By Rev. Denise Allen-Macartney
Lately, I have been reading the Old Testament book of Numbers; not always riveting prose. Yet God often catches me unawares. Today was one of those moments.
In Numbers 20:1-13, the people are at Kadesh in the desert of Zin. Miriam has just died and been buried. There is a drought. No water to drink. No water to wash with. No water to cook in. Not surprisingly, the people are frustrated. I’d be frustrated too. I would probably complain loudly. In this case, the people congregate together—the way groups congregate for worship—but they gather in angry protest.
This is, by my counting, the sixth time in Numbers that people rebel against Moses, and/or God. On every previous occasion, God has responded with swift judgement. Plague, snakes, fire, earthquake: God has levied heavy consequences on people who rebelled.
As before, Moses goes directly to the tent of meeting. He prostrates himself before God. And God answers: not in fury, not in vengeance, but in grace. “Take your staff,” he tells Moses. “Gather the people. Speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will pour out its water.”
Moses goes and does exactly what God says. He takes his staff, and gathers the people at the rock. But! Then Moses’ frustration and anger spew out. He berates the people. “Listen, you rebels!” he yells. “Must we bring you water out of this rock?” He raises his staff in fury, and strikes the rock, twice.
There is water. Plenty of water. But there is also judgment, on Moses!
I have long found this story puzzling. Why does God get so angry with Moses? After all Moses has done for so many years? Remember when God first called Moses, and Moses embarked on an impossible quest? Moses confronted Pharaoh. Moses trusted God, and he led these fractious people. For weeks. Months. Years. On several occasions, when God, himself, became angry with the people, Moses interceded for them.
But now, at the very last, God declares that Moses will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. God says to Moses: “Because you did not trust in me enough to honour me as holy in the sight of the Israelites….”
Ronald B. Allen offers helpful insights. Is Moses disappointed with God’s failure to respond in wrath to the rebellious people, as God had in the past? “It is almost as though Moses thought it was necessary to do the work of vengeance himself.” So, Moses responds with “harsh, condemnatory words, sarcasm, and blows against the rock.”
And what does Torah insist about vengeance? “‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay’ says the Lord.” This time, for God’s own reasons, and God’s own purposes, God offers grace.
But Moses finds grace unacceptable. Maybe his ego smarts from the people’s angry blame, and his patience is worn to a frazzle because of his own parched thirst. He’s had enough.
Yet God doesn’t agree. God says, “You didn’t trust in me….” Moses, himself, didn’t trust God. Moses was not willing to let God deal with the people.
When Moses struck the rock instead of speaking to it, “he in some way dishonoured God’s holiness,” says Allen.
Psalm 95 remembers this troubling event. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah….” From God’s perspective, Moses, too, hardened his heart toward God!
Psalm 95 also remembers the rock. “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation….” In some way, that Rock at Kadesh in the desert is the symbol of God’s gracious provision. God’s own presence. God’s shelter, refuge, and tower for his people.
The Apostle Paul remembers the rock, and the water it released. In 1 Corinthians 10:4, Paul says the rock was King Jesus himself! It seems that Messiah himself slaked the people’s thirst with his own living water.
So, when Moses, in anger and frustration at the rebels, raised his solid wooden staff and whacked it hard against that rock, Moses was lashing out against the embodiment of God’s grace. Moses was lashing out against Messiah—God’s own gift of forgiveness and provision and company.
I ponder this story alongside our present struggle in the Presbyterian Church. Some may view the words and actions of others in our denomination as rebellion against God’s Word, God’s call—God’s holiness, even. Well. It is a challenging season. The way forward is not clear. People are frustrated with COVID, frustrated with the hard work of navigating conflict and making wise decisions. We are thirsty. Restless.
What do I hear in this poignant story of Moses’ own greatest sorrow, his lasting regret?
I notice God’s grace. Only God’s gracious faithfulness to his covenant sustains his people (even when his people are faithless). As a Church, we are sustained only by God’s gracious presence. If the Church is disobedient or rebellious, can we trust God himself to respond? In Numbers 20, as in so many instances, God acts with remarkable grace toward his people. Could we live with that?
Perhaps it is not up to us to take drastic action. Maybe we are simply called to speak.
At Kadesh, the Rock was the embodiment of God’s presence. In our day, the Church is the embodiment of King Jesus. When we strike the church, we strike Jesus. When we would act to split the church, we wound Jesus.
The rash words of Moses were an act of rebellion against God’s Spirit. Moses thought he was directing those words at the grumbling, faithless people, but God heard them as dishonouring to himself!
Jesus loves his Church. Jesus is not under any illusions about how faithful, or pure, or wise we are. Yet, on the night before he died (… for whom was he preparing to die? For his feckless disciples, who were about to abandon him; for God’s chosen people of Israel, who had rejected him; for the Roman soldiers who abused and executed him, for us, even us, for those with whom we disagree, and for our clueless neighbours who don’t know Jesus at all.) On the night before he died, Jesus prayed for his Church.
What was his great prayer? That we would be one. That God himself would protect us from the evil one. That we would love one another. That we would forgive one another, as he forgives us. That we would show his love and grace to the world. Lord, let not my words, nor my actions, contradict your dying prayer! Let me not strike your church. Let me not dishonour your holiness by lacking trust in you.
Here’s what I hear in the story of Moses: I need to honour the holiness of God. I need to trust him, even when I’m frustrated, weary, thirsty. I need to trust God with the future of his Church. I need to honour God’s own sovereignty, his right to respond with discipline and grace, as he chooses.
I need to speak—to speak the words God gives to me. And to speak them in the manner Jesus has clearly instructed: to speak the truth, in love. To bless, and not to curse.
I need to honour the death and life, and the prayer of Jesus for his Church. In what ways? By keeping my words full of grace. By acting to strengthen and bless his church—even when I am frustrated by people in his church.
O King Jesus, strengthen my faith in You. Make me an agent of Your grace. Amen.
Rev. Denise Allen-Macartney is minister of Gloucester Presbyterian Church in Ottawa, Ontario. This reflection was originally presented at a meeting of the Praying, Listening, Trusting group via Zoom on April 20, 2021.