Moses’ moment of greatest failure came when the people of Israel resumed complaining, this time about food and water (Num. 20:1-5). Moses and Aaron decided to bring the complaint to the Lord, who commanded them to take their staff, and in the people’s presence command a rock to yield water enough for the people and their livestock (Num. 20:6-8). Moses did as the Lord instructed but added two flourishes of his own. First he rebuked the people, saying, “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” Then he struck the rock twice with his staff. Water poured out in abundance (Num. 20:9-11), but the Lord was extremely displeased with Moses and Aaron.
God's punishment was harsh. “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). Moses and Aaron, like all the people who rebelled against God’s plan earlier (Num. 14:22-23), will not be permitted to enter the Promised Land.
Scholarly arguments about the exact action Moses was punished for may be found in any of the general commentaries, but the text of Numbers 20:12 names the underlying offense directly, “You did not trust in me.” Moses’ leadership faltered in the crucial moment when he stopped trusting God and started acting on his own impulses.
Honoring God in leadership—as all Christian leaders in every sphere must attempt to do—is a terrifying responsibility. Whether we lead a business, a classroom, a relief organization, a household, or any other organization, we must be careful not to mistake our authority for God’s. What can we do to keep ourselves in obedience to God? Meeting regularly with an accountability (or “peer”) group, praying daily about the tasks of leadership, keeping a weekly Sabbath to rest in God’s presence, and seeking others’ perspective on God’s guidance are methods some leaders employ. Even so, the task of leading firmly while remaining wholly dependent on God is beyond human capability. If the most humble man on the face of the earth (Num. 12:3) could fail in this way, so can we. By God’s grace, even failures as great as Moses’ at Meribah, with disastrous consequences in this life, do not separate us from the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises. Moses did not enter the Promised Land, yet the New Testament declares him “faithful in all God’s house” and reminds us of the confidence that all in God’s house have in the fulfillment of our redemption in Christ (Heb. 3:2-6).
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