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Grown-Up Bible Stories

When Actions Weren’t Better than Words

The historical narratives of the Bible include the full range of human experience. Love and hate, peace and war, triumph and defeat, life and death, holiness and evil fill its stories. Of all the glorious joy and devastating sorrow we find in Scripture, one of the saddest stories involves one of history’s greatest men.

Moses stands unparalleled in human history. Only the God-man Jesus Christ ranks above him. Moses, born to the enslaved Hebrews and adopted by an Egyptian princess, became a deliverer to his people. His life marked Israel’s transition to full nationhood. Moses, who received training in the false religion of Pharaoh’s polytheism, spoke face-to-face with the one true God. Moses, the fugitive from justice, wrote down a legal code that would influence the laws of many nations. Moses, a naturally reserved and gentle man, commanded a fierce and unstoppable army. Moses, who spent the first part of his life studying nature and the next part wresting a living from it, became one of history’s greatest agents of the supernatural. Moses began his career as a man of God at age 80 and lived to guide a developing nation for some 40 years. His name and influence live on thousands of years later. Until John the Baptist announced the coming of Jesus Christ, no man in all of history ranked with Moses. Israel’s history--the world’s history even--contains only one Moses.

Yet, the story we’re thinking of today, isn’t Moses’ way-out-above-average success story. Rather it involves one of the few failures of a great man of God. It’s the story of the failure that kept an otherwise very worthy individual from his life’s greatest dream.

Moses was the man of the Exodus, the transit of God’s chosen people from slavery to the Promise Land. For nearly 40 years, he led the Hebrews. First, he worked with God in persuading their oppressors to set them free. Then, he served as God’s mouthpiece in guiding this nation of perhaps over a million people through the Middle Eastern desert. He faced their dangers. He found divine solutions to their problems. He taught them the law of God. He fought their enemies. He stopped their rebellions. Through it all, he focused on seeing his nation safely planted in the homeland God had promised them.

Those familiar with the Exodus will find little surprising about the situation in which Moses found himself as a long-restless Israel drew near its new homeland. God, leading by a tall cloud at the head of the people, brought them to camp near a large rock in a desolate place. God had clearly led them here, just as He had been leading them for many years. Yet, He’d brought them to a place with no water.

In today’s industrial societies, lack of water causes parents to stop at restaurants to settle whiny children. Lack of water in the ancient desert—actually lack of water in a modern desert—is a whole different story. Sure, there’s the dry feeling in the mouth and the urgency for a drink. There is also the frightening reality that the spouse and kids will soon face death. The old Hebrew nation carried the added burden of preserving the livestock they depended on for food, transportation, and income. No water was big. It was deathly big, and there was no water anywhere near.

Of course, this instance wasn’t the first time they’d lacked water. Once, Moses threw a felled tree into a source of undrinkable water, and God made the water useable. On another occasion, God had instructed Moses to take the wooden rod he carried and strike a large rock. Water had flowed from the rock.

Speaking of rods and water, Moses had held his rod out over the Red Sea to begin the miraculous parting of its waters. Moses had directed his brother Aaron to stretch out his rod back in Egypt, turning the enemy’s water supply to blood. A similar move on Aaron’s part had brought an overwhelming invasion of frogs from Egypt’s waters.

Nor was the rod only used around water. In the turmoil following God’s judgment for the rebellion that stalled the Exodus in the desert for 40 years, God had caused Aaron’s rod to blossom and bear almonds overnight to show his critics that he was indeed God’s choice for priest. Moses was accustomed to using rods and other physical devices to connect his actions with God’s commands and the resultant miracles.

On this particular day, the thirsty crowd complained bitterly. “Why did you bring us out into this desert? This isn’t the land of milk and honey you promised. Are you trying to kill us? We wish we’d stayed in Egypt!” They didn’t like God’s leading and, unable to reach God, they took their feelings out on His man. [Quotations are not necessarily exact unless accompanied by a reference.]

In hindsight, we want to ask why people who had heard the voice of God thunder from the smoking top of Sinai doubted. We might wonder how people who still woke to find the rare food called manna lying on the ground six mornings a week could harbor any uncertainty about God meeting their needs. Looking back, these people seem hard-hearted and foolish. They were, but think about how you respond to the same God when you’re disappointed, uncomfortable, or worried. They really weren’t a whole lot worse than most of us.

Moses, of course, was on the scene and still had faith. Superior faith led to anger at their rebellion. It’s not totally clear that he even cooled down when he went to the tabernacle with Aaron and asked God for help.

God responded with specific directions. Yes, He would supply water. He’d do it from a hard dry rock as He’d done so long before. Only, this time Moses was to use a different procedure. “Take the rod out of the tabernacle where it lays before me,” God directed. “Then, you and Aaron go to that big rock. Stand in front of it and speak to it. I will send water when you do.”

Still angry, the elderly brothers faced the people from beside the great stone. “Listen, you rebels,” said Moses. “Do we have to bring water from this rock?”

Recorded history leaves us to speculate as to why what happened next happened. Instead of speaking to the rock as directed, Moses took the rod and struck it. He doubtlessly remembered all the other times he’d used the rod. Apparently Moses couldn’t quite bring himself to trust the idea that God could produce water from a rock on verbal command. He apparently felt the need to take physical action, regardless of what God had said. Aaron’s counsel seems to have supported his doubt. They were probably angry enough with the rebellious crowd to feel like hitting something anyway.

Moses struck the rock. Nothing happened. If he’d stopped to think, he’d have realized why and followed God’s instructions. His anger and perplexed faith didn’t stop to think. He took the rod and slammed the rock a second time. As so many years before, water flowed out and met the people’s needs. It was a miracle seen but rarely in all of human history.

We might say God worked through this inexact obedience, and Moses’ flawed methods were blessed. We might say such things, but that isn’t what God said. Yes, God had given his hurting people water in spite of their leaders’ imprecise obedience. But their leader had just knocked himself outside of God’s blessing.

God told Moses, “Because you didn’t believe me enough to honor me with your actions, you will not be allowed to enter the Promise Land. You must die out here in the desert.” Aaron had been complicit in Moses’ lapse and was warned of the same fate.

It should come as no surprise that the man who had been used to transmit the Law of God should be held rigidly accountable for his own disobedience. Inflexibility is the nature of Old Testament Law. Obey and live in God’s blessing. Disobey and die in His judgment. Such was law as given by Moses, and Moses was only God’s spokesman. He wasn’t too big to obey either the law as written or God’s specific personal commandment to himself.

Yet, even in light of the hard, cold nature of law, there is something tragic a few chapters later when we find Moses pleading for the opportunity just to enter into the land for which he had so long worked, fought, and struggled. The Promise Land had been the purpose of his life. In the end, he died without reaching it.

God’s judgment never changed. He took Moses up a mountain and allowed him to look into the Promise Land, possibly even gave him spiritual vision to see deeply into it. But he died in the wilderness. Partial obedience was really disobedience, and not even the Law Giver was exempt from the demands of a broken law.


I’m persuaded that Moses retained his relationship with God. Being barred from the earthly Promise Land did not keep him from the Heavenly Promise Land. His secret burial by God, the esteem with which the rest of Scripture holds him, and the fact that he appeared with Elijah to speak with Jesus Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration all support the belief that Moses indeed joined those who inherit eternal life.

But I’m also persuaded that Moses lost a great blessing through partial obedience. After focusing all his hopes, efforts, and energy on the Promise Land for forty years, he failed to enter it. God destroyed the works of his hands as it were. He lost his life’s work because he doubted whether God’s directions were adequate and allowed that doubt to lead to but the slightest disobedience.

We all must find serious food for thought in this hard reality. Most of us have access to God’s written Word, the Bible. We know what God expects from us, and we have far more convenient means of studying God’s Word than most of history’s people have ever had. We know enough to know the difference between common practice and what Scripture actually says. Sure, we sometimes struggle to apply what it says to different situations, but we can’t justify the excuse of not knowing what it says. Yet, like Moses, we face the fear that doing things God’s way just won’t work. Our culture, our circumstances, and even our own personalities suggest that the Bible was for someone else. So, we do life our own way and then cry when our way leads to misery. For the unforgiven, this choosing of one’s own way leads to death.

Like Moses, a Christian who takes a short fling of going his or her own way doesn’t sacrifice eternal life. But eternal life isn’t the only thing to lose. There are huge rewards both in Heaven and on earth that will go only to the fully faithful. There are dreams that must die, successes that cannot be experienced, and goals that cannot be reached simply because people too much like you and me pursue them according to their own ideas rather than through simple faith in and the resulting obedience to God.

Approximate obedience is really disobedience. What rod are you swinging against the rocks in your life?

Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not. (Galatians 6:7-9)

This work is in the pubic domain and may be copied and distributed freely.


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