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Once upon a time, Moses was sojourning in the wilderness with the Israelites. The Israelites found themselves lacking in water, and they came up in anger against Moses and Aaron. Moses and Aaron took the problem to the Lord who directed them to speak to the rock and water would flow out. Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses smote the rock. Water came out, but Moses was forbidden to enter into the promised land from the point forward.
Now that story occurred a while ago. However, the chapters for this week include the part of the story where Moses returns to the Lord without entering into the promised land. Because he chose to do things his own way rather than in the Lord’s way, he wasn’t given that privilege. Now this may seem a little bit harsh. Moses did a lot of really, really epic things through the power of the Lord, and we know Moses was a good man because the scriptures teach us that it was so.
Deuteronomy 34:10 And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.
And according to modern revelation, we learn that Moses didn’t actually die. He was translated.
So Moses was a good guy, and yet, the Lord forbade him from entering the promised land. It seems almost a little arbitrary and cruel that the Lord would withhold that blessing from him. After all the ways that Moses had participated in preparing the way for the Israelites to enter the promised land, he would not be able to join them in this highly anticipated inheritance. This can be a little nerve-wracking when you think about how often we don’t follow the Lord’s commandments perfectly. However, as we examine things more closely and become acquainted with the Lord, we can feel that He isn’t cruel. So if He’s not particularly cruel, why would He give such an obstinate punishment? There had to be a reason for it, and that reason needed to be for the ultimate good of Moses as well as the rest of His children in order to be consistent with His character.
The Lord is purposeful, so what can we learn from this story?
One of things that I find most interesting about this story is the fact that the Israelites were going to be able to enter the promised land. We all know that the Israelites had a hard time staying loyal to the Lord, and yet, the Lord was extremely patient with them in so many ways. Though they had rebelled and fought against Moses and complained, they were ultimately going to be able to enter the promised land. But nope, not Moses.
The Lord works differently with each and every individual. I shy away from saying that He “punished” Moses because punishment often implies blind anger in my mind. The Lord wasn’t punishing Moses to get back at him. He was sending a consequence to teach Moses. And because Moses is different from the other Israelites, Moses received a different consequence so that Moses could learn what he needed to.
I think sometimes we get this idea in our head that we need to treat everyone the same. We need to teach everyone the same and hold the same ideals and punishments. All of our children need to have everything the same as their siblings in order to be fair. Interestingly enough, that’s not how the Lord works at all. Even though murder is higher on the sin list than breaking the law of chastity, take a look at Jacob reprimanding the Nephites in The Book of Mormon. The Lamanites were murdering and the Nephites were having adulterous thoughts, but the Nephites were more wicked than the Lamanites. He did not treat the Lamanites in the same way that He treated the Nephites. He did not treat Moses the same as the other Israelites.
And this is good news for everyone. He is merciful to those who were born at a disadvantage. We all agree that this is good news, but sometimes it can seem like bad news. If we are as blessed as Moses, we’re going to be that much more accountable and accountability can sting. However, it’s even a blessing to those who are held to higher standards. God isn’t just trying to get us to heaven; He is pushing us to become like Him so we can be happy like Him. Though the path seems difficult and the pace seems like too much, we will one day look back and be eternally grateful that the Lord was so hard on us. We will be so grateful that He pushed us to be where He is.
I’m sure there were a great many lessons learned as Moses reflected on the fact that he was no longer able to accompany the Israelites into the promised land. One of these lessons (or at least a lesson that I learned from the record of this event) was the importance of exactness.
In this particular case, there was some symbolism that might have confused some if the Lord had chosen to ignore the fact that Moses disobeyed him and smote the rock instead of talking to it. There were two different times that the Israelites complained about a lack of water. The first time, Moses was commanded to smite the rock to release the water. He did so. The second time, Moses was commanded to talk to the rock, but he smote it instead. There is some symbolism surrounding the atonement behind these stories. Christ was smitten once, and His people received living water. Through His great suffering, the blessings of heaven have been available to all. He did not suffer twice. Now all we have to do is pray for help; the suffering only occurred once.
While this may not seem like a big deal, there is an importance to exactness. Even if Moses had smitten the rock twice and the Lord had let it slide (with a little repentance for disobedience of course), I’m sure all of us would have still been able to return to live with Him. We might not have even seen the extra symbolism behind it. We would have seen two examples of the Lord providing the Israelites with what they needed. So why is it such a big deal? While it may not have hurt us eternally, having exactness can bless us eternally.
I don’t know the Lord perfectly. There are still many things I’m learning about Him as I develop a relationship with Him. If I were to die now, the lack of perfect knowledge would not bar me from returning to live with Him. So is it a big deal? Yes, because the more I learn about Him, the better my life will be. The closer I get to learning His character exactly, the closer I can come to feeling His love and becoming like Him. This only brings extra happiness into my life. So while it may not hold me back, having the extra lesson and symbolism of smiting the rock vs. talking to the rock will only bring me closer to Him.
I feel like this story is less a story of punishment and more a story of the Lord pushing Moses to rise higher and closer to Him. If you look at it in that light, you realize that it’s really not punishment at all. It’s an immense blessing that the Lord pushes us. It’s an immense blessing that Moses learned the importance of being exact when it comes to the Lord.
The word “exactness” can be frightening because none of us hit that ideal, but one of the most beautiful parts about this is that there is no danger in the standard of “exactness” when we utilize the atonement of Christ. There is no safer and more efficient way to learn. The Lord can push us as hard as He believes is wise because His atonement makes up for it. Moses did not enter into the promised land but he was translated. I can almost guarantee that Moses was happier as a translated being than being allowed to enter into the promised land to rule over some exasperating (but still loved!) Israelites.
Moses was pushed to exactness and learned a hard lesson, but he didn’t actually lose out on anything because Moses knew how to access the atonement.
One last thing…
I’m taking a step back from Moses being barred from entering the promised land to focus on one other little piece of symbolism that I found.
1 And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho. And the Lord shewed him all the land…
4 And the Lord said unto him, This is the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying, I will give it unto thy seed: I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither.
Moses was given the opportunity to see the promised land. Even though he couldn’t enter the promised land at that moment, he was able to look at it. And where did Moses go to see the promised land? Up a mountaintop.
There are many of us who are unprepared to currently enter the promised land at this particular point, but I know of a place that we can go to catch glimpses of it. Mountaintops frequently symbolize temples in the scriptures. Temples are places where we’re supposed to be able to literally catch glimpses of heaven. Many of us go to the tops of these mountains without opening our eyes. We could all probably do a little better at opening our eyes.
There are also those who may feel pain at the temple. I personally have friends who feel adrift and drowning in the temple because their world doesn’t reflect the promised land. I wonder if the sight of the promised land was painful to Moses in a small way. I wonder if he felt like maybe the atonement didn’t cover his mistake after all or if the promised land was just a dream he would never be able to personally take part in.
We live in a fallen world where some of us have circumstances that make the temple feel more difficult than peaceful. I testify that the atonement works for everyone and heaven is available to everyone. Even though we can’t quite enter heaven now, and even though pain might temporarily accompany that realization, I testify that we can find happiness and peace in Christ someday. I also testify that it will be worth the wait.