Meditations in Exodus: 88. Moses’ Downfall
Num 20:10 Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?”
We need to identify first of all just when this all happened. “In the first month the whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried.” (20:1) Now no year is mentioned, just a reference to “the first month” but in verses 22 to 29 of this chapter, warning of Aaron’s impending death is given. In Num 33:38 we read in respect of Aaron, “he died on the first day of the fifth month of the fortieth year after the Israelites came out of Egypt.” (Num 33:38) We have clearly jumped some thirty eight years forward. Israel have obviously done their wandering and the older generation has died off. There is no record of the things that happened in that thirty eight year gap because it was a time of shame. At the beginning of this chapter Miriam dies and at the end of it Aaron dies (Num 20:27-29). In between, Moses future is determined by an event that had similarities to what had occurred some thirty eight years earlier (Ex 17:1-7).
So thirty eight years have passed and now we are told, “there was no water for the community, and the people gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron.” (Num 20:2) There is a real sense of deja-vu here: “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!” (Num 20:3-5) The only thing is that this is the NEXT generation. The previous generations have virtually all now died.
Moses falls down before the Lord and God’s glory appears to them (v.6). The Lord tells Moses to take his staff and speak to the rock and the Lord will bring water out of it, enough for everyone (v.7,8). It is at this point that things go slightly differently from the time many years before: “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.” Num 20:9-11)
Note Moses’ language: “you rebels” and “must we bring water out”. And then he struck the rock twice instead of speaking to it. Yes, water comes out, but that’s not the point. The point is that Moses is supposed to be the Lord’s representative and only do what the Lord tells him to do. Clearly Moses is utterly frustrated by the Israelites. It may be all the worse for him because thirty eight years have passed and the next generation are getting ready to enter the Land and then the same thing happens all over again! He has not handled it well. So we find, “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.” (v.12) Psa 106 records, “they rebelled against the Spirit of God, and rash words came from Moses’ lips.” (Psa 106:33)
A great deal is yet to happen, as is spelled out in the remaining 16 chapters of Numbers (which we will only summarise) and indeed the entire book of Deuteronomy is to be written by Moses yet, but eventually we read of his death on his own on Mount Nebo, overlooking the land in Deut 34:1-8.
So how can we sum up this? Moses overstepped the mark on this occasion and for that he was not allowed to enter the Land. Why? Perhaps to show to Israel that even someone as great as Moses is answerable to the Lord and has to be held to account. Yes, the reality was that he was now 120 years old when he died and had spent the first forty years of his life as an Egyptian Prince, the second forty years of his life as a Midianite shepherd, and then the final forty years of his life as the shepherd of Israel. That last role had involved delivering them out of Egypt, taking them to Sinai, then up to the Promised Land, but then just looking after them for nearly forty years in the wilderness before finally taking them up the east side of the Dead Sea until they were ready to cross the Jordan near Jericho to enter and take the Land. There on the plains of Moab he gave Israel a reminder of all that had happened over these past forty years, and then gave them detailed instructions about entering and living in the Land, which we now have as the book of Deuteronomy.
Commentators often disagree on dating the time of Moses life and so also of his death, but it is possible (if not probable) that from the time of striking the rock to dying on Mount Nebo was only about a year or so. If that is so, then his final year was a very active and very fruitful time. One hundred and twenty is a good age to die and he was more active in guiding Israel through the territories up the east of the Dead Sea and instructing Israel that most people would be in their sixties! No way does he let this restriction imposed on him by the Lord limit his ongoing service as the Shepherd of Israel.
In fact, I find this quite a challenge. If the Lord told me He was disciplining me and so all my hopes and aspirations were to be cut short (as happens when we find ourselves with a terminal illness) how will I feel about the months left to me? Would I sulk (I hope not) or would I seek to be as fruitful as Moses was? (I hope so). Part of our reply would also depend on how we coped with our own failure, if it had been like Moses and our shortened lifespan was a disciplinary act of God.
Indeed, how we learn to live with our failures is a big part of many of our lives. When we have blown it (and I have on more than one occasion) will we sink into a self-centred morass of gloom and doom, or will we receive the grace of God and get up and say, “Lord, please yet do what you need to with me, but please continue to use me.” We can yet be fruitful for that is always the Lord’s intent for us, even after He has had to pick us up and set us going again after some failure.
I think one of the greatest examples of this that I have observed in my lifetime was the life of Charles (Chuck) Colson, indicted and imprisoned for his part in the Watergate Affair when working for President Nixon. Through this he came to the Lord and went on to found Prison Fellowship and was greatly used in a teaching ministry. His failure was able to be used by the Lord to bring a new son to glory. Failure was not the end, and it was clearly not so for Moses. May it not be so for you and me.