Moses’ Disobedience Keeps Him from Entering the Promised Land

by John Lowe
(Woodruff, S.C.)

Numbers 20:1-12

We are only told about a few incidents that happened during the forty years Israel was in the wilderness. What we do know makes me think that they were out of God’s will most of the time. We can talk about Israel being God’s chosen people, but they didn’t amount to anything except when they were in God’s will. It’s also true of you and me that we don’t amount to anything when we are out of the will of God. When you and I are not functioning in the body of believers, exercising the gift He has given to us by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are as unnecessary as a fifth leg on a cow. Actually, we get in the way.

1 In the first month all the people of Israel arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried.

Miriam was Moses’ sister, the one who launched the little grass boat that held the baby Moses into the Nile River. She had stayed with Moses for all these years and now she’s dead and buried. That’s all were told. She must have been over 100 years old, for she was at least 15 years older than Moses.

They were at Kadesh, but it’s the second time they stayed there, because they had been there once before; 38 years earlier. It had been 38 years of wandering, going nowhere.

2 There was no water for the people, so they came together against Moses and Aaron.
3 They argued with Moses and said, “We should have died in front of the Lord as our brothers did.

The story here opens up as usual, with Israel conducting its daily slandering session against both God and Moses, for Egypt was still in their hearts. This time they are complaining that there isn’t enough water for the people. This murmuring led to mutiny, so they came together against Moses and Aaron. They had finally come to the point where they took up arms against their leaders. They said, “We should have died in front of the Lord as our brothers did.

Instead of giving God thanks, as they ought to have done, for sparing them, they act as if they hate God’s mercy. Of course, they don’t really mean what they said. They don’t really want to die. None of us want to die. Death is unnatural for us. But they are complaining, whining again, and murmuring.

4 Why did you bring the Lord’s people into this desert? Are we and our animals to die here?
5 Why did you bring us from Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain, figs, grapevines, or pomegranates, and there’s no water to drink!”

They were angry that they were brought out of Egypt, and led through this wilderness that is without water. They quarreled with Moses even though they knew it was the Lord’s doing; they believed they had a grievance against God even though it was the greatest favor that was ever done for any people. They preferred slavery to liberty, bondage to the land of promise; and although their present need was for water only, they are willing to find fault, complaining that it was an unbearable hardship that they didn’t have grapevines and figs. It was a shame that for almost forty years in the wilderness they had experienced God’s goodness to them, and the kindness and faithfulness of Moses and Aaron, and yet they complained that the hardships were too much. You would think that now that Miriam was dead they would console Moses and Aaron for the death of their sister, but instead, they provoke God to leave them like sheep without any shepherd.

6 So Moses and Aaron left the people and went to the entrance of the Meeting Tent. There they bowed facedown, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them.

Moses and Aaron didn’t reply to their complaints, but instead, they withdrew to the door of the tabernacle, and there they fell on their faces as they had done before and prayed for God’s will. We are not told what they prayed, but they knew that God heard the murmurings of the people. They humbly got face down on the ground where they made intercession for the people. There they laid waiting for orders from the Lord. The glory of the Lord appeared to them, and I believe they were awestruck.

7 The Lord said to Moses,
8 “Take your walking stick, and you and your brother Aaron should gather the people. Speak to that rock in front of them so that its water will flow from it. When you bring the water out from that rock, give it to the people and their animals.”

God told Moses to take the rod, which was kept in the tabernacle, and speak to the rock. Nearly forty years prior to this, and in another place, God had used a rock to solve Israel’s water problems, as He would now instruct Moses to do. But on the first occasion, Moses was instructed to strike the rock (Ex 17:6), while here he was simply to speak to it. Moses must, for a second time, in God’s name command water out of a rock for them, to show that God is as able as ever to supply his people with good things, even in their present needy condition. Almighty power can bring water out of a rock; it has done it, and can again, because our Lord is not less than He was. He is the same yesterday, today and forever; He never changes.

God bids Moses to take the rod - this rod was Aaron’s, by the way. It was that very rod that Moses used to summon the plagues on Egypt, and divided the sea. That rod might remind the people of the great things God had done for them in the past, and they might be encouraged to trust in Him now. He would carry the rod, but he was not to use it; he was told to speak to the rock this time.

9 So Moses took the stick from in front of the Lord, as he had said.
10 Moses and Aaron gathered the people in front of the rock, and Moses said, “Now listen to me, you who turn against God! Do you want us to bring water out of this rock?”

God tells Moses and Aaron to gather the people together, not the elders only, but all the people. They would all be witnesses of what was done, so that by their own eyes they might be convinced and made ashamed of their unbelief. Moses said, “Now listen to me, you who turn against God! Do you want us to bring water out of this rock?” Not only are the children of Israel complaining, but it sounds like Moses is complaining now, don’t you think.

11 Then Moses lifted his hand and hit the rock twice with his stick. Water began pouring out, and the people and their animals drank it.

Some men teach that his error was in smiting the rock twice, but the truth is, he shouldn’t have struck it at all. God told him clearly that he was to speak to the rock. That is all he had to do. But Moses failed to obey God. His sin was in the fact that he tried to share the credit. Notice back in verse 10 that he uses the term “us”, meaning God and me will bring the water out of this rock. God’s holiness was at stake (v. 12). Moses was silenced by God’s punishment.

The importance of this act of disobedience is that the rock pictures Christ. That is what Paul said when he wrote I Corinthians 10:1-4: “Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ.”

There is another important lesson here and it is that God is as concerned with the way we perform His will as He is in the actual will itself! Notice that the water came pouring out. The error of Moses didn’t keep the water from coming out. Isn’t God good, isn’t God gracious!

12 But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe me, and because you did not honor me as holy before the people, you will not lead them into the land I will give them.”

God is saying here that Moses and Aaron did not believe Him; neither did they sanctify Him in the eyes of Israel. That is, they took credit for the miracle God had done, and thereby did not Give God the glory that was due Him. They were leaders, but they were disciplined by God, for with privilege goes responsibility.

Neither Moses nor Aaron was permitted to enter the Promised Land, although Moses was allowed to see the land from afar (Deut. 3:21–29). When we reach the New Testament, we find that Moses did reach the Promised Land eventually; He appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration with Christ in that land.


From the incident, we may learn five things.

1. That the best of men have their failings. Moses was very meek, and yet here he sinned in his eagerness to provide for his people. Doesn’t the Bible say, “Wherefore let him that thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.”

2. That God judges differently from how man judges concerning sins. We might not think what Moses did was a big deal, yet God saw it as cause for severe punishment. He knows our thoughts and intentions and the words and actions that proceed from them; and we are sure that His judgment is according to truth, even when it doesn’t agree with ours.

3. That God is not only aware of, and is displeased with, the sins of His people, but the nearer we are to Him the more offensive our sins are. It seems like the Psalmist refers to this sin of Moses and Aaron in Psalm 99:8: “Thou wast a God that forgavest them, though thou tookest vengeance on their inventions. As many are spared in this life and punished in the other, so many are punished in this life and saved in the other.”

4. That, when our heart is overcome by some obsession, we need to be careful and not offend anyone by what we say.

5. It is an evidence of the integrity of Moses, and his impartiality in writing, that he put this on record concerning himself, and that he sought God’s glory more than his own.

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