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 luck.
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 their beliefs.
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 salvation."
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 River.
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.