Israel continued to walk and talk and walk some more as if the Promise Land was a million miles away when in reality they were walking away from it.
In His frustration with this pack of ungrateful people, as faithless as Eve as weak as Adam, God’s fury subdued by the intercession of Moses, did not go unsatisfied. Moses and Aaron as they walked could not shake the chilling memory of God’s wrath when He said to them, “I will do the very things I heard the faithless fearful people say: their dead bodies shall fall in this very wilderness; and all the people from twenty years old and upward who have complained against Me, not one of them shall come into the land in which I swore to settle you, except Caleb and Joshua. But your little ones, who you said would become booty, I will bring in, and they shall know the land that their parents despised. But as for them, their dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness. And their children shall be shepherds in the wilderness for forty years, and shall suffer for their parent’s faithlessness, until the last of their dead bodies lies in the wilderness. According to the number of days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day a year, you shall all bear out your iniquity, forty years, and you shall know My displeasure.”
The memory of this haunted Moses who was both as disgusted with the people and as he was grieved by the sentence of forty years of this miserable trek. The notion that he was leading most of these people to their death was like a millstone hung around his neck as he walked. Moses suffered for the iniquity of the people Israel. How he suffered. Every painful step was a reminder of the wastefulness of disobedience and faithlessness, none of which was his own doing.
To turn the face of Moses forward God proceeded to dispense more and more rules of conduct and of worship and punishments with increasing specificity. God even gave Moses rules to follow “when they enter the Promise Land” as if he would remember.
One Sabbath day when the Israelites were camped, a man was spotted gathering sticks. Those who found him brought him to Moses and Aaron who put him in custody because it was not clear what should be done to him.
Moses inquired of the Lord Who replied, “The man should be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him outside the camp.”
Hearing the shocking sentence, Moses dispatched Korah and Dothan to tie up the man’s hands and feet with a heavy rope and to drag the convict away from the camp. The rest of the congregation solemnly followed gathering stones large a small along the way.
“This is far enough.” said Dothan and dropped the man who fell to the ground in a fetal position.
For every man and child surrounding him one or two stones was obediently hurled at the wretch who dared to gather sticks on the sabbath in defiance of the command to keep the Sabbath holy. Being stoned is a slow and painful way to die. More than an hour went by before it was certain that he breathed no more. His family wailed. When it was over, his father and brothers carried the body of their beloved to a soft rootless spot in the wilderness and buried it there as deep into the earth as they could manage with the tools they had, their grief subdued by hard labor.
The next morning Moses told the numb people, who killed their own tribesman on behalf of the God they often complain about, to pack up camp and start walking again. There was to be no period of mourning; they needed to remove themselves as far and as fast as they could from that unclean dead man. Moses was the first to be ready and took the lead allowing the thousands of others to catch up as they needed time to pack.
As he walk Moses wondered, if not Canaan then where were they to go? Where was the Promise Land that flowed with milk and honey, and had weak people, rather than strong healthy people to displace? Where would they walk to for forty years that would take them back to the place they were leaving?
Even Caleb’s sister Hannah’s joyfulness slowly submerged into the malaise of movement as the bane of her existence. Eating manna, drinking water, and walking was all they could do. After the first year of this circular occupation day after day there was neither memory of the past nor hope for the future. The sons and daughters of Jacob became bonafide nomads.
Dramas popped up from time to time. One occurred when three men wanted to displace Moses and Aaron as the leaders. God opened the earth which consumed these men and their families and all of their possessions sending them all to Hades to suffer for their hubris.
Another time, there was a plague in which thousands of people died. Some of the survivors wished death would free them from the bondage of their nomadic existence.
Miriam died at Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin. Aaron mourned her, as did Moses. They buried their sister’s frail white body deep in the earth and marked the place where she lay with stones. Upon her death, many shared the thought that they would still be eating onions by the Nile had Miriam not been the savior of Moses when he should have been killed by Pharaoh along with their own baby brothers. Instead they seemed to be in constant search for water.
Water, the giver and sustainer of life. Water in the desert wilderness was more precious than gold. God knew that they needed water. He could have made it rain every day, just as He rained manna and quail for them to eat. But He did not.
The people only had to ask, to pray for water. But they did not. Instead they complained and demanded it, as if Moses was their third rate travel guide. Many of the sons of Israel growled that they would start a party to return to Egypt.
For what felt like the hundredth time, Moses and Aaron went to the tent of meeting to ask God to provide water for the people. With tolerance and patience abounding, Moses and Aaron fell on their faces and as hoped, the glory of the Lord appeared to them. The Lord spoke to Moses saying “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock before their eyes to yield its water. Thus you shall provide drink for the congregation and for their livestock.”
Moses went over to the wall of the tent and took the staff with which he struck the Nile. Then Moses and Aaron repeatedly glorified and gave thanks to the Lord as the luminous cloud of glory vanished from their midst in the tent of meeting.
Perhaps for the first time since that awesome morning when Israel emerged from the Red Sea, Moses was fed up with the people and their complaints.
Caleb and Hannah were among a small group milling around the entrance to the tent of meeting. Like infant birds in the nest waiting helplessly for a parent to bring them worms, these thirsty people waited for Moses and Aaron to give them water.
Moses emerged from the tent with his powerful staff clenched in his fist looking angrier than they had ever seen him. “People, follow me.” He bellowed to assemble everyone. He then hurriedly walked over to a big grey bolder and waited for Israel to catch up.
Aaron followed Moses feeling uncomfortable. He was reminded of how angry Moses was when he returned from Mt. Sinai to find them worshipping the golden calf that they had made. Only this time Moses was more wrapped up in himself, and uncharacteristically disconnected from God. Aaron could not shake a strange and awful feeling that something was very different and very wrong.
As Moses waited for everyone to assemble he surveyed the crowd that seemed to be sucking the life out of him clutching the staff harder and harder until his fingernails pierced his own skin.
When the thirsty congregation was fully assembled and quieted all looking to Moses for relief he bellowed, “Listen you rebels, shall we bring water out of this rock?” Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank and drank to their hearts content.
Gracefeld and Perambula looked wide-eyed at Moses in near disbelief, and then over to God and then to each other. As water rained on the parched people a deep crack had formed between Moses and the Lord. A fissure that could not be ignored.
Aaron thought to himself, ‘That is not what God told him to say.’ For even in his relative dullness of spirit Aaron knew that this time was different from the other time Moses struck the rock at Horeb to get water. Both incidents were said to be at Meribah, but last time Moses perceived that the sons of Israel tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” This time Moses took credit for producing the water. That was wrong. It was inaccurate and it was wrong. Aaron was concerned.
The angels heard God admonish Moses very loud and clear. Aaron heard it too in his own heart. God said to the brothers, “Because you did not trust in Me, to show My holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” At the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the Lord for water, and by which He planned to show His holiness, Moses’ in his frustration took the credit.
For to the Lord, more precious and more critical than water to a thirsty man is knowledge of His holiness. For the people it was water, for God, the withholding and the giving of water was to be more proof of His providence, of His holiness, of His existence.
This was the crime of Moses, to attempt to take from God his holiness, the credit due Him alone for producing water from the rock. The humility that God loved about Moses devolved.
Let it be understood by this event that God has been known to withhold a need, a great need that He can easily provide, to demonstrate His holiness at the right time and in the right way. This is what it means to trust IN Him.
Nevertheless, the rock gushed forth water for all the people and all their livestock to drink. And they all rushed over to the geyser to grab as much of the watery gold as they could, letting it rain on them with open mouths facing up drinking it and feeling its cool wetness on their faces and on their heads. It was sublime. The people pushed and shoved to demand their turns at the cool water. Greed like the antithesis of life sustaining water filled their hard hearts even as the cool water saturated their dehydrated bodies.
Meanwhile, the Lord was angry. Angrier than He had ever been with Moses, the words echoed in the minds of Moses and Aaron for days and days, “Because you did not trust in Me, to show My holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring the assembly into the land I have given them.”
The effect of this decision was not felt by anyone, but Moses kept it in his heart as he continued to walk and walk and walk, as days and weeks and months and years passed step by step. Moses walked knowing that he was walking long enough for the faithless to die, and that in the end, he would die too before ever seeing the Promise Land. Moses kept this sin in his heart for forty years. No sacrificial lamb would take it from him. Ultimately he would be the one to die with this heavy burden. Like an iron ball and chain tied to his leg Moses walked for forty years in a circle away from and back to the Promise Land of Canaan.