The Sin of Moses and the Purpose of Deuteronomy


While the majority of the content of this post can be found in my sermon on the introduction to Deuteronomy (found here), I thought that it might be good to put it in writing, as it was the center of what I wanted to say, but was buried somewhat by other material in the sermon.  While this post will be a little long for some, I sincerely hope that the payoff is worth the time!

The name of the fifth book of the bible, Deuteronomy, is taken from a Greek mistranslation of 17:18, where “copy of the law” was taken as “second law.”  This mistranslation finds a comfortable home in the way that many read the book – as another way or another giving of the law.  But Deuteronomy is much more than that.

The book finds its historical and thematic center outside of the promised land.  Moses, who has led the Israelites through the wilderness now seeks to provide them aid and comfort as they begin their campaign to take the land God has promised to them.  Deuteronomy 1:5 provides the purpose of Moses’ sermons: not simply to repeat or add to the law, but rather to “explain the law.”

One of the chief themes of Deuteronomy is the fact that Moses must give this explanation of the law outside the promised land.  3 times in the opening 4 chapters Moses relates to the Israelites that he is not able to enter the land with them.  This fact is reiterated 2 more times at the end of the book (Deut 31:2; 32:50-52).  Each of these accounts is important, and lends itself to the theme of Deuteronomy.  While its importance is perhaps obvious from the repetition of the fact itself, it is not clear immediately why it is so important to Deuteronomy.  One can argue that it was an important fact for Moses personally, but the Scriptural book was not written as a way for Moses to air his personal grievances or frustrations.  It was written for the Israelites, and more importantly, for us.[1]  What does Moses’ inability to enter the promise land provide for us? Is it simply a lesson that, if we make one mistake, no matter how minor, we can be kept out of the promise of God?

Let us look briefly at the opening 3 repetitions of the exclusion of Moses, before turning to the narrative in the book of Numbers that we might better understand the nature of Moses’ sin and its importance to the book of Deuteronomy.

The first time that Moses mentions his exclusion in Deuteronomy comes in 1:37 after recounting the sin of the nation in listening to the voice of the spies.  These spies insisted that the land was too difficult to take, directly contradicting the promise of God.  Moses states:

Even with me the LORD was angry on your account and said, ‘You also shall not go in there. (ESV)

Two things are interesting in this verse.  First, Moses associates his own rejection with God’s anger toward the Israelite rebellion and unfaithfulness in not taking the land.  This is interesting primarily because Moses’ sin didn’t occur until much later in the narrative, in Num 20, while the people’s refusal to enter the promised land occurred in Num 13-14.  Secondly, Moses puts a great deal of the blame on the Israelites.  God’s anger with him was “on your [the Israelites] account.”

Moses is not ignorant of the chronological problem posed here.  Rather, by lumping the incident of Num 13-14 with Num 20, he is implying that the incidents are clearly related to one another in a very tight way.

The second mention of Moses’ exclusion comes in Deut 3:23-26, after recounting the great defeats of kings outside the land, and again points the finger directly at the Israelites for his own sin:

And I pleaded with the LORD at that time, saying, ‘O Lord GOD, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your mighty hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts as yours?  Please let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and Lebanon.’  But the LORD was angry with me because of you and would not listen to me. And the LORD said to me, ‘Enough from you; do not speak to me of this matter again.’ (ESV)

The third occurrence comes in a quite different context in 4:21-22.  Here, Moses has moved on from the historical recounting of the narrative, and is the midst of giving a strong warning about idolatry, when he writes:

Furthermore, the LORD was angry with me because of you, and he swore that I should not cross the Jordan, and that I should not enter the good land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance. For I must die in this land; I must not go over the Jordan. But you shall go over and take possession of that good land. (ESV)

Again, Moses reiterates that God’s anger with him was due to the Israelites, but here it is also associated with idolatry, although how is hard to tell how.  At this point, we can summarize Moses’ exclusion from the promised land in three ways:

  1. Moses’ exclusion was related to the narrative events from Num 13-20
  2. Moses’ exclusion was somehow caused by the Israelites’ own unfaithfulness
  3. Moses’ exclusion was a useful illustration on the importance of avoiding idolatry

Because the Pentateuch was, I believe, meant to be read as a single book, it is fair that Moses and Deuteronomy do not seek to relay every bit of information needed to understand these links, but simply assume that the reader can make them out for themselves, based on the earlier narrative.  Let us, then, look briefly at the narrative from Num 13-20 and see what it might tell us about Moses and the people of Israel.

Much happens in Num 13-20, but three incidents seem to be of chief importance for our consideration.  These events consist of the great rebellions recorded in this portion of Numbers: the account of the spies and the refusal to enter the land (Num 13-14), Korah’s rebellion and aftermath (Num 16), and finally the infamous waters of Meribah, where Moses struck the rock and apparently sinned before the Lord (Num 20).

The first rebellion is well-known.  The spies, sent into the land to see what kind of land it was (Num 13:18-20) come back with a glowing report concerning the quality of the land, but also pessimism as to whether the Israelites will be able to take it in a military conflict.  This causes the people of Israel to rebel against the command of God to take the land.  This rebellion causes God to offer Moses something unthinkable:

And the LORD said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?  I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.”  (Num 14:11-12, ESV)

Of course, God had importantly offered such a thing to Moses before, when Aaron made the golden calf in Exodus 32.  Like there, Moses refuses the offer from God, immediately interceding for the people, arguing that God would defame himself by destroying them:

“Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say, ‘It is because the LORD was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness.’ And now, please let the power of the Lord be great as you have promised, saying, ‘The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.” (Num 14:15-19, ESV).

Here, Moses applies God’s characteristics of glory (see Exodus 34:6-7) in pleading for him to not destroy the nation.  Moses knew the holiness and glory of God, and would not see it destroyed by human sin.

Korah’s rebellion plays out in much the same way.  Korah and his cohorts rebel, claiming that Moses and Aaron have taken great priveledge for themselves, especially in that Aaron is set apart for priestly duties.  These Levites think that the priesthood should not be limited, that “all the congregation is holy” (16:3).  God judges them by opening up a great chasm in the earth which swallows them, and those associated with them, whole.  This rejection occurred against not only Korah’s family, but against 250 chiefs of the people, who offered up incense to the Lord to see who would be “holy” to God (Num 16:2-7, 35).  The very next day(!), the people grumble against Moses and Aaron, claiming that they have “killed the people of the LORD” (16:41).  Like in the other rebellions, God visits Moses and reports to him of his plans to destroy the people (16:45).  In response to this, Moses tells Aaron to offer his own incense to the Lord, making atonement, and stopping the plague that was already ravaging the people.  Aaron acts, as Moses did before, on God’s revelation that he was the chosen priest, the one who was holy and set aside, able to make intercession for the people (16:40).  Aaron then “stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped” (16:48).

Again, we get the repeating pattern.  The people rebel, God threatens destruction, Moses and Aaron act on revelation, God relents.

The third rebellion starts with the same pattern.  The people rebel, this time over water.  They further insult Moses by claiming that it would have been better for them to have died with their brothers (20:3).  This claim likely hurt Moses considerably, given the fact that his own intercession kept them from that fate, that very intercession coming at the cost of Moses’ own pride of having a nation of his own, and the recent death of his own sister Miriam (20:1).  When Moses and Aaron present themselves before the tent of meeting, we should expect the same pattern that we have found: rebellion, threatened destruction, intercession, relenting.  Instead, the pattern changes.  The Lord does not threaten their destruction, nor even mentions their sin, but simply grants their request for water.  Moses and Aaron do not intercede, but provide the water by God’s grace:

Then Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. And the glory of the LORD appeared to them, and the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” And Moses took the staff from before the LORD, as he commanded him. Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the LORD, and through them he showed himself holy. (Num 20:6-13, ESV)

The narrative is odd.  The story itself has prepared us for the pattern and cycle that it breaks.  This sort of device is common in narratives, and it signals an important event by breaking tendency.  By not doing what we think that a text should, we are awoken from our narrative slumber, as it were, to notice the change. Here, the change is not in the nature of the people or even in God’s ultimately gracious response, but rather in how Moses and Aaron relate to God.

As faithful Christians, bound by Scripture and tradition, we know that God doesn’t change.  He is the Alpha and the Omega, who is and who was and who is to come (Rev 1:8), the same yesterday and today and forever (Heb 13:8), without variation or shadow cast by turning (James 1:17), that he is not a God who repents (1 Sam 15:29).  We should think, then, that the threat of destruction against the people, the intercession of Moses and Aaron, and the relenting of the threat by God, was not done to actually change God’s mind.  God very well knew what would happen.  He instigated the threat so that Moses would intercede.  But here he doesn’t.  Why?

How one answers that question become vastly important.  I think it is not only the key to the passage in Numbers, but also becomes important in unlocking the theme of Deuteronomy.  If we say that the breaking of the pattern is no big deal, it is just a historical coincidence, then we will search for Moses’ sin in the narrative itself.   And most do.

There are fairly typical responses as to what Moses’ sin in Numbers 20 is.  Most argue that his sin was in striking the rock when told by God to merely speak (compare v. 8 with v. 11).  But Moses was told to take the staff, likely to strike the rock (see Exodus 17:5-6 where Moses was told to strike a rock to make the water come out).  Others think that it was Moses difficult words for the people when he struck the rock, calling them “rebels.”  Still others think that it was because Moses spoke to the people and not to the rock.

There are significant problems with all of these solutions.  None of these solutions really fulfills what the Lord sees as Moses’ main sin, that of unfaithfulness and not upholding God’s holiness (v. 12, see this refrain repeated in Deut 32:51).  Certainly, Moses thought water would come out, and it is hard from this vantage point to see how Moses’ actions impact his view of God’s holiness.  Also, it is hard to see why Aaron was lumped in with Moses’ actions, if he neither struck nor spoke.

I think a better answer is to take the breaking of the pattern seriously.  Moses’ heated words to the Israelites in v. 10 imply strongly that he was quite upset, that he classified the people no longer as God’s people but as rebels, with the rhetorical question further implying that he thought they were not worthy of the grace that they were receiving.  Frankly, it reads as though Moses does this to fulfill God’s commands against his better instincts.

And therein lies the rub.  God does not threaten the destruction of the people because he knows that Moses will not intercede for the people.  Moses has lost faith.  These rebels are outside of grace, outside of God’s ability to make into a great nation, unable to secure the promises that God has given.  The constant rebellions, grumbling, faithlessness of the people has taken its toll on Moses.  So overwhelmed is he, he no longer thinks that this people will be able to fulfill God’s promises.  This, from God’s vantage point, is not a breaking of faith with the Israelites, but with the Lord himself.  Moses no longer treated the Lord as holy, powerful, glorious, able to fulfill his promises even with this weak nation to make his name great.

This reading makes sense of Deuteronomy in many ways.  It makes sense of Moses’ continual accusations against the people, for their continuous rebellions were the cause of his downfall, along with the textual affirmation that it was his unfaithfulness in the moment.  It makes sense of his reminder of not entering the promised land in the midst of a warning about idolatry.  In 4:23 Moses further instructs the people, after his illustration of being kept out of the land: “take care, lest you forget the covenant of the Lord your God.”  Moses, in his unfaithfulness, forgot the promise and covenant of his God.  He, standing outside the land, is a concrete reminder of what will happen when the promise of God is forgotten.

Thus, we come to the theme of Deuteronomy.  While Deuteronomy is an explanation of the law, it is meant to be an encouragement for the people of God.  It is continually looking forward.  It is a plea for the people to never lose hope in the promise of God.  Moses had learned his lesson, and sought to pass it those about to enter the land.  Nothing makes this clearer than the end of Deuteronomy, and some of Moses’ last words to his people:

And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, and return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you. If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the LORD your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. And the LORD your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. (Deuteronomy 30:1-6, ESV)

Yes, Moses knows better than most that the people will fail.  The law cannot help make them love God, keep the covenant, make them alive (Gal 3:21).  They will transgress, and find the curses of the law placed upon them, being driven to the ends of the earth.  But God’s word will stand.  They will get the land.  No matter how far away the people are, God will bring them back, even from the uttermost parts of heaven (Matt 17:1-3).  God will give them hearts to obey and to love (John 3), and fulfill all his promises (2 Cor 1:20).

God, by keeping the promised land from Moses, drove this point home to him: never doubt my promises.  This, Moses passes on to you.  Trust the promise of God which has come true in Jesus Christ our Lord; wait, hope, and believe.

Scoffers will come in the last days to scoff, living according to their own desires, saying, “Where is the promise of His coming?… Dear friends, don’t let this one thing escape you: With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:3-4, 8-9, HCSB)


[1]I don’t think that the book was recorded even for the generation standing in Moses’ presence, who were about to take the promised land, which seems somewhat counter-intuitive.  But those standing there would undoubtedly have heard the words, and the book itself indicates that it was compiled sometime after the taking of the land.  For instance, in 2:12, after recounting that Moab was given to the descendants of Lot as a possession, the compiler, or editor, adds a parenthetical remark which reads: “The Horites also lived in Seir formerly, but the people of Esau dispossessed them and destroyed them from before them and settled in their place, as Israel did to the land of their possession, which the LORD gave to them” (ESV).  This nature of this remark seems to look back to the past quite a bit, and wouldn’t be necessary at all for the people who took the promised land.  It is meant for a later generation.