Moses Had an Anger Problem

One of the more puzzling details in the Old Testament is that God prohibited Moses from entering the Promised Land. Despite Moses being the hero of the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Old Testament), a faithful deputy of God and chosen intercessor for the nation of Israel, Moses was not allowed to see his mission through. It was Joshua who ultimately led Israel across the Jordan River and into the land of Canaan. Deuteronomy tells us that Moses died on a mountain, looking out across the Promised Land, never having set foot in it (Deut. 34:1-5).

Why did God ban Moses, the leader of his people, from the Promised Land? I think the most likely reason is because Moses had a problem controlling his anger. The Old Testament provides several pieces of evidence to support this theory.

Exhibit A: The Wilderness of Zin

God’s decision to ban Moses from Canaan was not arbitrary. He provides the exact reason in Deuteronomy 32:

“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. For you shall see the land before you, but you shall not go there, into the land that I am giving to the people of Israel.”

Deut. 32:51-52

Let’s go back to that incident and recall what God is talking about. You can find it in Numbers 20:1-13.

Here we find the Israelites doing what they did best: complaining to Moses. Their grievance, however, was understandable: there was no water to drink, and nowhere to find it. Frustrated, Moses and Aaron brought this problem before God, who told Moses:

“Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.”

Num. 20:8

Simple enough. Moses was to speak to the rock, and God would display his power and provision by causing water to gush from the rock. However, Moses did not exactly follow this command:

So Moses took the staff from the Lord’s presence, just as he commanded him. 10 He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” 11 Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.

12 But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.”

Num. 20:9-12

Rather than speaking to the rock, Moses, in an obvious display of exasperation, smacked the rock with his staff.

God’s response seems harsh. This seems like a small act of disobedience compared to Israel’s years of idolatry and faithlessness. Why was this the final straw for Moses, of all people?

Well, this wasn’t Moses’ first (or worst) angry outburst. In fact, we can see a pattern emerging in Moses from the moment we meet him in Egypt.

Exhibit B: Egypt

“One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”

Ex. 2:11-12

Preachers love to point out that “Moses was a murderer.” If you’ve heard that before and didn’t know what they were referring to: here you go. Moses looked around to see if anyone was watching and hid the body. If this went to trial in the U.S. today, you’ve got an open and shut case for premeditated murder.

Was Moses’ anger justified? Sure. His people were subject to substantial torment under the Egyptians. But compare Moses’ reaction to God’s – which is recorded in the very same chapter:

“During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.”

Ex. 2:23-25

When God commissions Moses to go before Pharaoh in the next chapter, it was with the original intent of Moses being a diplomat, approaching Pharaoh and negotiating Israel’s release. God did not lash out in anger. The plagues that God famously sent upon Egypt increased in severity as Pharaoh’s heart was increasingly hardened against God’s command. In fact, God’s response to Israel’s slavery was indicative of a God who is, as God himself describes, “slow to anger” (Ex. 34:6-7).

Exhibit C: Mt. Sinai

The Israelites were notoriously capricious, especially when it came to their relationship to Yahweh. Case in point: that infamous golden calf.

“When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD.””

Ex. 32:1-5

This is obviously a grievous affront to God. Not only do the Israelites immediately turn away from Moses (and, more importantly, God) at the slightest hint of uncertainty, they choose to devote their worship to a man-made idol. To add insult to injury, they proclaim that the calf is the god who brought them out of Egypt, despite the fact that the entire congregation of Israelites was eyewitness to Yahweh’s triumph over Pharaoh. On top of that, notice that the word “LORD” is in all caps. It’s rendered this way in most translations. This is done to signify that the word being translated from the Hebrew to English is the divine name: YHWH (Yahweh).

This is an abominable betrayal which elicits a harsh rebuke from God himself. God threatens to “consume” the Israelites and continue the covenant promise through Moses (32:10) before Moses intercedes and pleads on behalf of Israel for mercy, which God immediately grants. Did Moses talk God off the ledge? I don’t think so. This was a defining moment in Moses’ leadership, where he boldly stepped out in faith to take upon himself the role of Israel’s intercessor. This incident signified and solidified Moses’ authority. But that’s a matter for another time.

What I want to highlight is what Moses does next.

“And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it . . . then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me.” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. And he said to them, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.’” And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell.”

Exodus‬ ‭32‬:‭19‬-‭20‬, 26-28 ‭ESV‬ (emphases mine)

If you, too, are wondering when God told Moses to do this, I think you’re asking the right question. Despite the fact that Moses claimed, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel”, there is no mention of God commanding Moses to do this in the story. It appears that Moses acted out of anger.

Potential Conclusions

This leads us back to the initial question I posed in the beginning: Why was Moses barred from entering the Promised Land?

First, Moses’ fate was in keeping with God’s punishment for the wilderness generation. Recall that the original group of Israelites that God brought out of Egypt refused to enter the Promised Land for fear of its occupants. In response, God gave them exactly what they wanted: he sent them to wander in the wilderness for 40 years until a new generation of Israelites was brought up. That generation would be the one to cross the Jordan River into Canaan. Moses was among that original group, and he was not exempt from that same fate. God named the exceptions: Joshua, Caleb, and Israelites younger than twenty years old. Moses was not among those listed (Num. 14:26-35). Though Moses didn’t turn away from God and was, for all intents and purposes, obedient to God’s call throughout his leadership, he had glaring flaws. His biggest one, I would argue, was his anger.

But I would also argue that God’s decision to bar Moses from Canaan was as much a pragmatic decision as it was a theological one. Keep in mind that Israel was preparing for war. Moses had proven himself to be rash, hot-tempered, and, at times, disobedient. Israel was in need of a leader who was even more righteous than Moses; a field general who would heed the call of God and execute his position with mercy and forbearance. This man was Joshua. Of course, like Moses, Joshua’s leadership was not perfect. And neither was that of the countless leaders of Israel who arose after him. Moses’ story was only the beginning of a crucial Old Testament refrain: there was no man who was able to lead the people of God in perfect righteousness. In fact, despite Moses being (rightly) heralded as one of the truly great heroes of the faith, the Old Testament ends with Israel still longing for their truly righteous Leader.

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