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Life of Moses

Moses' Sin

Numbers 20:1-13

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It is one of the most mysterious stories in the Old Testament: the story of Moses’ great sin. It is mysterious because, as we see it, the sin seems so minor. We shall see if we can decipher it.

Num 20:1-13 NIV Water From the Rock

In the first month the whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried. (2) Now there was no water for the community, and the people gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron. (3) They quarreled with Moses and said, "If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the LORD! (4) Why did you bring the LORD's community into this desert, that we and our livestock should die here? (5) Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!" (6) Moses and Aaron went from the assembly to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and fell facedown, and the glory of the LORD appeared to them. (7) The LORD said to Moses, (8) "Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink." (9) So Moses took the staff from the LORD's presence, just as he commanded him. (10) He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, "Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?" (11) Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank. (12) But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, "Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them." (13) These were the waters of Meribah, [1] where the Israelites quarreled with the LORD and where he showed himself holy among them.


It often happens that Bible believing Christians reject the concept of allegory as being a legitimate way of interpreting the Bible. This comes from the belief that any way of interpreting Scripture other than literal meaning is false, particularly as it concerns Genesis 3 and evolution. But in fact allegory is common in the Bible – Christ makes frequent use of it in His parables – and even Genesis 3 is allegory (which does not preclude its literal interpretation as well.) In this section we shall examine the allegorical significance of the staff and the rock.

The staff

Note that the Bible says (vs. 8) that Moses is to take “the” staff. By that God means the staff of Aaron, the High Priest. What do we know about this staff?

  • It was always before the Ark of the Covenant, including the mercy seat.
  • It was chosen[1] above all other staffs by God Himself.
  • It is specifically referred to as a “sign to the rebellious.”

Now we know that the staff itself is a symbol of the priesthood. But consider how this fits with Christ, our High Priest:

  • As the staff is before the Ark, our High Priest is ever before the throne of God (remember “enthroned between the cherubim?”) interceding on our behalf for the grace of God.
  • As Aaron’s staff was chosen above all others, so Christ is above all others. We are a royal priesthood; but He is our High Priest.
  • Is He a sign to the rebellious? Where else may grace be found?

So we may see Christ as a sign to the rebellious, offering the grace of God.

The rock

The symbolism of Christ, the Rock is well known to Christians. If Christ is represented by this rock, what does that mean?

  • One fact is this: Moses hit the rock twice. Is that sin? Yes indeed. Christ had to be smitten once, at His first advent, for our sins. But to be smitten twice is like crucifying Him twice[2]. This, then, is sin indeed.
  • How then do we obtain the mercy of His sacrifice? Is it not by confession and repentance? We must “speak to the Rock.”
  • All this is true even though the water was brought forth by a leader’s error. God’s grace does not depend upon the perfection of the leader.
The water

The water from the rock is relatively easy to interpret, for we know the role of water in the faith.

  • Who could miss the cleansing stream of baptism in this picture?
  • The other picture that springs to mind is the flow of living water, the River of Life pictured in Ezekiel and Revelation.

Miracles have a certain divine style. Water does spring from rock (why do you think they are called “springs?”). But God insists that His servants do things His way, in His time. Failure to do so is sin.

What’s the problem

Now we can understand why this is sin to Moses.

What God commanded

What did God command?

  1. Take the staff (so the people can see it).
  2. Speak to the rock.

The staff, representing the priesthood and grace, the rock representing Christ, these commands would then be interpreted as:

  1. As a member of God’s royal priesthood, show forth grace to all.
  2. By prayer and confession, bring forward the living water, both to clean (baptism) and to nourish (River of Life).

In short, show grace and speak the Word.


So why didn’t Moses do what God told him to do? God tells us why:

  • Moses didn’t trust God enough. Oh, he was trusting, but not quite to the point of doing what he was told, how he was told, when he was told.
  • Moses did not honor God. “Must we bring you water…” That’s how Moses put it to the people.
  • Moses did not honor God as holy. His actions made it look like Moses was the one with the power, not the holy God.

For this, Moses was not to enter the Promised Land – only to look at it from afar. There are some thoughts we can gather from this:

  • The penalty for leaders is more than the penalty for followers – which is as it should be.
  • In allegory, we learn that the disobedient might see heaven – but not enter it.

Lessons for Us

How do we get in such a mess anyway?

  • Being smart people, if we don’t see why we should do it God’s way, we are tempted to look for another way that we do understand.
  • Sometimes it’s simple presumption: we think we have a better idea.
  • Often, we are angry (always an entry point for Satan) and we have our own agenda to follow.

The answer to this is simply obedience. But may I submit that simple obedience requires humility?

  • It requires humility to follow blind – if God says do it one particular way, it is a humbling experience to say, “I don’t know why.”
  • It requires humility to let God have vengeance.
  • Humility is at the core of the servant’s heart; we must be such a servant. If Christ Himself came as a servant to all, should we not imitate our Lord?
For others

And for our conduct towards others?

  • Speak the word
  • Show forth grace
  • Lead them to the Promised Land.

[1] Numbers 17:1-13

[2] Hebrews 9:24-28

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