Sin of action and sin of silence

Why did such an uncompromising judgment as to not allow either Moses or Aaron to enter Canaan fall on both men?

Younis Masih is lecturer, Biblical studies, Fulton College, Suva, Fiji.


The remarkable contributions and achievements of Moses and Aaron during the Exodus make them characters worthy of our respect and admiration. Moses was a miracle child (Exod. 6:20), a kind and forgiving brother (Num. 12:11), a miracle maker (Exod. 4:21), and a great leader (Exod. 32:32). God saw him as a faithful friend and a servant (Num.12:7). Aaron served as God’s spokesman for his brother (Exod. 4:16) and as a first high priest before God (Exod. 28:41). However, it comes as a great tragedy that neither of them, nor their sister Miriam, made it to the Promised Land. They were so near to Canaan but were banished from entering into it.

One may ask why such an uncom­promising judgment fell on Moses and Aaron. What was so bad about their actions that excluded them from entering into the Promise Land?

Moses’ sin

The events in Numbers 20:1–12 took place in the fortieth year after the Exodus. After wandering for almost 39 years, the Israelites had arrived at the desert of Zin and camped at Kadesh. This chapter begins with the death of Miriam and concludes with the bereavement of Aaron; hence, it depicts heart-breaking circumstances for Moses. In addition to the sorrow caused by the passing of Miriam, the Israelites beleaguered Moses and Aaron with another demanding grumble (v. 2). In their list of com­plaints people preferred (1) death with the ten spies than life with Moses and Aaron (Numb. 14:36), (2) Egyptian slavery than the free desert, (3) gro­ceries (grains, figs, grapevines, or pomegranates), and (4) water to drink (vv. 3–5). With burdened hearts Moses and Aaron fell facedown to seek for the Lord’s help.

The Lord then commanded Moses and Aaron to speak to the rock, and He said that the rock would pour out water.1 Moses, however, said to the people, “ ‘Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?’ '2 He raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. The water gushed out, communal thirst was quenched, and the problem was resolved.

But, for both brothers, a new problem emerged. The Lord said to them, “ ‘Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them’ ' (vv. 7–12).

Moses and Aaron

God’s accusation against Moses and Aaron shows that they did not trust and honor Him as holy before the children of Israel. The irony of the passage is that they were told to speak to the rock, but Moses spoke to the people. They were prohibited from striking the rock but Moses struck it—twice. Immediately many questions arise: How does double striking of the rock relate to God’s accusation against Moses and Aaron? Why was Aaron punished? And, what is so significant about striking the rock twice?

To some extent these proposals do help, but a review of the brothers’ past reveals that both committed similar or even more serious mistakes earlier in their dealings with God.5 Perhaps more exists in the text than what the above proposals consider.Philip J. Budd lists possible explanations. He states that many biblical scholars define Moses’ sin as unbelief, unwillingness, haste or ill-temper, and disobedience. His disobedience is often understood in terms of an action of verse 11 (strik­ing) as compared with the command of verse 8 (speaking). Some propose that the original form of the story has been suppressed.3 Others affirm that Moses forgot God’s patience in His dealings with the people, and thus acted as if the murmurings were against him (Moses).4

Aaron’s sin of silence

Though the brothers were to work together, Moses alone is seen speaking, striking, and disobeying. However, God said, regarding Aaron’s exclusion from the Promised Land, “ ‘Aaron will be gathered to his peo­ple. He will not enter the land I give the Israelites, because both of you rebelled against my command at the waters of Meribah’ ” (20:24). If Moses did the speaking and striking, why was Aaron reckoned as rebellious?

Perhaps Aaron committed the sin of remaining inactive or silent when he saw Moses disobeying,6 which stands in contrast to what he was sup­posed to be and do: speak for Moses and be his prophet (Exod. 4:16; 30; 7:1, 2). Ellen G. White states that, by not speaking to the rock, Aaron failed in rendering his priestly duties and representing our great High Priest. “It was the exalted character of that sacred office as representative of our great High Priest that made Aaron’s sin at Kadesh of so great magnitude.”7 In Numbers 20:8, the Hebrew verb translated “You speak,” points back to an antecedent subject: Moses and Aaron. The verb in question is pi’el, perfect tense, second person plural. The pi‘el expresses intensification; hence, the verb can be translated as “you (plural) speak repeatedly.” The original Hebrew text implies that Aaron was required to speak, but he remained silent. Verse 24 also implies that God reckoned Aaron’s silence as an approval of Moses’ rebellion against His command at the waters of Meribah. The Hebrew verb menytem, “rebellion,” is plural and points back to an antecedent subject, Aaron and Moses.

Conversely, Numbers 20 shows that Aaron did nothing but gather the crowd, which was according to God’s command. Thus, we have two possible solutions to understand why God held Aaron accountable for the sin at Maribah: First, some events in the narrative are suppressed and we do not know the full story; or, second, perhaps Aaron failed to be God’s spokesman (Exod. 4:16) and his silent approval for the wrong of his brother became the cause of his death—the ultimate silence.8 Both options cannot be dealt with in detail here, but the second appears to be more biblically acceptable.

The sin of remaining silent in the face of evil is known in the Bible. Ezekiel 33:2–7 records the job description of a watchman who should warn the people about danger. If a person heard the warning, but did not abide by it and, as a result, someone died, then the dead person’s blood would be on his own head. However, if the watchman saw the danger coming and did not inform the people (but remained silent), and the danger took the life of someone, then God will hold the watchman accountable for that person’s blood. In this text, the watchman is viewed as a sinner because of his silence and not informing others (see also Lev. 10:1–3; 19:17; Isa. 58:1; 62:6; Jer. 4:19; Ps. 39:2; 1 Pet. 2:15). Hence, Aaron appears guilty of remaining silent and not doing anything to stop Moses from disobeying God’s directives.

Moses’ sin of action

Alternatively, Moses was prohib­ited from entering into the Promised Land, probably because he struck the rock twice (Num. 20:11). The Hebrew word translated rock in Numbers. 20:11 is from the root word sela

The term is common nominative in the Old Testament, occurring about 56 times. The word sela is interchangeably used with another Hebrew term for the rock, s)ûr. In Hebrew Bible, sela is also a name of God (2 Sam. 22:2; Ps. 42: 10 [9]). The term symbolizes God’s unshakable faithfulness, permanence, protection, care, and provision for His people (Ps. 71:3; 78:16; Isa. 32:2).9 “The prophet Isaiah calls Yahweh’s Messiah ‘a rock that makes [people] fall’ (Isa. 8:14). The New Testament identifies this stone of stumbling as Jesus of Nazareth, Who breaks and humbles some to repentance and crushes the rebellious in judgment (Matt. 21:42–44; Rom. 9:32­33; 1 Pet. 2:6–8). The apostle Paul understood that rock of provision during the Israelite desert trek to be that same stone, pre­incarnate Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 10:4).”10

Biblical scholars mostly agree that the striking of the rock in Exodus 17:1–7 prophetically pointed to the death of Christ.12 Accordingly, by the same line of reasoning, one can implement the similar interpretive formula in order to understand the double striking of the rock in Numbers 20:11 and suggest that it confused the strong prophetic projection by prefiguring the death of Jesus twice. Ellen G. White asserts that “by his rash act Moses took away the forceConsequently, if the rock in Exodus 17:1–7 prefigured Christ (1 Cor. 10:4), then one can conclude that the rock in Numbers 20:11 also figuratively pointed to Jesus. Moses’ striking of the rock in Exodus 17:1–7 was, then, a prophetic projection of Jesus’ crucifixion; but His striking of the rock twice, in Numbers 20:11, ultimately confused that prophetic projection.11

of the lesson that God purposed to teach. The rock, being a symbol of Christ, had been once smitten, as Christ was to be once offered. The second time it was needful only to speak to the rock, as we have only to ask for blessings in the name of Jesus. By the second smiting of the rock the significance of this beautiful figure of Christ was destroyed.”13

Application and conclusion

Thus, most likely, Aaron was excluded from the Promised Land because he remained silent, even when he saw Moses doing wrong. God reckoned Aaron’s silence as rebellion (Num. 20:24). Moses was debarred from the Promised Land because he confused the symbol of the Crucifixion. Such conclusion is sustained on the basis of intertextual and linguistic factors.

The narrative plainly outlines the golden rule of application that the particulars of God’s word must be carried out fully. We cannot pick and choose the details of the word of God as they suit us. The command­ments and the doctrines of God must be obeyed seriously and accurately, as the sins of both Moses and Aaron so clearly show.


1 Forty years before Moses was commanded to strike the rock at Horeb to initiate a flow of water (Exod. 17:1–7).

2 Numbers 20:10. All texts in this article are quoted from the New International Version unless otherwise stated.

3 Phillip J. Budd, Numbers, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 5, eds. David A. Hubbard and Glen W. Barker (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1984), 218.

4 “Smote the Rock Twice” (Num 20:11), The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, rev. ed., Francis D. Nichol (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1978), 891. 

5 Exod. 2:14; 4:18–26; Num. 12:11.

6 Silence conveys a wide range of emotions, attitudes, and states. For example, it expresses respect and awe (Job 29:21; Hab. 2:20), loyalty (Isa. 36:21), deep thought (Acts 15:12), acceptance of guilt (Job 13:19; Rom. 3:19), fear of saying something wrong (Ps. 39:2), even wisdom (Job 13:5; Prov. 17:28). Negatively, it can convey faithlessness (Esther 4:14), fear (Job 31:34; Acts 18:9), deep pain (Job 2:13; Lam. 2:10), rebellion (Ps. 32:2; Mark 3:4). There are times when silence is suitable (Eccles. 3:7), but there are also times when we must not remain silent in the face of evil (Isa. 58:1; 62:6).

7 Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, The Pocket Library: Story of Salvation From Genesis to Revelation, vol. 1 (Harrah, OK: Mission Publishing Inc., 2002), 561.

8 Sons of Eli died because they showed improper behavior towards God’s sacrificial system. The system prefigured Christ’s sacrifice on behalf of the sinners (1 Sam. 2:12–17; 2 Sam. 2:28–34; 4:1–11). See also 2 Sam. 6:6, 7; Ezek. 44:12; Mal. 2:7, 8.

9 Endrew E. Hill, “Sela,” New International Dictionary of Old Testament Exegesis (NIDOTE), ed. Willem A. VanGemeren (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 3:267.

10 Endrew E. Hill, “s)ûr,” NIDOTE, 3:793.

11 Joseph T. Lienhard and Ronnie J. Rombs record that according to Augustine the double striking prefigures the two pieces of wood on the cross. Caesarius of Arles agrees with Augustine and states that the rock was struck a second time because two trees were lifted up for the gibbet of the cross: the one stretched out Christ’s sacred hands, and the other spread out his sinless body from head to foot. See Joseph T. Lienhard and Ronnie J. Rombs, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Old Testament, vol. 3, ed. Joseph T. Lienhard (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 239.

12 See, H.L. Ellison, Exodus, The Daily Study Bible Series (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 92. Joseph T. Lienhard and Ronnie J. Rombs, 90. John Wesley, Wesley’s Notes: Exodus 4:17 (Logos Library System; Wesley’s Notes Albany, 1999). J. Vernon McGee, The Law: Exodus 1-18, Thru the Bible Commentary, vol. 4 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 152.

13 White, 548

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Younis Masih is lecturer, Biblical studies, Fulton College, Suva, Fiji.

June 2012

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