Source: Nader Bekeken, 2013. 5 pages. Translated by Wim Kanis.

Numbers 20:12 - The Leaders are Excluded

“And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron,
“Because you did not believe in me,
to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel,
therefore you shall not bring this assembly
into the land that I have given them.” Numbers 20:12

Moses and Aaron had to die before Israel entered the Promised Land. They would not be in charge when the people entered into Canaan. They were not even allowed to witness it. The reason for this was their error at Meribah. But was this misstep really that bad? Did these faithful servants of God need to be punished so severely for that single transgression?

Lack of Trust🔗

The LORD had instructed Moses and Aaron to provide water for the people of Israel, by commanding a rock to produce that water (Num. 20:8). Instead, Moses struck the rock twice with his staff. God had not said that. But was it not understandable that Moses did this? Years ago, Israel had also been without water. At that time God had in fact commanded Moses to strike the rock with his staff. Moses had done so obediently and the water had flowed out of the rock (Ex. 17:6).

Perhaps God’s stern response had something to do with the special position of Moses and Aaron? After Israel’s sin with the golden calf, Moses stood as a mediator between God and the people. He was the first to be addressed in God’s covenant (see Ex. 34:27, “in accordance with these words [the commandments] I have made a covenant with you and with Israel”). Israel’s obedience thus became first and foremost his responsibility. Aaron had experienced, through the death of his sons Nadab and Abihu, how high the demands were that God made upon him as high priest.

The special position of Moses and Aaron may have been a reason why the LORD reacted so harshly to their transgression. Yet the LORD Himself says nothing about this when he explicates his response. This is what he brings to their attention: “You did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel”.

So that is what Moses and Aaron should have done: trust in God and show respect for his holiness in front of the Israelites. Even when God reminds of this event later, he emphasizes this: “You rebelled against my word...failing to uphold me as holy” (Num. 27:14).

You may get the impression that the LORD is mentioning two things side by side: trusting in him and being in awe of his holiness. In the Hebrew text there is a closer connection. You can also translate it this way: “you did not trust me by making me holy”. Or, “you have not trusted in me, so that in the presence of the Israelites you showed awe of my holiness”. In any case, the point is that Moses and Aaron fell short in trusting the LORD. They should have shown this trust in front of all the Israelites by “sanctifying” him. In front of all their fellow citizens they failed to show what a special God the LORD is. He is the Holy One, a God who cannot be compared to anything or anyone! They should have shown their trust by calling attention to that fact.

Expected Punishment🔗

Why does the LORD bring up just these two things: trusting in him and showing what a special God he is? In order to get a better understanding you need to include the whole account of Numbers 20:2-13. You also need to compare it with what previous chapters of Numbers have shown in regard to rebellions of Israel and God’s response to these.

While Israel is assembled in Kadesh, resistance to Moses and Aaron arises once again. This time the background of it is the lack of water. Israel had had to deal with this twice before, prior to the people’s arrival at Mount Sinai. Both times God had relieved the need by providing plentiful water (Ex. 15:22-25; 17:1-7).

However, by now this was a long time ago. The Israelites were so distressed with their thirst that they hurled it at Moses: “Those people whom the LORD put to death at the rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram were actually better off than we. If only we too had died at that time!” (Num. 20:3). Next they accuse Moses and Aaron of mismanagement of the LORD’s people. They have brought them to the wilderness only to have them perish there. If only they would have never left Egypt! There they had it much better than here in this evil, barren place (vv. 4-5).

It is a complaint that has sounded many times before (see Ex. 14:11-12; 16:2-3; 17:3; Num. 11:4-6; 14:2-4; 16:12-14). And therefore it is also a complaint that has been refuted many times. The Israelites articulate their grievance as a reproach against Moses and Aaron. But it is, of course, no less an accusation against God himself. This is also found in the concluding verse of the account, Numbers 20:13, “The Israelites quarrelled with the LORD.” They blame him for bringing them out of Egypt only to let them die of thirst in the wilderness.

For years, thanks to God’s special care, Israel stayed alive in the desert. More than once they have witnessed his miraculous intervention. They have also seen that he takes it very seriously when there is rebellion against him. He proved capable of causing thousands of deaths (see, e.g., Num. 17:14). And yet, once again they dare to question God’s good intentions. Over the heads of Moses and Aaron they make their most terrible accusations against the LORD himself. When you read that, you hold your breath. Will God strike out as he did before? Will there be thousands of victims again?

It may well be that Moses and Aaron were afraid of this too. In any case, they make their way to the place where they can meet God himself. There they reverently prostrate themselves on the ground. At that moment the majesty of the LORD appears (v. 6). Then, as a Bible reader, you have all the more reason to hold your breath. The appearance of God’s majesty does not necessarily mean that a terrible judgment is coming (see e.g. Ex. 16:10-12; 40:34-35; Lev. 9:24). But since Israel’s departure from Mount Sinai (Num. 10:11-12), it had already happened three times!

After the bad report of the ten scouts, Israel wanted to return to Egypt. Then the majesty of the LORD appeared and he announced that he wished to wipe out the entire people by a plague (Num. 14:1-12). Likewise, in the rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, the appearance of the LORD’s majesty heralded his judgment (Num. 16:19-35). The next day it happened again: the manifestation of God’s majesty was followed by a plague that took the lives of 14,700 Israelites (Num. 17:6-14). If now, after yet another rebellion, this majesty re-appears, the worst is to be feared.

Instead of Punishment🔗

However, things turn out very differently. The LORD begins to speak to Moses. He instructs him to fetch the staff with which so many miracles were performed earlier. Together with Aaron, he has to lead the Israelites to a rock. They have to address the rock and command it to give them water. In this way — so God says — Moses and Aaron will make water come forth from the rock. Not just a little bit, but sufficient for all the Israelites and even for the animals they have with them (Num. 20:7-8).

That is the only thing the LORD says. He does not mention any word about his grief because of Israel’s resistance. He says nothing about a punishment that he intends to send. All he says is that he wants to meet the desire of the people. He is going to give water. And he is going to do this in a way that has never been done before: by a simple command addressed to a rock.

Why does the LORD react in such an unexpected and mild way? Was it because he also sensed that his people could not live a day without water? That is quite possible. In any case, this time he preferred not to punish and not to kill. He wanted to overlook the sin of his people and give them life. In this way, it would become clear that he is a special God. In these circumstances, people would probably have seen no other possibility than to strike out at them. But he is God, the Holy One, different from people and entirely unique. Even in this case he has more than one string to his bow than just that of retribution. He sees opportunities to move forward with this rebellious people just by giving them what they need: water and life from a hard rock. And he does so in an all-powerful way: by a simple command.

Looking back at this many centuries later you begin to discover here something of what God would show in New Testament times. Out of mere grace, he gives life to sinful people. He does this by speaking. “In the Word was life,” John will write centuries later (John 1:4). It is not without reason that Paul connects the rock in the wilderness to Jesus Christ. The Israelites drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them; and that Rock was Christ (1 Cor. 10:4).

Water With An Aftertaste🔗

In his response to Israel’s reproaches at Meribah, the LORD already wanted to show something of this. But what did Moses and Aaron do? They obediently pick up the staff and call the people together (vv. 9-10a). Then Moses begins to address Israel. He berated their conduct: “Listen up, you rebels! What a bunch of boneheads you are!”

You can quite well understand Moses’ reaction. How many times have they gotten under their skin and undermined both him and Aaron? Yet the LORD had not ordered them to speak these words of scolding. They were only to give them water, nothing more.

Then Moses says, “Is this really what you want: for us to make water flow for you from this rock? Well OK, have it your way” (see v. 10b). Then Moses starts to strike the rock. Not just once, but two times he bangs the rock with his staff. You can follow it all the way through. When you are as offended as Moses, you lash out. You vent your anger at the evildoers themselves, or at something you have at hand, like the rock in front of you.

Immediately afterwards, however, what God had promised happens. Water flows from the rock, so much that everyone gets enough, people and livestock (v. 11). But that water tasted very differently than God had intended. He had wanted his people to drink water that spoke of his holy ability to give his people life, out of pure love. The water that Israel was given to drink carried the taste of the anger of Moses and Aaron. It was the water that they had pounded out of the rock, because that is the way that the stiff-necked rebels had wanted it.

The Life-Giving Word🔗

According to verse 12, the LORD regards this as a lack of faith, of trust. Why? Because Moses and Aaron had not listened carefully (see Num. 27:14, “You rebelled against my word (my order or command)”. God deemed it sufficient to give water through a simple command to a rock. Moses and Aaron lashed out at the people and then struck the rock. By doing so they showed that they had no trust in what God wanted. More needed to be done: scolding and beating.

This prevented the people from recognizing that the LORD is such a special God. That was the sin that caused Moses and Aaron to stumble. What they did was perfectly understandable. At the same time, it was one of the worst things they could do in their position. They deprived God’s people of the proper view of God. Through their self-serving actions, the Israelites did not get to see clearly what they should have seen: that they owed their lives to nothing else but to the loving care of God. That God’s unique character is enough, even for sinners who repeat their sins for the umpteenth time.

A mediator and a high priest who did this must step aside. When Israel will soon enter the Promised Land, there should be no misunderstanding: we owe our lives in this land only to the mercy of God.

The deaths of Aaron and Moses before the gate of Canaan remains heartbreaking. Yet it was better that way. Through their deaths God showed how he had wanted it to be. God’s people always had to be able to see very clearly: we live from no other source than from our unique God.

Through his punishment of Moses and Aaron, the LORD did still manifest his holiness at Meribah (v. 13). He has shown them and us where life is to be found: only in the word that God is speaking.

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.