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.