Towards the end of the "Wilderness Wanderings", now (all) 40 years after the "Exodus", but before the entrance into the "Promised Land", the sons of Israel contended with Moses and indirectly to Aaron, as to the lack of foodstuffs but more importantly water to drink, for they feared death not just of themselves but their livestock also. After falling on their faces (in prayer), the glory of the Lord (God) appeared to the two principalities, namely Moses and Aaron who, let's face it, were made responsible for, not only the sons of Israel's miraculous escape from Egypt and subsequent survival but also their future well-being - not withstanding the rebels, who had all been either killed off by God, or had naturally expired - and gave them specific instructions with regard to extracting water from the rock-face before their eyes. But instead of speaking to the rock, as per God's specific direction, that it may yield its water, Moses thought just to strike the rock twice with his rod, which, although not done exactly as directed, still resulted in water miraculously gushing forth.

This seemingly innocent mis-appropriation of God's specifics, resulted in God denying the two principal heroes of the "Exodus" the right to, not only lead their people into the "Promised Land", but the right to even enter same themselves, and this after Miriam herself had just died, meaning that she was also denied. Can we be forgiven for perceiving this to be a seemingly unjust betrayal of all three??

  • I have upvoted this question. One thing I didn't deal with in my answer is whether we can be forgiven for thinking their punishment was unjust. Yes I do think so. But I don't think it actually WAS unjust. Also I do not think that Miriam was punished. She simply died because she was very old.... several years older than Moses and Aaron. Commented Oct 15, 2023 at 17:59
  • Since I promised feedback... I recommend shorter sentences. Commented Oct 15, 2023 at 18:04
  • @DanFefferman - Aahh! So you did already upvote me on this one. Nice to know, otherwise ..... Yes, shorter sentences, point taken. Commented Oct 15, 2023 at 18:49

5 Answers 5


Moses’ behaviour appears completely incomprehensible. [Martin Noth. Numbers (SCM, 1968) 147.]

The basic problem is making sense of Moses’ behaviour. To find its meaning and to explain why it is so wrongful, given that the exact nature of the sin is not stated explicitly, and, as the OP suggests, seems a mere technicality or even misunderstanding.

Burnside explains what we perhaps have missed. [Burnside, J. P. (2017). Why Was Moses Banned from the Promised Land? A Radical Retelling of the Rebellions of Moses (Num. 20:2-13 and Exod. 2:11-15). Zeitschrift für Altorientalische und Biblische Rechtsgeschichte (ZAR), 22(2016), 111-159.] Open access.

I suggest Moses knows full well the implications of his actions, and their likely consequences. He is, after all, Israel’s supreme jurist. He can discern patterns, precedents and their consequences better than anyone else. It is true that YHWH provides him with a way out from the popular revolt but, this time, Moses does not want to take it. He chooses a different way out. His peer group, with whom he travelled out of Egypt, is now gone and even Miriam, his own sibling, is now dead. Faced with a re-run of the events of Exod. 17:1-6 – replayed this time with the second generation – Moses must have felt the worst kind of déjà vu. Psychologically, he has had enough. To put it crudely, at this point Moses has a ‘death-wish.’ 119 He decides to rebel, and go the same way as Miriam. Moses’ words and actions – performed in full view of all the people – are an effective and public resignation from office. They are as clear as day and leave no possible room for doubt. How ironic, then, that we have missed it

My proposal is this. Moses knows that when Israel rejects the message of devoir-faire she has received from YHWH – to be delivered from Egypt and enter the Promised Land – the result is death in the desert and not being allowed to enter. He thus knows perfectly well that if he rejects the message of devoir-faire that he has received from YHWH – his calling – the results are likely to be the same. The equivalent for Moses of Israel’s actions in Num. 14 is for him to refuse to serve as YHWH’s agent and present himself as Israel’s sole deliverer. This Moses chooses to do. Unlike some commentators, I do not see his actions as accidental or the product of a technical misunderstanding. I suggest Moses knows full well the implications of his actions, and their likely consequences. He is, after all, Israel’s supreme jurist. He can discern patterns, precedents and their consequences better than anyone else. It is true that YHWH provides him with a way out from the popular revolt but, this time, Moses does not want to take it. He chooses a different way out. His peer group, with whom he travelled out of Egypt, is now gone and even Miriam, his own sibling, is now dead. Faced with a re-run of the events of Exod. 17:1-6 – replayed this time with the second generation – Moses must have felt the worst kind of déjà vu. Psychologically, he has had enough. To put it crudely, at this point Moses has a ‘death-wish.’ 119 He decides to rebel, and go the same way as Miriam. Moses’ words and actions – performed in full view of all the people – are an effective and public resignation from office. They are as clear as day and leave no possible room for doubt. How ironic, then, that we have missed it.

If this was what was going on in the mind of Moses – and we cannot know for sure – his deliberate rebellion must be tempered by compassion that this, uncharacteristic, choice was preferable to his carrying on as Israel’s leader. 122 Strangely enough this reading fits the tender accounts of Moses’ death; a punishment with strangely no aura of punitiveness.123 Resisting the accusations of the people was Moses’ life-long challenge. Even whilst testifying to his legendary forbearance, to be overcome so close to the goal of reaching the Promised Land is the irony and the tragedy of Num. 20.

In address of the OP question, Miriam's punishment has the following association:

With this in mind, I draw attention to what is usually regarded as an odd feature of the literary presentation of Num. 20:2-13, namely, the record of the death of Miriam in Num. 20:1. Miriam belongs to the Exodus generation that dies in the wilderness, along with nearly everybody else, for being part of the popular revolt against the spies’ report (Num. 14).118 Right at the start of Num. 20 her death reminds us of the penalty for rebellion – exile from the Promised Land. This is hardly accidental because, as we saw in 3 (iii) above, there is a close structural link between the people’s rebellion in Num. 14 and Moses’ rebellion in Num. 20.

And Aaron:

Num. 20:2-13 presents Aaron as equally culpable. Limits upon space mean this deserves to be the subject of a separate study and so I do not discuss Aaron’s liability in this article, except insofar as it affects my argument in relation to Moses. As it happens, the focus of Num. 20:2-13 is on Moses, as the string of singular verb commands from YHWH to Moses in Num. 20:8 suggests. Aaron’s participation is not integral to determining the nature of Moses’ own offence.

I posit that this, and in particular Burnside's proposal, answers the OP question. It possesses the necessary gravity.

A footnote concerning the severity of Moses' offence.

The OP asks 'Can we be forgiven for perceiving this to be (..) seemingly unjust ?'

The rock incident is widely read as symbolic of Calvary. Christ is the rock, striking is the of cause suffering/death, and water includes blood, life, and salvation.

Paul confirms:

1 Corinthians 10: 1-4

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 5

The severity of Moses offence is explained by God as 'failing to uphold God as holy' :

Numbers 20 12

12 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.”

Striking the rock twice would be to crucify Christ twice.

The author of Hebrews explains:

Hebrews 6:6

To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace [παραδειγματίζοντας paradeigmatizontas 3856 'open-shame']

We see now the severity of Moses' offence. And (as in Hebrews 6) the severity of its consequences, and why it was deemed 'failing to uphold God as holy'.

I posit that salvific symbolism (rock, water etc), if not the exact foreknowledge of Cavalry, would have been known to Moses. These are thematic in cultural records of Scripture.

The transfiguration demonstrates that things came good for Moses ultimately. And, despite the offence, God produced salvific water from the rock - allegorical of Calvalry perhaps.

  • Love this. Wow!! Thank you so much. I guess this means another upvote from me to you, but nevertheless, very deserving. Commented Oct 14, 2023 at 9:24
  • I don't see Moses as acting deliberately... to me he clearly let his temper get the best of him. Incidentally there is a Jewish tradition that Miriam was married to Caleb - Talmud: Sotah 12a.. If so this would argue against her siding against him in the matter of the 12 spies. Commented Oct 15, 2023 at 1:23
  • Thank you, Olde English. @Dan F, we cannot know for sure Moses' mind. Burnside sets out at length his evidence in the linked paper for a deliberate act, albeit circumstantial. But I do not see 'clear' reason from the text here to think Moses was angry. Though he was a past offender; in the Exodus 32:19 incident with the broken tablets the text states Moses state of mind. But not in Numbers 20.....? Whatever, the transfiguration shows things worked out for good for Moses, and ultimately for Joshua.
    – user59096
    Commented Oct 15, 2023 at 8:59
  • Added footnote re: severity of Moses' offence.
    – user59096
    Commented Oct 17, 2023 at 8:23
  • Love the footnote addition. Time enough on this post has now passed and you get the symbolic acknowledgement (the "tick") for best answer. Commented Oct 17, 2023 at 13:35

First, there is no such thing as, a "seemingly innocent misappropriation of God's specifics". If God specifically specified something, then it must be specifically done.

More importantly, what Moses did was NOT "seemingly innocent"; it was blasphemous! Note the text of the narrative.

Numbers 20:7-11

7 And the LORD said to Moses, 8 “Take the staff and assemble the congregation. You and your brother Aaron are to speak to the rock while they watch, and it will pour out its water. You will bring out water from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their livestock.”

9 So Moses took the staff from the LORD’s presence, just as he had been commanded. 10 Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly in front of the rock, and Moses said to them, “Listen now, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” 11 Then Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff, so that a great amount of water gushed out, and the congregation and their livestock were able to drink.

Note that according to this description, Moses committed two sins:

  1. Moses struck the rock rather than speaking to the rock (recall that "the Rock" was a specific symbol of God 1 Cor 10:3, 4, Isa 44:8, 26:4, Ps 118:22, Isa 28:16, Dan 2:34, 35, 45, Matt 21:42-44, Mark 12:10, Luke 20:17, 1 Peter 2:4-8, Acts 4:11, Rom 9:33, Ps 28:1, 33;1-3, 42:9, 61:2, 62:7, 71:3, 78:35, 92:15, 144:1, Deut 32:4, 15, 31, 37, 1 Sam 2:2, 2 Sam 22:32, 23:3, Isa 30:29, Hab 1:12. Further, the water of life is also a symbol of the saving Messiah, as per John 4:14, 7:38, Zech 14:8, Jer 2:13, 17:13, etc.
  2. Moses (and Aaron) took credit for the life-saving water rather than pointing to the true source of the miracle. They did this by saying, "must we bring you water out of this rock?". That is nothing short of blasphemy before a still learning young, impressionable nation at a critical juncture. This sin had to be treated with great care and God did so.

Thus, Moses and Aaron were disqualified from entering the earthly promised land.

Miriam's sin was also serious (in which Aaron was complicit) - racism used in such a way as to denigrate the divinely appointed leader of God's people. That could not be tolerated and was severely punished with the affliction of leprosy (later cured).

  • Believe me, I understand what you are pointing out. Maybe God also needed to set an extreme example, in the face of the "newbies", as it were, in order to bring it home to them that no-one, absolutely no-one, is above divine punishment, for what amounts to abject disobedience. For all these predominantly young, or at least younger, sons of Israel knew, the subsequent death of all three of their and God's "principalities", in this matter, could have meant no second chances for them. Whereas we, at least, know better. The transfiguration being case in point. Matt 17:1-9, + 1. Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 23:28
  • Miriam's sin was indeed severely punished, but the text says nothing about her being prevented from entering Canaan as part of her punishment. I do not agree that her sin was as serious as Moses' because she sinned against Moses while Moses sinned against God. Moreover, Moses' position was taken over by Joshua after his sin. Miriam continued her mission and was never replaced. Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 16:51
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    @DanFefferman - you are correct. I will modify my answer.
    – Dottard
    Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 19:14

The reason Moses and Aaron did not enter is specified clearly. They rebelled against the Lord. God apparently saw Aaron as complicit in Moses' sin, for they acted together. The text does not say that God punished Miriam by preventing her from entering Canaan.

Numbers 20:24

Let Aaron be gathered to his people, for he shall not enter the land I have given to the Israelites, because you both rebelled against my directions at the waters of Meribah.

God explains to Moses that he was supposed to "sanctify me" by speaking to the Rock, rather than striking it. (Num. 20:12) In the OT, God is often called the Rock of salvation (Psalm 62:3 etc.), and the New Testament explains that "the Rock was Christ," (1 Corinthians 10:4) so striking the Rock in anger rather than sanctifying it was a serious matter. My interpretation of the scene is that God wanted to give the people hope and strength to enter Canaan and fight, but Moses and Aaron took the people's grumbling personally. In their anger against the people they disunited with God at the crucial moment. Even in Dt. 1:37, Moses continues to the blame his rebellion on the people, who moved him to strike the Rock, rather than acknowledging his own sin.

The Lord was angered against me also on your account, and said, You shall not enter there either.

In Miriam's case no reason is given for her not entering. It was probably not her sin of criticizing Moses' marriage. Aaron did that as well, and it is clear that this is not reason he was prevented from entering. Her sin was against Moses, not God directly; and her punishment was temporary.

Numbers 12:10-15:

There was Miriam, stricken with a scaly infection, white as snow... Miriam was confined outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not start out again until she was brought back.

This concluded her punishment. Being several years older than her brothers, it seems that Miriam, like most of the other Israelites of her generation, simply died of old age later on (Numbers 20:1) shortly before the incident of Moses' and Aaron's rebellion.

Conclusion: Moses and Aaron were not allowed to enter Canaan because they violated God's instruction regarding how to bring forth water from the Rock. Particularly, Moses let his anger get the best of him when God's attitude was to give the people hope. By striking the Rock in anger when God told him to speak to it and thus "to sanctify me," Moses committed a serious sin, in which Aaron was complicit. The text does not indicate that God prevented Miriam from entering.

  • With all due respect, this is not worthy of you. Seems awfully rushed, and has little salient reasoning to boot. You probably didn't even read this over before you posted, there being a number of syntax errors in evidence. It disturbs me to say this, because I feel like a teacher correcting a student's paper, but I would need to see a much better effort from you in order for me to give this further consideration. Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 4:55
  • Thanks for the feedback. ..... My concluding paragraph was definitely embarrassing. I fixed as many syntax errors etc. as I could find and added new material to make my reasoning clearer. Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 14:00
  • The fact that Moses, and Aaron (by association), went against God's somewhat implicit directions is not in question. They certainly did not do exactly what was asked of them, particularly Moses. But after decades of obedience, admittedly not always without question, to then be denied entrance into the "Promised Land", on a possible technicality (they were just "human" after all) seems extreme. For instance, it is not clear to me that Moses struck the rock in anger, although by all accounts the "sons" were a surly lot. Re. Miriam, surely God could have ensured that she live a little longer? Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 16:16
  • I could surely upvote your answer now, as it now stands, as I have done for you in the past, but I'm not so sure you have ever reciprocated, or shown any thanks for that matter?? Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 16:25
  • Regarding upvotes etc. it seems that most of your answers appeared prior to my joining the group. However, I've notice a strident tone to some of your posts that puts me off. I'll try to look past that in the future because on closer examination, I see a lot of good research in many of them. I may have upvoted some of them without mentioning it in a comment. Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 17:18

It is hard to compare the two accounts of the rock and see a difference in Exodus 17 and Numbers 20 that would account for requiring a different method for getting water from the rock.

And maybe this was Moses' thought process too, it seemed good to him at the time to hit the rock rather than speak to it.

To me, it feels like Moses did it in anger, which is understandable seeing as his sister just died, he is old and probably worn out, and had already gone through this issue with the previous generation. It could be that in his anger he thought it through and decided that striking the rock and verbally rebuking the people was more dramatic, memorable and forceful, and good for ensuring the future faithfulness of the nation in the promised land.

If so, it is a similar thought process to Pharaoh at the beginning of Exodus: It is my job to ensure the future of my nation, and I will do so according to my logic, even if it means abusing the power and authority God entrusted to me.

Exodus 1:9-11

9 And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of the sons of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. 10 “Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, otherwise they will multiply, and in the event of war, they will also join those who hate us, and fight against us and depart from the land.” 11 So they appointed taskmasters over them to oppress them with hard labor. And they built for Pharaoh storage cities, Pithom and Raamses.

And this gives me a new perspective I have never really considered before ... that when Eve took from the fruit, maybe part of her logic was "I need wisdom because I am co-regent and co-priest of mankind and need to secure the people's future.

Genesis 3:6

When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took some of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband with her, and he ate.

(Side note: Moses' statement, " ... shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10, emphasis mine) reminds me of Eve's statement “I have obtained a male child with the help of the Lord.” (Genesis 4:1, emphasis mine) To me, these feel a bit like "credit creep" ... that is people beginning to take a little more credit for themselves than they should, and could be an indication that they harbour a little bit of bitterness in their hearts about the way God is doing things.)

Also note, other similarities in both the garden narrative and the desert incident

  1. God's presence is easily accessible
  2. One active and one passive participant in the disobedience
  3. The consequence of disobedience is denied access to God's special place

For me, when I read the garden narrative, I wonder what Eve should have done when tempted to eat the fruit. The obvious solution is to simply go to God and ask him about it. It certainly seems that God was open to dialogue, even after the disobedience (he asks questions and listens to answers) -- so how much more would be be open to explaining things and negotiating if possible.

In fact, discussing with God and negotiating with him served both Abraham and Moses himself quite well in the past:

Abraham in Genesis 18:22-26

22 The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord.

23 Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

26 The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

Moses in Exodus 4:1-5

1 Moses answered, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’?”

2 Then the Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?”

“A staff,” he replied.

3 The Lord said, “Throw it on the ground.”

Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it. 4 Then the Lord said to him, “Reach out your hand and take it by the tail.” So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand. 5 “This,” said the Lord, “is so that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has appeared to you.”

In all the examples of negotiation with God that I can think of, God's actions end up being more merciful.

And maybe that's what all this is about. Moses knew God was not going to be more harsh with the Israelites, and so took it upon himself to use the symbol of God's authority (the staff) to tell them they were under God's judgment when God intended for him to show the people were under God's mercy. A simple action like striking instead of speaking to it may seem inconsequential, but can have the exact opposite effect—and this effect is compounded when it is a person in authority.

The people, admittedly with a bad attitude, approached their spiritual leader with a legitimate problem. Rebuking the people could, in the future, cause people to accept bad conditions when God actually wants to bless them.

As for Aaron, Moses was being an abusive spiritual leader and Aaron stood by and didn't say anything. Aaron was the only person able to intercede for the people (he was the high priest) and he neglected his duty.

The whole incident is a reminder for spiritual leaders and spiritual overseers to use God's authority with restraint, and continually talk to God and each other about the complex issues we face, particularly when it comes to vulnerable people.

  • Nicely done, + 1. Thank you so much for pointing me to that Exodus account of the same water/rock incident, where the account is told differently and that striking the rock, like Moses struck the Nile, was the directive. Nevertheless, one has to bear in mind that Moses supposedly wrote the narrative in both Exodus and Numbers and could therefore have changed the story line. Still, you had a lot of good stuff to say here. My feeling is that the narrative in Numbers is probably the correct account, particularly when the surrounding text is taken into view, and I do now see an angry Moses. Commented Oct 14, 2023 at 4:57
  • Even though the Exodus 17 and Numbers 20 incidents are similar, the seem to be portrayed as seperate bur comparable events. The first incident occurred after exiting the wilderness of Sin (Sin was an Egyptian town on the western side of a desert, whose name is of unknown origin, pronounced 'seen') and happened when the Israelites were camped at Rephidim near the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula. It happened to the first generation of Israelites in the first few months of leaving Egypt. Apparently, the people grumbled against Moses instead of bringing their complaint to Moses.
    – Steven
    Commented Oct 14, 2023 at 6:46
  • The second incident occurred almost 40 years later to the second generation of wilderness Israelites. It happened in the wilderness of Zin (a desert just south-west of the Dead Sea, pronounced Tseen) in which they camped at a town called Kadesh. So these, are probably factual two seperate incidents. In terms of their similarity, it is not unlikely that over a 40 year period of wandering around in deserts, that people would complain of lack of water. And if they knew that Moses had previously obtained water from rock that they would try it a second time.
    – Steven
    Commented Oct 14, 2023 at 6:47
  • Other similarities could be deliberately included as a literary parallelism. This is an extremely common device used in the old Testament to force the reader to meditate on the differences and their significance.
    – Steven
    Commented Oct 14, 2023 at 6:47
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    I was thinking that they had to be two different accounts. I guess I jumped on the fact that they both mentioned Meribah, although in Exodus, Moses, it seems, named the place of "quarreling" Massah and Meribah, whereas in Numbers we have the description of Waters of Meribah, due to the Sons of Israel's "contention". Nevertheless, the second account just goes to explain why Moses might think that striking the rock with his staff was surely permissible, seeing as that was how God directed him in the first instance. Commented Oct 14, 2023 at 8:51

This might be out in left field but...I always felt that when the Lord said He was done with Israel and that Moses should allow God to bring another generation (God's idea) in to the Promised Land beside this rebellious one that He was trying to protect Moses because it says in Psalms that "it went ill" with Moses ON ACCOUNT OF THEM..because they rebelled against His Spirit, SO THAT HE spoke rashly with his lips. I know we are responsible essentially for our own actions, but could it be that God saw the eventual taxing effect this would have on Moses so much so that it would cost him dearly. Can we be most merciful and talk God out of things to our own demise? Is mercy always the golden answer or should wisdom speak and say - enough - this relationship is toxic - I need to heed God on this....

  • 1
    Found it too hard to follow this accounting. You should check out our "Tour" section, in order to get a better handle on procedural aspects relative to this site, which you will find gives advice on one's handling of syntax, among other niceties. Commented Apr 6 at 16:02
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    @Karen - Thank you for you input, and taking time to answer! However it is best to direct an Answer to the specific topic in the Question; in this case Aaron and Miriam. Since you didn't give the reference in the Psalms, I can't verify that the Psalm was referring to these two, or to the Israelites as a whole. But the question was not about Moses, so do some more research, and get back to this answer. Keep studying the Bible' it will bring you closer to Jesus!
    – ray grant
    Commented Apr 6 at 19:25

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