My Bible reading recently brought me to the book of Deuteronomy, where an account of Moses recalling God’s refusal to grant him entrance to the Promised Land struck me. Recalling how he pleaded with God to let him cross Jordan, Moses said, “But the LORD was angry with me because of you and would not listen to me” (Deuteronomy 3:26). This is not the only time that Moses made this claim. He said the same thing in Deuteronomy 1:37 and 4:21.
If you are familiar with Moses’ story in the Pentateuch, you may understand my surprise. The reason that Moses was refused entry to the Promised Land is recorded in Numbers 20. There, the Israelites complained that they had no water, and God commanded Moses to speak to a rock, which would then produce water for the thirsty people. Instead, in anger, Moses struck the rock with his staff. The rock still produced water, but God was angry, and told Moses that he would not enter Canaan “because you did not believe me” (vv. 13–14). While Moses claimed that God was angry with him on Israel’s account, Numbers 20 places the blame squarely on Moses’ shoulder. Deuteronomy 32:48–52 agrees with Numbers 20.
The question, is, why did Moses claim that the Lord was angry with him on Israel’s account? Was he blameshifting? Was he bitter toward the Israelites?
Moses was a good, godly leader. In fact, he was in many ways an unmatched leader (Deuteronomy 34:10–12). One mark of godliness is to accept responsibility for one’s own actions. God is not interested in blameshifting (see Genesis 3). How, then, do we explain Moses’ seeming blameshifting in the early chapters of Deuteronomy?
We should, of course, recognise that godliness does not mean sinlessness. No one is sinless. Even the godliest of people sins against the Lord. Moses was a murderer. Even if he was not guilty of blameshifting, he was sinfully angry at Meribah. The Bible does not hide the sins of its heroes.
I say this simply to make the point that we should not seek at all costs to excuse Moses. We may wonder whether his words were those of a blameshifter, but we cannot assume that he could not possibly have sinned in this way.
At the same time, we also should not automatically assume blameshifting without seeking another interpretation of his words. Christian charity thinks the best of others.
Alan Gilman thinks that Moses was blameshifting. He says that Moses was “struggling with bitterness” and that, even though “he knew God’s take on the situation,” he “continued to blame the people for his inappropriate behavior anyway.”
There is no doubt that Moses sinned in Numbers 20. His sin was unbelief (v. 20), which was manifested in demeanour, diction and deed.
First, Moses manifested unbelief in his demeanour toward the people. God told Moses to speak to the rock. Instead, he gathered the people before the rock “and he said to them” (v. 10). He did not speak to the rock, but to the people. He instructed them rather gruffly to “hear” and called them “rebels” (v. 10). These were Moses’ words, not God’s. Psalm 106 tells us that Moses was “angered” by the people. Because he was “bitter,” he “spoke rashly” (vv. 32–33). Belief is displayed in obedience. Had Moses believed God, he would have spoken to the rock. Instead, his attitude toward the people betrayed his unbelief.
Second, Moses displayed unbelief in his diction—his words. Psalm 106:33 describes Moses’ words as “rash.” God had not instructed him to speak to the people, but he spoke in anger anyway. His words betray two areas of unbelief. On the one hand, by calling them “rebels,” he acted as if he were the people’s judge. Yes, they were rebels, but God had not authorised him to make this judgement upon the people. On the other hand, he spoke as if he were their deliverer: “Shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” He spoke as if he was able to provide water from the rock in his own strength.
Third, Moses’ unbelief was manifested in deed. When he struck the rock, he was simply doing what had worked previously (Exodus 17). God had not told him to strike the rock; he was seemingly doing what he thought he could do to produce water.
Because he did not believe God, Moses was barred from entrance to the Promised Land. He failed to believe God and to uphold God as holy before the people. For these sins, he was refused entry to the Promised Land. Of course, God still graciously gave the people water, and thereby he showed himself to be holy, which Moses had failed to do (Numbers 20:12–13).
Moses did not believe God, and God punished him for his sin. God made no reference to the provocation of the people. And yet that is precisely what Moses did in Deuteronomy 3:23–28. So we ask again: Was Moses blameshifting?
Moses’ sin left lasting scars. He earnestly desired to enter the Promised Land, and God certainly forgave his sin, but his unbelief had irreversible consequences. He was clearly angry and bitter in Numbers 20 when he struck the rock, but was he still bitter in Deuteronomy 3 when he related this event? Was he seeking to shift the blame for his punishment to the Israelites?
Though God does not in Numbers or Deuteronomy reference the provocation of the people as a factor in Moses’ sin, we do have another commentary on the matter in Psalm 106. There, we read, “They angered him at the waters of Meribah, and it went ill with Moses on their account, for they made his spirit bitter, and he spoke rashly with his lips” (vv. 32–33). The psalmist clearly states that it was on the account of the people that Moses’ spirit was bitter so that he spoke rashly with his lips.
While God was angry at Moses for his unbelief, he was also angry at the people for provoking Moses. Moses seems to have understood this. In referencing their provocation in the early chapters of Deuteronomy, he was not trying to make them feel guilty for tempting him, but encouraging them to avoid repeating this error in the future.
There are several lessons for leadership to be learned from this account in Moses’ life.
First, leaders are prone to sin just like the people they lead. Moses’ sin was one of unbelief. That was the same sin that the people committed which resulted in their wilderness wandering (Numbers 14:11–12). Ultimately, Moses committed the same sin that condemned the people to wander in the wilderness for forty years.
Second, leaders must bear the weight of their own sin, even when tempted by those they lead. Those you are leading—your church, your children, your wife, etc.—may tempt you to anger, and in some cases your anger may even be justified, but when you overstep the bounds of righteous indignation, God holds you accountable for your sin. It will do no good to complain about how others tempted you; you are responsible before God to behave in a manner pleasing to him.
Third, leaders face a stricter judgement for their sin than those they lead (cf. James 3:1). It took one act of unbelief to prevent Moses from entering the Promised Land, whereas the legacy of some who did ultimately enter Canaan was far more persistent unbelief.
Fourth, pragmatic results are no guarantee of obedience. The rock produced water despite Moses’ unbelief. But even though the result was positive, it was not achieved God’s way, and Moses thereby failed to show the Lord holy before the people. The end does not justify the means, and results do not justify disobedience. If we fail to do things God’s way, we fail to hallow him before those whom we lead, even if the results are, by God’s grace, positive.
Finally, God still receives glory despite the disobedience of his servants. Moses failed to uphold God as holy before the people, but the Lord still showed himself holy (Numbers 10:12–13). It is an incredible thing that God is able to receive glory even from disobedience. The psalmist said, “Surely the wrath of men shall praise you” (Psalm 76:10). This in no way excuses disobedience, but it shows the marvel of a sovereign God who can work even the unbelief of his people for his glory.