And the LORD said unto Moses and Aaron, “Because ye believed not in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them” (Numbers 20:12).
It was another waterless place in the desert (Numbers 20:1). The refrain had grown to be quite typical.
“Would that we had died! Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us by thirst?”
Numbers 20:3-6 sounds a lot like Exodus 16:3 and Exodus 17:1-2. The people grumble because their memories are quite short. Moses entreats God, and God provides the necessary food or drink.
Yet things are much different in Numbers 20. This time Moses and Aaron bear the brunt of God’s hot displeasure. It is this instance at Meribah that leads to the curse of Moses and Aaron. They will not enter the Promised Land.
But why did this curse come about? Why does God so strongly censure these two men who have experienced such indignity for so long at the hands of God’s people?
God told them quite specifically to speak to the rock, and the rock would bring forth water (Numbers 20:8). But Moses did not speak to the rock. He struck the rock– twice (Numbers 20:11).
Is this the cause of God’s hot displeasure? It’s entirely possible. But it would seem a bit odd. After all, this is the same Moses who killed an Egyptian (Exodus 2:12) and was quite recalcitrant about following God’s will (Exodus 3-4). Furthermore, at Rephidim, God told him to strike the rock (Exodus 17:6), so there was a sort of precedent for the action. Aaron, for his part, was complicit in the Golden Calf incident, even lying about the calf’s origin (Exodus 32:1-4, 22-24). These things seem a bit more serious than striking vs. speaking.
But Moses and Aaron did more than just strike the rock. They spoke.
And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said unto them, “Hear now, ye rebels; shall we bring you forth water out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10).
Notice the way that Moses words this question: shall we bring water out of this rock?
What powers do Moses or Aaron have to bring water out of the rock?
We cannot know for certain whether Moses’ use of the first person plural pronoun was a thoughtless remark or whether he was intentionally trying to present the idea that he and Aaron were in some way responsible for the water about to come from the rock. But we do know that God took great offense at the idea. The water was not coming from Moses or Aaron at all. It was coming from the hand of God.
The statement, however consciously uttered, demonstrates that Moses is identifying himself quite strongly on the side of the Almighty, and even presuming to have a hand in things that the Almighty is doing. For that he receives most deserved censure. Such a statement betrays a belief in the efforts of Moses, not trust in God. Moses and Aaron did not demonstrate to the people their own dependence on God. They did not sanctify the name of God among the people in this matter. And, lest there be any later confusion, Moses and Aaron would not make it to the Promised Land– there is a distinction between the LORD God and Moses/Aaron.
This is a good example for us (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:1-12). It is right and proper for believers in Christ to strive to be holy as God is holy and to seek to conform themselves to the image of the Son (1 Peter 1:16, Romans 8:29). Nevertheless, there is always a difference between God working through us and our working. There is only room for three within the Trinity– the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit– and none of us are any of these Three. It is not about us, our promotion of ourselves, or our work. In the end, it is all about God and His glory being proclaimed, and that, in part, through us (cf. 1 Peter 1:6-9, 4:11).
Therefore, we are never saved purely by our own effort– that is impossible (cf. Romans 1-3). We, ourselves, do not convert anyone– we are servants who proclaim the message, and God gives the increase (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:5-8). We are not the ones sustaining or nourishing the church, Christ’s body– we have the pleasure of being part of that body and being sustained by our Lord (cf. Ephesians 5:22-33).
The great sin of Moses and Aaron was that they got so caught up on being on the Lord’s side that they confused their own part with the Lord’s part. It is good and right for us to seek to be on the Lord’s side. But let us always remember who we are, and, just as importantly, who we aren’t, and do not presume that God working through us is our work that we can claim for ourselves. Let us always serve God, remembering to sanctify Him and not ourselves!
Ethan R. Longhenry