By the time Moses’s sandals hit the base of Mount Sinai with God’s commandments under his arms, God’s people had collected their golden earrings, melted them in a fire, and cast a golden calf (Exodus 32). The adornment of the ear was sacrificed in order to create an image pleasing to the eye. The ear (the receiver of God’s word) was plundered for the eye (the receiver of the image). The irony is striking. -Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books (p. 41)
Moses —a man of great strength in the face of continual rebellion, a man of great courage facing down the leader of the world, a man of great personal honor and humility who argued for the name of God against every sin and every breach of Israel. And yet, with all of this, he did not make it into the Land with Israel. Why?
He struck the rock.
Because he struck a rock, he died in the desert? What kind of God is this? What kind of justice is this? The punishment seems completely out of proportion with the crime.
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… 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. -Numbers 20:10-11, 12
There have been a number of theories advanced to solve the puzzle of the disproportionate punishment by theologians and Rabbis.
Maybe the Scriptures are intentionally ambiguous about the real sin of Moses, to protect his image in the eyes of the people? But the Scriptures aren’t shy about other famous leaders in this regard.
Maybe Moses shouldn’t have been angry; God didn’t seem to be. But this just exchanges one problem for another, an attitude for an action.
Maybe Moses struck a normal water flow, so there was no real miracle. But this doesn’t seem to be in line with the rest of the story —the water is truly a miracle.
Maybe Moses striking the rock assaulted God’s holiness. If the rock represented God, and Moses struck the rock, then… But then again, God told Moses to strike the rock in an earlier episode, so this doesn’t seem likely.
The answer seems to lie in the nature of Moses’ question to Israel. What does Moses mean when he asks, “Must we bring water out of this rock?” Is he really saying, “Listen, you rebels, are you ready for us to bring water for you out of this rock? Of course you are!”?
Or is he really saying, “Don’t you remember the quail you asked for and the plague that came with it in this same place?”
Or maybe Moses is saying, “Listen, you rebels, shall we [not God] bring water for you out of this rock?”
It is this third option that provides the best answer to the riddle from which we started. Moses wasn’t ruining a miracle, or simply disobeying, or being angry when he shouldn’t have been.
Moses was putting himself in the place of God.
And that was a sin worthy of the punishment God actually meted out.
The Sin of Moses and the Staff of God: A Narrative Approach
Johnson Lim Teng Kok
What really was the sin of Moses that prevented him from entering the Land with Israel? While this might seem like a rather narrow question to answer —or to write a book about— it’s one of those instances that go to the foundations of the justice of God. Was Moses really banned from leading Israel into the Land just because he hit a rock, rather than speaking to it? Or is there more to this story? What about Aaron? He seems to have been completely passive throughout this entire episode —why was he banned from the Land for what appears to be doing nothing? The author of this book —really an edited and expanded version of the author’s doctoral thesis— addresses these issues.
The first part of The Sin of Moses starts by simply outlining different theories of the origins of the Tanakh. This section will probably be useful for someone who’s never really spent any time looking at the JEDP theory, or more recent counters to the JEDP theory. Dr. Kok appears to subscribe to the JEDP theory, referencing it in various places throughout his writing, so it’s a useful introduction.
The second part discusses the narrative structure of the first five books of the Old Testament, an important topic because the author’s argument revolves around the narrative nature of the story of the Exodus, tying the two “water from the rock” stories from Exodus 17 and Numbers 20 together. An exegesis of the two relevant passages is presented in the next section, and then a critique of the various explanations given in the past.
Dr. Kok digs up and expounds on a wide variety of theories about why the sin of Moses was so serious. He includes:
- The text was altered at some point to “cover up,” the real sin of Moses and Aaron, as a tribute to these great leaders.
- The story was “made up,” at some point long after Israel was in the Land in order to explain why Moses and Aaron died before leading the people in.
- The rash speech of Moses when he struck the rock, either in his anger or in his apparent taking credit for the miracle, cause God’s anger.
- That Moses used Aaron’s staff wrongly by using it to strike the rock, threatening the existence of a symbol that was supposed to stand before Israel as a witness for all time.
- That Moses spoke at all in performing the miracle (in all the other cases he had apparently remained silent).
- That Moses struck the rock, rather than simply talking to it. This is either simple disobedience, or it is a destruction of a type God was developing.
The author works through all the positive and negative aspects of each of these alternatives, and finalyl discards all of them as not fully explaining the situation described in the narrative.
In the final chapter, Dr. Kok develops his own theory about what this sin was, and why God treated it so heavily. In essence, he combines several of the previously explored theories and adds a new element to them.
All this means that Moses and Aaron demonstrate no trust (… Num 20:12a), act treacherously (… Deut 32:51), and rebel against God (… Num 20:24, 27:14). Through the misuse of (the staff of God) (Exodus 4:20, 17:9) in striking the rock, Moses failed to demonstrate God’s holiness … (‘before the eyes of Israel’ Num 20:12; 27:24; cf 32:51 ‘in the midst of the children of Israel’). This makes sense when we recall the central purpose of the Torah is to show clearly God’s power and his interest in ISrael. Their failure to uphold the holiness of God was a ‘denial of his transcendent uniqueness and lordship and an attempt, conscious or not, to reduce him to a human level’ (Merrill 1994:429). -Page 165
Moses said to the LORD, “See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. … Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. -Exodus 33:12-13, 18-19
Picture yourself leading some three million people through the desert. There are the constant squabble and legal battles to deal with, and the occasional rebellion where the people want to stone you to death because they’re thirsty, or because they want meat to eat (don’t you ever wonder what they did with all those cows and sheep they were wandering around with?). The plight of Moses is almost unimaginable to our modern minds.
So here’s Moses, in the desert. “Hey, God, over here —I’d like some directions please!” The question isn’t startling. In fact, if you had three million people to lead, you’d probably be asking for directions, too. Even men ask for directions when their family is that big.
What’s startling is God’s answer. When Moses asks, “please show me your ways,” God’s answer is, “This is my name.” How does this make any sort of sense? If your child asked you, “where are we going to dinner,” and you answered with, “my name is Fred,” your kid would probably think you’ve lost your mind.
Why does God answer this way?
Maybe he’s avoiding the question? But wouldn’t Moses be likely to call him on it if he were?
There’s something deeper here we need to understand. This whole business of names —what’s that all about? Abram was renamed Abraham, Isaac was named by God before he was even conceived, and Jacob was renamed Israel. Why are these names so important?
Look back through the cast of Biblical characters. If you were a deceiver, you were called “Jacob.” If you had reddish skin tones, you’d be called Esau, or Edom. If you were the father of many nations, you’d be called “Abraham.” If you were pleasant, you’d be called Naomi. God, apparently, puts a lot of stock and worth in names.
This is all because in ancient Israel, your name described your character. And your character describes your “way,” or your path ahead. When the Scriptures say the child’s name is Jacob, we know his life’s story will be about deceiving, and being deceived.
God’s name, then, describes his way just as much as a human’s name does. God’ name is “I AM,” which means he exists —a simple description of God’s attributes of eternal existence. God also says his name means, “punishing the wicked, and rewarding the righteous.” Again, another description of God’s character.
In declaring his name before Moses, God was, in fact, declaring his character, and hence he was showing Moses his “ways.” By knowing God’s character, Moses could follow God more closely.
There’s a clear lesson here for you and I, as Christians. We often focus on knowing God’s laws, but we don’t much think about God’s ways, or his character. God’s character is, in fact, a list of words that we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about from day to day.
But the ultimate path of the Christian life is to be like God. To be like God is to follow —but how can you follow if you don’t know who it is you’re following?
And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20 He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it. -Exodus 32:20
When I first read this passage, I thought –“what is this about?” It doesn’t make any sense to make the people who made the idol drink water with the idol, ground up, in it? Was this just designed to make the water bitter, or bad tasting? Was this meant to cause the Israelites to pass the idol through their bodies, so they would see the total worthlessness of this calf? What is the point?
To really understand, we must couple this passage with another idea found throughout the Tanakh, and then apply a particular piece of the Levitical Law to the puzzle.
For they have committed adultery, and blood is on their hands. With their idols they have committed adultery, and they have even offered up to them for food the children whom they had borne to me. Moreover, this they have done to me: they have defiled my sanctuary on the same day and profaned my Sabbaths. For when they had slaughtered their children in sacrifice to their idols, on the same day they came into my sanctuary to profane it. And behold, this is what they did in my house. -Ezekiel 23:37-39
In the language of the Tanakh, idolatry is often equated with adultery. When Israel worships another god, God says there worship is a form of adultery towards God. So the first point to note is that when Israel worshiped the unholy calf in the desert, they committed adultery in God’s eyes.
We all know what the punishment for adultery is —stoning. But what you might not remember is that there is also a test for adultery described in the Mosaic Law.
Speak to the people of Israel, If any man’s wife goes astray and breaks faith with him, if a man lies with her sexually, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and she is undetected though she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her… the priest shall take holy water in an earthenware vessel and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. And the priest shall set the woman before the LORD and unbind the hair of the woman’s head and place in her hands the grain offering of remembrance, which is the grain offering of jealousy. And in his hand the priest shall have the water of bitterness that brings the curse. …then’ (let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse, and say to the woman) ‘the LORD make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the LORD makes your thigh fall away and your body swell. May this water that brings the curse pass into your bowels and make your womb swell and your thigh fall away.’ And the woman shall say, ‘Amen, Amen.’ “Then the priest shall write these curses in a book and wash them off into the water of bitterness. And he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain. -Numbers 5:12-13, 17-18, 21-24
The priest mixes water with dust, and makes the woman suspected of adultery drink the water. If she has really committed adultery, then she contracts some sort of disease from the water, resulting in a sort of “personal plague.”
Moses is acting out this very law in the midst of Israel. He is forcing Israel to drink the water of bitterness, so that if they have committed adultery against God by worshiping the unholy calf, resulting in a plague. The plague among Israel is actually mentioned at the end of the story surrounding the unholy calf.
Then the LORD sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf, the one that Aaron made. -Exodus 32:35
The text doesn’t say this plague is specifically the result of drinking the bitter water of the calf mixed with the water from the rock, but the parallels with the Mosaic Law on the test for an unfaithful wife is certainly suggestive.
Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth. -Numbers 12:2
In what way was Moses meek? He confronted God at the burning bush, so that Aaron ended up being his spokesman. He killed an Egyptian for mistreating a Hebrew slave. He confronted Pharaoh time and time again. He threw down the tablets God had engraved, breaking them. There aren’t many meek people who would confront God, confront kill one man to save another, confront the king of the most powerful nation on Earth, and break the handiwork of God to make a point.
But maybe we miss the point of meekness. We can trace the idea of the meekness of Moses back to a single incident in Exodus.
And the LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.” -Exodus 32:9-10
God is, in essence, giving Moses the chance of a lifetime. Rather than being Moses, leading a stubborn people out of Egypt, teaching them the law of God, and forming them into a nation, Moses could be… Abraham. A simpler man, with a simpler life, a child to raise. He could leave the nation forming exercise to someone else, and enjoy his life.
After watching God destroy Israel in the desert, of course. But Moses didn’t buy it. Moses put the name of God —God’s character— before his own comfort, his own failings, and his own desires. Moses looked over that huge nation of people, and saw the fulfillment of God’s promise. Moses looked over the destruction of that nation, and saw the promise of God unfulfilled and barren as the desert in which they stood.
And Moses stood for God.
Here, then, is the essence of meekness. To put God first, and to put others first. There will come points in our lives where we have the chance to get ahead by allowing others to be destroyed. Where we could get ahead by allowing the promise of God to go barren. Meekness is turning away from such moments, turning away from our desires, and our wants, to the care of others, and to being a witness for God, and God’s promises, in the here and now.
It’s not that Moses wasn’t meek, it’s that we don’t understand what meek means.
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” -Exodus 32:1
Two million people. In the desert. Eating bread left on the ground every morning with the lifting of the dew. Drinking water from a rock that Moses stood before them and split. On the top of the mountain, there is thunder and lightening. Just a month ago, they were slaves in Egypt, but God brought them out through ten obviously supernatural plagues. God brought them across the red sea by splitting it, and drowning Pharaoh’s army in the returning waters.
And yet, in spite of all of this they make a golden calf to worship. The absurdity of the situation is astounding. Why? Why, if you’re eating bread that comes down miraculously every morning, and drinking water that springs from a rock, would you go and make a calf to worship?
The key is in the relationship between Moses and Israel. “When Moses delayed…” The meaning is more than just that he was taking a long time. The word translated delayed implies shame. They were ashamed. They had followed Moses out into this wilderness, and now he has apparently abandoned them. “Up, make us gods who shall go before us…”
Israel is not doubting the existence of God —Yahweh— at all. They are not doubting that God brought them out of Egypt. They are not doubting that they are being led to a land of promise, of milk and honey. Israel believes Moses has abandoned them, and that with Moses gone, they have lost their connection to God. They have lost their intercessor.
Israel has just spent 400 years in Egyptian slavery, living in a world where every God is worshiped through an idol, through a representation, rather than directly. In their minds, Moses represents God. Moses is their idol.
He shall speak for you to the people, and he shall be your mouth, and you shall be as God to him.- Exodus 4:16
Rather than worshiping an idol made of wood and stone, they were worshiping a man, Moses. When Moses apparently disappeared, they immediately went off to make another idol, another way to approach God, another way to connect to God.
We often think of idols in terms of worshiping something alien to God, rather than as a connection to God himself. Idols are gold or silver, hard cold things representing some god other than Yahweh.
The golden calf shows us that we can worship that which connects us to the true God just as readily as worshiping another god. That we can worship a pastor, a teacher, a church, an organization, a singer… That an idol can not only stand in the place of God, but it can also stand in the place of a real relationship with God.
The only preventative for the golden calf in our own lives is to put first things first. Moses confronts the golden calf with anger, and then with teaching. He shows the people of Israel who God is, and points to them rather than himself.
Are we seeking God, or are we seeking a golden calf?