Why Was Moses’ Sin So Bad?

In my Theology class, we recently went over the sin of Moses.

For those who do not recall, in Numbers 20, Moses was instructed to strike the rock with his staff so that water would miraculous flow out to the thirsting Hebrews. Instead, Moses struck the rock twice. As a result, Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land.

Whenever I go over this story with my students, they always have the same reaction: “That’s not fair!”

Up until this point, Moses had done so much on God’s behalf. He led the people out of Egypt, he received the 10 Commandments, he guided them in the ways of God. He was so close to God that it said of Moses that he spoke to Him “face to face.” (Exodus 33:11)

Also, if you look at the context of the event, you can why Moses would be out of sorts. His sister had just died and immediately the Hebrews complain, saying that they wish that they were dead because of their lack of water. This would be like complaining to someone holding a wake for a loved one over the quality of the refreshments.

So why is God so harsh with Moses?

Part of the problem is that when we think of this story, we often place ourselves in Moses’ position and imagine how unfair the punishment would be if we had struck the rock twice. The thought experiment breaks down because we are thinking of ourselves striking the rock and not Moses.

When I teach this lesson in class, I begin by engaging the students in seemingly casual chit-chat before the lesson begins. I mention that I heard a news story that the pope was accused of stealing Vatican money and using it to bet on soccer matches. I ask the students if they had heard the news as well (surprisingly, there are usually a few who say that they have). We then discuss how they feel if the story turns out to be true. Many of them express dismay. When I point out that people steal and gamble all over the world, they say that this is worse because the pope is the leader of the Church. He is held to higher standard.

And that is the key to understanding the sin of Moses.

Moses’ sin is so great because it is Moses who sins.

I ask the students to imagine if a classmate tripped in the hallway, spilling the contents of their bookbag, which include pornographic pictures. After some laughter and guffaws I ask them if they thought this was embarrassing, scandalous, and sinful. They agree.

I then ask them which is worse: the above scenario or if I, their Theology teacher, tripped in the hallways, spilling pornographic pictures on the floor. They all immediately respond that my sin would be much worse.

When I point out to them that the two sins are exactly the same in content, they wisely point to the context: As a Theology teacher, more is expected of me. Because I teach God’s word, it would be worse if the sin was mine.

When I reveal that the story of the pope stealing and gambling is made up, they are very relieved. But the feelings they felt of disappointment and betrayal were analogous to how to feel about Moses. The Holy Father is supposed to be the one shepherding us to God. And if he breaks faith, it hurts the faith of every Catholic.

Moses was the closest person to God during the Exodus. To this day in Judaism, there is no man greater than Moses. And if Moses breaks faith, then this hurts the faith of all of God’s people.

One of the great things about Moses is that he understood this truth about his sin. This is why Moses did not whine or complain or try to bargain his way out of his punishment. He accepted his punishment with honor and responsibility. This is why, despite his sin, we still revere him as great.

All of us are sinners. But the more responsibility we take in guiding others to God, whether as teachers, parents, or clergy, we carry a heavy burden. Moses broke that trust. And so he was punished justly.

Should we ever fall and fail, may we act like Moses and humbly return to the Lord.

Copyright 2022, WL Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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