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.
This is a puzzling passage. What did Moses do wrong to earn God’s stiff rebuke and be denied entry into the Promised Land? He responded to the people’s outcry when they had no water to drink in the desert, and feared they were going to die of thirst [Numbers 20:2]. Moses presented this need to the Lord. He 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, and the Lord spoke to Moses” [vv 20:6-7a], telling him to bring water from the rock. Moses did as the Lord commanded: he brought abundant water from the rock, enough for all their livestock to drink [v. 11]. The Israelites were saved—again.
And Moses? He was rebuked—denied entrance into the Promised Land. Instead of enjoying the ultimate reward of the mission God had given him, he had to settle for viewing it from afar, on Mt Pisgah, above the Jordan Valley [Deuteronomy 3:27; 32:48-52]. Where is the logic in this rebuke? Moses was the greatest leader Israel had ever seen. God spoke to him personally, and he spoke to the people as though God was speaking. Even so, he clearly crossed a line somewhere with respect to God’s commands.
It's a good bet that Moses was frustrated and angry with the unruly people; he cursed them and called them “rebels.” He also appeared to take credit for the miracle (“Shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” [v. 10]). God had said, “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” [v. 8]. Bringing water from the rock was clearly God’s plan, but Moses’ mistake lay in how he did it. God had told him to speak to the rock, but he struck it—twice. God never instructed Moses to strike the rock, nor to speak to the people as he did.
Moses' behavior is not uncommon for “rainmakers,” those who bring in the money, land the clients, and deliver the goods. Was Moses on a power trip? Did his frustration get the better of him? We can’t say for sure, but it seems to fit the pattern of power’s corruptive influence in the leadership mix. Leaders—and especially “rainmakers”—face a constant temptation to let power go to their heads, as though power is a personal gift, and its exercise their personal prerogative.
It’s not. Power flows from God, to be directed by his will and used for his purposes. Power is given for serving, not grandstanding. It’s a lesson Moses never forgot. He remembered and taught it until his dying day [Deuteronomy 33], and prayed (in the closing line of the psalm that bears his name):
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands for us;
yes, establish the work of our hands! [Psalm 90:17]
© Bruce D. Baker, 2014