At Meribah the people of Israel “gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron” (Numbers 20:2). The problem was a lack of water and Israel was so despondent over it that they told Moses they wished they had died “When our brothers fell dead before the Lord” (v. 3)! Think about that a bit. It was all downhill after that as they launched into a series of venomous complaints (primarily) against Moses’ leadership.
Moses and Aaron went before the Lord and (surprisingly to them) He had no words of judgment against Israel or words of consolation or encouragement for the brothers. He simply told Moses to take his staff, speak to the rock, and water would come out for the people and their animals (v. 7-8).
In my mind, I see Moses and Aaron dejectedly trudging back to camp and gathering the people together. Their thinking was something along the lines of, “This is treating the symptom rather than the problem.” And before you know it, Moses had exploded in anger and said what he thought Yahweh should have said. He called the people “rebels” (v. 10). He struck the rock twice with the staff rather than speaking to it as he had been instructed to do. God was not pleased and told him, “Because you did not trust in Me enough to honor Me is the sight of the Israelites; you will not bring this community into the land I give them,” (v. 12).
Note the underlying cause—“you did not trust in Me enough.” Ouch! That’s the same crime that is keeping the people of Moses’ generation out of the promised land (Deuteronomy 1:32)—and now he was part of that! He and Aaron had fallen into the same sin that Israel did.
Israel’s need for water was legitimate (even though their response was over the top). They didn’t have any water. As Olson has pointed out, we’re conditioned by their constant complaining (beginning in 11:1ff) to view all subsequent behavior as more of the same. That’s probably not a good assumption. Moses and Aaron apparently made that assumption and it got them into trouble.
That Moses was angry is evident from his words. That he was out of control and taking matters into his own hands was demonstrated by his failure to follow God’s instructions. He had misjudged the situation, allowed himself to be worked into a rage, and taken things into his own hands. He hadn’t trusted God or treated Him as holy (v. 12). He had more or less put himself in the position of God. As a result, neither he nor Aaron would lead Israel into the promised land.
It seems to me there are some real lessons for leadership in this incident. Israel was certainly guilty of complaining many times for no good reason. Leaders often deal with complaints and problems that are reoccurring. It’s a temptation to do what Moses did and be dismissive of these. Assumptions are something we all make, but leaders need to exercise due diligence to make sure that what they think is happening is really what is happening.
Another lesson concerns the assumption Moses made about how he thought Yahweh should have responded to Israel’s complaining. Even though they were in genuine need of water, Israel certainly over-dramatized their situation. God chose not to punish them for that. (Perhaps He made allowance for them because of all the suffering and death they had experienced). Whatever it was, it was the right decision and Moses should have accepted it. Leaders, like everyone else, have to learn how to move on when things don’t turn out the way they thought they should.
Moses and Aaron were forgiven by God of their sin as all followers are, but they had to live with the consequences. I think his and Aaron’s death outside of Canaan had to be a powerful lesson to the generation entering the land. God was not to be trifled with by anyone!