For all of his good qualities—Lawgiver, mediator between God and the nation, organizer of the Exodus—Moses was not an example of holiness in this life. He was quite the opposite. When viewed from his death backwards (Josh. 1:1-2), the defining moment of his life was one of anger and pride. That incident began with a big problem.
Now there was no water for the congregation; so they gathered together against Moses and against Aaron. (Num. 20:2)
Moses and Aaron went to the tent of meeting asking for a solution to the water problem and God told them,
Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock before their eyes to yield its water. Thus you shall bring water out of the rock for them; thus you shall provide drink for the congregation and their livestock. (v. 8)
What Moses did was a bit different.
So Moses took the staff from before the LORD, as he had commanded him. Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank. (vv. 9-11)
Moses’ anger and lack of self-control shines through in these sentences. He demeans the people by calling them “you rebels.” Rather than speaking to the rock (as he was told to do), he scolds the people with a biting rhetorical question. And then, with no word to the rock, he whacks it twice with his staff. It is the image of a child striking out in helpless anger because he feels there are no options left. While immature, out of control, and childish, Moses’ response is understandable; the nation was out of water and everyone was mad at him. In spite of our sympathy with Moses, there is a big “but” involved.
But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” (v. 12)
These petty outward actions reflect a deeper problem. God’s intent was to show his holiness. Moses, because of his uncontrolled passion and resulting outburst, diminished the moment to an embarrassing demonstration of his own failings. God was pushed into the background while Moses stole the limelight. The text then closes with these tragic words:
These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the LORD, and by which he showed his holiness. (v. 13)
God’s holiness was still demonstrated but it was demonstrated through the lens of the people’s mistrust and Moses’ pettiness. Throughout scripture we see that God prefers to clothe his glory in some created form, and especially in human form. Once again God clothes his glory in his servant Moses, but Moses’ antics are such that what we remember is less God’s glory and more Moses’ uncontrolled passions. The place isn’t named for what should have been memorable, “God Provides,” or “God Shows His Holiness.” Instead it’s named after what was actually most memorable; it’s called “Quarrel” (or “Meribah” in Hebrew).
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Mt. 6:24). This was the rub for Moses. He was a slave to his passions. When he tried to serve the Lord his passions took control and he ended up despising God’s holiness in the process of serving his own anger. Because no one can serve two masters, and because in this incident Moses demonstrated for all to see that his master was still his own passion, God told Moses that he would be incapable of crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land and entering God’s rest.
By the end of Deuteronomy the people are near the edge of the Promised Land, but in a sort of limbo. They aren’t moving forward nor are they traveling to any particular place. And then we turn from Deuteronomy to Joshua and discover that everything changes.
After the death of Moses, the servant of the LORD, the LORD spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying, “My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites. (Josh. 1:1-2)
Now that Moses is gone, the nation is finally free to “enter the place of rest” as Joshua calls it (v. 13). What are we to make of this? First (and this is the bit of the story that I have been emphasizing here), Moses represents our passions. 1 John says, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever” (2:15-17). As the years went by Christian teachers began to describe what 1 John is talking about, along with related issues, with a single term: the passions.
One of the gifts God gave us as part of his image is an unquenchable desire to fellowship with and ultimately to commune with God. One of the consequences of sin is that our original innate connection with God was broken and God became a stranger. But the unquenchable desire remained, and it attached itself to created things. In 1 John it is described as “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride of life.” The Fathers and Mothers of the church recognized that anger, intellectualism, and other excesses of life were the same thing with different faces. When this unquenchable desire is pointed directly at God it draws us inexorably toward him. But, as is typical with sin, when this unquenchable desire is pointed at things other than God, it prevents us from drawing close to God.
This is Moses in the story arc that stretches from Meribah to his death in Deut. 34. He, and the passions he represents, had to die before the nation could enter the Promised Land. Similarly, before we are able to enter into God’s rest, it is necessary for our passions to be reigned in and redirected toward God and God alone. Paul calls this dying to the flesh. This battle with the passions is therefore at the center of our Christian life and our struggle to enter into fellowship and union with God.
Hopefully you’ve been paying attention to the scripture text and are now thoroughly annoyed with me because of the reductionist manner in which I have read the text. This is a more complex story than what I have described, but I suspect we can’t appreciate the complexity without looking at the different threads individually. I will explore another thread of the story in the next essay.