We have noted before that one of the remarkable things about scripture is that it paints a full picture of the lives of the people of God. These were not storybook lives, the heroes of scripture are presented to us in all their human frailty and so it is with Moses. Last week we saw that, among the remarkable things that can be said of Moses, God said he spoke to Moses as face to face. Exodous 33:11 says “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, the way a person speaks to a friend.” God confirms this later in Number 12:8 where he says,”With him [Moses] I will speak face to face, openly, and not in riddles; and he will see the form of the Lord.”
And yet a few chapters later in Numbers 20:12, before the Rock of Meribah, the Lord says to Moses (Aaron too), “Because you did not trust me enough to show me as holy before the Israelites, therefore you will not bring this community into the land I have given them.”
How could that happen, what had Moses done? What was his sin and, much more important, what are we to learn from this incident?
First, even though Moses sinned at Meribah, or at least he received punishment there, this was not his first or only sin. We know that he murdered an Egyptian and fled from the justice of Pharaoh. We know he was often angry and even argued with God. But we know more than that. We know that Moses was a man and, as such, he was sinful because there is no one who is not. Romans 3:23 is clear that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and 1 John 1:8 echoes the same theme when it says, “If we say we do not bear the guilt of sin, a we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Surely Moses was a sinner.
But God spoke to him face to face and none of these sins are mentioned as being of any interest to God. Moses moves from highpoint to higher point in his life, leading his people, giving law from God’s mouth, performing miracles, and conversing with God as a friend. What the heck happened at Meribah.
Apparently speculating about Meribah is something of a cottage industry. Jewish students of the Torah have come up with at least 13 sins Moses committed there. There are a number of varying versions of the 13 but here is a link to a sermon by Rabbi Francine Roston that outlines many of the more commonly seen 13 sins. They range from Moses having angered God by hitting the rock twice when previously only one hit was required, thus implying God had weakened, to dishonoring God by showing anger to His people and thus denigrating God.
Christian Scholarship has also produced a plethora of possible sins Moses committed. Some say that the Rock represents Christ. A rock at Horeb was struck before to produce water in Exodus 17:6, it represented Christ and His suffering for our salvation. By striking the rock on this second occasion Moses offended God by suggesting the first sacrifice was insufficient.
Others say that it was not the what happened at Meribah but the gradual diminution of Moses and Aaron as leaders, various failures over time such as Aaron’s making of the Golden Calf, or Moses failure to correctly instruct and motivate the spies that led to God going to the bullpen for Joshua to finish out the game. Meribah is not where the problem occurred so much as it was one more incident and the place where God decided to act.
Most of the reason there are so many theories is that people are trying hard to find a reason for a punishment that seems far too harsh for the crime. To try to make sense out of something that seems non-sensical to our human eyes. We are always looking for God to be fair, but he never is. Fairness is not anything ever ascribed to God. Instead God is Just and God is Merciful. Neither justice or mercy are fair. In this instance God acted in justice toward Moses just as he had acted mercifully through the entire rest of his life. Why? I don’t know, and neither, I think, do any of these other people because God is God and we are not.
But while I don’t think we can understand what Moses’ sin was or why God chose to act as he did, there are things to learn (I have “borrowed” some of the following thoughts from Jason Hardin of Laurel Canyon Church of Christ in Columbus, OH).
1) Past victories don’t excuse future sins. There is no “holy bank account” we can put our goodness in that we can withdraw from later to offset bad thing we may do in the future. The fact that Moses had stood for God before Pharaoh was of no use to him in this case.
2) Positive results do not necessarily mean God is pleased with me. Moses hit the rock and the water flowed, was that not God’s and Moses’ objective? The results were positive, but it is the heart that matters to God.
3) Hearing God’s word is only the beginning, proper action is also necessary. God told Moses what to do, presumably face to face as to a friend, Moses heard and did not obey. “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves”. Even here James haunts me.
4) Sorrow and repentance will not always remove the consequences of our actions. While God may choose to forgive us in eternity in His grace and mercy, our lives can still be torn apart here by our actions or inactions. Sin never fails to hurt us despite our ultimate salvation.
5) God is no respecter of persons, all are in need of His grace and mercy. None of us can ever be in a position too important for God to act toward us in justice. Moses was the leader of a nation, a man called by God, a man who spoke directly to God and he was not spared. We cannot rely on anything about ourselves to save us from our sin, it is only through the the ultimate gift of grace and mercy, the sacrificial atoning death of Jesus Christ, that we have any hope of salvation.