Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Why Was Moses Barred from Leading the People into the Promised Land? A Psychotheological Answer

Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Why Was Moses Barred from Leading the People into the Promised Land? A Psychotheological Answer

Article excerpt

In the 40th year of the Israelites' journey in the desert, just as they are about to proceed to conquer the Promised Land, God bars Moses and Aaron from continuing to lead the people (Num. 20:1-13). Denial of entry into the Promised Land was obviously a terrible blow to Moses. What did he do or say that warranted such a harsh verdict?

Both traditional exegetes and modern commentators (1) viewed the exclusion of Moses as punishment for a sin, attributing to him a variety of sins. The multiplication of proposed sins prompted S. D. Luzzato (2) to state in 1871: "Moses our teacher committed one sin, but the exegetes have piled up on him thirteen sins and more, each of them has invented a new sin." The purpose of this article is to present the thesis that Moses was barred from entering the land not because he committed a sin in the ordinary sense of the term, but because he failed to counteract the people's slide into blasphemy.


The exclusion verdict occurred when the Israelites were encamped in Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin, and there was no water. The Israelites let out their frustration and anger on Moses and Aaron, as they had done before. In response to the people's complaint, God says to Moses: 'You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes speak to the rock (3) [vedibartem el hasela] and it will yield its water' (Num. 20:8). Moses took the rod and he and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them: 'Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?' (Num. 20:10). Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with the rod, and abundant water flowed out (Num. 20:11). God then said to Moses and Aaron: 'Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity [ya'an lo he'emantem bi lehakdisheni] in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them ' (Num. 20:12). This is the Meribah incident.

Ten complaints of the people are recorded in the books of Exodus and Numbers, the Meribah incident being the ninth. All ten are listed below to provide a context for analyzing the Meribah incident, facilitating a comparison of the language the people used before Meribah as well as after.

1. Fear of pursuing Egyptians (Ex. 14:10-14).

2. Undrinkable bitter water (Ex. 15:22-25).

3. Hunger (Ex. 16:1-35).

4. No water to drink (Ex. 17:1-7).

5. Cause of complaint not specified (Num. 11:1-3).

6. Craving for meat (Num. 11:4-34).

7. Fear engendered by the report of the scouts suggesting that the Israelites will be defeated by the Canaanites (Num. 14:1-45).

8. Anger over death of participants in the Korahite rebellion (Num. 17:1-28).

9. No water to drink (Num. 20:1-13). According to Ibn Ezra and Rashbam (Num. 20:1) this occurred in the 40th year.

10. General malaise occasioned by the need to skirt Edom and thus lengthen the journey (Num. 21:4-9). This occurred in the 40th year (Hizkuni, Num. 21:4).

In all the confrontations the people blame Moses (and Aaron) for taking them out of Egypt into the wretched conditions of desert travel. The people's complaints against Moses and Aaron are characterized (in complaints 2-4, 7-8) by verbs of the root l-u-n (mostly vayilonu), translated as grumble or rail. In complaint 4 a verb of the root r-i-v, translated as quarrel, is used in addition to l-u-n. The people also weep (in 6-7).

The verb r-i-v is used prominently in complaint 9. The place where this complaint occurred is referred to as the Waters of Meribath-kadesh in the wilderness of Zin (Num. 27:14). In the conclusion of this complaint it is stated that the quarrel was with God: Those are the Waters of Meribah [quarrel]--meaning that the Israelites quarreled with the Lord ... (Num. …

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