That very day the LORD spoke to Moses, “Go up this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, opposite Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel for a possession. And die on the mountain which you go up, and be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother died in Mount Hor and was gathered to his people, 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.” –Deuteronomy 32:48-52
Moses was prone to frustration and anger. And I can see why. The people he was called to shepherd constantly tested him. It is fitting that several times in Scripture God refers to the people of Israel as a “stiff-necked people” (Cf., Ex. 32:9; 33:3, 5; 34:9). Of course, we are all-too-like ancient Israel, trusting God at moments only to find ourselves soon after grumbling before Him for want of something.
But Moses was not justified in his anger simply because the people were a burden. The standard for Moses’s leadership had everything to do with God, not the people’s attitudes, whether good or bad.
God says to Moses: “Go up this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, opposite Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel for a possession. And die on the mountain which you go up . . . .” (32:49-50a). This declaration is startling given how hard Moses has labored to bring the people into the land of Canaan. To be sure, through many dangers, toils, and snares Moses had already come. He had stared down Pharaoh, weathered mutinies, administered justice, entertained countless grumblings, and stood before God in the clouds and thunder on the mountain top. For all of this, he would not enter the land, but die what feels like a premature death.
But why? What is the reason God gives for this judgement on Moses?
We see the answer in v. 52: “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.” The answer is radically God-centered. The reason Moses would die on the mountain is because he “broke faith with [God],” which is to say, Moses “did not treat [God] as holy.” That having faith in God and treating Him as holy are one and the same thing is confirmed in the passage alluded to here, namely, Numbers 20:11-12. Notice how faith in God is treating Him as holy, the very thing Moses did not do when he struck the rock in anger:
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. 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.”
This is hugely convicting to me. To believe in God is to treat Him as holy. Anything less is not faithful. Furthermore, this narrative puts my obedience before God on a standard that does not change. Why? Because God is never not worthy of my believing reverence.
“God, help me to believe in you this day such that I treat You as holy before the people. In the strength of Christ I pray. Amen.”