Why Moses Could not Enter the Land

Leviticus is a book of law with narrative; when narrative is found, we should ask ourselves why. Numbers, on the other hand, is a book of narrative with some law stuck in. In like manner, when we see law in Numbers, we should ask ourselves why it’s there. Parshah Chukkat begins with the ultimate Chok – the Parah Adumah[1], which is a command from G-d that makes little to no sense to the human mind. The command of the Red Heifer is the antidote for uncleanness incurred from contact with or being in proximity of a dead body; but we should ask ourselves why the Parah Adumah is here.Tomb

At the end of Parsha Korach[2], the rebellion against Hashem came to fruition, with 14,700[3] people perishing after the destruction of Korach and his henchmen the day before. Additionally, in Parshah Chukkat[4], we have the deaths of Miriam[5] and Aaron[6] chronicled explicitly, while the remainder of the slave generation died implicitly.

Then came the children of Israel (the whole congregation), into the desert of Tzin in the first month: and the people lived in Kadesh; and Miriam died and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation: and they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. And the people contended with Moshe, and spoke, saying, “If only we had died when our brethren died lifney Hashem (before Hashem)! And why have you brought up the congregation of Hashem into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there? And wherefore have you made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in unto this evil place? It is not a place of seed, figs, vines, or pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink[7].

This sounds rather familiar. The Book of Numbers, if anything, is the Chronicle of Complaint, and once again, we are caught complaining. [Perhaps the complaining is why Numbers is often considered most people’s least-favorite book.] In textbook Pavlovian response, Moshe Rabbeinu prays for us.

And Moshe and Aaron went from the eyes of the assembly to the door of the Ohel Moed (Tabernacle of Meeting), and they fell upon their faces: and the glory of Hashem appeared unto them. And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying, “Take the rod, and gather the assembly together. You and Aaron your brother shall speak to the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and you shall bring forth to them water out of the rock: so you shall give the congregation and their beasts drink[8].

The text recounts the events immediately after:

And Moshe took the rod from before Hashem, as he commanded him. And Moshe and Aaron gathered the congregation together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?” And Moshe lifted up his hand, and with his rod he struck the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also. And Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aaron, “Because you did not believe me to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.” This is the water of Meribah; because the children of Israel contended with Hashem, and he was sanctified in them[9].

While this seems like an unfair judgment, we contend with the text and struggle to answer why. Ibn Ezra gives about ten possibilities why Moshe was spanked by G-d, and Ramban gives many reasons as well. Most commentators choose the one that fits best in their mind. For instance:

  • Claims that his anger is the cause of his punishment cannot sufficiently accepted when Moshe gets angry and throws down the original luchot [tablets] when he sees us worshipping the golden calf at the base of the mountain.
  • Claims that the words, you rebels, call for his death are insufficient when, in fact, we were rebels.
  • Some claim striking the rock was the cause, but he struck the rock the first time, and no one has a valid reason why the staff had to be brought to the rock.

There is one passage that puts all these various possibilities at ill ease, and this is found in a passage from Deuteronomy, which I redact here:

And you came near unto me every one of you, and said, “We will send men before us, and they shall search us out the land, and bring us word again by what way we must go up, and into what cities we shall come.” And the saying pleased me well: and I took twelve men of you, one of a tribe… …and [they] brought us word again, and said, “It is a good land which Hashem our God gives us.” Yet you would not go up, but rebelled against the commandment of Hashem your God: And you murmured in your tents… …Then I said to you, “Dread not, nor be afraid of them. Hashem your God goes before you; he shall fight for you…” …Yet… …you did not believe… …And Hashem heard the voice of your words… …and promised, saying, “Surely there shall not one of these men of this evil generation see that good land… …Also Hashem was angry with me for your sakes, saying, “You also shall not go in either, but Joshua… …he shall go in there… …Moreover your little ones, which you said should be a prey, and your children… …they shall go in… …But as for you, turn you, and take your journey into the wilderness by the way of the Red sea[10].”

If we take the account in Numbers and look at it in a vacuum, Moshe was disallowed entry to the land because of the events at Meribah. However, if we look at the account from Deuteronomy, the events at Kadesh-Barnea were the catalyst for Moshe’s punishment.

There’s one additional account we must explore, from Deuteronomy, but we will explore that in a moment, in favor of a slight return to Korach. In the dialog between Korach and Moshe, Korach said, “all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and Hashem is among them: why, then, lift up yourselves above the congregation of Hashem?” The problem we have with Korach is that he is speaking partial truth. Is the congregation holy? Well, for the most part, yes. They were called to be a kingdom of priests, and the position of a priest is to help raise the kedushah of the people. I know we all have had discussions on the nature of Kedushah or Holiness, and Holiness is best defined as separateness or the act of being set apart. The reason Korach’s words sounds good is because it’s based upon truth. While we are called to be holy, we are not all equally holy because if we were, then by the definition of holiness, none of us would be holy. No one would be separate and anyone in the congregation would be able to serve as Kehuna [High Priest].

When we look back at the two major sins after the Exodus, we will always choose the Cheit haEgel [sin of the golden calf] and the Cheit haMeraglim [sin of the spies]. In both of these events, one tribe was counted among the not-guilty, and that tribe was Levi. Well, let me rephrase: all of Levi was innocent of the golden calf except one: Aaron. All the Levi was innocent of the spies except one: Moshe. Now we see why Korach was intent upon asking, “Why do you lift up yourselves above the congregation of Hashem?[11]” In Korach’s mind, if anyone in the Levitical leadership who deserved to be replaced, it was Moshe and Aaron. Korach was, basically, saying all of Levi was holy except Moshe and Aaron. Is this why Moshe, in Deuteronomy, Moshe recounts the disaster of the spies and says, “…Also Hashem was angry with me for your sakes, saying, ‘You also shall not go in either, but Joshua… …he shall go in there…’” This passage seems to indicate the sin of the spies is the reason Moshe cannot enter the Land.

Like Moshe, the complaints we hear in Numbers 20:3-5 echo the complaints we hear throughout Exodus and Numbers. For instance, the worst one of all reads: “Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, except you make yourself a prince over us?[12]” The accusation accredited to Korach against Moshe and Aaron seems to ring true when we dissect Numbers 20:8:

And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying
Take the rod

Moses took the rod

Gather the assembly together

Moshe and Aaron gathered the congregation together

You and Aaron your brother
shall speak to the rock before their eyes

Only one spoke; we assume it is Moshe
The one who spoke did not speak to the rock
The one who spoke talked to the people
The rock was hit twice

It shall give forth his water

The rock produced abundant water

We see a number of things happening in the dialogue that are wrong, but are any of these worthy of losing out on the one thing Moshe wanted most in live: to enter the land of promise? Additionally, why was Aaron likewise punished if Moshe was the one who spoke and if Moshe was the one who struck the rock and if Moshe was the one who was angry?

Look at the dialogue just prior to the rock:

The people contended with Moshe, and spoke, saying, “If only we had died when our brothers died before Hashem! And why have you brought up the congregation of Hashem into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there? And wherefore have you made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in unto this evil place? It is not a place of seed, figs, vines, or pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink[13].

What is remarkable about this passage is that the people mentioned Hashem twice; but what is most startling is that Moshe doesn’t mention Hashem at all! This is a new generation, and their reliance upon G-d has changed their speech patterns in most cases. This new generation was either not of age when we left Egypt or they were not yet born. There is no talk about the glory of Egypt. A remarkable frame of reference is the use of Lifney Hashem [before Hashem] when they mention the death of their brothers. Since they mentioned lifney Hashem, who dies lifney Hashem that this becomes important?

  • The 250 elders who brought firepans during the rebellion of Korach[14].
  • The ten spies who brought the evil report about the Land of Israel[15].
  • Nadav and Avinu who bring strange fire and die in the holiest place[16].

No longer do the people look to Egypt as a land flowing with milk and honey. No longer is the free food of slavery [food provided a slave just to keep the “work animal” alive] seen as a better life than freedom. Instead, they ask, “Why haven’t you brought us into the land of seed, figs, vines, and pomegranates:” words only used to describe Eretz Israel. We have been trained to hear the same thing when we read the complaints of our ancestors, and Moshe was reacting the same way. He didn’t hear the nuance of this new generation.

The nature of Moshe’s sin is most likely found here:

Get up into this mountain Abarim, to mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, over against Jericho; and view the land of Canaan, which I give to the children of Israel for a possession: And die in the mount where you shall go up, and be gathered to your people; as Aaron your brother died in mount Hor, and was gathered to his people: Because you trespassed against me among the children of Israel at the waters of Meribah-Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin; because you did not sanctify me in the midst of the children of Israel. Yet you shall see the land before you; but you shall not go into the land I give the children of Israel[17].

You trespassed against me among Israel is expressed in Hebrew as mealtem bi betoch Yisrael. The reason it’s spelled out like this is to show the use of a special legal term in the passage. In Leviticus 5:14-16, we are introduced to the concept of Meilah, which is the misappropriation of items dedicated to G-d. The trespass mentioned by G-d uses this term Meilah. Therefore, Moses misappropriated something that belonged to G-d. This happened when Moshe talked with the people prior to striking the rock. He said, “Must we fetch you water out of this rock?[18]” There was supposed to be a moment of Kiddush Hashem at the rock, but Moshe stood before a new generation and declared himself powerful. He did not recognize the people wanted to enter the Land of Israel and were complaining about the never-ending wilderness existence, and when Moshe had an opportunity to allow G-d to be honored, he said, “must we fetch.” This is a case of Meilah, and this cost Moshe his chance to enter the land of Israel[19].


[1] Numbers 19:1-22

[2] Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

[3] Numbers 17:14

[4] Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

[5] Numbers 20:1

[6] Numbers 20:24-29

[7] Numbers 20:1-5

[8] Numbers 60:6-8

[9] Numbers 20:7-13

[10] Deuteronomy 1:22-40

[11] Numbers 16:3

[12] Numbers 16:12-13

[13] Numbers 20:3-5

[14] Numbers 16:35

[15] Numbers 14:37

[16] Leviticus 10:2

[17] Deuteronomy 32:49-52

[18] Numbers 20:10

[19] At least two events detailing meilah can be found in the Newer Testament:
[1] An unforgivable sin is described in Mark 3 and Matthew 12. These passages involve Yeshua’s miracles and his repeated and widespread public defeat of our pain and suffering. Mark 3:22-30 states, “And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebub,’ and, ‘By the ruler of the demons He casts out demons. …Assuredly, I [Yeshua] say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Ruach Hashem never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation;’ because they said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’” In Matthew 12:31-32, Yeshua says to the Pharisees, “Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Ruach Hashem, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.
     [2] Yeshua entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” Matthew 20:12-13
Both passages represent a misappropriation. The sellers were using the Temple as a place to make unrighteous profit at the expense of those who come to worship Hashem. Those who were saying the miracles of Hashem were from Baalzevul were stealing an opportunity for Kiddush Hashem.


4 thoughts on “Why Moses Could not Enter the Land

  1. So Moses could not enter the Land. Prompted by your excellent paper I did additional research on some Jewish sites……..I quote, “Moses’ position as leader of Israel was not hereditary. His son, Gershom, did not inherit the leadership of Israel. Moses’ chosen successor was Joshua, son of Nun (Deut. 34:9).
    Moses was 120 years old at the time that he died (Deut. 34:7). That lifespan is considered to be ideal, and has become proverbial: one way to wish a person well in Jewish tradition is to say, “May you live to be 120!”
    As important as Moses was to the Children of Israel, it is always important to remember that Moses himself was not the deliverer or redeemer of Israel. It was G-d who redeemed Israel, not Moses. Moses was merely G-d’s prophet, His spokesman. The traditional text of the Pesach haggadah does not even mention Moses’ name. In order to prevent people from idolatrously worshipping Moses, his grave was left unmarked (Deut. 34:6).” The faithfulness of G-d to redeem Israel, the People, keeps my spirit soaring!
    Thanks, Slade, for sharing!


    1. Thank you for your input, Pat. While writing is my first [a]vocational love, these also are representative of what I teach at our congregation. I just have to remember to put the congregation’s website at the end.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s