Moses is hailed as the leader of the Exodus, the one through whom God delivered His people from Egyptian slavery. To Moses God entrusted the Law. Jesus demonstrated that Moses foreshadowed His own work as the Messiah (John 3:14–15). Moses is listed in Hebrews 11 as exemplary of faith. In Deuteronomy 34 we read that God Himself buried Moses. We are also told that, “since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. . . . For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel” (Deuteronomy 34:10, 12). Yet Moses, for all of his blessings, was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. Why not?
In Deuteronomy 32:51–52 God gives the reason that Moses was not permitted to enter the Promised Land: “This is because . . . you broke faith with me in the presence of the Israelites at the waters of Meribah Kadesh in the Desert of Zin and because you did not uphold my holiness among the Israelites. Therefore, you will see the land only from a distance; you will not enter the land I am giving to the people of Israel.” God was true to His promise. He showed Moses the Promised Land, but did not let him enter in.
The incident at the waters of Meribah Kadesh is recorded in Numbers 20. Nearing the end of their forty years of wandering, the Israelites came to the Desert of Zin. There was no water, and the community turned against Moses and Aaron. Moses and Aaron went to the tent of meeting and prostrated themselves before God. God told Moses and Aaron to gather the assembly and speak to the rock. Water would come forth. Moses took the staff and gathered the men. Then, seemingly in anger, Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Then Moses struck the rock twice with his staff (Numbers 20:10–11). Water came from the rock, as God had promised. But God immediately told Moses and Aaron that, because they failed to trust Him enough to honor Him as holy, they would not bring the children of Israel into the Promised Land (verse 12).
The punishment may seem harsh to us, but, when we look closely at Moses’ actions, we see several mistakes. Most obviously, Moses disobeyed a direct command from God. God had commanded Moses to speak to the rock. Instead, Moses struck the rock with his staff. Earlier, when God had brought water from a rock, He instructed Moses to strike it with a staff (Exodus 17). But God’s instructions were different here. God wanted Moses to trust Him, especially after they had been in such close relationship for so many years. Moses didn’t need to use force; he simply needed to obey God and know that God would be true to His promise.
Also, Moses took the credit for bringing forth the water. He asks the people gathered at the rock, “Must we bring you water out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10, emphasis added). Moses seemed to be taking credit for the miracle himself (and Aaron), instead of attributing it to God. Moses did this publicly. God could not let it go unpunished and expect the Israelites to understand His holiness.
The water-giving rock is used as a symbol of Christ in 1 Corinthians 10:4. The rock was struck in Exodus 17:6, just like Christ was crucified once (Hebrews 7:27). Moses’ speaking to the rock in Numbers 20 could have been meant as a picture of prayer. Jesus was “struck” once, and He continues to provide living water to those who pray in faith to Him. When Moses angrily struck the rock, he destroyed the biblical typology and, in effect, crucified Christ again.
Moses’ punishment for disobedience, pride, and the misrepresentation of Christ’s sacrifice was steep; he was barred from entering the Promised Land (Numbers 20:12). Yet we do not see Moses complain about his punishment. Instead, he continues to faithfully lead the people and honor God.
In His holiness, God is also compassionate. He invited Moses up to Mount Nebo where He showed His beloved prophet the Promised Land before his death. Deuteronomy 34:4–5 records, “Then the Lord said to him, ‘This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, “I will give it to your descendants.” I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.’ And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said.” Moses’ failure at the rock did not negate or break his relationship with God. God continued to use the prophet and continued to love him with tenderness.