‘The farther up the mountain you climb, the farther you fall when you take a wrong step.’

I’m going to go ferreting around in the Ancient Faith podcasts and see if I can find anything about this passage. It seems like a very interesting part to me, and I’d be curious what better minds have made of it. For that matter, if anyone’s got some insight or teaching to share, have at it!

My only other thought is this, which says more about my state of mind, I think, than this part of Numbers: I happened to think of this when I was mulling over some current problems I’m having and wondered whether it’s possible to have a bad patch with God that comes not from a thing you did, but the way that you did it. Maybe the action of Moses striking the rock was almost accidental but in that moment, he had no faith in God. If so, he would be changed, and God refusing him entrance into the Promised Land would only be the outward affirmation of that change.

In any case, you get no explanation for it or commentary from the author of this book. That, I think, is interesting as well. And very human.



  1. You know, I rarely come up with a question on my own. To me, it is what it is – and I accept it as such. But if someone else present a puzzle, I'm all over it. Such is your wondering about Moses.

    So I immediately jumped out of bed (I read blogs in the morning on my iPad) and checked to see what references I have.

    I collect study Bibles. Long story I won't go into. But these gave some interesting comments:

    ESV Study Bible:
    The people complained about lack of water many times after leaving Egypt. Here they go again. In Exodus, he had been told to strike a rock with the staff, but not here. Some say it was Moses' anger (v. 10) but v.12
    "makes it clear that it was carelessness in attending to God's command that was the real issue…. As prime mediators of God's law t Israel, Moses and Aaron had to be exemplary in their obedience….since God had told Moses in the earlier incident, 'I will stand before you there on the rock' (Ex 17:6) Moses should have known that God was present here on the rock as well; therefore, Moses' speaking to the rock would be actually speaking with God, and therefore when Moses struck the rock with his staff twice, it was a serious manifestation of anger against God…."

    The MacArthur Study Bible:
    "instead of speaking to the rock, Moses spoke to the people accusing them of being rebels against God. By his actions, Moses joined the people in rebellion against God (see Numbers 27:14)…. The Lord's evaluation of Moses was that he failed to take God at His word and thus treat Him as holy to the people. Moses failed in the same way as Israel had at Kadesh 38 years previously (14:11)….. The inclusion of Aaron demonstrated his partnership with Moses in the action against the Lord."
    [Wait, Aaron was forbidden to enter because of what MOSES did???? I never noticed THAT before]

    HCSB Study Bible:
    "Moses fell into unfaithfulness by unleashing a verbal attack on the rebels and declaring that he and Aaron were about to bring forth water from a rock. Then he struck the rock twice instead of speaking to it. He presumed upon the presence of God to respond faithfully and graciously to his rebellious acts…. Moses' actions were similar to those of an idolatrous pagan magician who claimed to have god-like powers. Holiness and purity, parallel themes of the book of Numbers had been violated by Moses and Aaron, The cycle of rebellion now had reached form the general population to is most noble leaders…."

    1. This is fascinating stuff. So bottom line reasons, from one or more of the above:
      * His anger was unholy.
      * By calling them rebels and by striking the rock, he was joining them in their rebellion. (This one sounds like a Catch-22 to me. If they were being rebels, how is it a sin to call them out. And if it's not a sin, why would you be included in their rebellion.)
      * Overlapping those, the basic idea that he wasn't supposed to strike the rock, he was supposed to speak to it.

      That last point may be the one that just about everyone agrees on. But all by itself, it doesn't seem like enough to keep you out of the Promised Land.

      As you say, I may find at the end of all this that it's another one just to wonder at and know that you'll never know. Thanks for the research!

    2. I think it is Moses’s negativity because he lapses for a moment and is unable to glorify the Lord to the people because of it. It seems such a small thing but it has huge implications. In contrast Joshua and Caleb are the only two that enter the promised land because they are so positive the Lord will win out. It’s spiritual warfare. Don’t be double minded or a reed shaken in the wind. In the spiritual world, words and intentions have power.

  2. I have always puzzled over this, too, though not in this detail… just the essence of Mo's exclusion from the Promised Land. Let me say that I find your thought intriguing and thank you for posting it!

    That said, I do not have a "better mind" by any means. I've not thought of it as punishment per se…. though that's what it seems. I've thought of it more as endemic to leadership and the realization of limits and costs entailed… like puzzle of Churchill's rejection by his people after winning WW2. And so I wonder whether this exclusion is not sparing Moses the heartbreak of separation from his people… which is his identity and might have broken his faith more. The rock would then be enough to attest on a small scale of dangers on the larger scale. Yet the whole of this is very small minded I'm sure and there's probably far more there: The story the vision on Mt. Thabor makes the whole far more complicated. And I'm not afraid to say I'm a bit lost and overwhelmed thinking about it, too.

    I'd wonder whether your comment on the rock as Christ isn't on the right track. If Moses leads through the trials and tests and the trek, if he were then to go through to the Promised Land, as metaphor for the Christian Life… this might measure less dependence on Christ, the Holy Spirit and God the Father than I think he measured in his heart. The other part of my sense from this is that humility lies in leading as a shepherd and accepting the role that he has to be separate from them to do this. Not sharing in the Promise itself, preserves the promise to him and for him, as doing so would "seize" a different identity other than guide. And it is painful but it attests to Moses's humility that he accepts it. I'd wonder that you have to look ahead to the end of the story where he overlooks the Promised Land, but does not enter or try to do so to confirm this.

    My two cents. Curious what you come up with.

    1. Oh fine. So now I have to go onto Wikipedia and refresh my memory about Churchill. Thanks for nothing. 😉

      So your take is that probably there would've always been *something* to keep Moses out of the Promised Land over, not in a punitive way, but just because that's the nature of his role and the reality of what was promised. (Did I get that right?)

      Like you, I'm starting to feel like I'm coming to the end of what I'll ever really figure out about this passage. But I like your take on it, in terms of it not being some "fire from heaven" sort of thing.

      And thanks for mentioning Mt. Tabor. I had forgotten until today that an Orthodox friend used to say, "Moses DID get to the Promised Land. He was there with Jesus at the Transfiguration."

      More things to wonder at!

      PS: I'll add on what I found out below. This is too long already.

  3. Hmmmm. I’m curious too.

    I like “Search the Scriptures” by Presbytera Jeannie Constantinou, but I don’t remember if she touched on this.

    1. "Search the Scriptures" was the podcast I was going to try. Took a quick look through the other podcasts, but that looks like the ticket. I'll give it a listen tomorrow and see if she gets into that.

      I hadn't been through the AFR podcast list in a while. All kinds of goodies! It really is a wonderful resource. And s-p even has a vidcast! Got to catch up.

  4. Okay, finished listening to "Searching the Scriptures" podcast about it — HERE if anyone's interested, at about the 30-minute mark.

    She doesn't really have much to say about this. Here's what she says about the incident:
    "So Moses is not perfect, but God also holds him accountable for the fact that he disobeyed God. It seems rather harsh, doesn't it, but perhaps God had higher expectations for Moses."

    She also mentioned something that I think James noted above, that back in Exodus 17, when the Israelites complained about the lack of water, God had told Moses to produce water from a rock as well. But that time, he was *told* to strike the rock. And he did and they drank and no one got into trouble. That seems interesting, but I don't want to overthink it. I'll just note, though, that in both instances with bringing water from the rock, the people were near the Wilderness of Sin. The first place Moses named Temptation and Abuse, because of how the people abused him. The second one he called Waters of Contention (or Strife).

    Just because I'm finding this more interesting that doing my work, I'm going to shop the question out to two other places — the Orthodox convert list on yahoogroups and http://www.OrthodoxAnswers.org. I won't bother getting back about what they say unless there's something new that comes from that.

    Thanks everyone! I love stuff like this.

  5. Give Anam Cara the credit there Grace.
    I love Jeannie C.'s podcasts, but I'm woefully behind now. She seems to know her stuff. Last time I dug in to Moses, it was on the prayer he offers after they cross through the Red Sea. It didn't fit my imagination in terms of what I thought it might say once I went back and looked for it… in fact,it didn't even occur when I thought it might. So I wonder what Mo might have prayed privately 😉 There's something to stick that in your pipe and smoke: The difference between public and private prayer after passing through.

  6. The sin of Moses at Meribah was that he made the situation appear to be about HIMSELF. That is why God said that his sin was the he did not sanctify God — Moses actually sanctified himself — put himself in the place of the holy One. He did this by making the whole affair seem personal. He said. "Must WE bring water for you out of this rock?" And instead of speaking to the rock he hit it with his rod twice — as if by doing so HE could bring forth the water. This was a person in a leadership role before God who was putting himself in the place of God — acting as if Israel's unbelief was against him, and acting as if he was bothered to have to work a miracle for them. This is why God could not over look the sin. Leaders who want to take upon themselves what belongs only to God had better pay attention.

    1. Right on David and Julie – That pronoun WE tells you all you need to know. I am sure GOD told Moses " when did WE do anything for Israel. Did WE perform all the miracles in Egypt? Did WE part the Red Sea." The most humble man in all the earth was, at that moment in time a very proud man. He had put himself on the same level with his GOD. GOD didn't need Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt. Moses was totally replaceable. The punishment was totally appropriate for the sin Moses committed. Moses knew that the punishment was totally appropriate.

      1. 100 per cent correct David,100 per cent correct Percy!No better explanation.Never try to put yourself in God’s place.That He punishes severely.

  7. I believe here that God had designed a great lesson of salvation here that was disrupted by Moses’ actions. The rock represented Jesus our rock of salvation. How do we come to Jesus who gives us living water? Through faith and faith alone. Are we reprimanded first? No. What happened was that God instructed Moses to take the rod with him to the rock and speak to the rock. The rod represents God’s presence. Moses, instead took the rock – lectured the Israelites on their behavior and took action rather than having faith in his spoken words to the rock. We do not need to do anything but ask Jesus for life eternal – through faith alone. I think God had this great plan to show people that we can come to him on faith alone to receive life. Oops Moses was human and disrupted God’s intended plan…NOTE however, that God still provided the water for the people – he just dealt with Moses separately. We would not be noticing this passage except for Moses’ mis-step.

  8. I ran across an interesting take on this incident in a Jewish website:

    Their suggestion is that Moses had a continuing failure in dealing with the people’s grumbling from the beginining; every time it came up he did not handle it as an inspiring leader. Back in Numbers 14, when the spies came back with their discouraging report, Moses nags and Joshua preaches. At this time, God says that none of those there would enter the Land except Joshua and Caleb; and Moses was just as crabby as the rest of the people. God gave Moses another chance to extol the promise of God, and what he did instead was to castigate the people and have a fit of temper. Makes sense!

  9. I always assumed Moses and Aaron were upset that God’s instructions seemingly failed at first. I always assumed he tried speaking to the rock, and it didn’t work, then perhaps Aaron lacking patience, instructed Moses to strike the rock as he did at Horeb, thinking that would work. Still impatient, Moses struck it again. (Alternatively, Moses could have become impatient first, struck the rock, then Aaron could have told him to do it again, in any case something must have occurred to implement Aaron.) After hitting the rock twice it produced water, which probably would have happened anyway had they waited. Based on the reference to this in Deuteronomy, it suggests that Moses did not give God proper credit on the occasion at Meribah either.

    For whatever reason, I assume God was testing their patience, and they both failed. He may have done this to reveal to the two of them that they did not have the sufficient patience to lead the people after the Exodus.

    It’s also possible Miriam’s death just before this affected Moses and Aaron’s sentiment toward God, and played a role in why they disobeyed him at Meribah. This may also have been why God chose that moment to test them. It’s also possible Miriam died of dehydration and thirst, which may have been the reason the Israelites complained about the lack of water.

    These are simply my opinions that help me understand the situation.

    1. Those are some very good guesses, based on the text. And in the end, that’s all anyone seems to have — guesses. It’s obvious that whatever happened, it did, as you say, represent a test that they failed. (I had forgotten that it was Aaron and Moses both.) They both signaled by their actions that “their minds weren’t right.” I suppose what I should conclude from this passage is that no matter what the exact cause was, it can serve as a sobering reminder — even Moses could get things wrong.

  10. Thanks Grace.l was going through that passage and felt l wanted a better understanding of Moses and Aaron’s punishment to better my walk with God.Thanks for the discussion.l’m now better.

  11. I’m visual, so I was “seeing” the event happen. God said to “Take the staff…..” “So Moses took the staff from the Lord’s presence, just as he commanded him.” This was the staff that had the blossom’s and almonds on it correct? I wonder what happened to that beautiful example of Aaron’s right to lead when it smacked that rock…..twice. “The Lord said to Moses, “Put back Aaron’s staff in front of the Testimony, to be kept as a sign to the rebellious. This will put an end to their grumbling against me, so that they will not die.” I see an angry Moses taking that staff and smacking a rock. Almonds fall off, petals are blown away in the wind…..and nothing. Moses hears whispers which get louder as the rock refuses to produce water. His frustration boils over at the lack of action from God and he whacks it again. Water comes out of the rock, but the rod has lost most of it’s splendor. Perhaps only a few green shoots remain. What was an object of life and beauty, and was supposed to stand as an example of the leadership of Aaron’s family has been abused. In my imagination, I can see Moses and Aaron looking at the staff in stark realization of what had just occurred as the nation of Israel leaped in celebration.

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