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Many believe that Moses was a flawed individual, because the Bible says that he disobeyed God. But can a prophet of God be imperfect?
In Chapter 20 of the Book of Numbers in the Hebrew Bible, it states that while the children of Israel were wandering in the desert they complained to Moses about their lack of water. God told Moses to gather the people together and speak to “the rock”, and it would bring forth water. Moses gathered together His people–whom he called “rebels,” and twice struck the rock with his rod. Water flowed out abundantly. The Lord rebuked Moses and told him “you shall not bring this assembly” into the Promised Land because of his disobedience.
Some people take this Biblical passage as evidence of the imperfection of Moses, and his inferiority when compared to Jesus Christ. But does God wish us to understand this incident literally, and to understand from it that His prophet sinned?
The Baha’i teachings clarify that when God rebukes a prophet it is for the edification of the people, and not due to any flaw in the prophet. The people, those teachings explain, are like little children, too fragile to withstand God’s chastisement:
The wisdom of this is naught but unalloyed mercy, that the people might not be dismayed, disheartened, or burdened by such reproaches and rebukes. These words are therefore outwardly addressed to the Prophets, but, even so, they are inwardly intended for the followers and not for the Messenger. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 194.
He explains that although outwardly God’s rebuke was addressed to Moses, it was the Israelites, not Moses, who were disobedient and were being disciplined, that Moses was “… pure from every sin and sanctified from faults.” – Ibid.
Abdu’l-Baha demonstrated this truth from the verses of the Bible:
Furthermore, in … Numbers 20:13: ‘This is the water of Meribah [which means “quarreling”]; because the children of Israel strove with the Lord, and He was sanctified in them.’ Observe that it was the people of Israel who had rebelled, but the reproach was outwardly addressed to Aaron and Moses, as it is said in Deuteronomy 3:26: ‘But the Lord was wroth with me for your sakes, and would not hear me: and the Lord said unto me, Let it suffice thee; speak no more unto Me of this matter.’ Now, this reproach and rebuke was in reality addressed to the children of Israel, who, on account of their rebellion against the commandments of God, were made to dwell for a long period in the barren desert beyond the Jordan, until the time of Joshua. This reproach and rebuke appeared to be addressed to Moses and Aaron, but in reality it was directed to the people of Israel. – Ibid.
From this we see that God intends that we understand the “rock” was not a literal stone—that it represents the unreceptive hearts of the people. We learn from the Bible itself the symbolic meaning of the term “rock.” In the parable of the sower and the seed, Jesus Christ compared some hearts to stone (Luke 8:6, 8:13) as is also seen a number of times in the Old Testament (Job 41:24, Ezekiel 36:26, Zechariah 7:12).
Therefore, offering an understanding of this narrative in light of the Baha’i explanation, the “rock” may be a symbol of the rebellious hearts of the Israelites; the “rod” of Moses is a symbol of his educative influence; his striking of the rock twice means that Moses needed repeatedly to chastise his followers; the “water”—a frequent symbol of spiritual life in the Bible—bursting forth from the rock stands for the believers’ knowledge of God, and the vivification of their hearts.
The Persian people have an expression: “talking to the door so the wall will hear.” It means saying something to one person, so another will listen. If a parent wants to correct the behavior of a small child, for example, but the little child is too tender to speak to directly, the parent will admonish an older sibling within hearing of the smaller child, so the little one will indirectly get the message. Abdu’l-Baha points out that God does this with humanity, and that this is what occurred when God chastised Moses for disobeying. It was the people of Israel who had disobeyed, even though Moses did not enter the Holy Land (Deuteronomy 34:4), it was they who were punished by being kept out of the Promised Land.
The Baha’i teachings say that all of the messengers of God are perfect. Therefore, it would be wise to logically consider: Would God tell Moses to talk to a rock to get water? Would Moses disobey God by hitting a rock? If Moses was disobedient by hitting a rock, would God make water flow from it? Since taking these passages make no logical sense, they must have a deeper spiritual meaning.
On another occasion, God told Moses to strike the same rock so that water would flow from it (Exodus 17:6). Since Jesus and the Old Testament both compare the rebellious human heart to a rock, and since, in the verses quoted above God says that the People of Israel were rebellious—doesn’t it make more sense that God disciplined his rebellious children for their own conduct by chastising Moses, who was free from flaw?