In Numbers 20, we read about the story of Moses bringing water from the rock and committing a sin that was so egregious that it kept him from entering the promised land. There seems to be a different explanation of this sin for every commentary ever written, so perhaps we can’t all agree on the specificity of the sin, but surely we can learn some valuable lessons from the discussion.
There were actually two events that occurred where God commanded Moses to take water out of the rock. The event in Numbers 20 happens near the end of the 40 year wandering whereas the first event happens near the beginning in Exodus 17. It appears that Moses did not sin during the first event, so let’s analyze his actions here before we go on to the matter at hand.
In Exodus 17:5-6 we read that it seems this particular event was more of a private ceremony between Moses, God and the elders of Israel. God said that He would stand on the rock and Moses was to take the rod that he used to turn the Nile into blood and strike the rock and the water would spring forth. Verse 6 says only, “And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.” This simple statement speaks volumes about the character of Moses. Time and time again in the face of trials, adversity and constant complaining from the people he was leading, Moses suppressed any selfish feelings and simply followed the commands of God. In Numbers 12:3 we read, “Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth.”
In spite of his humility, we find out that Moses is a human being in Numbers 20. Up until verse 8, the story is very similar to the Exodus account. Moses was still supposed to take the rod, but God asks Moses to do everything else differently. This time the entire assembly (not just the elders) would be brought before the rock to witness God’s greatness. “And before their eyes,” you are to SPEAK unto the rock so that it will give up its water.
Verse 9 says, “And Moses took the rod from before the LORD, as he commanded him.” Unfortunately, that seems to be the only thing he did correctly here. What was the sin of Moses? Here are your choices. First of all, without any command to do so, in his anger, he presumed to speak on God’s behalf to rebuke the people. Next he says, must “we” bring water from this rock. I believe by “we” Moses is referring to himself and Aaron; but even if it is assumed that Moses is referring to himself and God, he is still missing the opportunity “in the eyes of the people” to show that all glory belongs to God. Instead of speaking to the rock as clearly commanded by God this time, he smites the rock as he no doubt remembers he was commanded last time. But even then, he takes it upon himself to beat the rock one more time for good measure. So what was the sin of Moses? It appears that it is a culmination of all of these things as God makes it clear in several passages. In the 12th verse we have, “And the LORD spake unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.” Deuteronomy 32:51 says, “because ye sanctified me not in the midst of the children of Israel.” Psalm 106:32-33 says, “They angered him also at the waters of strife, so that it went ill with Moses for their sakes: Because they provoked his spirit, so that he spake unadvisedly with his lips.”
From these passages we see that Moses “believed not” or had a moment of weakness in his faith and failed to sanctify God. Sanctify means to “set apart.” God required the whole assembly to be present to demonstrate to them that He should be sanctified as their powerful and gracious God. Notice that despite Moses, He accomplished this goal as we read in the 13th verse, “This is the water of Meribah; because the children of Israel strove with the LORD, and he was sanctified in them.” This is why the water still sprang forth even though Moses did not heed the Lord’s command. Although Moses failed to sanctify God in the eyes of the people, God was still sanctified. As we read in Romans 8, nothing, not even flawed leadership can separate us from the love of God.
As a side note, the question might be asked, “Why did God tell Moses to bring the rod if he wasn’t supposed to use it to smite the rock?” I believe the answer to this is found three chapters earlier in Numbers 17 and also gives us some insight into the words Moses used in rebuking the people. The 17th chapter tells the story about God selecting Aaron’s rod by having it blossom. It was to be kept by the ark of the covenant as a sign to remind the people of their rebelliousness. Compare what Moses presumes to say on God’s behalf in 20:10 with what the Lord says here in 17:10. “And the LORD said unto Moses, bring Aaron's rod again before the testimony, to be kept for a token against the rebels; and thou shalt quite take away their murmurings from me, that they die not.”
Sun Tzu, in his book the Art of War, wrote to always attack where they least suspect it. Sometimes that could mean where the enemy thinks they have strength so they are not as vigilant. Satan caused Job to sin through his impatience, Peter to sin through his failed courage, and unfortunately Moses to sin on his least humble day. How much easier would it be for Satan to attack us in this same way? “Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). It’s easy for us to focus on the sin of Moses. Stains look so much worse the whiter the robe of righteousness. We shouldn’t forget that Hebrews 11:38 says the world was not worthy of men like Moses. Although this one sin didn’t block his entry into the spiritual Promised Land, it did stop him from entering the physical one.