ARMoses Strikes the Rock TwiceHow could the act of striking a rock invoke such dire consequences for God's faithful servant? Read how God's punishment was a lesson against idolatry for His people then, and today.Many people find incomprehensible why the minor error of striking the rock should deserve such swift and severe retribution. God was concerned that the Israelites would begin to worship foreign gods after they entered Canaan. God wanted His people to learn not to worship images but to worship Him in truth and from their hearts. Therefore it was important that the Israelites knew that belief in God was correct, not belief in the rod.
Then Moses lifted his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and
water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their animals drank.
Then the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, "Because you did not believe
Me, to hallow Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you
shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given
them." ?Num 20:11-12
This passage records a story of woe and disappointment. Many people
find incomprehensible why this relatively minor error should deserve such
swift and severe retribution. To obtain a deeper understanding of the
reason for Moses and Aaron's punishment, we must examine God's immediate
judgment of Moses after he struck the rock, "Because you did not
believe Me, to hallow Me in the eyes of the children of Israel," and
His reiteration of why He would not allow them to enter the land of
Canaan: "Because you rebelled against My word at the water of Meribah"
(Num 20:24), "you rebelled against My command to hallow Me at the
waters before their eyes" (Num 27:14), "trespassed against
Me" (Deut 32:51).
According to these verses, God would not allow Moses and Aaron to enter
Canaan because they did not believe or hallow Him, they rebelled against
His command, and they trespassed against Him. When Moses struck the rock
with his rod instead of speaking to it, he showed, out of his disbelief,
that he did not hallow God.
Moses believed and relied on God throughout his life and followed Him, and
God said that he was "faithful in all My house" (Num 12:7). So,
after forty years of trials and suffering, how could Moses return to
Kadesh—where the ten spies had given a bad report of Canaan and caused
great grief for the people—and commit the very same wrong as the ten spies
did by not believing in God?
The Congregation and Water
First, we need to understand that the Israelites required vast quantities
of water in the wilderness—not only for the people but also for the
countless number of cattle and sheep. Explaining why there was no shortage
of water during the forty years in the wilderness, Paul said that Christ
was the spiritual Rock that followed the Israelites, providing water for
the people and their animals (1 Cor 10:4). This water had to flow like a
river every day, to the point where the desert became like God's garden,
quenching the Israelite people's physical and spiritual thirst. After
forty years of wandering in the wilderness and then returning to Kadesh,
their starting point, Miriam died unexpectedly, without cause, and the
water suddenly ceased to flow (Num 20:1-2).
The Israelites were stricken by Miriam's death. No one could have imagined
that this prophetess, who served God faithfully all of her life and was
not named among those forbidden to enter Canaan, would fall just a few
steps away from the Promised Land after completing the forty-year journey.
Even harder to believe was that the water, which had followed them for
forty years, dried up! The sudden, shocking news that there was no water
to drink greatly discouraged the congregation, who after wandering for
forty years and witnessing over six hundred thousand deaths, had
eventually returned to the place where their woes began and believed that
God's punishment was finally over. They were terrified that they were
about to relive the events of the past four decades.
Forty years ago, the remark, "There we saw the giants (the
descendants of Anak came from the giants); and we were like
grasshoppers... in their sight," caused God to punish them; forty
years later, for no apparent reason, they received two heavy blows to
their confidence, disintegrating what faith they had gained through forty
years of hardships.
Although they were slaves in Egypt, the Israelites had multiplied from a
small group of seventy people to a magnificent legion within four
generations. During that time, they were blessed with life and had never
felt threatened by death. At this moment, however, Death followed them
like a shadow. Countless people had already died as a result of God's
punishment; those to whom God showed mercy and allowed to survive the
forty-year journey through the wilderness now faced death, because there
was no water and because they were about to fight "giants."
The fears and feelings of betrayal from four decades past resurfaced, so
the congregation gathered against Moses and Aaron: "Why have you made
us come out of Egypt? Why have you brought us into the wilderness, that we
and our animals should die here? The people who dwell in the land are
strong and the cities are fortified."
Reading how the congregation wept, we cannot help but wonder why God, for
no apparent reason, suddenly let Miriam die on the outskirts of Canaan and
let the water from the spiritual Rock stop flowing, just as the people
reached the end of their arduous journey and happiness was within their
grasp. Perhaps God was preparing His chosen people before they entered a
land filled with idolatry.
As recorded in Deuteronomy, God was concerned that the Israelites would
begin to worship foreign gods after they entered Canaan. At the beginning
of the book, Moses warned the people, "Take careful heed to
yourselves, for you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of
the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a
carved image" (Deut 4:15-16), and "'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our
God, the Lord is One!'" (Deut 6:4). Moses repeated his warning near
the end of the book, "'so that there may not be among you man or
woman or family or tribe, whose heart turns away from the Lord our God, to
go and serve the gods of these nations'" (Deut 29:18).
God commanded the Israelites to destroy all altars, break all sacred
pillars, cut down all wooden images, and sanctify themselves after they
entered Canaan, lest they felt the desire to worship idols. Furthermore,
they were to destroy the seven tribes of Canaan
utterly lest the inhabitants misled the chosen people and corrupted their
hearts. God wanted His people to learn not to worship images but to
worship Him in truth and from their hearts. Thus, God reminded them of how
He had spoken to them without face or form at Mount Sinai.
Idols do not move, speak, or think, yet who could have imagined that they
would prove to be the biggest challenge met by the chosen people
throughout time? Idols are idols because they have the inherent ability to
rob people's hearts. Since the time that mankind has been enslaved by sin,
people have felt the urge to worship the "mystical." Scientific
knowledge has made worship of the elements (metal, wood, water, fire,
earth) obsolete and replaced it with idols such as numbers, images,
objects, and money.
Numbers. Thirteen in the West, four in China, eight hundred
eighty-eight in Hong Kong—how many inhabitants in these areas feel
absolutely nothing when hearing these numbers? Some athletes must wear
their lucky number on their jersey in each game because their performance
is affected by a change in the number, just as a Hong Kong businessman
feels immensely confident because the number "888" on his
license plate is the homophone for "fortune, fortune, fortune"
in Cantonese. Likewise, Chinese people avoid the number "4" at
all costs because it is the homophone for "death," and most
Christians choose "7" or "12" as their favorite
numbers and consider "666" to be evil. These are just ordinary
numbers but are as revered as idols in the hearts of logical beings
because they are believed to have the power to bring either good or bad
Images. To fill the emptiness in their lives, people—since "of the
Rock who begot [them], [they] are unmindful, and have forgotten the God
who fathered [them]" (Deut 32:18)—have transferred their affections
from "god-like images" to tangible "stars." Every word
spoken and every action taken by a "star" is emulated throughout
the world. Top-notch athletes and singers have more or less become idols
in our society today. In church, furthermore, there are undeniably many
people whose faith is bolstered by the presence of "star servants of
God," even though everyone knows that spiritual power comes from God
alone. These star servants provide hope—their presence reassures people
when doing holy work and makes prayers more relaxed and powerful. Without
them, spirits inexplicably fall, and work is performed without zeal.
Objects. Christians rooted in God's blessings may not be shackled by
numbers and images, but they are often bound by material objects of
worship. Many churches and believers of Christ know that they "shall
not make any carved image...[and] shall not bow down to them nor serve
them," yet, in the absence of "sacred" objects, they do not
know how to worship and pray in the truth and with their hearts. Some
Christians believe that a cup of holy water or baptismal water has the
power to cure disease; other Christians may hold a cross while praying,
wear it around their neck, or hang it in a visible area to remind them of
Man's inability to distance himself from material objects arises from
the "tendency to worship things." Workers of God and religious
objects are just the visible servants and vessels of God; however, people
often find it easier to strengthen their faith with the
"visible" because there is proof of its existence. As this
dependency grows, the need for the "visible" gradually replaces
the need for the invisible God.
There are incidents in the Bible that exemplify what occurs when faith is
turned away from God to His vessel. For example, the Israelites shouted
for joy when the Ark of the Covenant was brought out of Shiloh, but they
suffered a great defeat (1 Sam 4). Also, the people of Judah would not
amend their ways, misled by their belief that Jerusalem could never be
defeated because it housed the temple of the Lord (Jer 7), little knowing
that their entire kingdom would fall.
Belief in God vs. Belief in the Rod
Amidst the chaos and contention because of the lack of water, God said to
Moses, "Take the rod; you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly
together, speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will yield its
water." A closer reading of this command shows us that it is very
unique: God did not want to perform the miracle through the rod, but He,
nevertheless, told Moses to fetch his rod. Moses obediently took that
"rod of the Lord" from before God as He commanded (cf. Num
20:11; "his rod" refers to Moses and Aaron's rod).
What reaction did the congregation exhibit when Moses took from before the
Lord the rod that had seen them through so many battles? It was probably
similar to the reaction of the Israelites five hundred years later upon
seeing the ark—first, silence, and then, great excitement. All eyes
closely followed the rod as it approached the rock. Experience told the
people that the rod need only strike and there would be water to drink.
Moses was clearly aware of the rod's ability to bring water, and he
further knew that striking the rock would bring forth this power. God had
never before commanded Moses to take the rod but not use it, not to
display His power through an intermediary but only to "command"
the rock to yield water.
The previously complaining congregation moved toward the rock, slowly
appeasing Moses' anger. When the people reached the rock, however, his
anger had not completely abated, so he said to them, "Hear now, you
rebels!" Then, he lifted his rod and struck the rock twice. Water
came out abundantly, and countless numbers of people and animals drank. As
the people were quenching their thirst and rejoicing, Moses and Aaron
suddenly heard God say, "Because you did not believe Me, [only the
rod], [and failed] to hallow Me in the eyes of the children of Israel [but
let them give all glory unto the rod], therefore you shall not bring this
congregation into the land which I have given them."
As difficult as it is to imagine, the congregation and even Moses began to
believe that the withered branch he used to call forth plagues, part the
sea, and bring water from a rock was imbued with power, calling it the
"rod of God" (Ex 17:9).
Suppose instead the incident had happened this way:
Moses takes out the rod that could control the winds and water, and the
contending congregation quiets. He stands still and then slowly turns, as
stately as he was forty years before, when he stood before the Red Sea
(the first time that the Israelites witnessed the use of the rod). He
gives the people the same announcement, "See the salvation of the
Lord, which He will accomplish for you today." Then, without lifting
the rod, he commands the rock to yield water. Hearing this command, water
flows like a river from the rock... The Israelites cry, "Moses did
not use the rod! Moses did not use the rod! It can be done without the
rod!" Each cry of amazement erodes four decades of idolizing the rod.
The people stand in awe and rejoice, for "God Himself has shown
What a pity! If events had occurred this way, then the fact that things
could be accomplished "without the rod" would have caused the
Israelites to re-evaluate their superficial faith and raise it to the
level where their only reliance is God. They would have turned their
devotion of the rod to veneration of the Lord. They would no longer
worship God through material objects, but rather with their hearts and in
the truth, thereby obliterating all vestiges of idolatry.
The Last Idol Oses
In Numbers 27:14, God explains to Moses one last time why he could not
enter Canaan: "For in the wilderness of Zin, during the strife of the
congregation, you rebelled against My command to hallow Me at the waters
before their eyes."
In the same way that God made the rod useless before the Israelites so
that they would hallow Him, God also wanted to use the deaths of their leaders to break the people's tendency
toward idolatry before they entered Canaan. Without a leader and the rod,
the people could finally realize that God alone watched over and blessed
them. He chose Joshua, an unlikely choice for an idol, to lead the people
in order to let them know that, even without Moses, they could cross the
Jordan River as they did the Red Sea, and that, without Moses, they could
conquer Jericho as they did the Amalekites.
After the incident at the waters of Meribah, God commanded Moses, Aaron,
and Eleazar to go up to Mount Hor. There, Aaron took off his garments, put
them on Eleazar, and then died. The people of Israel mourned Aaron's death
for thirty days. Of the three siblings, there remained only Moses, who
knew that he could not enter Canaan. Moses resigned himself to his fate,
gathered his courage, and guided the people of Israel through the final
trials of their journey through the wilderness—the fiery serpents, King
Sihon of the Amorites, Balak's attack, Balaam's curse, and battle with the
Midianites—until they finally arrived at the east bank of the Jordan
Facing the land they dreamed of, Moses could not suppress his desire to
see Canaan. He gathered up his courage and pleaded with the Lord, saying,
"I pray, let me cross over and see the good land." But the Lord
would not listen to him, and replied, "Enough of that! Speak no more
to Me of this matter" (Deut 3:25-26). God could not allow Moses to
"cross over" because He needed to make an example of him, to
teach the congregation a lesson, and to show future generations how to
hallow Him. Moses did not raise this issue again after God ordered him to
"speak no more."
However, God did relent enough to allow Moses to "go up to the top of
Pisgah" to view Canaan. Upon the mountaintop, God showed Moses
"all the land of Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali and the land of
Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the
South, and the plain of the Valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, as
far as Zoar."
He showed the Promised Land to His servant who left his life at the palace
for Him, lived on the run for Him, spoke to the pharaoh for Him, and led
the Israelites out of Egypt for Him. This was His servant whom He had
spoken to on Mount Sinai for forty days and nights; this was His servant
whom He had gently pushed into a cleft of a rock and shown His glory; this was His
servant who had guided the Israelites through each hardship; this was His
servant who led the people to the Jordan River alone and without
complaint, knowing that he himself was forbidden to enter Canaan. God knew
that He would never again find a servant as faithful as Moses.
Moses went to the place where God told him to go and looked upon the
Promised Land with a radiant face. Moses saw the land that, even if he had
been permitted to enter, he would never have been able to see and visit in
its entirety. He gazed one last time upon the land that he dreamed
thousands of times of entering, and when he had looked his fill, he turned
toward God, who had raised and watched over him throughout his life. Moses
leaned contentedly upon God on that mountaintop, still vigorous after an
unstable yet glorious and remarkable 120 years, slowly closed eyes that
were still bright, and peacefully departed from his beloved people. He
knew that God's Presence would be with them when he was gone (Ex 33:15-17). After Moses died, God buried him in a place where no one knows
to this day.
It is difficult to say that this kind of ending was a punishment. Even
though Canaan was forbidden to Moses, God's love and grace more than made
up for it in reward and glory. We can only say that God would not give
Moses entry into Canaan because he did not dispel the idols in the
people's hearts and did not hallow Him. God reluctantly left Moses, who
had become idolized by the people, in the wilderness. He would not let him
lead the congregation into the land that He had given them (Num 20:12), so
they could clearly see that God was the One truly leading them. The chosen
people could proceed without Miriam, Aaron, the rod, or Moses.
A Joshua without Moses
Joshua was the first to experience the difficulty in believing only in God
and not in idols. He had to readjust his faith, heart, and actions. As
recorded in the Bible, after the death of Moses, the Lord spoke to Joshua:
Moses My servant is dead. Now therefore, arise, go over this Jordan, you
and all this people, to the land which I am giving to them—the children of
Israel.... As I was with Moses, so I will be with you.... Be strong and of
good courage.... Only be strong and very courageous.... Have I not
commanded you? Be strong and of good courage, do not be afraid, nor be
dismayed...; (Josh 1:2-9)
Exactly what kind of fear did Joshua have in his heart? Why did God
repeatedly encourage him to "be strong and of good courage?" We
cannot say that what Joshua feared was the seven tribes of Canaan, for
when the congregation refused to enter Canaan forty years ago, was it not
Joshua and Caleb who tore their clothes and said to them, "Only do
not rebel against the Lord, nor fear the people of the land, for they are
our bread... and the Lord is with us. Do not fear them" (Num 14:6-9)?
After forty years, and after having acquired more experience, could Joshua
have suddenly become frightened of enemies he regarded as their
"bread" forty years before?
No! Joshua definitely feared not physical enemies but confusion in his
heart: "What will I do without Moses?" Therefore, God reassured
him, saying, "As I was with Moses, so I will be with you.... Only be
strong and very courageous, that you may observe to do according to all
the law which Moses My servant commanded you." God wanted Joshua to
understand that Moses was not indispensable. It was God who led the way;
it was God who gave the power. As God was with Moses, so He would be with
anyone who faithfully followed Him and obeyed the Law.
The Israelites finally entered Canaan, and the manna stopped falling. The
lives of the chosen people seemed ready to unfold normally. One day, not
far from Jericho, Joshua, like Moses, met the Commander of the Army of the
Lord. Joshua fell to the ground and worshiped, and asked, "What does
my Lord say to His servant?" God's reply was the same as the reply He
gave to Moses from the burning bush forty years before: "Take your
sandal off your foot."
And so continued the history of the chosen people.