Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the Lord, and through them he showed himself holy (Numbers 20:10–13).
You would think the Israelites had learned by this time. God had parted the waters of the Red Sea to guide them safely out of Egypt. He had miraculously provided food and water before. Somehow, with each crisis, God met their need. After a few difficult situations, the Israelites should have realized that they merely had to point out their need to Moses, ask him to pray, and wait for the miracle. Instead, they would complain, regret their decision to leave Egypt, threaten to return to Egypt, blame Moses, and so on. God was trying to teach them to walk by faith, but they continued to react in fear.
This was a repeat occurrence. Almost immediately after they crossed through the Red Sea, the Israelites threatened to stone Moses, since there was no water. God told him to strike a rock to bring forth water. This was the first miracle of divine provision after the escape from Egypt (Exodus 17:1–7).
However, that event began a pattern from which the Israelites did not seem to learn. They had a need; they complained; they blamed, accused, and threatened Moses; Moses prayed to God; God provided.
This time, though, the pattern took a tragic turn. Instead of following God’s instructions fully, Moses obeyed halfway: God told him where to go to receive the water, but Moses chose to vent his frustration. God gave him simple instructions: Take his staff, walk over to the rock, and command the rock to give the people its water. Moses decided to change the instructions a little: Take the staff, walk over to the rock, insult the crowd, and then beat the rock with the staff.
In spite of rebellion, God still provided. God’s blessings are based on His mercy, not on perfect performance by His people. However, Moses would suffer the consequences. Not too long before this, the Lord had decreed that almost the entire adult generation that left Egypt would die before reaching the Promised Land. They would wander for 40 years until all, except for Caleb and Joshua, had died; then their children would inherit the land. Until now, Moses had every reason to expect that he would enter with them. But now, God decided that Moses’ failure was serious enough to exclude him from the Promised Land.
We often overlook an important part of the story. Shortly before this incident, Moses’ sister Miriam had died. It would be tempting to make excuses for Moses’ behavior. “He’s in mourning. It’s been a rough time for his family. God understands. He sees the heart.”
God understands, but He also requires obedience from His children. He expects us to uphold Him as holy in the sight of the people.
As I reflect on this passage, I am reminded that this is not merely a story about Moses. In a very real way, it is about me too. Perhaps you see yourself in it as well.
We should have learned by now. God has met our needs and answered our prayers so many times. We should know the correct response: Realize there is a problem, bring our problem before the Lord in prayer, and expect Him to meet our needs. How often do we choose instead to complain, gripe, or blame the nearest scapegoat for our problems? How often do we act like God is not paying attention? How often do we blame God? How often do we obey God halfway, while venting our anger and frustration on others? How often do we make excuses for ourselves and others when obedience to God is lacking?
When will we learn?
Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.