Gateway to the Classics: Moses and the Exodus by Rev. J. Paterson Smyth
Moses and the Exodus by  Rev. J. Paterson Smyth

Lesson XVIII

How Moses Sinned and Suffered

Read Numbers XX. 1-13.
Deuteronomy XXXII. 51.
Psalm CVI.  33.

§ 1. Back Again at Kadesh

We have to do to-day what is generally an unsatisfactory thing in the story of a man's life—skip over thirty-eight years of it in silence. We have had to do it before—when? The whole of his life in Midian. Why? We had no information about it. So here. We have a long list of the camping-places during the desert wanderings (see Numbers xxxiii.), but with few exceptions the names are lost in obscurity and have very little of interest recorded.

From the silence of Scripture I think this period is intended to be a blank. All that happened in these thirty-eight years of God's strange discipline and training of Israel is hidden from us. It looks as if it had been a dull, monotonous time for them, since so little of interest is recorded. I suppose they often lay for months or perhaps years without change. But it had done them good—great good. In spite of the sad story of to-day, this people who have come back to the borders of the Promised Land are clearly a better people. Were these the same people who were turned back into the wilderness? No (xiv. 28-30). Their carcases had fallen in the wilderness. These were the boys and girls of that day now grown to be men and women, a new and better race after all these years of training in God's presence continually. I don't think the old race was entirely gone yet (see Deuteronomy ii. 14, 16). I think some of the bad ones remained, and perhaps that partly accounts for the murmuring and rebellion again now.

So the forty years of desert journey are nearly over at last. We are drawing towards the close of the story of Moses. We have a very sad part of it to-day. It tells of the only sin that has been recorded for us of him whom we have so learned to admire and love all through this history. Now, first of all, be clear about the place. Where had they come to? (v.  1). Kadesh. Where was that? When were they last there? (Numbers xiii. 26). What happened there? Yes. Kadesh was that place on the border of Palestine, where thirty-eight years ago they had been brought to see the land and enter it, where they sent out the spies, and from which through their wicked rebellion they were turned back into the wilderness to wander for all these years.

Back again at Kadesh. And Moses is sad for a family trouble—what? Miriam is dying—or dead; she died at Kadesh. Should not you think that would solemnize the people a little? What else should have done so? The awful memory of the Korah rebellions (v.  3), and I think the old memories of what happened on that same spot thirty-eight years ago. But it did not. What was the trouble now? That huge host with their cattle were too much for the waters of Kadesh—drought came, and great anxiety. Then what happened? Yes. One would think these thirty-eight years were but a bad dream, and that we were back again in the old Kadesh days, so exactly was the scene of the old rebellion reproduced. "Would to God we had died with our brethren in Korah's rebellion! Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt into this evil place?" Had they ever before been in like plight? (Exodus xvii.). And had God delivered them and kept them supplied for forty years? Do you think you would have been so patient with them?

What did Moses and Aaron do? Fell on their faces in prayer and intercession at the door of the Tent of Meeting where God's presence was specially shown. That was Moses' one resort in every trouble and anxiety. He went to God always. Don't you think he and Aaron were frightened? Well they might be. Here they were on the very place where thirty-eight years ago they had all been turned back. Were they to repeat it all again, to lose the land again, to be sent forth once more into that terrible wilderness till another generation died? No wonder they were frightened. What was the result of their prayer? What did God direct?

§ 2. Smiting the Rock

Now the rest of this story puzzles me. I have formed such a high opinion of Moses that I can't understand how he could fail so badly here, after having behaved so grandly in far more difficult times. I should have thought that his old habit of falling on his face before God, and bringing all his troubles and perplexities to Him, would be enough for him. That he would leave his troubles and vexations there with God, and come forth strong and peaceful as at other times to do the best in the crisis before him. But evidently he did not, nor Aaron either. They did what many people do still, carry troubles and vexations to God in prayer, and then carry them away with them again to fret over.

Should not you have thought, too, that he would be glad that God was so kind and merciful, and gone forth with glad heart to do his commission? Ordinary people might be different, but we expect such great things from Moses.

Next day we have another of these magnificent pictures in the history of Israel. (I wish some great artist would paint them, as Tissot and Doré have done in the "Life of Christ.") The vast host of Israel in their hundreds of thousands assembled in front of the great cliff of Kadesh—the rocks bare and dry, the grass brown and burnt up, the men and women and little children tortured with the heat and thirst, waiting for the miracle. And then at last Aaron comes in his beautiful robes, and Moses is beside him. But instead of the calm dignity of the high priest and the face of the old leader shining with God's presence, there is a change—a look of hesitancy and doubt and angry irritation. And the people stand wondering to see their chieftain, who has been for forty years their example of all good, come forth angry and petulant, and fiercely strike the rock twice with his rod without even speaking to it at all as directed, and turn fiercely to the waiting crowd. "Ye rebels must we" (or rather, Can  we) "fetch you water out of this rock?"

Whatever Moses' fault, did it prevent God's mercy to the people? Immediately a great torrent of cool, clear water burst from the rock, and the people shouted exultingly as they rushed forward to drink. But do you think there was much exulting in the heart of the old chief? Ah! he knew what he had done, that he had grieved and dishonoured God and shattered his own peace and his own future by these two strokes on the rock. For the Lord said—what? "Because ye believed Me not, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them."

§ 3. Moses' Sin

Ah, poor old leader! in the anger and unbelief of a moment he had spoiled his life. Are you thinking in your heart, though you don't like to say it, that God was a little bit hard on him for this one sin? Best that you should learn to express candidly though very humbly and reverently about such thoughts. It is probably because you have so high a belief about God that you think He could not be unfairly hard on any one. Besides, in asking such questions you are more likely to find the answer.

Now what do you really think Moses' sin was? I am not at all sure myself. I am told that it was that he was angry, or that he struck the rock twice, or that he said, "Must we  fetch you water?" giving glory to himself, or that what he really said was, "Can  we fetch you water?" (see notes), showing unbelief in God. Verse 12 gives some colour to this latter opinion. They are all bad sins. Probably his sin was made up of all of them together. But I think there was something worse since the loving, patient God punished so severely such a loving, faithful, devoted servant as Moses. We have only a very brief, condensed account. I think if we knew all, we should see some serious aggravation of the fault that does not appear to us. In some way, too, it was necessary for the people's sake  that Moses should not escape severe punishment for his sin (see Deuteronomy i. 27; iv. 21). "The Lord was angry with me for your sake." We know that it was a sin of unbelief and of dishonouring God. We know that it must have been of a very serious nature to call for such a punishment. Beyond that we can only guess in what it exactly consisted.

But it spoiled and saddened his last days. To feel he had dishonoured God would be sorer pain to Moses than any punishment God might inflict. It is the only blot in his glorious career, and it is a warning to us all. "Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall." If even so noble a soul as Moses could fall into such a serious sin, how watchful we should be! There was only One who ever walked on earth on whom the devil had no power. "The Prince of this World cometh, and hath nothing in Me."

I have often wondered how it was that he fell. For some time past something must, I think, have been going wrong with him. A grave slip like that does not usually come in a moment and without previous smaller slips in preparation. I wonder had he been keeping up his communion with God? That was always his great strength. It is the great strength of every man who practises it. The quiet little time in the morning and evening and at all other hours, of prayer and meditation and "talking to God" and reading one's Bible—and our public worship, especially Holy Communion. These are life's great strength, and when they are neglected there is danger of a fall. I don't like to suspect Moses of this even for a short time. But it may have been. Perhaps the weary, monotonous wanderings in the desert had tired his soul out. Perhaps he was troubled and vexed at Miriam's illness and death. And perhaps—but this is a mere guess. I see a curious statement in ch.  xii. 1 about him. What? Miriam was angry with him about an Ethiopian woman whom he had married. I wonder could it mean that Zipporah was dead, and that he had married again, a stranger outside of Israel? And if so, I wonder if this Ethiopian wife was of a lower type and dragged down his high thoughts and ideals, and so life was not kept at its old high level. I don't know. This is all guessing. But I feel that something had been probably going wrong for some time. It was only a great slip,  not a permanent fall . And I am sure his great sorrow helped him to recover himself soon. But it was a slip, a bad slip.

§ 4. Lessons

(1) What do you think are the two chief lessons of this? You easily guess the first. Don't neglect your daily prayers and Bible-reading. Don't let them grow cold or careless, else your life will drop lower, and the bad slips will come.

(2) And I think we learn another lesson. Do you think God forgave Moses in his great sorrow? And loved him still? Yes. I think it teaches us the loving sternness of God that can forgive a man and love him and yet insist on letting the punishment of his sin come on him for his good. When you come to the story of his death I think you will see that the punishment was not really much of punishment at all, since God was taking him to a far nobler and lovelier Promised Land. I am sure Moses would see it in that light afterwards. But don't you think while here on earth that he felt the punishment sorely? I feel touched as I see how he longed for that land, how longingly he speaks afterwards in Deuteronomy; that good land, he says, that land of rivers and fountains—the land of wheat and barley—of vines and pomegranates and figs, the land of oil olives and honey. Nobody could guess from this quiet, reserved history in the Book of Numbers what a longing was in the old man's heart. But it nearly brings tears into one's eyes to see him exposing his heart's desire in his farewell speech in Deuteronomy, and we find that he whose pleadings had nearly always been for others, had in secret pleaded eagerly to God for himself. "I besought God, Let me go over, I pray Thee, and see the good land that is beyond Jordan, that goodly mountain, and Lebanon. But the Lord said to me, "Let it suffice thee. Speak to Me no more on this matter." (Deuteronomy 23-26). Does it not all show how sorely he felt it?

Some people cannot understand how punishment should be possible along with God's pardon and love, just because of their wretched vulgarizing of the ideas connected with God's chastisement. To get rid of the penalty is their one idea of being forgiven. To the true servant of God it is not the penalty that matters so much, but the fact that God is "out with him," as children say, "not friends with him." I saw one day a child ordered to bed for the day for some wrong-doing. He had been warned that that punishment would be the result if he committed that fault. By-and-by the little chap expressed his sorrow and his mother forgave him and kissed him. Do you think she should then have let him get up? Even though she had warned and threatened that punishment beforehand? I am quite sure she should not. At any rate, being a wise mother, she did not, and the boy quite understood that his penalty must remain. But it did not matter much then. It was easy to bear it since mother was "friends with him" again and had kissed him.

So it was with Moses. The Lord forgave His beloved servant. But the temporal consequences of his sin must remain. So it was with David, "The Lord also hath put away thy sin. Howbeit the child shall die." (2 Samuel xii. 13, 14). So it is with us. For our worst sins there is plenteous redemption. Our sins may become white as snow and pass away altogether so far as saddening or disturbing our relations with God. Yet that sin may keep on its punishment for years afterwards—may leave in our lives—in our characters, in our reputation, in our health, in our position, in a hundred different ways may leave its traces and consequences; e.g. a liar or a drunkard or a dishonest or dishonourable man; the results will remain after he has repented and been forgiven and is struggling nobly, comforted by the love of God. God will not take away the results. But like the mother who kissed and forgave and restored her love to her boy, He will bless them to us and make them easy to bear.

So Moses had to look forward in his closing days to putting aside all his proud ambitions for Israel and dying in the wilderness and letting another lead them in. But God was with him and comforted him. So he could bear it.


V.  1, Abode in Kadesh.  Some people think that Kadesh remained a sort of headquarters all the forty years, though the tribes were scattered about through the wilderness. They certainly abode a good while there, "many days," Moses says, Deuteronomy i. 46.

V.  3. This is evidently a reference to Korah's rebellion. But it seems puzzling. Why should this be so prominent in their minds if it were thirty-eight years ago? And in v. 4 it does not look natural that after forty years they should be still asking, "Why have ye brought us up out of Egypt?" One might reply that the case of Korah was so terrible that the older people could never forget it—and that the words "Why have ye brought us up" should be rather "Why did ye bring us up out of Egypt at all?" Probably that is the explanation. But it is hard to feel sure about the exact order of the events and the intervals between them.

V.  10, Must we fetch,  etc. What did Moses really say? What was his sin? Did he say, "Must we  fetch," etc., taking God's honour to himself? If the we were thus emphatic the personal pronoun would probably have occurred in the Hebrew for emphasis. But it does not. From the references to it afterwards it would seem more probable that Moses and Aaron were somewhat distrustful of God's promise and His power: "Can  we fetch you water," etc.

Questions for Lesson XVIII

The Israelites are again at Kadesh on the Palestine border. When had they been there before? What had happened there?

How many years since then?

What family sorrow fell on Moses at Kadesh? What earlier mention have we of Miriam?

Now tell of the one recorded sin of Moses' life.

It must have been worse than it seems for it brought a severe punishment. What?

Yet surely God forgave and loved Moses though he punished him. Can you explain how pardon and punishment could go together?

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