Numbers 20:1-13

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"Moses - The Rebel"



          This week, I hope to whet our appetite for the Old Testament by looking at a text from the book of Numbers.  We looked at this text several years ago, but it has so much to teach us on some easily forgettable lessons about the nature of God, it’s worth probing again.  The text is centrally concerned with the relationship between God and Moses.  Let’s give some context for that relationship.  First, let’s think about Moses. At this point in his life he has lived with these Jews about 40 years in the middle of the desert.  If it weren’t for his prayers for mercy on their behalf on at least two separate occasions, they would all be dead in the wilderness.  He has weathered 40 years of their incessant griping and moaning.  He has watched an entire generation—his contemporaries, die in the wilderness for their sin.  Think how many funerals must Moses and his lieutenants must have preached!  In the midst of this intensely difficult life he is doubtless strengthened by his regular personal meetings with Yahweh and by the thought that someday, he will have the privilege of leading this new generation of Jews into the Promised Land.  He will see God finish what he started with him 40 years ago when he met first Him at the burning bush. 

The events of Numbers 20 occur near the end of the wilderness wanderings.  The narrative tells us they are in the Desert of Zin and that Miriam had died.  Miriam is one of the last of this condemned generation to die in the wilderness.  The nation of Israel is by this time populated almost exclusively by people who were children when the Jews rebelled against God’s plan to give them the Promised Land.  These people have been out of Egypt nearly four decades and are witnessing the death of the previous generation—their parents and grandparents--die in the desert as punishment for their unbelief. 

          In chapter 20, we meet the Jews at a place later to be known as Meribah.  They had been here decades earlier and there was no water to be found there then, either.  God had told Moses to strike the rock in Exodus 17 in a previous visit to this place.  At that time, Moses, acting on God’s command struck a rock with his staff and water miraculously flowed out of it.  So, here they are, led by God to this place and again -- no water.  And this new generation of Jews that has seen the penalty for rebellion with every desert funeral they attended, sound remarkably like their parents. 3 And the people quarreled with Moses and said, "Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! 4 Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? 5 And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink."

This second generation of Jewish apples has not fallen very far from their family trees.  They whine about wanting to die, they blame Moses for leading them to this desolate place, when they knew he was only taking them where God was leading.  They yearn for Egypt, a place very few of them even remember, and they once again raise this tired old concern about the lack of variety in the wilderness cuisine.  This generation had watched their parents and grandparents die for griping this way and here they are seemingly begging for the same fate.

          Moses’ initial response to this behavior is just as familiar to us if we have read the previous narratives.  He and Aaron go to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting where Moses meets with God and they fall facedown…again.  This is a profound pattern of behavior Moses models for us—when people oppose you as you do the will of God, don’t retaliate, don’t blame, don’t throw a pity party—get on your face before God.  That is sublime.  You have to wonder at this point if Moses was expecting God to act as he had so often in the past on these occasions.  You wonder if part of the reason Moses and Aaron fell on their faces was to communicate their anticipation of the impending judgment of God.  That’s precisely what happened in chapter 14 and in chapter 16. 

They fell on their faces and both times it preceded God’s judgment.  This is the established pattern.  The people sin, Moses and Aaron fall on their faces, God brings his judgment.  But this time, God’s response is not one of judgment, simply of provision.  In his mercy, he doesn’t punish these people for quarrelling with Moses, for showing him disrespect as their leader, for impugning his character or for their blatant and rebellious unbelief.  He simply tells Moses what to do to get the people water.  Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle."

Moses stands up, gets the staff and gathers the assembly just as he was told.  But then, for the very first time in 40 years in one of these instances, Moses departs from the script.  He loses his temper--he calls the people “rebels” and he strikes the rock twice.  The rock gives its water and all seems to be well.  But then, God executes a sobering bit of discipline on Moses.  Because of this seemingly “slight” variance from God’s plan, Moses is told that he will never enter the Promised Land. “…you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them."[12c]  “It’s over Moses, you’re gonna’ die in the desert just like all the rest of the rebels—your dream of entering the Promised Land will never come true—you’re done with that.”  There is part of us that may be tempted to think, “What a raw deal.  After all Moses had done, after the incessant avalanche of personal attacks and griping he has endured and the monumental burden of leading these two million ungrateful people through a hostile desert, he makes ONE misstep and God lowers the boom.  He ends up in the same place as those ten rebel spies—dead in the desert.”

          Why?  That is a great question to ask of narrative texts like this when we see God doing something we don’t understand.  And one reason it’s a great question is because when we find the answer, we’ll know God better.  Our main goal in studying the Scriptures should always be to see God.  The Scriptures are not a self-help resource—a spiritual guidebook for living successfully.  We must search for GOD in this book and as He reveals himself to us, He changes us.  So, when you come to a text where God says or does something that doesn’t fit your picture of him, don’t get confused and skip over it; spend some time discovering God.  Why did God respond so strongly to Moses’ sin?  The short answer to that question God gives in verse 12.  He tells Moses, “…Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel…”  Moses didn’t trust God and didn’t uphold him as holy before the people—that’s the answer.  But what does that mean?  How did Moses’ actions here betray faith in God and fail to publicly show God as holy? 

          This list is not exhaustive, but here are two ways Moses betrayed unbelief in God and failed to publicly show God as holy.  The first and most obvious way is: Moses disobeyed God.  We’ve already pointed out in this story where Moses was obedient.  He assembled the people and picked up his staff, but then he chose to rebel against God.  In Numbers 27:14, where God is speaking of this incident in the past tense, he tells Moses, “…you rebelled against my word in the wilderness of Zin when the congregation quarreled, failing to uphold me as holy at the waters before their eyes..."   God sees this sin as an act of rebellion against Him.  For one thing, he doesn’t tell Moses to rebuke the people, but he rebukes them, calling THEM “rebels.”  The irony here is in the very act of calling them “rebels,” he has become a rebel himself.  God told Moses to SPEAK to the rock but Moses instead hits it twice.  That’s disobedience.  Some may say, “This is splitting hairs--Moses did most of what God told him to and the people got their water, what’s the big deal?—for that, God tells him he can’t go into the Promised Land?”  The story reminds us of something.  We must never forget something about God.  There is no partial credit given when we intentionally do only part of what God commands us to do.  Partial obedience is disobedience.  When we intentionally give partial obedience to God, doing only the part(s) of his will with which we are comfortable, we are in rebellion against Him.  That fact of the matter is, Moses didn’t do what God told him to and it was an act of arrogance.

          This was arrogant because Moses hears what Yahweh said to him, but he decided to edit God’s commands.  In doing so, he shows the same kind of unbelief the other Jews repeatedly manifested.  Think about it.  God had earlier told them to take the Promised Land and they said in effect, “No, they’re too strong for us—we know better than you, God.”  Here in chapter 20, God tells Moses to SPEAK to the rock—not strike it (as he did last time in Exodus 17), but SPEAK to it.  And Moses says in effect, “No, I’m gonna hit it twice—that worked well last time.”  How is that essentially different than the other Jews’ response to God?  It’s an indication that Moses assumes he knows better than God.  Much of the value in this text for today’s church is this--If God’s response to Moses insults our sensibilities, that reveals much more about us than it does about God.  It exposes a twisted conception of God and a potentially dangerous disregard of the importance of regarding God as holy.  It says we really don’t know God very well—that we’ve allowed ourselves to be influenced by a culture and even an evangelical culture that has increasingly re-imaged God to be squishy and easy-going. 

It’s instructive to notice that Moses didn’t respond to God’s judgment with a sense of indignation.  He doesn’t offer one word in his defense—not a peep.  He knew God’s discipline was deserved.  Think for a moment about who this man is.  This is a man who, when God uses five chapters of Old Testament Scripture to tell him in painstaking detail how to build the tabernacle, down to how many loops to put on the curtains (50, not 51 or 49, 50), he executes the hundreds of details TO THE LETTER.  In Exodus 40, at the end of that seemingly endless section of intensely detail-oriented commands about how the tabernacle should be constructed, eight separate times the author records, “Moses did everything just as the LORD commanded him.”  Eight times!  Attention to detail wasn’t a problem for Moses.  He knew that God expects his commandments carried out with precision and he had always done that…until now. Now, he chooses to improvise.

          There’s more evidence of Moses’ arrogance.  When he meets with God, Yahweh says nothing about rebuking these people but Moses rebukes them.  When he does this, he is in effect making himself equal with God.  Let me explain.  Moses was a prophet—he spoke for God.  When he comes from God’s presence at the tent of meeting (whether the people overheard what was said or not) they assumed he would from that meeting--pass on to them what God told him.  That’s the way it worked.  But within that context, Moses here embellishes with a rebuke of his own that God did not speak.  He speaks his own personal message in a context where the people would have assumed he was speaking exclusively for God.  That is a misrepresentation because Moses encourages the people to believe that his own personal sentiments were GOD’S word to the people.  That’s arrogance!  Anyone who preaches or teaches must learn from this sin of Moses.  When we teach or preach, we best make sure that we not represent as God’s word our own personal sentiments.  We are free to give our own reflections and thoughts, but we must be careful about representing our own personal agendas and biases on issues as God’s truth.

          Listen, we must get this.  You don’t edit God.  What right does Moses have to alter the directives of the Lord of the universe?  God’s just penalty for unbelief in Moses’ case is the same as for the others. Moses will die in the desert with the rest.  This truth is important for us to know.  When God calls us to do something in the Scripture, or as we sense his Spirit leading us in daily life, he’s not offering us suggestions that we are free to partially obey, alter or ignore completely as we see fit.  When he calls us to do something, he’s not laying out one of several possible moral options for us to consider.  He’s not issuing an invitation that we are morally free to decline if we don’t feel like obeying.  He’s the Lord God omnipotent and when he says, “speak to the rock,” the proper response is to speak to the rock and Moses knew that better than anybody.

          A second reason why Moses’ response to God betrayed unbelief and failed to publicly show God as holy is found in verse 12.  This is one you have to look for closely, but when you see it, it is devastatingly indicting evidence against Moses.  Notice again Moses’ words to the people.  With Aaron at his side he says, “shall we bring water for you out of this rock?"

 “Excuse me, Moses; must WHO bring water out of the rock?  He sins grievously here because Moses implies God’s power belonged to him and Aaron.   Here is part of how Moses fails to show God as holy before the people.  When God speaks of “being seen as holy,” that means that God must be seen as qualitatively different, set apart from us.  Although God is intimate with his children, he is also very different than us.  He is separate from us.  He doesn’t know how to sin and has countless other divine qualities we simply do not possess and never will possess.  He alone is GOD.  In his fit of anger, Moses tramples all over that aspect of his unique holiness, identifying himself FAR too closely with God. 

Up to this point, Moses had kept this line of demarcation between himself and God very clear.  He was the prophet who spoke FOR God.  He was also the priest, the mediator and as that he spoke TO God.  The leadership he gave was always clearly known to be FROM God.  But here, Moses takes what belongs to God alone and claims it for his own—“shall WE bring water out of this rock?”  God mercifully provides for the people here at Meribah.  He doesn’t make the people suffer for Moses’ sin, but God does not overlook Moses’ sin.

Whether we are praying for someone, or speaking God’s word, or ministering in any other way, we must always remember and actively proclaim, HE gives the fruit, not us.  We perform the tasks as his instruments.  We plant the seed, we water, but God alone gives the growth.  Anything that is marvelous or wondrous—that’s God’s doing, not ours and we are called to zealously guard his glory. The glory always, always, always belongs to God.  Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.”  Moses took credit for what God alone can do and he is painfully disciplined for it.

          Before we close, here are three more applications from this text.  The first is--this text powerfully reminds us that with God there is no favoritism.  He is utterly impartial.  Part of what makes this story so emotionally gripping is God judges…Moses.  There is something inside of us that cries out, “Moses, not Moses!”  Moses—with all of his years of sacrificial, impeccable service—this one with whom God spoke to face to face—this one who occupies a truly unique place in salvation history.  Even with his impressive resume, God doesn’t cut him any slack—there is no special favor given to Moses.  Ultimately, he suffers the same fate on a human level the other sinners had—his dreams of the Promised Land are dashed.  And when Moses later pleads with God to reconsider his decision, Deuteronomy 3:26 records God’s response, “Enough! Speak to Me no more of this matter.”  I said no; now don’t raise the issue again.” 

This is so important for us because we can so easily confuse intimacy with God with familiarity with God.  To be intimate with God is mandatory, to be familiar with God in the sense that a husband is familiar with his wife and therefore takes her for granted, is blasphemous.  Vance Havner says, “God does not have favorites, only intimates.”  Familiarity with God causes us to diminish God’s holiness and presume that he won’t be all that grieved by our sins. If we have walked with God for awhile, it’s tempting to this, “You and me God, we got a great thing going.”  It’s easy to presume that God will be a bit less exacting in his expectations from us because we are special to him. “Me and God, we have this understanding.”  That’s deception.  Romans 2:11 says, “For God shows no partiality.”  Most of the rest of the world is like that, but not God. 

          A second application is:  Authority in the kingdom of God carries with it responsibility.  When the new generation comes to Moses and gripes at him, they too were sinning and were worthy of judgment.  It is the first time in many years we have any record of this happening, but still, what they did impugned God’s faithfulness and goodness.  One reason Moses is judged here when they are not is because of his position.  When Moses betrays God’s trust and fails to show him publicly as holy, his sin uniquely affects the entire assembly.  This is simply a principle of Biblical leadership.  When an elder sins grievously, 1 Timothy chapter five tells us he is subject to public rebuke—no one else in the church is, but elders are because they have been entrusted with authority.  When they sin grievously, it is a horrible example to the flock and it can compromise the testimony of the entire church before the world.  Because they in a unique way represent the church, when they sin, it uniquely reflects on Christ and His church.  James 3:1 teaches this same value system.  It says, Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Teaching implies authority and there is therefore more responsibility.  This is not to discourage anyone from aspiring to pastor-eldership or to teach.  We simply see here in Moses this principle painfully reinforced.

          A third application this text helps us make is to see is: The utter uniqueness of Jesus Christ, our great High Priest.  Moses rebelled against God in this instance.  By contrast, in John 8:29 Jesus says, “And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him."  Moses embellished or added to God’s word.  Jesus says in John 5:19, “…Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.”  What the Son says and does is only what the Father does.  Jesus not only perfectly spoke God’s word, he WAS the Word made flesh who dwelt among us.  Moses failed in his quest to enter the Promised Land.  Unlike him, Jesus could say on the cross, “It is finished.”  “I have done everything I was asked to do.”  As a result, He is now able to lead all those who believe in Him to the eternal Promised Land, begun here on earth in relationship with him and consummated in heaven.  Finally, Moses died for his sin.  Jesus as our Great High Priest died for our sin and was raised from the dead to vindicate his sinless life and his victory over sin and death.

          As we contrast Moses and Christ, we must never contrast the God of Moses and Jesus.  Many unknowingly do that.  Many assume that because the gospel drips with God’s grace and mercy and compassion, the message is therefore at odds with God’s holiness.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  The greatest single example in human history of God upholding his holiness is seen at Calvary. God was so angry—so full of holy wrath at our sin that when his Son willingly took it on himself, he killed him—he “crushed him.”  As I was reminded this week, our holy God only responds one way ultimately to sin—he brings his wrath.  That wrath can be targeted in only one of two directions.  He either punishes our sin in hell as he vents his eternal wrath in unending torment on unforgiven sinners or he pours out his wrath on his Son at the cross as he has took on our sin upon himself as our substitute.  Those are the only two options and at the center of both of them is God’s holiness. 

If you are here today and you have not by faith accepted Christ, know the holiness of God seen in this text will one day reign down judgment on all of those who have not trusted in Christ to take upon himself the holy wrath they deserve.  God is holy and hates your sin.  Come to Christ and trust in him and his sin-atoning death on a cross to spare you from his wrath and bring you into an intimate, loving relationship with God.  May God give to all of us a greater sense of God’s holiness and his mercy given to us through our Great High Priest, Jesus.


Page last modified on 10/08/2006

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