The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Just So You Know…

…we’ll never be good enough.

by Danielle Shroyer

 Old Testament Reading: Deuteronomy 34:1-12

For Sunday, October 23, 2011: Year A—Ordinary 30

If you’re a preacher trying to encourage your community that the hard work of faith pays off, you may want to pick another reading this week.

Moses was, in the words of Deuteronomy, “unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt.” “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face.” And yet, all of that wasn’t enough to allow Moses to enter the Promised Land.

So Much for Happy Endings

If that isn’t disconcerting to even the most perfectionist, driven, and ambitiously faithful of us, I’m not sure what is. Good heavens, if MOSES didn’t have what it takes, let’s face it: the rest of us are toast.

Though not referenced in this passage, Numbers 20 says the reason God gives for not allowing Moses to enter is because of the hoopla at Meribah, when the people were complaining about lack of water. God told Moses to speak to the rock and call forth water; Moses hit the rock twice with his staff instead and used it as an opportunity to raise his voice at his whiny fellow travelers. Apparently, that was enough to erase decades of faithful service.

Been There

Never mind that Moses may have hit the rock out of sheer habit, or because he simply thought God meant for him to hit it. When faced with the same problem at Horeb (Exodus 17), God told Moses to strike the rock, and it worked like a charm that time. But even if Moses hit the rock in a moment of anger and weakness, you can hardly blame the guy after forty years in the desert with a bunch of whining, cantankerous and stiff-necked people.

We have all been the parent in the grocery store who raises her voice to her child after minute five of the tantrum, or the colleague in the conference room who finally snapped back to the annoying co-worker’s snide remarks. But can you imagine CPS hauling off your child for such an offense? Can you fathom having to clean out your desk after such a thing as that?

Look but Don’t Touch

God doesn’t seem to be paying attention to Moses’ overall batting average. Rather, God makes him pay the ultimate price for one bad swing. I’m not sure where this leaves us. Are we to fret over every mistake we’ve ever made? Are we to worry that grace may not extend to us when God withheld grace even from Moses, a man God called friend? Is the lesson here that God is like a parent who will never think our actions are good enough?

I suppose we can find a little solace in the fact that Moses at least got to see the Promised Land from a better height than his poor brother Aaron, whose only glimpse came from much lower down. But I can’t imagine how Moses must have felt when God said, “Here’s the land I promised. You can look at it, but you can’t cross over.” God might as well have given him a knockoff gold watch for his years of dedicated service.

The Hardest Question

I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if grace had prevailed in this story. What would it have looked like if Moses was allowed to enter the Promised Land? I wonder if the hearts of the Israelites could have been softened if they had seen God act with mercy and compassion rather than harsh discipline? If Moses’ treatment of the rock was too harsh, was not God’s treatment of Moses exceedingly so?

Danielle Shroyer is the Pastor of Journey Church in Dallas, TX. She is the author of The Boundary-Breaking God: An Unfolding Story of Hope and Promise (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and blogs at Danielle lives with her husband, two children, and two wild and crazy dogs in Dallas.


  1. John Golden says:

    Can’t tell if you’re playing devil’s advocate here. This was God snapping back at Moses? I think of God as a pretty good problem solver, and this is the response that’s best for him and for Israel. We know God is filled with love and mercy – sometimes we need to look for it. Being allowed to rest after a supernaturally long, hard job could be the blessing. A lesson to Israel that it’s God, not Moses is crucial and always on the people’s agenda. Keep looking!

  2. Becky Downs says:

    Okay, but what would have happened if he HAD gone into the promised land? Basically, it was just a lot more hard work for the people once they got there. I mean, yeah, you’d think Moses would get more than a good look at the place, but maybe that was all he needed. Then he could see that what he had worked for his whole damn life was really going to happen for the people. Sort of like, if a parent dies before her grandchild is born, but knows that her daughter is pregnant and healthy– no, you don’t every see the baby, but you know it’s gonna be there and everyone will be good.

  3. jeff says:

    Great and honest insight here. I have served churches where I felt like I left before experiancing the prize of my work. Sometimes it does seem as if God is not fair. But I have come to see that God never calls us to fairness. God calls us to faithfulness. The question I propose is: “Is being faithful enough?” I love your image of the cheap gold watch! Wow and ouch.—Good news? God never did promise Mosses a happy ending. He simply promised to be with Him along the journey. This is no “pie in the sky” theology. This story is about a real relationship. Good stuff.

  4. John and Becky- I see your point, and frankly I hadn’t thought before about the fact that Moses invariably would have had responsibility if he had gone into the promised land. And I’m sure he had had enough of that already. The problem is the Scripture does not frame this as “God wanted to give Moses a break after all those years leading such stiff-necked people, so Moses retired to Florida.” It says he wasn’t able to enter because of what happened at Meribah. So whether that freed him of responsibility or not, it’s still a harsh outcome. Seems like God could have given Moses the choice, or appointed a new leader so Moses could retire in peace. I just don’t think that was the case here.

    Jeff- agreed, faithfulness is the key. But what a punch in the gut, eh?

  5. As for striking the rock at Meribah, see Ex 17:6 where striking the rock is commanded explicitly.

    In Numbers, Moses says, “… you rebels! Must we bring …. ” He separates himself from the people, puts himself and Aaron above them morally; and he claims that he and Aaron are the effective agents. Not exactly how a Suffering Servant speaks, and not the only example of Moses’ stiff neck: think about Ex 32:19!!!

    Joshua wasn’t exactly a suffering servant either, but that’s another story.

  6. So here’s the grace in the story for me. Yes, it is an unhappy ending. Yes, it’s disappointing. But this, I believe, is the point. Why else would our Jewish brothers and sisters continue to end their Torah readings with this episode and then return to Genesis 1? We’re all in that unrealized, unfulfilled journey of faith with our God. We stand with Moses, seeing the finish line, the end zone–but we just cannot reach it. So we’re pushed [hard, I might add] to believe in good promises even when we’re disappointed. That’s faith, of course. There’s no pat on the back, pretty diploma, condo under the palm trees in Jerusalem–none of that waits for us. I for one find much hope in this, actually. For if during my disappointing, failure-type moments, God is still there, speaking, showing me promises that will be fulfilled–I hope. Then I have faith. Then I act it out in love. Hope that’s helpful.

  7. Denise Boulanger says:

    I think that this and all of the comments so far have been very insightful..Lots to think about. As a Layminister of Word and Sacrament, I am still learning the ropes. I know I have come far in my understanding but I see that I still have so far to go! I keep thinking about listening to God’s every word. Moses strikes the rock, not once but twice. Something he has done before right? But here, it is like he is bringing honor to himself rather than to God. It’s almost like saying “look what I can do” not thinking that we (none of us) can do ANYTHING without God. I also think of Joshua, even though he was “filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands on him” this story ends with “For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Isreal.” It is saying – even with an amazing teacher, Joshua was good but not great…

How do you read?