Was God Unfair to Moses?

December 9, 2019 at 11:43 am | Posted in Q&A | 3 Comments
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Question: Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. He led them in the wilderness for 40 years. They were almost always whining, complaining, disobeying, griping, grumbling, and disobeying. They were ungrateful to God and Moses, even though they had been delivered, rescued, and given food, water, and safety so many times. Meanwhile, Moses, who they frequently wanted to stab in the back, even when he pleaded with God not to destroy them, made one little mistake, and God punished him by not letting him enter the promised land, and even showed him the promised land from the top of a mountain, so he could see what he missed out on right before he died! I have a hard time understanding the unfairness of this. Was Moses’s relatively small error really bad enough to justify what God did?

Answer: There are several issues to address here. First, let’s look at the incident to which you’re referring.

Then came the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, into the desert of Zin in the first month: and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation: and they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. And the people chode with Moses, and spake, saying, Would God that we had died when our brethren died before the Lord! And why have ye brought up the congregation of the Lord into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there? And wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in unto this evil place? it is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink. And Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and they fell upon their faces: and the glory of the Lord appeared unto them. And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Take the rod, and gather thou the assembly together, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock: so thou shalt give the congregation and their beasts drink. And Moses took the rod from before the Lord, as he commanded him. And Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation together before the rock, and he said unto them, Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock? And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also. 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.

Numbers 20:1-12

On a previous occasion, when the people panicked about not having water, God instructed Moses to strike a rock with his special rod. Moses did so, and water came out. On this occasion, God gave Moses a different instruction: TAKE the rod, but SPEAK to the rock. Moses, no doubt frustrated and angry at the people because of their attitude and their accusations and their lack of trust in God despite all that He had done, and was doing, for them, “smote” (struck or hit) the rock, not once, but twice. Water came out, but God was not pleased. Because of Moses’s lack of belief in the necessity of following God’s orders precisely, and because of his failure to “sanctify” God (proclaim His holiness) in front of all the people, God decreed that Moses would not live to lead the people all the way across the Jordan River and into the promised land of Canaan when it was finally time for them to go.

Many Bible scholars have struggled with this incident, and with the temptation to see an overreaction on the part of God. God’s decision can be explained a number of ways. I’ll set forth just a few of them, without pretending to be an expert on the matter, of course, or even to have any great insight:

1. Moses’s disobedience was done in the presence of all the people, giving them a false idea of God’s holiness and the importance of obeying Him completely.

2. Moses made it seem to the people like he and Aaron were the ones doing the miracle (“must WE fetch you water out of the rock?”), rather than giving the glory to God. God will not share His glory (Isaiah 42:8).

3. The New Testament would later reveal that the rocks that gave water during the wilderness wandering were symbols of Christ, Who would ultimately be and give “the Living Water” (I Corinthians 10:4; John 7:37-38, 4:13-14). Moses had already struck a rock once (Exodus 17:6). Now he struck a rock twice, as though Christ would need to be crucified twice (which is inaccurate and misrepresentative of the Gospel).

4. Moses’s disobedience was blatant and direct. God said to speak, but Moses struck. While we are prone to excuse Moses, and to recognize his anger as something we often see in ourselves when confronted with ingratitude and whining, God, Who saw Moses’s heart and ulterior mindset, saw it as “unbelief” – something perhaps more calculated than provoked.

I will admit that, even with all this reasoning factored in, our inner sense of “fairness” may still not be satisfied. However, it helps to remember that Moses was not the only one who did not ultimately make it to the promised land. All of his generation, save Joshua and Caleb, perished in the wilderness, although their descendants finally did cross over into Canaan.

Also, I doubt that God allowing Moses to see the promised land, but not enter it, was intended as a taunt. I imagine that Moses was thankful to even see his goal with his eyes before God called him to an even better home in Heaven. The Bible portrays this as more of a consolation than an additional punishment (Deuteronomy 34). In context, it seems like a blessing that Moses, while still in good health and spirits, got to finally lay down the burden of shepherding such a rebellious people, who, no doubt, would have continued to be more than a handful even in Canaan. And, as a side note, we DO get to see Moses with his feet finally standing in the promised land in the New Testament, on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-3).

Finally, while those explanations may not help our finite minds to understand exactly why Moses’s punishment seems so disproportionate to his crime, my brain always sends up a big red flag when I see the term “unfair” connected to God. Every breath that Moses took – and that every one of us takes – is an undeserved gift from God. We owe our very existence to him, and, from the moment of our conception, our whole experience is one of overflowing grace whether we recognize it or appreciate it, or not. Remember, Moses was a human being. A sinful and fallen human being just like me and you. The last thing we want from God is “fairness,” because, as the only image-bearing rebels and traitors in the universe, what we really “deserve” from God is eternal punishment and conscious torment. It is unwise to think our sin is “not as bad” as someone else’s (II Corinthians 10:12-13) or try to evaluate how, or in what measure, God should distribute His glorious grace and mercy (Romans 9:20-23; Job 38; Matthew 20:1-16).

3 Comments »

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  1. I always felt bad for Moses too. After all those years of listening to the people whine and complain and not be able to enter the promise land is sad.
    Great lesson! Are you sure you didn’t miss your calling to be a preacher?

    You all have a wonderful Christmas.
    Love y’all

    H

  2. Thank you! Love you and think of y’all often. Y’all are in our prayers.

  3. […] the End Times? 49. Signs of Approval from God? 50. Corporal Punishment? (Proverbs 13:24; 23:13-14) 51. Was God Unfair to Moses? (Numbers 20:1-12) 52. How Tall Was Jesus? […]


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