We have three glorious Gods and everything about Them is endlessly fascinating. The more we know about Them, the more we want to know. But it’s also easy to feel totally overwhelmed by Them. They are so vast, so infinitely complex. When it comes to getting even the most basic understanding of who They are, where do we start? Surely there must be some facts about Themselves that They want us to learn about sooner rather than later. If only They would give us a short list of a few characteristics which They consider to be particularly important, that would give us a great place to begin. Happily, the magnificent Yahweh does exactly this for us in the Old Testament.
As the first of our three Creators to reveal Himself to us, Yahweh took it upon Himself to explain what a God with a capital G is. Clearly no physical book could provide us with a comprehensive understanding of such complex Beings, but in the Old Testament, Yahweh does a fabulous job of helping us grasp some essentials regarding the Nature, Personality, and preferences of our Gods. Since Jesus and the Holy Spirit are the same kind of Being as Yahweh, all of the general facts Yahweh shares about Himself also apply to Them, and so thanks to Yahweh, we end up with a most helpful sketch of who our Gods are and what They care about.
So then, according to Yahweh, what is a defining characteristic of a God with a capital G? Well there are many. Yahweh describes Himself as being very gracious, compassionate, loving, kind, and good. But He also describes Himself as an extremely jealous Being, and His jealousy is the characteristic that is going to help us make sense out of the events in Numbers 20.
Moses is one of the most well-known and respected figures in the Bible. Moses was the guy who Yahweh called upon to lead a massive mob of griping Israelites around in a miserable desert for forty long years. There were probably well over a million Israelites by the time we reach Numbers 20, and these people were chronic demon worshipers who were negative, ungrateful, and violent. As a general rule, they didn’t like Moses, and on several occasions they came close to murdering him in cold blood. So Moses’ calling was not a pleasant one, nor was he given the option of refusing it. Yahweh basically said, “You will serve Me or else.”
Now when we see a man slugging it out in a miserable task that we feel totally unempowered to do ourselves, we are naturally quite impressed. And once a guy seems to be doing a much better job of serving God than we think we would ever do in his sandals, when we see God suddenly coming down hard on that man, it scares us. We think, “Yikes! If Moses can’t please God, who can?” This is how many Christians feel when they read through Numbers 20. They feel like Yahweh’s being a jerk and poor Moses is getting a harsh punishment that he doesn’t deserve.
Moses isn’t the only fellow to get spanked in Numbers 20. Moses’ older brother Aaron gets it as well. Aaron was the high priest at the time, and he functioned as Moses’ right hand man. Aaron doesn’t seem to do anything wrong in Numbers 20. At first glance, it seems like Moses is the guy who ticks Yahweh off, but then Yahweh responds by punishing both Moses and Aaron. What are we to make of this? Well, whenever our gut is telling us that God is being the jerk in a passage, we need to realize that we’re missing some important information. God is never the problem in these scenarios. God’s wrath is never unjustified. This isn’t just a Christian cliché, this is reality. Yahweh is an incredibly gracious Being, and He never comes close to giving us what we actually deserve on earth. So whenever we think Yahweh is being unreasonably harsh, the solution comes in backing up and figuring out what outrageous act of rebellion is going on. If Yahweh’s mad, someone’s doing something super snarky: that’s a principle we can count on. In just a moment, we’ll find out what it was that Moses and Aaron did that was so outrageous in this chapter, but to properly appreciate their crime, we must first understand some things about Yahweh’s jealous Nature.
Yahweh is an extremely jealous Being. He’s so jealous, that long before the days of Numbers 20, Yahweh gave Moses this command to pass on to the Israelites:
“Do not worship any other god, for Yahweh, whose Name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” (Ex. 34:14)
Yahweh is so jealous by Nature that He says “Jealous” would be a suitable alternate Name for Him. Wow. Suppose that when your friend introduced you to her boyfriend for the first time, she said, “This is Tom.” And then when you go to shake Tom’s hand he says, “Call me Psycho.” That would be pretty disturbing, wouldn’t it? You’d think, “This guy must have serious issues if he actually wants people to call him Psycho.” Well, it’s pretty shocking when Yahweh refers to Himself as Jealous. Obviously Yahweh considers jealousy to be one of His defining characteristics. Obviously He likes the fact that He is extremely jealous and He wants us all to know about it. But this doesn’t sound like a very positive trait for a God to have, does it? After all, jealousy in humans is often motivated by insecurity. A lot of really jealous people ruin their romantic relationships by constantly accusing their partners of infidelity even when their partners haven’t done anything wrong. In this world, we view jealousy as a negative, destructive thing, which is why it makes us uncomfortable to think of our God as being jealous. Here’s where we need to understand that God’s jealousy is fueled by different motivations than our own.
Suppose you had a child with severe disabilities. Because of this, you have to spend ten times the effort that other parents have to spend in caretaking your child. Your child needs so much extra help, and every day is an exhausting stream of chores because your child can’t do even the most basic things for himself. Even though he’s in his early teens, you have to dress him, feed him, clean him, and help him use the restroom. You have to give him scheduled medications, keep him on a special diet, and move him from room to room. All he can do is sit like a lump wherever you set him down. He never has the energy to do anything else. He can’t learn how to read or write, so you have to try and teach him things verbally. The point is that you do everything for this kid, and he is totally dependent on you. If you weren’t around, he’d be in serious trouble within a matter of hours. You don’t have a life outside of this kid and you never stop thinking about him.
Now suppose one day you have a friend over, and as you sit on the couch feeling utterly fatigued, your friend starts talking to your son, who is sitting in a chair nearby. Your friend says to your son, “You’re looking well. How have you been?” And your son says, “I do look well, don’t I? That’s because I take such fabulous care of myself. I’m always on it with my medications and my daily routine. I never slack. Honestly, I don’t think you’ll ever meet a more responsible, efficient teen than me. I’m totally self-sufficient. My parents are so blessed to have me because I never cause them any work at all.” As the parent who breaks your neck every day for this kid, how would you feel as you listen to this arrogant little speech in which your son takes the credit for everything you do for him? And how about that part where he even goes so far as to imply that you never lift a finger to help him? What cheek! You’d be pretty furious, wouldn’t you? Well, the rage you’d feel in this situation is the same kind of emotion God is talking about when He says He’s feeling jealous. His jealousy burns against us for the same reasons that you’d be so mad at your ungrateful son. It has nothing to do with personal insecurities. It has to do with someone refusing to give you something that they owe you.
In the scenario we invented, your son owes you a ton of gratitude for all that you do for him. When your friend brings up the subject of his health, he should be taking that opportunity to give you the credit you deserve for taking such great care of him. But instead, he grossly insults you. He takes the credit for everything you’ve done for him and he treats you like you’ve done nothing at all. In the same way, when we thank our guardian angels for taking care of us, we are grossly insulting Yahweh, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. They get ragingly jealous whenever we pray to or worship or glorify any being other than Them because when we do this, we are crediting those beings for things that only our real Gods deserve the credit for. At the same time, we’re acting like our real Gods haven’t done anything for us. This is why Yahweh was always exploding at the Jews for worshiping false gods. When you worship false gods you treat those fictitious beings like they’re playing some critical role in your life, yet the reality is that that those beings don’t even exist. Angels aren’t the ones keeping your molecules in place 24/7. Your dead parents aren’t the ones watching over you night and day. Mary isn’t interceding for you in Heaven. It isn’t your pastor who is helping you understand fascinating truths in life. Humans and angels are nothing compared to your Gods. It is your Creators and only your Creators who are deserving of glory, credit, honor, praise, and adoration.
Maybe you think the material we put out has really helped you in your walk with God. Well, if we’re really saying something worthwhile, do you really think we came up with that information all on our own? Of course not. We’re as ignorant as all other humans. We have no wisdom of our own. We can’t even breathe without God’s help, so are we the ones you should be thanking when the material on our site inspires you in your walk with God? Of course not. We have nothing to do with it. We press our fingers down on the keys of our keyboard and type words onto a screen. We didn’t create our fingers. We didn’t invent the keyboard. We didn’t come up with the words. We don’t know how to get a message through to your soul. We aren’t some wellspring of spiritual wisdom. We’re just blind, bumbling humans, and if God manages to accomplish something useful through us, it says volumes about how brilliant He is and nothing about us.
It outrages God when we humans refuse to give Him the glory that He rightly deserves and God deserves the glory for everything. So when we start taking the bows and applauding each other for things which only God can do, His fierce jealousy explodes, and rightly so. When God talks about being jealous for our worship, He’s not talking about needing us to prop up His low self-esteem. He’s talking about how outraged He feels when creatures who depend on Him for every breath actually have the audacity to credit some other being, object, or delusion for playing the role of God in their lives. The Holy Spirit drops some fascinating new insight in your brain and instead of praising Him, you go gushing over your pastor. You actually give some idiot human the glory for supplying you with the wisdom of God and you refuse to recognize that God Himself has just communicated directly to you. And then you actually complain that God never talks to you. You go to sleep in your warm bed every night, you have food on your table which you never even say thank you for, but when your new car gets in a wreck, you complain that God doesn’t provide for you. You gush over some worship pastor and thank him for bringing you “into the throne room of God” every week with his great music while you act like the Holy Spirit’s constant Presence with you and perpetual care of you is non-existent. You pray to saints who were totally fabricated by the Church and you have more faith in their protection of you than you do in the Gods who are guiding your every step and constantly shielding you from harm. You barely say two words to God in a day, but you pour out your heart to your stupid dog every night and thank her for being such a good “kid.” You want Brother Braggart to lay his hands on you Sunday morning because you think his emotional prayer for you is more valuable than the love of a God who died on a cross for your sake. These are the kinds of things that ignite the jealous fury of our Gods: when we refuse to give Them the glory, honor, credit, praise, and love that They rightfully deserve.
Divine jealousy is a response to being cheated, insulted, ignored and minimized by creatures who depend on their Creators for absolutely everything. We have nothing that our Gods haven’t given us. We can do nothing apart from Them. We are ignorant, incapable lumps and if we were to praise our Gods all day every day with every breath that we have, we would be giving Them only the very least that They deserve. So do They get mad when we stand right in front of Them acting like They are irrelevant? Oh, yes.
Way back in Exodus 34 at the beginning of the forty year wilderness journey, Yahweh warned Moses that He was an extremely jealous God. By the time we reach Numbers 20, Moses and Aaron have become well educated on just how real God’s jealousy is. Time and time again, they have seen Yahweh lash out in fury when the griping mob of Israelites grossly insults Him. And one of the favorite complaints the Israelites like to make is that Yahweh doesn’t take care of them. Even though He’s raining free food down onto the heads of the little tikes every single morning, and even though He is miraculously preserving their clothes and shoes so that they never wear out and preventing their little feet from ever swelling up or blistering from all the walking (see Deut. 8:4), they constantly grumble that He’s a big meanie who doesn’t do anything to take care of them. Though Yahweh saved them from a brutal life of degradation and hardship back in Egypt, they constantly complain that they want to return. They say that living as slaves in Egypt would be far better than being stuck out in a wilderness with the likes of Yahweh.
For long periods of time, Yahweh listens to their griping day in and day out. He sees them all bowing down in worship to the idols they carry around with them in their family tents. He hears them crediting those idols for the things that He has done and His jealousy burns. It burns like lava that is bubbling and boiling inside of a volcano. The pressure gets greater and greater until finally that volcano erupts and Yahweh lashes out at the Israelites with some form of terrifying punishment. But even in those moments, Yahweh shows incredible restraint. Sometimes He kills only a few. Sometimes He kills thousands. But no matter how many die, their corpses haven’t even turned cold before He sees the little creeps sneaking back into their tents to worship those demonic idols and grumble against Him. This is what the wilderness journey was like for Yahweh, but we never think about His experience, do we? We just think of those poor, frustrated Israelites who are stuck wandering around a desert with boring food and a brooding God. But that’s not how it was at all. During the wilderness journey Yahweh had a far worse time of it than the Jews did, because while they had many blessings heaped down upon their heads, He got nothing but flak.
Now to put Numbers 20 in proper perspective, we need to back up a few chapters and notice that this whole striking the rock episode comes shortly after an epic series of events known as Korah’s Rebellion. Conniving Korah rises up with his shady buddies in Numbers 16 and tries to entice the mob into murdering Moses. It’s mutiny in the desert, and within the span of 48 hours, about 15,000 people have been mowed down by Yahweh’s fury. What’s critical about this series of events is that in the midst of the mutiny, Yahweh sides with Moses and Aaron in an extremely dramatic way. At one point, He threatens to kill everyone except them. This is one of those moments that make it exceptionally clear that these two human leaders have God on their side. Then, at the height of the crisis, Moses and Aaron go through some motions that make it seem as if they have managed to restrain God’s wrath. In other words, Moses and Aaron seem to have the ability to control God. When Yahweh goes wild, it’s these two men who rein Him in. Well, well, isn’t this impressive. When the corpses finally stop coming, the idolatrous and highly superstitious Israelites would have been quite motivated to start revering Moses and Aaron as two very potent sorcerers. After all, it was Aaron’s quick work with some priestly equipment that made Yahweh halt His plague. It was the assault on Moses which seemed to fire Yahweh up. So maybe Yahweh isn’t the only guy the Israelites should be impressed with—maybe it’s time for the two humans to get a slice of the glory.
What’s with all these healers in the Church today who are getting rich off of the tithes of others? The rate at which we hand over our money to these folks suggests that we actually believe they have the ability to make God’s healing power flow in our direction. And that is what we think, isn’t it? And the healers know that’s what we think, that’s why they bilk us for their services and soak in our applause at the conventions. You see, once God does some amazing miracle through you—once He sides with you in some really dramatic, public way—it’s hard not to let that go to your head. When the people start trying to worship you—which they will—your ego doesn’t want to work too hard at shutting them down. Instead, you start making up excuses for why it’s alright for you to pinch off a piece of the glory for yourself. After all, you are the anointed one. God could have chosen to work through anyone, but He chose you, so that means you’re entitled to some bragging rights, doesn’t it? Maybe just a little bragging? Maybe just a few seconds of lingering in the spotlight while the applause continues. And then next time, a few seconds more. And pretty soon, you’re mentioning God less and less as you retell the story of how you prayed and how you fasted and how you showed up at the right time and place and how you had such unwavering faith.
This is the great danger of leading God’s flock: you forget that your job is just to point the flock to their real Shepherd, and you start getting them to follow you instead. You start wanting them to applaud you and compliment you and pay you and adore you. And pretty soon you’re telling them that you’re the one helping them, not God. This is the trap that Moses and Aaron fell into during the disaster in Numbers 20. Likely the problem started back in Numbers 16 when they let Yahweh’s grand defense of them go to their heads. But here’s the thing: just because God associates His power with you at times doesn’t mean He ever gives you control of that power. Humans never gain control of God’s power. But in Numbers 20, we’ll discover that Moses and Aaron think otherwise.
Our chapter opens with a note that it’s the start of a new month and that Miriam has just died. That’s a sad day for Moses and Aaron, as Miriam was their sister. But grief over Miriam has to be put aside when a new crisis arises: no water. When you’ve got a million men, women and children to hydrate, plus countless animals, no water is a major crisis. And when your water needs are this great, things feel extra discouraging, because it’s not like some trickling stream is going to save the day. These people need a major water source and they want it now.
There was no water for the people to drink at that place, so they rebelled against Moses and Aaron. The people blamed Moses and said, “If only we had died in Yahweh’s Presence with our brothers! Why have you brought the congregation of Yahweh’s people into this wilderness to die, along with all our livestock? Why did you make us leave Egypt and bring us here to this terrible place? This land has no grain, no figs, no grapes, no pomegranates, and no water to drink!” (Num. 20:2-5)
That line about dying in Yahweh’s Presence is a reference to the mass slaughter that just happened during Korah’s Rebellion in Chapter 16. Fifteen thousand deaths would shock any community and now these gripers are saying they wish they’d been among those that Yahweh struck down. Better dead than thirsty. And once again we go through the tiresome refrain of “Why did you bring us out of Egypt in the first place?” This is pretty snarky considering it was the Israelites themselves who were pleading for God to rescue them. Now that He has, they keep acting like the whole thing was just His idea—and a lousy one at that. But notice who the Israelites are blaming in this instance: the man Moses, not God. They’re crediting Moses for what God has done, and this is a very consistent problem for Christian leaders.
People often try to credit their human leaders for what God is doing—good or bad. When God is annoying them, the leaders get threatened and persecuted. When God is doing what the people want, the leaders get tempted to take the glory. It’s a very challenging situation, which is why you’d be a great fool to rush into any leadership position before God has finished training you. To survive in this kind of service, you must first have your pride ground down to a pulp by the Holy Spirit and He must drill a great fear of the Lord into the core of your being. It is only by going through a training course which God has designed specifically for you that you can learn how to not make the epic mistake Moses and Aaron are about to make.
Moses and Aaron turned away from the people and went to the entrance of the Tabernacle, where they fell face down on the ground. Then the glorious Presence of Yahweh appeared to them, and Yahweh said to Moses, “You and Aaron must take the staff and assemble the entire community. As the people watch, speak to the rock over there, and it will pour out its water. You will provide enough water from the rock to satisfy the whole community and their livestock.” (Num. 20:6-8)
Now that the mob is getting dangerous, Moses and Aaron hurry over to the Tabernacle to seek God’s guidance. The dramatic bow down is a very common way for an ancient Jew to say, “I’m feeling overwhelmed!” Throughout the Bible, we find men throwing themselves down on the ground before both God and other humans. But in this case, Moses and Aaron are no doubt feeling very scared of the direction things are heading in. Happily, Yahweh makes a dramatic entrance, probably putting on some kind of light show that everyone could see to make it clear that the two men are talking to God. No one would have been close enough to hear what God said, but this scene is making Moses and Aaron once again look like Divine favorites in the eyes of the people.
We need to pay close attention to the instructions here. Moses and Aaron are old men at this point, and they both used wooden staffs to get around. Aaron just lost his usual staff in Chapter 17, when Yahweh turned it into a miraculous monument for the people. So Aaron’s going to have to get himself another stick. But Moses stick is the stick. This is the probably the same stick that was used to part the Red Sea, and the stick that was used to bring water from a rock back in Exodus 17. At least, that’s how these superstitious pagans would view it. By now Moses’ stick would seem like a powerful sorcerer’s wand which only the great Moses could make do miraculous things. In real life, the stick was just a stick, and it didn’t have bumpkus to do with any of the previous water miracles. But by now everyone is associating the stick with power, and that’s an important point to bear in mind. This stick is also getting special treatment: Moses tells us that it is usually kept “before Yahweh” in some special place near the Tabernacle. Well, that’s asking for trouble.
Now back in Exodus 17, there had been a similar water crisis and at that time, Yahweh had specifically instructed Moses to strike a rock with his walking stick. Yahweh then caused water to come gushing out of the rock and everyone was impressed. But it was Yahweh who made the water flow, not Moses, and not Moses plus his magic stick.
Well, here in Numbers 20, Aaron and Moses get up off the ground to head over to the rock. They know that the whole community saw the visible sign that Yahweh’s Presence was meeting with them. And now Yahweh has told them to bring along that stick which is so strongly associated with power. But Yahweh didn’t tell Moses to use the stick. Instead, this time Moses is just to speak to the rock. Everyone’s watching as God’s two favorites troop over to the appointed rock.
So why does God ask Moses to bring the stick? Well, now that the stick is being treated as a sacred object, it is likely supposed to symbolize God’s involvement in this miracle. But here’s where it’s all going to go south. Pay close attention to who Moses says will do the miracle in this passage.
So Moses did as he was told. He took the staff from the place where it was kept before Yahweh. Then he and Aaron summoned the people to come and gather at the rock. “Listen, you rebels!” he shouted. “Must we bring water out of this rock for you?” Then Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with the staff, and water gushed out. So the entire community and their livestock drank their fill. (Num. 20:9-11)
Now hold on a minute. What’s with this we language? There is no we bringing water from the rock. Yahweh is the One who’s going to make the water flow. So who is Moses referring to? He’s referring to himself and Aaron. He’s not mentioning God at all. He’s saying, “Must Aaron and I bring water out of this rock for you?”
Since when do humans have the power to bring water from a rock? Since never. And notice what Moses does next: he takes the staff that is supposed to symbolize God’s power and goes whacking it not once, but twice, against the rock. In this moment, Moses is claiming to control God. He could have kept his yap shut, but instead he first announces that it will be he and Aaron doing the miracle. Then he strikes the rock with the sacred stick, and puts on a very convincing show that he is now Yahweh’s authorized handler. When Moses wants a miraculous trick, he’ll give the signal with his stick and Yahweh will perform on cue.
Remember our discussion about God’s jealousy? What ignites His jealous fury? People refusing to give Him the credit, glory, and honor that He deserves. Moses and Aaron just grossly insulted God in front of this entire mob of folks, and they did it together. We don’t hear Aaron piping up with some kind of protest like, “Whoa, Moses! What are you smoking, bro? You know that only God can make water come from a rock, so don’t be giving the credit to us!” No, Aaron is just fine with this whole outrageous charade, but Yahweh is not. Yahweh is furious.
But Yahweh said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe Me, and because you did not honor Me as holy before the people, you will not lead them into the land I will give them!” (Num. 20:12)
It is because of this act that Yahweh condemns both Moses and Aaron to die in the wilderness without either one ever setting foot in the Promised Land. Aaron dies later on in this same chapter, and right before he does, Yahweh says:
There Yahweh said to Moses and Aaron, “Aaron will die. He will not enter the land that I’m giving to the Israelites, because you both acted against My command at the waters of Meribah.” (Num. 20:23-24)
This business of Moses and Aaron betraying God in front of all the people is a major thing to Yahweh. He is very upset by it, and He doesn’t show any signs of moving past it. Whenever we find God appearing to hold grudges, it is often an indication that souls are refusing to repent. When Moses reflects back on this moment in Deuteronomy 3, his wording is disturbingly devoid of repentance. First, he describes how he tried to plead with Yahweh to change His mind.
Then I begged Yahweh: “Lord Yahweh, You have begun to show me, Your servant, how great You are. You have great strength, and no other god in heaven or on earth can do the powerful things You do. There is no other god like You. Please let me cross the Jordan River so that I may see the good land by the Jordan. I want to see the beautiful mountains and Lebanon.” (Deut. 3:23-25)
This is Moses buttering God up. Notice he doesn’t say, “God, I was so wrong to do what I did. I’m so sorry for insulting You like that.” Instead it’s all this guff about how God is so big and strong. Then it’s “So let me into the Promised Land.”
But Yahweh was angry with me because of you, and He would not listen to me. Yahweh said to me, “That’s enough. Don’t talk to Me anymore about it. Climb to the top of Mount Pisgah and look west, north, south, and east. You can look at the land, but you will not cross the Jordan River. Appoint Joshua and help him be brave and strong. He will lead the people across the river and give them the land that they are to inherit, but you can only look at it.” (Deut. 3:26-28)
Now wait a second—why was Yahweh angry at Moses? Because Moses grossly insulted Him in front of the people. Because Moses boasted that he and his brother had Divine power. Because Moses treated Yahweh like his personal Servant instead of honoring Him as God Almighty. But notice what Moses says: “But Yahweh was angry with me because of you.” In Deuteronomy, Moses is addressing the entire Israelite mob—folks who are about to enter into the Promised Land under Joshua’s leadership. Moses blames them for the fact that Yahweh isn’t letting him enter the Promised Land. Well, this is like Adam blaming Eve for tempting him with the fruit, and Eve blaming the snake. No one is taking responsibility for their own actions, and that means no one is repenting. It is an absolute lie that Yahweh punished Moses because of something the Israelites did, and for Moses to even suggest this is more than a little obnoxious after all the times Yahweh publicly sided with Moses against the mob. So what we find in Deuteronomy is a 120 year old Moses who is reviewing one of the biggest mistakes of his life and still refusing to own up to what he did. Hm. This is hardly an example of good leadership, but it’s a very good example of why it’s so important to read with discernment. At first glance, we think Yahweh is being mean in Numbers 20, and we automatically side with Moses and Aaron. But once we look closer and start asking the Holy Spirit for His perspective, things suddenly turn out a lot different, don’t they?
Encouraging Christians in a Way that Honors God
Preparing for the End Times: Interacting with God’s Prophet
Understanding Idolatry: The Problem & the Cure
Revere Yahweh or Die: Lessons Learned when the Philistines Stole the Ark
The Last Straw: Israel Refuses to Enter the Promised Land
The Fate of the Bronze Snake