Numbers 19-21
(Moses' Big Mistake)
February 15th

Produced by The Listening for God Ministry
Copyright 2016

Click here for a print-friendly version

Please refer to one or more Bible versions of your choice to read this section. We recommend that you read at least two versions for added understanding. For your convenience, we have provided six links below, each of which takes you directly to today's chapters in a specific version:

Key Verses

But the Edomites answered, “We refuse to let you pass through our country! If you try, we will march out and attack you.”

- Numbers 20:18 (GNB)

Summary of Chapters

This set of chapters covers a lot of territory, and marks the beginning of the transition from the generation of Israelites who escaped Egypt, who were replaced by their offspring. Chapter 19 provides a description for a ritual cleansing that includes the last discussion in the book of Numbers regarding cleansing after touching a dead body. Chapter 20 fast forwards to the last of the 40 years in the desert. The people are more restless than ever before and are thirsty, and angry with Moses:

    Why have you brought the LORD’s assembly into this wilderness for us and our livestock to die here? Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, only to bring us to this wretched place? It is not a place for grain nor figs nor vines nor pomegranates! And there is no water to drink!”

    But Moses and Aaron went away from the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting, where they fell prostrate.

    - Numbers 20:4-6 (NAB)

In response, Moses and Aaron present themselves before the LORD who instructs Moses to get water from a rock at Meribah – but Moses does not do it the way God told him to do it and is consequently denied passage to the Promised Land. The LORD had told Moses to bring the staff from the tabernacle and speak to the rock to get water, but for some reason Moses decided to strike it with the staff. Water did come out, but this was a fateful error for Moses.

    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.”

    - Numbers 20:12 (NIV)

Then the Israelite nation was on the move again. They came across an occupied territory, but observed that the people were the Edomites – descendants of Esau, the brother of Jacob, who was the father of the twelve tribes. Hence, the nations were brothers. Moses asked if they could pass through the land peacefully, but the request was denied, so the people took a longer path around that land.

In the last event of this chapter, Aaron is near death, so he is replaced by his son Eleazar in a ceremony at the top of Mount Hor. Aaron would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land because he and Moses had not followed God’s instructions at Meribah.

In chapter 21, we read about the first set of military victories by the young Israeli nation. In the first two cases, the other nations attacked first, but the LORD was with Israel and allowed them to defeat the Canaanites, the Amorites, and the people of Bashon. These were their first set of victories, but were not their last battle. The Israelites then temporarily settled in the land of the Amorites.

Reflection and Application

Given everything we know, the punishment for Moses is hard to comprehend, and on the surface, seems inconsistent. For instance, there is no record of a punishment when he killed an Egyptian and abandoned his people, as recorded in Exodus 2:11-15. It seems as if that was a more serious crime. Then, God was patient with him when he failed to control the people and then came to him with his complaints, as recorded in earlier chapters of Numbers.

But this time, Moses receives a relatively severe punishment for what seems like a minor offense of striking a rock to get water instead of speaking to it. Maybe he forgot what God had told him. There was probably a lot of noise and confusion in the camp, so by the time he got to the rock he might have forgotten whether God had said “speak” to the rock or “strike” the rock. Why did God tell him to take the staff if not to hit the rock with it? When the Israelites were trapped between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea, God told Moses to strike the water (and God split the sea). Therefore, a striking motion to perform water-related miracles may have seemed like the proper precedence.

Maybe Moses did remember exactly what God had said, but was so frustrated with the situation that he decided to strike the rock instead of speaking to it. Maybe he didn’t know what to say to the water, so he just hit it (maybe this is a technique that worked with oxen or other working animals). Granted, Moses did not do exactly as commanded, but what was the harm? Moreover, look at his positive track record. He had been a loyal servant, conveying every one of God’s commands to the people and patiently bearing the yoke of leadership for the people. So, why was this minor oversight so significant in the mind of God that he forbid Moses from reaching his ultimate goal of the Promised Land?

Here are two thoughts: Number one, when God gives us instructions we ought to do it exactly the way he told us. To do otherwise is to assume that we know better than God. To assume we know better is to assume that we are greater than God. If we assume we are greater than God, then we are worshipping a false idol called “me.” This is the greatest sin of all and one that really irks God throughout the Bible. Everything we need to know about obeying God is captured in a four-word sentence attributed to Mary, the mother of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospel:

    “Do whatever he says”

    - John 2:5 (NIV)

Mary had said this to a group of servants whom Jesus then instructed during the performance of his inaugural miracle – turning water into wine. The servants did not know who Jesus was, but they followed his counter-intuitive instructions exactly as he said. In the case of Moses, he knew who God was and had no excuse for not following his explicit instruction. If we claim to believe and know God than we have no excuse either.

Second thought on the reason for this extreme punishment: Moses was the leader of the people. God sets higher standards for his leaders. If Moses thought he was above God, then everyone else was going to start thinking that way also. If we are in a leadership position at home, work, or church, then more is expected of us also.

If we are an understudy for a leadership position then we should take advantage of the opportunity to patiently learn the craft and prepare, as Elezear did. We also see this patient acceptance of the supporting role in many public instances of politicians, businessmen, and athletes. The smart and humble ones work quietly preparing and are ready for the day they are handed the gavel, the corner office, or the ball.

The final takeaway from this reading is to remember that God gives us victory over our sin in the same way he gave the Israelites victory over their enemies. We may not have to physically battle invaders every day, but we have spiritual battles against sin. If we keep our focus on God and worship him, then he will help us overcome any foe.

Questions and Prayers for Further Reflection

    Related Questions
    1. When were you an understudy for some future role?
    2. What are the explicit instructions from God that you are hearing today?
    3. How do we arm ourselves for battle against sin?
    Recommended Prayer
    Father, please help us to learn how to prepare ourselves for the role you have in mind.

    Suggested Prayer Concerns
    Those who are second in command, or backups, or understudies, waiting for their opportunity

    Looking Ahead

    Tomorrow's reading: Numbers 22-24 (The Incorruptible Sorcerer)

    Comments and Questions
    If you have comments or questions, please add them to our Comments page, email to the author at, or share your comments or questions via the Listening for God Twitter account

    Click to follow Listening for God(@listeningforgod)