Readers from all walks of life have found the punishment for the sin of Moses and Aaron to be an enduring and puzzling passage (Numbers 20:12; ESV hereafter). While striking the rock twice was obviously a transgression (20:8) of the command to speak to it, what sense are we to make of Moses and Aaron’s demise? What follows goes against the grain of common interpretations readers use to understand Numbers. I will give two examples.
First, those who take the survival of the Israelites in the wilderness to be the central theme in Numbers tend to see the disqualification of Moses as arbitrary and foreign to the miracle that preserved human and animal life. They take Moses' actions (whether striking or speaking to the rock) as secondary to the massive problem of thirst. This view implies that, whatever Moses did, “the ends justify the means”.
Second, the divine punishment is more problematic for those who see the leadership/mediation of Moses and Aaron as central in Numbers. For them, the penalty undermines the authority of Moses and Aaron after the people were rescued from perishing. The punishment was disproportionate to a rather small infraction when compared to decades of faithful service to God. This view implies justification by works.
To be sure, any horizontal interpretation around Moses/Aaron or the people of God seems too narrow to account for the heavyweight penalty given. In contrast, the text gives the reason for the punishment in an altogether different, vertical order: “because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people” (Num. 20:12). No matter how foreign to our human nature and the times in which we live, the holiness of God is the biblical doorway though which we can best explore the punishment of Moses and Aaron. My commentary is an invitation for us to move in this direction. So to what degree then can we determine the seriousness of their sin against God's holiness?
1. The Duration of their Sin: A Process
From the outset we can say that the double striking of the rock could not have been the only reason for their punishment, because both men were punished for an action which Aaron personally did not perform. Numbers 20:12 implicates both of them with a plural pronoun (in Hebrew). The text points to a state of mind (“You [plural] did not believe in Me”), which impaired a subsequent course of action that would have revealed God's holiness on behalf of the people (“to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the Israelites”). There is no single action triggering God's punishment in verse 20, which helps to explain why scholars have reached no consensus on this issue. The divine explanation for the judgment upon both leaders points to a mental process of unbelief that dictated their every move at the waters of Meribah, rather than judgment for a single action.
This process is fleshed out in the text by a contrast between the divine command to perform the miracle and the way Moses and Aaron followed through (Num 20:7-13). Except for the approved note in Num. 20:9, God's command is sabotaged at every point by Moses and Aaron.
The Divine Command
1 . “Gather the congregation, you and Aaron”
2. A. “Speak to the rock”
B. “Before their eyes”
C. "and it will give its waters
Moses and Aaron's Response
1. Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation:
2. B1. before the rock (vs. 10)
A1. and said to them: “You rebels! . . .
C1. shall we draw water from this rock to you?
D. Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice, and an abundance of water flowed.
First, they were to gather the congregation to witness (B) the miracle, but instead placed the rock as witness (B1) to what was to happen.
Second, Moses was to speak to the rock (A) but ends up speaking against the people (B1).
Third, God had said the rock would yield its waters (C), but Moses said/asked whether they were able to bring forth water.
Fourth, Moses raises his hand and strikes the rock twice.
God’s purpose in this episode was to emphasize to the Israelites His longsuffering providence in contrast to the rebellion of the people, and His provision of refreshing waters in contrast to the hot barren wilderness. Yet what actually was highlighted was Moses and Aaron’s anger against the people. Rather than uplifting a holy God, they allowed themselves to be dragged down to the level of interpersonal squabbling. Talk about a deconstruction of a divine mission!
Contrary to the idea that their sin lay in a single action, it is ironic to see that the only thing Moses did right was to take the staff (Num. 21:9). The text provides evidence of a determined, self-willed sequence of actions that upset the whole divine enterprise. In this light, the striking of the rock is not the source of sin—rather, it is the final consummation of a sequence of transgressions.
2. The Degree of their Sin: Rebellion
One particular element in the story makes the transgression of Moses and Aaron quite serious. This mission is the only one in which God had ordered Moses to speak (to the rock), as a requirement for divine intervention. But Moses turned the chosen medium against the people and began with: “You rebels”. When God explains the punishment for the second time (Num. 27:14), He reveals that Moses and Aaron were “rebellious” to the divine word. In speaking for themselves and not for God, Moses and Aaron brought upon themselves the very condemnation they had leveled against the people.
To my mind, the rebellion of Moses and Aaron involved airing their anger against the people while claiming that a divinely appointed manifestation of God’s glory indicated His approval of their words. For a holy God, such manipulation is unacceptable. (We should not surmise, however, that they lost eternal life as a result, cf. Jude 9—sin has consequences in this life, but God still eternally redeems those who repent.)
How was it that Moses and Aaron succumbed to the provocation of the people? When Korah and a large number of dissidents gathered themselves against Moses and Aaron (Num. 16:3), as in the episode described here (Num. 20:2), a resolute Moses pleaded with them, pressing his arguments with each party to repent, and calling all of them for a summit where God himself would have the final say. But in Numbers 20:2-5 we see a litany of accusation and no word from Moses and Aaron. They had stopped ministering.
The text suggests that the verbal assault finally paralyzed the leaders. With public opinion taking the upper hand, the leaders “believe” the accusations, harbor resentment, and engage in sinful dispute that blinds them to the truth they very well knew: God's holiness and sin cannot coexist (Mat. 6:24a, Luke 16:13a). This commentary is a fraction of what could said about our topic, but I close with a sobering text:
“One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches.
Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.
For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption,but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.
And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.
So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”