Published: 8 February 2020

The Sin That Really Kept Moses Out Of The Promised Land


Moses messed up. He did something which resulted in God banning him from the Promised Land. What did he do to warrant such a punishment?

8 Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.

10 Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” 11 And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.” (Num. 20: 8,10–11 ESV)

Most of us have been taught that Moses’s sin was hitting a rock to obtain water when God told him to speak to it. Others say Moses’s sin was that he took credit for obtaining water from the rock when it was really God who performed the miracle. 

However, God did not say either of these actions was the problem, nor did Moses believe these were the problem. In fact, nowhere does the text say Moses’s sin was striking the rock instead of speaking to it or taking credit for the miracle.

What did God say Moses’ sin was?

God said Moses’s sin was a failure to trust:

“And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.”” (Num. 20:12 ESV)

That’s all God had to say about it. He didn’t criticize Moses for striking the rock when he was told to speak to it. Similarly, God did not indicate that Moses was trying to take credit for the miracle. He said Moses had failed to believe in Him.

What did Moses have to say about his failure?

Moses said that his failure was in someway connected to the people:

Even with me the LORD was angry on your account and said, ‘You also shall not go in there.  (Deut. 1:37ESV)

But the LORD was angry with me because of you and would not listen to me. And the LORD said to me, ‘Enough from you; do not speak to me of this matter again.  (Deut. 3:26 ESV)

Furthermore, the LORD was angry with me because of you, and he swore that I should not cross the Jordan, and that I should not enter the good land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.” (Deut. 4:21 ESV)

Three different times Moses connected God’s anger with him to something the people did.

How did Moses’ faith falter and what did the people have to do with it?

To answer this question we must examine a pattern that developed in the book of Numbers. Three times prior to the incident at the rock of Meribah the people sinned, God punished them, Moses interceded on the people’s behalf, and God pardoned the people. Please take the time to read these events in Numbers chapters 11, 14, 16 & 20. Notice the pattern in the table below.

TaberahTwelve SpiesKorah’s RebellionRock at Meribah
The People SinNum 11:1Num 14:2-4Num 16:41-42Num 20:2-5
God Decrees PunishmentNum 11:1Num 14:11-12Num 16:45?
Moses IntercedesNum 11:2Num 14:13-19Num 16:46-49
God PardonsNum 11:2Num 14:20Num 16:50

When a Bible author develops a pattern and then breaks it, we should pay attention because this signals that the author wants us to notice something important.

Based on the pattern established in Numbers, what do you expect will happen at Meribah when the people rebel against Moses? We expect the pattern to repeat and for God to decree punishment, but that doesn’t happen. The pattern breaks down! Instead of decreeing punishment for the people’s sin, God simply tells Moses to give the people water by speaking to the rock. This is a significant departure from the previous pattern. When a Bible author develops a pattern and then breaks it, we should pay attention because this signals that the author wants us to notice something important.

Why didn’t God punish the people at Meribah?

To understand why God didn’t pronounce judgement, let’s notice what Moses did. He leads the people to the rock, calls them rebels, and instead of speaking to the rock he hits it twice with this staff. Moses is having a temper tantrum. In the prior examples in Numbers Moses never speaks harshly or loses patience. Moses is also breaking the pattern and this is the clue to understanding his sin.

He has reached the end of his rope. He has been patient with these complaining and rebellious people, but he couldn’t take it any longer. Their constant ingratitude and rebelliousness caused Moses to lose faith in the people. This is the people that were supposed to be God’s treasured possession, a holy nation of priests who had agreed to be in a covenant relationship with God (Ex 19:5-8). What a disappointment they had turned out to be and Moses was finished interceding for them. God knew Moses was not going to intercede for the people at Meribah, therefore He doesn’t ordain punishment for them. 

Moses’ faith problem

So, how does this connect back to Moses being barred from entering the Promised Land? Because the people were unfaithful and so difficult to lead, Moses’s own faith suffered. This caused him to lose confidence that God could develop the Israelites into a faithful covenant people who were meant to be a nation of priests and a means of blessing the nations.

This is understandable. Haven’t you had people in your life that were so difficult that you have jokingly said, “Even God couldn’t do anything with them!” Moses had reached this point, but he wasn’t joking. 

If there is any doubt this was Moses’s problem, this verse removes it:

“because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people of Israel at the waters of Meribah-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, and because you did not treat me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel.” (Deut. 32:51 ESV)


Moses’s sin wasn’t striking the rock when he was told to speak to it; his sin was losing faith in God’s ability to use the Israelites for anything positive. This is why God could say that Moses didn’t trust in Him and is also why Moses could say God was angry with him on account of the people.

God expects and requires His people to trust Him. Trust is easy when everything is going well. Our faith matters most when things are going wrong and we don’t understand why. During these bad times will we trust in God or not? Moses’s trust in God temporarily faltered and it cost him the Promised Land.