I have been reminded recently how often Christians and non/ex/anti-Christians alike speak of the God of the Old Testament as if this was somehow a different person from the God of the New Testament. One of the stories often cited for this harsh judgemental picture of God, that is assumed to be the norm in the Old (defunct/out of date) Testament is his refusal to allow poor faithful old Moses into the promised land.
People often cite Num 20, where they say God lashes out at Moses for a trivial sin, or worse punishes Moses for Israel’s sin. But is that what happens?
Moses is perhaps the greatest hero in the Old Testament. Through him, God freed the Israelites from slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt. God chose him to mediate the covenant between the Lord and Israel. Yet in Numbers 20:12 he and Aaron are told they will not bring the Israelites into the promised land. What’s going on? Is God being arbitrary, withdrawing favour as ancient gods used to do?
At first sight situating the passage seems to exacerbate the problem. The passage runs from Num 12:1 or 2 (v.1 is a summary bringing the story up to date while v.2 sets the scene for this passage). Once again, the people complain, comparing the plenty of Egyptian life with the hardship of the desert (vv.2-5). Once again, Moses and his brother Aaron seek God, and again God announces a miracle (v.8). In v.9 Moses begins to do as God has commanded. So far so good. The people are gathered (v.10), Moses strikes the rock, and water is delivered from the stone (v.11).
Yet God’s response is to declare:
Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them. (Num 20:12)
If we look closer, things are not as simple as my summary painted them. When Moses and Aaron have gathered the assembly of Israel in front of the rock, they say:
Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock? (Num 20:10)
There is no mention here of the almighty God who performs the miracles for Israel, like the plagues and sea crossing that freed them from slavery, just “shall we bring water”. Moses and Aaron fail to proclaim the Lord as the source of these signs and wonders, they encourage the Israelites to focus on them.
Setting the story in the wider context of the flow of Scripture, we see it’s full significance. It occurs in the five book unit that Jews call Torah, or “instruction”, the heart of their Bible. We, Christians, call it Pentateuch (five books) and it is the introduction to our Bible. Genesis forms an introduction to this introduction, and in the other books Moses is the central human character. Deuteronomy, which closes the collection, contains Moses final speeches and his death. Back in Genesis 15, and again and again through the patriarchal stories, God repeated a promise of descendants, land and his own presence and help. By the time of the making of the covenant at Sinai two of the three promises have been abundantly filled. The narrative through the rest of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers concerns the slow journey to “the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho” as the close of Numbers puts it (Num 36:13). So, the whole book of Deuteronomy takes place on the threshold of the promised land.
So, our story (Num 20:1-13) is pivotal, explaining why Moses does not enter the promised land. It therefore explains why the Pentateuch (the “books of Moses”) ends with God’s promises incompletely fulfilled. All of this highlights the importance of Moses and Aaron’s “error”, failing to give God the honour that is due is a most serious offense.
When Christian leaders take pride in what they have accomplished, when Christians fail to acknowledge the giver of all the blessings that surround us, we also fail to trust the LORD, and neglect to show his holiness before others (cf. Num 20:12). That is not a little oversight but a most serious business!
The bulk of this post originally appeared in the NZ Baptist, but the article has been removed there so I am reposting the content here.