Why Mosheh Did Not Enter the Promised Land

Posted by on Jul 2, 2022

Mosheh the greatest statesman Israel ever had was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. The reason was that Mosheh did not speak to the rock, as YHVH told him, but he struck it with his rod. Why was that a sin to Mosheh that it merited such a punishment?

Let us suspend this question for a moment and raise another challenge: we find two quite different stories concerning the attempt of Israel to enter the Land of Promise: one in Numbers and another one in Deuteronomy. They differ in their accounts as to who had sent the twelve “spies” to scout the land of Kana’an.

According to the account in Numbers, it was YHVH Elohim Himself, while in Deuteronomy it was the people who asked Mosheh to send the men. The account that says that YHVH sent the spies works for Numbers but contradicts Deuteronomy. This raises the inevitable question: Who sent the twelve spies and how did it affect the outcome of YHVH’s decision to ban Mosheh from entering the Land?

The bitter water of strife

At the 33rd station of the journey of the children of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land the congregation assembled at Kadesh. Miriam died and was buried there.

In the 40th year of their wanderings in Arabia the nation came in the very same place at Kadesh, where the sentence had been decreed 38 years before, that they should remain in the desert for 40 years, until the rebellious generation had died out.

Poussin, Nicolas - Moses Striking Water from the Rock - 1649

Poussin, Nicolas – Moses Striking Water from the Rock – 1649

There was no water at Kadesh and the people assembled against Mosheh and Aharon to protest. And because the water ceased the people wished that they had died (literally, to breath out, to expire), as their brothers died (Num 20:1-3), accusing Mosheh and Aharon, saying,

Why have you brought up the assembly of Yehovah into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die here? And why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to bring us to this evil place? – not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink. (Num 20:4-5)

The allusion to death here is not to Korach and the other rebels, who were swallowed up in the earth, since “to breath out” would be inapplicable to their destruction, but to the old generation who refused to enter the Land and had died out one by one in the Arabian exile.

The last time people complained that there was no water was forty years earlier (see Exo 17:6), when Mosheh was told to strike the rock. Now when the people complained again, Mosheh and Aharon went to the Tabernacle and fell on their faces. There the glory of YHVH appeared to them, saying,

Take the rod and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aharon. And you shall speak to the rock before their eyes, and it shall give its water. And you shall bring water for them out of the rock and give drink to the congregation and their livestock. (Num 20:8)

YHVH simply told Mosheh to speak to the rock. But Mosheh did even more than YHVH had commanded him. He took his rod with which he had performed miracles in Egypt (Exo 17:5) and instead of speaking to the rock (with the rod in his hand) he spoke to the congregation, “Hear now, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?”—words which strengthened the people in their unbelief. Then he lifted his hand and struck the rock twice. And much water came out, and the congregation and their livestock drank. 

The commentaries offer various explanations as to what Mosheh and Aharon’s sin was, but the most common among them are: disobedience—he struck the rock instead of only speaking, and anger—he became angry at the people. But as verse 12 explicitly says, their sin involved a lack of faith, not disobedience or anger.

Rabbeinu Chananel on Numbers 20:12 makes the point that Mosheh’s sin consisted of the word “shall we bring?” or “we shall bring water”, thus he created the impression in the people that it was his and Aharon’s task to extract water from the rock. The people might have thought that while the first occasion in Exo 17:5-7, when Mosheh struck the rock, had been a miracle of Elohim, this time they used their own power to produce water from the rock.

Also, when the people observed that Moses was angry with them, they might have assumed that his anger was also Elohim’s anger at them for having demanded water. But the people had not sinned. They were thirsty. They needed water for their children and the cattle. They were in the desert where water is scarcity. YHVH knew that and was not angry with them. It was Mosheh’s bitter reaction to the people YHVH was angry at, not the people’s complaint.

Mosheh was the leader of Israel whom YHVH chose at the burning bush, and such a leader must be a role model. It is for this reason that Mosheh was punished: for the failure to control his anger. If it were someone else, he might have not been even punished, but not Mosheh. Mosheh, who spoke with YHVH like a friend, face to face and mouth to mouth, did not have that expectation. When someone of the stature of Mosheh stands before the Almighty, he has very little margin of error.
Therefore, knowing that Mosheh was the chosen one of YHVH Elohim, the people might have concluded that if Mosheh was angry with them, so too was Elohim. Yet they had done no more than to ask for lifesaving water for their families.
The narrative does not indicate anywhere that YHVH considered the legitimate concern of the people due to lack of water as a rebellion, but rather He considered Mosheh and Aharon’s actions as such when He said, “because you rebelled against My mouth” (Num 20:24). For this reason, YHVH said,

Because you did not believe Me to set Me apart in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you do not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them. (Num 20:12)

The Sages teach in Midrash Rabbah that this incident was not a private matter between Mosheh and YHVH, something that can be overlooked. But because it was done in the presence of the people, it was impossible to overlook it. On that occasion YHVH made the decree against both of them not to see the Promised Land (Num 27:14).

What is the lesson of this story? Leaders like Mosheh and Aharon may have doubts as all other men do, but in the presence of others they cannot. Had Mosheh said, “YHVH shall bring water for you from the rock”, the situation would have been altogether different. This momentary weakness cost both brothers a lot. But what should give us pause, however, is the following.

Who sent the spies in Kana’an?

At the threshold of the Promised Land, YHVH told Mosheh to send men to spy out the land of Kana’an.

Send men to search the land of Kana’an, which I am giving to the children of Israel. You shall send one man from each tribe of their fathers, everyone a leader among them. (Num 13:2)

Mosheh did as he was told and selected twelve men, one from each tribe. From the twelve spies we know only Hoshea the Ephramite and Kalev the Yehudite.

Mosheh changed Hoshea’s name “Yehoshua” (Num 13:16). Why did he change his name? The medieval Tanak commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040–1105) understands that the name change is a form of prayer, i.e., Yah Yoshia-cha, “May Yah save you”, hence the name “Yehoshua”.

Note: The name יְהוֹשֻׁעַ Yehoshua is a compounded form of יָהּ Yah (the short form of the Creator’s Name) and יוֹשִׁיעֲךָ yoshiacha, “he delivers” — [see also Sotah 34b:8]. Yeshua is a short form of Yehoshua, which came into use in Judea after the Babylonian exile. For more insight into the Creator’s set-apart Name and His Messiah, refer to the corresponding series of articles.

But did really YHVH tell Mosheh to send spies, as we read in the translations. The Hebrew word for the verb “to spy” is ragel, and a spy is a meragel. Interestingly, Mosheh did not instruct the men to ragel rather he told them to tur to explore or search the land.

What is the difference between ragel and tur, and why does it matter? The difference is significant as we have explained it in the article What Was the Sin of the Ten Spies? – Time of Reckoning Ministry. But here it suffices to say that explorers merely discover, or search; they are the ones who travel into little known regions (especially for some scientific purpose), while spies observe secretively with hostile intent.

The men returned to the camp after forty days of exploration. When they returned, they made a mistake, and their mistake was not that they were scared by the giants of the land; they had the right to be scared.

The mistake was that the men return and gave their report not only to Mosheh and Aharon but also to all Israelites (Num 13:26). They said this to all the congregation (Num 13:31): “We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we”. The wording “stronger than we” is capable of two translations and interpretations.

In Hebrew, the word “than we” is mimenu. But mimenu can also mean “than he”, i.e., thus referring to Elohim Himself. Rashi says that what the men could have possibly said was: “Even He cannot remove them from there”. From a purely textural point of view, Hebrew grammar allows either interpretation.

Now, if we were to see the fact that the sending of the men was the root cause of the disaster, then Yehoshua, who was one of the twelve, certainly should have learned a lesson and should not have thought to send out his spies to Yericho, when his time came to conquer the land.

From this follows that the idea of sending the twelve men to search the land was not the root of the problem, because Yehoshua too sent spies. Therefore, the only objectionable thing in sending the men was the purpose, not the idea itself.

When the children of Israel refused to enter the Promised Land because of the report of the men, YHVH threatened to strike them with a plague and disown them all (Num 14:11-12). But He did not because Mosheh intervened on behalf of his people with YHVH.

The second key element in YHVH’s command is “you shall send”. The verb which YHVH used for “you shall send” is plural in Hebrew, something that can be missed in the English translations (English grammar does not distinguish between singular and plural, unlike Hebrew).

Although YHVH spoke to Mosheh, the command was meant to be executed by “them”. So, who exactly did YHVH addressed? We will find this out thirty-eight years later, when Moshe will recall those events,

And all of you came near to me and said, “Let us send men before us, and let them explore the land for us and bring back word to us of the way by which we should go up, and of the cities into which we would come”. (Deu 1:22)

Here again we find in the Hebrew text another word for “to explore”, chaphar, indicating that the people did not want to “spy” the land as a military object of interest, but simply to obtain more information about the land they were to enter.

But the major difference between the accounts of the same event in Numbers and here in Deuteronomy is that it was not YHVH who wanted to send the men (the spies) but the people (Deu 1:22-23). The matter was good in Mosheh’s eyes, and he took twelve men, one man from each tribe and sent them in a journey to the land of Kana’an. 

Since the initiative to send the twelve men originated with the people, it is evident that YHVH’s command “you [plural] shall send” was addressed to the nation, not just to Mosheh alone.

According to the account in Numbers (Num 13:1-3), the proposal to send men to Kana’an was of YHVH. However, in Deu 1:20-23, Mosheh tells the story differently: it was of the people. How can these two seemingly contradictory accounts be reconciled? The apparent contradiction is resolved by suggesting that Mosheh had intentionally split the event into two different accounts. Therefore, they can be reconciled if we combined them in one.

The two stories combined look like this: The children of Israel proposed to send out men to search the land for themselves and bring back a report (Numbers). This was good in Mosheh’s eyes, he approved the proposal, and sent out twelve men (Deuteronomy). Mosheh then asked YHVH for permission (not recorded anywhere but assumed). He agreed to send men to explore the land (Numbers). The twelve went throughout the land, liked it, and took some of the fruits of the land.

Thus, Numbers only records the final part of the story whose beginning parts are recorded only in Deuteronomy.

With that said, we can reconstruct the sequence of events, where they overlap, as follows.

  • The journey to the land of Kana’an (Num 13:17; Deu 1:24)
  • The twelve came to Eshkol and took some of the fruit of the land (Num 13:23; Deu 1:24)
  • They returned to the camp with their report and rejected the land (Num 13:26-31; Deu 1:25-28)
  • The nation was punished not to enter the Land except for Kalev and Yehoshua (Num 14:23-24; Deu 1:35-36)
  • Confession of sin and intent to conquer the Land on their own (Num 14:40; Deu 1:41)
  • Mosheh warned them not to attempt to fight the locals (Num 14:41-43; Deu 1:42-43)
  • The failed attempt to enter the Land (Num 14:44-45; Deu 1:44-45).

Hence, the story reads thus: Mosheh said to the people,

You have come to the mountains of the Amorites, which Yehovah our Elohim is giving us. Look, Yehovah your Elohim has set the land before you. Go up and possess it, as Yehovah Elohim of your fathers has spoken to you. Do not fear, nor be discouraged. And all of you came near to me and said, “Let us send men before us, and let them search out the land for us, and bring back word to us of the way by which we should go up, and of the cities into which we would come”. And the matter was good in my eyes, so I took twelve of your men, one man from each tribe. (Deu 1:20-23) And Yehovah spoke to Mosheh, saying, “Send men to spy out the land of Kana’an, which I am giving to the children of Israel. Send one man from each tribe of their fathers, everyone a leader among them”. And by the mouth of Yehovah Mosheh sent them from the Wilderness of Paran, all of them men who were heads of the children of Israel. (Num 13:1-3)

Do we see a different picture now? Once we have reconstructed the correct sequence of events, it becomes easier for us to see Mosheh’s intent in presenting the story the way he put it in writing.

First, we see that it was the people who initiated the idea to send men to explore the land and then conquer it (in Deuteronomy); it was not YHVH as it appears in Numbers.

The Israelites came to Mosheh asking to send men to explore the Land. It was the people who wanted to send men to search the land and bring back a report of the goodness of the land, not YHVH. At that point Mosheh should have said to the people that that was unnecessary seeing Elohim had already given His assurance even in the land of Egypt that they would defeat the Kana’anites and inhabit the Land. But he did not. This would be proven to be a mistake that cost Mosheh a lot.

Mosheh too

Close to the end of his life Mosheh rebuked the people for what happened thirty-eight years earlier.

YHVH never intended the Israelites to send men much less spies to bring a report whether the land was conquerable or not; it was their idea. Mosheh for some reason listened to the people and sent twelve men, one of each tribe.

Upon their return ten of them caused fear in the people and they refused to conquer the land. Elohim decreed that all males, as they were counted in the last census were to die in the wilderness, except for Kalev and Yehoshua, because, when the people revolted against Mosheh and wished to return to Egypt, they both counteracted the rebellion to convince the people to trust in YHVH (Num 14:6-9).

And we came to the next key moment in our story. When YHVH said that all males were to die in the wilderness, He indeed meant it all, including Mosheh. We read thus in Deuteronomy,

Not one of these men of this evil generation shall see that good land of which I swore to give to your fathers, … And Yehovah was angry with me for your sakes, saying, “You do not go in there, either”. (Deu 1:35-37)

Note: The decree, “You do not go in there [in the Land], either”, must have been issued thirty-eight years earlier (in Numbers), not here in Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy, once it became clear to him that all his chances to see the Land had left him, Mosheh closed out this story for the next generations to know.

After YHVH decreed that Mosheh would not see the Land, He also decreed who his successor would be: Yehoshua the son of Nun (Deu 1:38). He would lead the children of those who refused the Land into the Land of Promise to possess it. “But you [Mosheh], turn and take your journey into the wilderness” (Deu 1:40).

And after Mosheh announced the new leader of Israel: Yehoshua; his fate was sealed in the eyes of the people, and a new chapter of the history of Israel was opened. Mosheh did this to impress upon the minds of the people the guilt they had that because of them he would not lead them into the Land. But YHVH had given the people a new leader, who was to bring them into the Promised Land, and whom they were to listen to and fear as they feared Mosheh.

By using the expression “for your sakes” (verse 37), Mosheh did not wish to free himself from his guilt. But by invoking his own fault, he wanted to provoke the consciences of the people that he would not enter the Land either because of them. Mosheh simply pointed out the fact, that the rebellion of the people against him caused the anger of Elohim to fall not only upon them but upon him also.

Mosheh died in the foreign east of the Yarden River as a punishment for his behavior at Mei Merivah when he hit the rock (Num 20:12). However, his death was also because of the “spies” in Deu 1:37. Since Mosheh approved the words of the people and sent men to search the Land, he bore the burden of the failure along with the people. That was the responsibility of their leader.

Mosheh indeed accused the people of the rebellion at Kadesh (Num 13 and 14), because it was this rebellion which was followed by the condemnation of that generation to die out in the wilderness and him also.

By having confessed his fault in this incident, in his last words to the nation (Deu 32:48-52) Mosheh did not pass over in silence his sin at the rock either, when he and his brother failed to sanctify YHVH before the people. 

Miriam and the waters of bitterness

Israel had three great leaders: Mosheh, Aharon, and Miriam, and none of them was found meritorious to see the Land of Promise they dreamed of for forty years.

Mosheh was punished for the sake of the ten “spies” and for hitting the rock instead of speaking to it.

Aharon was punished for his direct involvement in the sin of the golden calf and for the sin at the rock.

But Miriam? What did Miriam do not to merit to see the Land.

Before the children of Israel moved to the next camp, which would bring them closer to the Land, Miriam was afflicted with tsara’at was secluded outside of the camp for seven days (Num 12:15), following which Mosheh sent the men to explore the land of Kana’an (Num 13:1).

There were three water crises in the Exodus story:

(1) At the bitter water of מָרָה Marah “bitter” (Exo 15:23-25),

(2) at Rephidim, when Mosheh was told to strike the rock (Exo 17:1-7),

(3) and after Miriam’s death, when the water ceased, and Mosheh was told to speak to the rock (Num 20:1-11).

We should note that the water that supported the nation during the forty years in the desert ceased to flow from the rock because of Miriam’s death, not simply after her death.

YHVH said to Mosheh to speak to the rock, and the rock would give water for the people. But which rock did the Omniscient mean, any rock in the desert, or the rock that first gave water in the desert? And what is the meaning of “you shall speak to the rock”? Can a rock hear anyone?

Note: Tsur “Rock” is one of the names for YHVH Elohim (Deu 32:4, Deu 32:15, Deu 32:18).

The Rock at Mount Horev, Saudi Arabia

The Rock at Mount Horev, Saudi Arabia

And what did Miriam have to do with the rock or with the water? The matter will become clear once we see something in her name. Her name is spelled מִרְיָם which means “bitterness”. As we explained in the book The Time of Reckoning, Miriam was born short after the slavery in Egypt began, and her name was probably given on the account of the bitterness of the slavery.

Notice how the same letters of Miriam’s name מִרְיָם can spell out two words in Hebrew, besides מָרָה Marah, “bitter” and a place in the desert which received its name from the bitter water of the Wilderness of Shur. These two words are: (1) מרים “bitter”, as in bitter water (Exo 15:23), and (2) מרים “rebels”, as in “Hear you rebels” of Num 20:10.

Miriam was in all these stories, and these stories were all about water. Yet, there was another one in which we also see Miriam “bitterness”: at the bitter waters of the Nile River, when she was watching over Mosheh in the basket.

When these two words for “bitter” and “rebels”, which sounds close and are spelled identically, cross a Hebrew mind, it is inevitable to associate them with Miriam’s name. Standing at the rock Mosheh uttered the words, “Hear you rebels”. When he uttered them, he must have recalled his sister Miriam, who saved him in Egypt, and her sudden death. Perhaps, in his subconsciousness, when he hit the rock, he recreated an image of Miriam and Aharon standing next to him in support; a support which he always had during these forty years. But now, he had none of them; Miriam and then Aharon died in the wilderness.

In the Torah we read about the deaths of Mosheh, Aharon, and Miriam, the three great leaders of Israel. But unlike the deaths of Mosheh and Aharon, who were mourned for thirty days, at her death, there was no mourning, or at least it is not recorded in the Torah. The narrative of Numbers 20 states that Miriam died and was buried and moves on to the next story in which Mosheh hit the rock. Why was it so?

Miriam and the Kushite woman

Now Miriam and Aharon spoke against Mosheh because of the Kushite woman whom he had taken, for he had taken a Kushite woman. And they said, “Has Yehovah spoken only through Mosheh? Has He not also spoken through us?” And Yehovah heard it. (Num 12:1-2)

Num 12:1 indicates that Mosheh married a second wife, a Kushite woman, in addition to his wife, Zipporah. Miriam and Aharon spoke out against him (his decision) that one wife should suffice for their brother. In other words, they were troubled that Mosheh had taken a second wife. And YHVH heard them.

The very next verse says that Mosheh was very humble, more than all men. The reason the Torah let us know of Mosheh humility is that Mosheh did not even complain to YHVH but took the things as they are.

Now, if we accept the plain meaning of the text that Mosheh married (as a second wife) an unnamed Kushite woman, why do Miriam and Aharon speak against him? The Torah is silent on this, but we can derive some sense of the whole incident between Miriam and Mosheh.

Miriam’s concerns perhaps were: If her brother would not see the land but had to die in the wilderness with the old generation, why should he leave another widow besides his wife Zipporah? And how would that new widow feel? Miriam had legitimate concern expressed in empathy and compassion.

From a human perspective, there is nothing wrong, much less sinful, when a sister is concerned with the decisions of her younger brother expressed before her other brother (let us recall that Miriam was the oldest of the three).

But that was not how the Omniscient YHVH saw it, because He punished Miriam for speaking against His prophet and servant Mosheh (Num 12:6-8). And the anger of YHVH burned against them, and He left (Num 12:9). And Miriam became afflicted with tsara’at.

When the Mosheh story is viewed from the angle of the Miriam story, a new reading transpires, as follows: Mosheh knew he would not see the Land of which he dreamed forty years. But he took the Ethiopian (the Kushite) woman as a second wife for reasons we are not told.

Miriam in the position of being his [older] sister expressed her concerns before Aharon, their brother, about Mosheh’s decision to take a new wife.

YHVH heard what Miriam and Aharon spoke of and chastised her not for the concerns she had, which were legitimate concerns, but because what she said intervened with the decree issued thirty-eight years earlier; a decree Miriam and Aharon knew very well, namely, that their brother was not to lead the people into the Land.

From this point of view, Miriam and Aharon had the reason to speak of family matters, but they had no reason to speak of Elohim’s decree.

Miriam was chastised and after her seclusion for seven days, the camp moved on towards the borders of Kana’an. She was first of the three siblings to die, then Aharon and Mosheh.

Note: This interpretation of the present author is at variance with the Rabbinic view on the Miriam story. For more insight on the matter, the reader is encouraged to refer to the article Did Miriam Mean to Speak Evil Tongue? – Time of Reckoning Ministry.

Whatever the reasons were for Mosheh to take a second wife, Miriam and Aharon’s sin was that they did not speak with him on the matter, as a family, but spoke against him and behind his back.

This new reading of the story is not an explanation for Mosheh’s decision to take another wife. Instead, it is meant to explain why YHVH reacted so harshly to Miriam. If Mosheh was YHVH’s trusted servant and prophet, then “Why were you not afraid to speak against My servant Mosheh?” A question we are left with, and so will leave it.

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May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days!