When Leadership Sins

Series on Numbers (ch 20:2-13)

“And there was no water for the congregation; and they assembled themselves against Moses and Aaron. The people thus contended with Moses and spoke, saying, ‘If only we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! . . .’ Then Moses and Aaron came in from the presence of the assembly to the doorway of the tent of meeting, and fell on their faces. Then the glory of the Lord appeared to them; and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Take the rod; and you and your brother Aaron assemble the congregation and speak to the rock before their eyes, that it may yield its water. You shall thus bring forth water for them out of the rock and let the congregation and their beasts drink.’ So Moses took the rod from before the Lord, just as He had commanded him; and Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly before the rock. And he said to them, ‘Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?’ Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation and their beasts drank . . .” (20:2-13).


Human history has a way of glossing over the errors of its great leaders. Mistakes and indiscretions are uncovered only by careful investigation and, usually, after the leaders have been dead a long time. God is willing to show in Scripture that even among the very best that He has, sin exists. This is to give us encouragement, not in the fact that they fell; but in the fact that we can see they did not live their lives so far above us that we cannot imitate their faithfulness and closeness to God. Paul declared, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). At the same time, Paul declared himself “foremost of all” sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). Throughout the journeys of the Israelites in the wilderness, we have seen Moses and Aaron exonerated as being right in God’s sight when Israel was wrong. In the incident of Numbers 20:2-13, Moses and Aaron acted wrongly before God. As was true of Israel in the past, a price had to be paid for sin. Since it was an isolated act of sin, it did not cause them to lose their relationship with God; but they did lose their leadership before their lives were over. Also, neither reached the Promised Land of Canaan. What were the circumstances of their fall? What lessons can be learned from it?

I. The incident:

The approximate forty years Israel was condemned to wander in the wilderness had almost passed. Most of the generation who had grumbled and disbelieved the report of the two faithful spies, Caleb and Joshua, were now dead. Aaron and Moses, both, were well over a hundred years of age. A new generation of Israelites had emerged. The new generation, however, was not much better in attitude than its forefathers. They complained to Moses and Aaron because they had run out of water. They seemed to be infected with the same touch of impatience and disbelief as the previous generation. They grumbled, before Moses and Aaron, that no one could give them water. As he had done countless times before, Moses brought the matter before the Lord. As He had done countless times before, God patiently told Moses how they were to obtain water. First, Moses was to assemble the congregation. Then, before a rock that was in the presence of the assembly, Moses was to speak and God would bring forth water for them to drink.

We have usually been taught that Moses’ sin was in striking the rock with his staff instead of speaking to it as God had asked (20:8-11). This view, technically, would make it a sin of “striking,” not a sin of “speaking.” But the text reveals that several sins were committed, the least of which was the technical difference between “striking” and “speaking.” First, Moses and Aaron committed the sin of inattention to God’s Word. This is surprising to us since both were men of exacting detail. The priesthood required exactness and precision. God’s commands always require constant attention. Second, their sin was one of impatience and temper (20:10, 11). Moses simply lost his temper at the wrong time. After almost forty years of leadership and hearing the same complaints day after day, Moses allowed his patience with the people to wear out. Aaron’s sin was in failing to correct Moses in his mistake and in his going along with his boast that “they” were giving Israel the water. Third, their greatest sin was this: God was not glorified (20:12). God was left out of providing Israel relief from thirst. Has someone at your work place ever stolen your concept or presentation, taken it to your superior as “their” idea, and received the credit? Can we not see God’s position? Yet in all of this, God was faithful. He provided the water.

Both Moses and Aaron were punished for their sin. Though not immediate, Aaron’s priesthood was transferred to his son before Israel entered Canaan (20:22-28). Aaron was not allowed to die in office as his successors did. As for Moses, he would not lead the people into Canaan after the many trying years of wandering (20:12).

II. The lessons:

Inattention to God’s commands is sin (Hebrews 12:1-5). Some might argue that God does not care about details, but they are wrong. Inattention, even to the simplest of God’s commands, can cause one to be lost and ultimately miss God’s Promised Land, heaven. Even after one obeys the gospel and comes into a saving relationship with God, the danger of His commands becoming so commonplace that God is taken for granted remains. We can become inattentive and, therefore, sin.

Second, failing to glorify God is sin. God was not first in Moses’ thoughts that day. Yet, God must be considered in light of everything we do (Ephesians 3:21). Our mindset must be such that we are prepared to do battle with Satan every day (Ephesians 6:11). If we lay aside one piece of armor, he may inflict a serious wound upon our souls. We cannot afford to make such major mistakes.

Third, God’s work continues despite men’s failures. Moses and Aaron could take consolation in the fact that their work would be carried out in faithful servants such as Joshua and Eleazer. Both were able to “pass the mantle” in public to their successors, Aaron on Mt. Hor and Moses at the tent of meeting. God’s work is an eternal work. The joy of working in the kingdom of God needs to be seen as an eternal joy (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Fourth, isolated acts of sin do not separate us from God. Moses was revered as the greatest prophet by Jesus; he appeared later with Him in glory on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-5). Aaron was “gathered unto his people.” This is a Jewish phrase for “death,” but it has greater significance than physical death. Both he and Moses died in isolated, unmarked graves in the wilderness. Yet they did not die among the disbelieving in the wilderness. Aaron was gathered into that great company of the faithful beyond death (Hebrews 12:1).


God has a greater joy and glory for us beyond this life. If we can look above the frustrations and heartaches, we can continue to have hope. The key phrase in Scripture is this: “Fixing our eyes on Jesus, . . .”(Hebrews 12:2). Where is Jesus? At God’s right hand, encouraging us on.

God is interested in the one who finishes the race. The long distance runner wins, not the one who is best at wind sprints. How are you running the race? Is God being glorified?