Before the holidays, my small group from church was having a discussion about the end of Moses’ life. Especially his trip up mount Nebo where he got to see (but not enter) the Promised Land before he died. Many of the ladies thought it was harsh that God wouldn’t let Moses finish what he started. After all God was the one who called him to this adventure in the first place, and Moses had been through a lot fulfilling that call.

There was a time when I whole-heartedly agreed with the sentiments of my friends. How could God take away the satisfaction of completion over some water? Because, of course, the reason Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land is because of what happened a couple books earlier at the waters of Meribah. The people were grumbling again for water. Moses went to God for provision, and God gave him instructions that would bring water out of a rock in the desert.

God providing water miraculously from a rock had happened before, near the beginning of their time in the wilderness 40 some years back. That time God told Moses to strike the rock, and water came, enough for everyone (Ex. 17:6). This time, at Meribah, God told Moses to speak to the rock.

Moses was angry about the grumbling of the people. Grumbling that had started before they even left Egypt. Grumbling that was passed down to the next generation. Grumbling that had filled half his life and plagued his leadership.

God knew that Moses was angry. So He changed the instructions for getting water in a dry place. God removed the possibility for Moses to take any credit for the miracle of water from a rock. God wanted the power to be His and the credit as well. Moses went with his emotions and struck the rock, on top of which he verbally took the credit as he did so.

Moses took the power of God to be his own when he took the credit for the water. He validated himself as a leader, I think, in order to quell the grumbling of the people. Listen to what they said to Moses, “If only we had died when our brethren died before the LORD! Why have you brought up the assembly of the LORD into this wilderness, that we and our animals should die here? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt, to bring us to this evil place? It is not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates; nor is there any water to drink.” (Numbers 20:4-5 NKJV) Not only do these people that Moses has devoted his life to leading told him they wish they were dead, they told him it was his fault.

Mind you, the generation speaking at this point was born in the wilderness and had never seen Egypt. Yet here they are accusing Moses of forcing their parents, and thereby themselves, to leave Egypt. They call Egypt good, when in reality it had been evil. And the path God has them on leading to the Promised Land they called evil, when it was for their good. To top it all off they point out that the wilderness is not what they were promised from childhood.

I’d imagine these people grew up hearing their parents talk about Egypt with nostalgic longing. The food, the houses, the staying in one place. How time must have eased the memory of the pain. Many times throughout the wilderness narrative the first generation that walked out of Egypt themselves wished they had never left and talked about returning. Their children were listening, and they only heard half the story. I doubt anyone wanted to relive the horror stories of slavery in order to tell the whole story to them.

So here is a new generation, who has only known the wilderness, verbally longing for an evil that has been painted as good in their perception. They know their people are from somewhere that had a measure of comfort, and they know there is a place they are going that is promised to have a bounty of comfort and blessing yet they never seem to arrive. So they accuse Moses of being a bad leader who doesn’t know how to find the promised blessing.

I wonder if they knew their parents had the chance to enter the Promised Land and turned it down? Families have a tendency to sweep uncomfortable details under the rug. Who knows really, but Moses was angered by these words. After he received instruction from God, Moses went with Aaron before the people and said some words of his own, “Hear now, you rebels! Must we bring water for you out of this rock?” At which point he struck the rock twice and brought forth the water.

Fourteen words. Two sentences spoken in a moment of anger, and Moses was banned from entering the Promised Land. But think about what was said with these words, “Must we bring water…” not God, we. The anger allowed a very dangerous seed to be planted in Moses’ heart. The same seed that brought about the Fall in the Garden of Eden, that started the whole mess in the first place: trying to be like God.

Moses was called friend of God. He spoke to God face to face. (Ex. 33:11) Yet there is an echo of the words in the Garden, “In the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God…” (Gen. 3:5 NKJV) Moses struck the rock when he was told to speak to it. The glory was meant to be God’s, because the power is God’s, and He is able to bear both.

Moses was not able to bear either the power or the glory. After all, when Moses asked to see God’s glory he was told that the sight would kill him. God had to shield Moses with His hand against a cleft rock face as He passed by so Moses could catch a glimpse of His goodness after the glory had passed. Moses could only just bear the afterglow of God’s glory and only because God was there to protect him. (Ex. 33:12-23) He was not like God, but he tried to be at the waters of Meribah.

After the spectacle of the water, God spoke to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe Me, to hallow me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” (Num. 20:12 NKJV) If Moses found it hard to give God the glory over water, how hard might it be to do so over entering the Promised Land? If Moses needed to validate himself before the people of Israel over water, how much greater might the temptation be to use the Promised Land to validate himself?

(Side note: why was Aaron included in this judgement? He was there when Moses got the instructions and he did not stop Moses from diverging from them.)

It wasn’t until I saw the seed at the heart of the conflict that I realized it was not harsh of God to keep Moses from entering the Promised Land. It was a mercy.

The corruptive potential of the seed of trying to be like God in Moses’ heart was very great indeed. I think God was sparing Moses, His friend, from that corruption. God did not allow that seed to grow into full fruition in Moses, turning him into a foe. So God, in His kindness, gave Moses the assurance of Joshua’s leadership and allowed Moses to see the Promised Land from the top of mount Nebo before taking Him from this life while Moses was still His friend. (Deuteronomy 34)

The issue was not the water, or the rod, or the rock, or even the fruit in the Garden. The issue was with the heart. God looks at the heart in all of us, and it is for that reason that we say, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Only God can be God. Only God can bear the weight of His glory. His name alone is hallowed above every other name, including our names. It is imperative for the state of our hearts that we keep it that way.

-Etta Woods