Reflections on Torah–11 (Numbers 20)

Leaders’ Limitations (Numbers 20:1-13)

Published in Mennonite Weekly Review (August 3, 2009)

From the beginning, the Bible presents us with great people with major flaws, from Abraham and David to Peter and Paul. No human leader deserves unconditional loyalty, only God.

We see this dynamic with Moses. Moses, a great leader, galvanized his people to resist the Egyptian empire, brought Torah to the community to guide their common life, and interceded with God asking for mercy toward rebellious Israel.

Yet Moses never sought power. He tried to talk God out of choosing him to lead the people and rejected a kingly role for himself.

Moses’ Fatal Misstep

However, Moses had feet of clay. We learn of Moses’ sharp temper and proclivity toward violence (Ex. 2:11-15). Throughout, Moses struggles with his ability to trust God and have patience with the people.

In the end, God forbids Moses from joining the people in entering the promised land. Moses makes it to the verge, but his life ends there. The Lord showed Moses the land, and says, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham … ; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there” (Deut. 34:4).

Our Numbers 20 text recounts the incident that led to God’s decision not to let Moses go into the land. We have another “murmuring story,” when the people express dissatisfaction during their times of discomfort as they move through the wilderness. Typically, when the people murmur against their situation, God responds with anger and judgment. Moses seems to anticipate such a response here.

However, he misreads the situation. The people have no water; when they ask for water they complain sharply. However, this time God responds with generosity. God tells Moses, “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation … and command the rock before their eyes to yield its water. Thus you shall … provide drink for the congregation and their livestock” (20:8).

Earlier the people also complain about lack of water and do not evoke God’s anger (Ex. 17:1-7). It appears the Israelites approached their need in ways God honors in spite of their murmuring.

Moses misses this, though. He does not follow God’s instructions. He upbraids the people (“Listen, you rebels,” 20:10). Then rather than simply commanding the rock to bring forth water, Moses strikes the rock twice with the staff (a symbol for judgment).

Water does comes forth — God satisfies the people’s need regardless of Moses’ attitude. But the sanctions against Moses and Aaron are immediate and severe: “Because you did not trust in me, … you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them” (20:12).

The Temptations Leaders Face

It’s hard to see from these events why Moses’ actions were so bad. However, we can see here a quickness to judge and condemn that are highly problematic in a community leader, especially one acting on behalf of the merciful God of Israel who had just saved the people from slavery.

Moses’ fate underscores that people in leadership positions must never relax their vigilance in seeking God’s will above all else in their actions. Somehow, in his response here Moses shows a disregard for the people’s wellbeing and a commitment to his own agenda that takes priority over the community’s health.

What temptations do leaders in our day face? Here’s one: the temptation to place the survival of one’s institution or sustenance of one’s position in power above the call to embody genuine care for all people in one’s community, particularly those without power.

Ted Grimsrud teaches theology and peace studies at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.

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