The story of Moses is found throughout the Old Testament, specifically in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Moses was chosen by God to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and eventually into the Promised Land of Canaan. However, despite leading the people for 40 years through the wilderness, Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land himself. The Bible provides several reasons why this was the case.
Moses struck the rock at Meribah
In Numbers 20, near the end of the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites were camped at Kadesh. There was no water for the people or livestock, so they complained against Moses and Aaron. God instructed Moses to speak to the rock and water would flow from it. However, Moses struck the rock twice with his staff, and water gushed out. While God still provided the water, he rebuked Moses for striking the rock instead of speaking to it as commanded. As punishment, God told Moses “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them” (Numbers 20:12). Striking the rock instead of speaking to it showed a lack of trust in God at that moment.
Moses disobeyed God at the waters of Meribah
A similar story is recounted in Exodus 17. The Israelites were camped at Rephidim and there was no water, so the people quarreled with Moses and tested God saying “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7). God instructed Moses to strike the rock at Horeb so water would flow from it. Moses did as God commanded, and water came out of the rock for the people to drink. However, the place was called Meribah and Massah “because the people of Israel quarreled and tested the Lord saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” (Exodus 17:7). While the story in Exodus does not explicitly state this event as a reason why Moses could not enter the Promised Land, it shows another instance of the people doubting God, and Moses reacting in anger by striking the rock.
Moses disobeyed God by striking the rock in anger
Looking closer at the account in Numbers 20, Moses’ actions at Meribah seem to be done in anger and frustration. After hearing the people’s complaints yet again, Moses and Aaron went to the tent of meeting and fell facedown. Then God spoke to Moses saying “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water” (Numbers 20:8). However, Moses took the staff from before the Lord as he commanded, then struck the rock twice in anger. Even in Exodus 17, Moses names the place Massah and Meribah because the people quarreled and tested the Lord. So, despite being instructed simply to speak to the rock to bring forth water, Moses reacted in anger and impatience by striking it. God called this an act of unbelief, and Moses faced the consequence of not entering the Promised Land as a result.
Moses failed to uphold God as holy
As mentioned when God rebuked Moses in Numbers 20, his actions failed to “uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel.” Moses was God’s chosen leader of the people, and in reacting angrily and disobeying God, he failed to set an example of holiness and obedience. Moses let his anger and frustration overtake him in the moment, rather than strictly following God’s instructions. His actions suggested God somehow wasn’t able to provide the water unless Moses struck the rock himself. By not strictly adhering to God’s commands and instructions, Moses failed to show reverence for God’s holiness and set a negative example for the Israelites.
Moses failed to trust in God
Moses’ actions demonstrated a failure to fully trust that God would in fact provide the water if he simply spoke to the rock as commanded. After seeing God provide for the Israelites time and time again in miraculous ways, Moses should have trusted God at his word. But by taking matters into his own hands, whether in anger or frustration, Moses showed a lack of faith that God would come through. If he had fully trusted God in the moment, Moses could have set an example of faithful obedience for the people, even when circumstances seemed bleak. His lack of trust in strictly following God’s instructions was a serious infraction requiring consequences.
Moses dishonored God before the Israelites
Not only did Moses fail to uphold God as holy through his actions, but he also dishonored God before all the Israelite people who were present. By blatantly disobeying and reacting angrily rather than faithfully doing what God had commanded, Moses misrepresented God and failed to honor him in front of the whole assembly. Rather than reflecting God’s patience, mercy and miraculous provision, Moses projected a picture of an angry God who demanded violence. Moses was meant to radiate God’s goodness and justice to the people, but his public actions contradicted that, damaging his witness.
Moses’ punishment reflected the seriousness of his sin
While Moses’ actions at Meribah may seem minor, his punishment of not entering the Promised Land emphasizes the magnitude of his missteps. As the chosen leader of Israel, Moses had an obligation to publicly reflect God’s holy character in everything he did. By dishonoring God before the people, failing to trust in God’s provision, and directly disobeying clear instructions, Moses sinned seriously. The consequence of not entering Canaan served as a sobering reminder that moral and spiritual leadership requires absolute faithfulness and obedience to God in public and private.
Entering Canaan required absolute obedience
Another angle is that for the Israelites to completely conquer and occupy the Promised Land, God required the people and their leader to demonstrate absolute trust in and obedience to him. The Canaanites were driven out in fulfillment of God’s judgment, but it still required Israel to fully obey God’s commands. Moses’ disobedience showed that he fell short, so he was not permitted to represent God in shepherding Israel into Canaan. Full possession of the Promised Land depended on uncompromising obedience, which Moses failed to exhibit. Only Joshua and Caleb, who wholeheartedly trusted and followed God, were allowed to enter.
God’s judgment was tempered with mercy
While being barred from entering the Promised Land was certainly a severe punishment for Moses, God still showed him mercy despite his serious failures. God allowed Moses to continue leading the Israelites for the remainder of the wilderness wanderings. Moses also lived to be 120 years old, was permitted to view the Promised Land from afar, and the Lord even personally buried him after death. So God exercised restraint and compassion even in disciplining Moses. Additionally, Moses will one day experience an eternal Promised Land with God’s people in the new heavens and new earth.
Moses’ failures contrast with Christ’s obedience
Moses stands as an imperfect, fallen leader who nevertheless accomplished much good by God’s grace. Yet his ultimate shortcomings contrast sharply with the flawless obedience of Jesus Christ. While Moses struck the rock in anger, Jesus is the living water who satisfied God’s wrath for our disobedience. And while Moses glimpsed Canaan but did not enter, Jesus is the faithful pioneer who leads God’s people to their eternal Promised Land. So Moses points to humanity’s need for a perfect Savior and the supremacy of Christ.
In summary, Moses was prohibited from entering the Promised Land because of his direct disobedience to God’s clear commands. At Meribah, Moses struck the rock in anger rather than speaking to it as God had instructed. This failing showed a lack of trust in God, a lack of reverence for God’s holiness, and an undermining of Moses’ witness as Israel’s leader. The seriousness of the consequence highlighted that entering Canaan required absolute obedience. Yet God dealt with Moses mercifully despite his serious sin. Ultimately, Moses’ story points to the need for a flawless Savior like Jesus Christ.