Moses’ Blame Shifting

Moses is either striking the rock to bring forth water, or trying to get up and down out of a greenside bunker.

Last week I was reading devotionally in Deuteronomy and a piece of Moses’ epic speech struck me in a peculiar way.  Three times in the first four chapters Moses blames the people for the fact that the Lord will not allow him to enter into the Promised Land.

“Because of you the Lord became angry with me also and said, ‘You shall not enter it, either'” (Dt 1:37).

“But because of you the Lord was angry with me and would not listen to me.  ‘That is enough,’ the Lord said.  ‘Do not speak to me anymore about this matter'” (Dt 3:26).

“The Lord was angry with me because of you, and he solemnly swore that I would not cross the Jordan and enter the good land the Lord your God is giving you as your inheritance” (Dt 4:21).

In each case, Moses is recalling a pair of incidents, the first in Exodus 17 and the second in Numbers 20.  In Exodus 17, shortly after the Israelites had left Egypt, the people complain because of a water shortage.  The Lord instructs Moses to approach a rock in the presence of the elders.  God says He will stand before the rock.  When Moses strikes the rock, water will pour out (vv. 5-6).

Much later, the Israelites find themselves in the same place.  They again cry out for want of water.  This time, however, God tells Moses to simply speak to the rock in order to elicit water (Num 20:8).  The point here is to remind the Israelites that God has already been judged once to provide for His people.  Now the people only need reminding of His faithfulness.  But Moses in his anger, struck the rock a second time (v. 11), setting the dangerous precedent before the people that certain actions will get certain results from the Lord (and that, friends, is called magic).  The consequence for Moses, then, is his barring from the land of Canaan (v. 12).

Yet once Moses and the people stand at the very gates of the Promised Land, Moses’ memory glosses over his own responsibility in the matter.  Suddenly, it’s not Moses’ behavior that prohibits his entrance into Canaan, but the actions of the people.  Moses shifts blame.

This all reminded me of a recent post of Peter Enns, Old Testament professor at Eastern University.  In the post, Dr. Enns likens the Old Testament to a child telling others of the heroic deeds of his father.  Children certainly tell stories of their parents that are generally accurate, but they also have a slightly skewed vision of reality.  Children interpret events from a different perspective than adults.  The point is, God lets His children tell the biblical story without constantly interrupting to say, “Well, that’s not exactly how it happened…”


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