Without question, Moses is the central (human) figure of the Old Testament. Yes Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as the fathers of Israel are significant, and yes David is surely a key figure as well, particularly in his typological function as king, yet it is Moses, particularly in his role as the great redeemer, the law giver, prophet, priest, and the trailblazer through the wilderness to the Promised Land, who stands head and shoulders above the rest.
We can see his significance in how the Jews of the New Testament held him in high regard, likewise, in his appearance with our Lord on the Mount of Transfiguration and most significantly in the book of Hebrews, which offers the comparison from the lesser, Moses/Old Covenant/Sacrifices/Temple, etc. with the greater, i.e. Christ and the New Covenant.
Moses appears on the scene of redemptive history at the introduction of book of Exodus. His appeals to Pharaoh on behalf of Yahweh for the release of the Israelites is familiar to most people. After securing their deliverance through the providential working of God, he leads them to Sinai, where they received the law, and continues leading them along their 40-year wilderness wandering, the consequence of their sin on the way to the Promised Land. Throughout this arduous journey, we find Moses frequently appealing to God on behalf of the rebellious, murmuring people, yet there was one event in the wilderness that would forever haunt Moses and cost him greatly; an event which stands as a stark warning to those of us who live on this side of the cross of Christ.
We read of this tragic event in Numbers 20:2-9
“2 Now there was no water for the congregation. And they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. 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.” 6 Then Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. And the glory of the Lord appeared to them, 7 and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 8 “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.” 9 And Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he commanded him.“
Once again we find the wilderness congregation in want, this time of water, and once again we find them directing their complaint to Moses. What a burden this man must have carried, not only have to lead a rebellious, murmuring people out of their bondage to Egypt, but to journey through the wilderness for 40 years because of THEIR sin.
In the passage above, despite being the object of the peoples scorn, Moses (and Aaron) petition the Lord for mercy on the people. God’s instructions to Moses seem simple enough: take the staff, assemble the congregation, you and Aaron speak to the rock and tell it to yield water. Then an interesting, glossed over note in Num. 20:9, “And Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he commanded him.”
In the next section from Numbers 20, we read of this event unfolding
“10 Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” 11 And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. 12 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.” 13 These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the Lord, and through them he showed himself holy.”
Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses struck the rock, twice. Let the heartbreak begin. What seems like an innocuous oversight, or a slip of emotion, costs Moses greatly. The Lord outlines his sin as: 1) Lack of faith 2) Failure to uphold the holiness of God in the sight of others. Surely to even record this event and provide it in the book of Numbers for future generations must have been painful to Moses.
Here was a man called by God, a man who was a murderer no less, who had been faithful to do all that God had commanded for nearly 80 years no matter how difficult or insurmountable the odds may have appeared to the human eye, yet in this one event, he slips and falls. One sin is all that it took to keep Moses out of the Promised Land. Let that sink in for a minute. (We may also add that Aaron failed to enter the Promised Land as well)
This discipline is further recounted in Numbers 27 as God passes the mantle of Israelite leadership from Moses to Joshua
“12 The Lord said to Moses, “Go up into this mountain of Abarim and see the land that I have given to the people of Israel. 13 When you have seen it, you also shall be gathered to your people, as your brother Aaron was, 14 because 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.” (These are the waters of Meribah of Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin.) 15 Moses spoke to the Lord, saying, 16 ‘Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation 17 who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep that have no shepherd.'”
Hear we see that Moses’ sin was “rebellion” against the word of the Lord and a failure to publically uphold Him as holy. Additionally, we get Moses’ first response to his discipline as he pleads, not his own case, but the case of the people that they might continue to have a leader after he dies. Even in the legislation of his own discipline, Moses still implores God to extend mercy to the people. This gives way to the command of commissioning Joshua in the remainder of Numbers 27.
Furthermore, as Deuteronomy, i.e. the “Second Law” is introduced, this episode is again brought to our attention in Deuteronomy 3:23-29. As Moses recounts the history of Israel, he is forced to readdress his own discipline and prevention from entering the Promised Land. In this passage we get more insight into the emotions of Moses at the word of his prohibition from the Promised Land
“23 “And I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying, 24 ‘O Lord God, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your mighty hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts as yours? 25 Please let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and Lebanon.’ 26 But the Lord was angry with me because of you and would not listen to me. And the Lord said to me, ‘Enough from you; do not speak to me of this matter again. 27 Go up to the top of Pisgah and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward, and look at it with your eyes, for you shall not go over this Jordan. 28 But charge Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him, for he shall go over at the head of this people, and he shall put them in possession of the land that you shall see.’ 29 So we remained in the valley opposite Beth-peor.“
This tragedy takes on another layer with the Lord’s reply, “But the Lord was angry with me because of you and would not listen to me. And the Lord said to me, ‘Enough from you; do not speak to me of this matter again.”
In some sense, this incident of discipline frames the book of Deuteronomy as it shows up again in Deut. 32 and again in 34.
“48 That very day the Lord spoke to Moses, 49 ‘Go up this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, opposite Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel for a possession. 50 And die on the mountain which you go up, and be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother died in Mount Hor and was gathered to his people, 51 because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people of Israel at the waters of Meribah-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, and because you did not treat me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel. 52 For you shall see the land before you, but you shall not go there, into the land that I am giving to the people of Israel.'” Deut. 32:48-52
“4 And the Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, ‘I will give it to your offspring.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.” 5 So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord, 6 and he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor; but no one knows the place of his burial to this day. 7 Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated. 8 And the people of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days. Then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended.
9 And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him. So the people of Israel obeyed him and did as the Lord had commanded Moses. 10 And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, 11 none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, 12 and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.” Deut. 34:4-12
This last mention, includes Moses’ death and the epithet that the Lord leaves on “his grave” – “And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt….”
One final passage for perusal on this incident may be found in Psalm 106:32-33
“They angered him at the waters of Meribah,
and it went ill with Moses on their account,
33 for they made his spirit bitter,
and he spoke rashly with his lips.”
Here we find that perhaps Moses displayed an element of rash speaking with his lips. This may indicate that he said something harsh towards the people without stopping to consider it, but perhaps most strikingly is that God had commanded Moses to speak to the rock, but instead he used his lips to speak rashly.
Thankfully this event captured in the noteworthy passages above was not the end of Moses. In Matthew 17:1-3 we see him standing alongside another protagonist of tragedy, Elijah, as they witness the transfiguration of Christ and converse with Him in His glory.
As we read of this tragedy of Moses, and by tragedy I mean the radical effects and implications that sin, even one, may have on an individual and it’s subsequent ripple effects, I’m reminded of another tragedy where one sin cost the price of the Promised Land, that of Adam and Eve, which had profound generational effects. Both of these accounts anticipate the arrival of a Last Adam and a Greater Joshua, namely Jesus Christ.
Applying this to our own lives, we quickly see the significance of sin, the seriousness in which God responds to sin, and the consequences, even physically/materially that sin brings. I believe Adam was made righteous and I believe Moses was justified as well, nevertheless we cannot be so quick to dismiss the discipline that our sin deserves and often brings. It sometimes can bring suffering, sometimes can cause blessing to be withheld, and yes even sometimes can bring death (physical). We needn’t travel far from the beginning of humanity to see that the sin of Adam in the Garden brought death to ALL mankind.
The Old Testament saints provide for us an example (see 1 Corinthians 10:11) so that we might not stumble and fall as they did. Surely as we live on this side of the cross, we are perhaps more aware of the grace that comes through Jesus Christ, but let us not be so quick to live as “free gracers” and sin such that grace may abound.
Let us be reminded that sin has consequences and that God deals with it justly, though the punitive justice has been meted in Jesus Christ. Because of Christ we may be assured that our sin will not incur God’s wrath and we needn’t be fearful that because of one sin God might “zap” us. However, we must also be assured that God has always desired for His people live holy lives as He Himself is holy. This has not changed. There is a tension here that must be maintained.
May we desire more grace from God to live a holy life. And may tragedies like Moses’ generate in us a healthy, holy fear of Almighty God and a hatred for sin in our own lives, even one.
Soli Deo Gloria