What Was Moses’ Sin?

At Thursday’s daily Mass (Thursday of the 18th week of the year) we read of the sin that excluded Moses from leading the people to the Promised Land. While there are some mysterious elements to it, one thing seems clear: the grumbling of the people got on Moses’ nerves. Indeed, grumbling often affects more than just the one doing the complaining. Through it, infectious negativity can be set loose. Even if only a small number are grousing, it can still incite discontent, anger, and/or fear in others. Yes, the people nearly wore him out. At a particularly low moment, when the people were complaining about the food, Moses lamented to God,

Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, “Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,” to the land that you swore to give their fathers? … I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness (Numbers 11:11-12, 14-15).

Moses was so dispirited that he preferred to die rather than continue on in this way. In his weariness, he spoke rashly, and God excluded him from leading the people into the Promised Land:

Now there was no water for the congregation. And they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. And the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this wretched place which has neither grain nor figs nor vines nor pomegranates? Here there is not even water to drink!” But Moses and Aaron went way from the assembly to the entrance of the meeting tent, where they fell prostrate.

Then the glory of the Lord appeared to them, and the Lord said to Moses, “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.”

And Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he commanded him. He and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels! Are we to bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.

But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “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 20:2-12).

Many have pondered the precise nature of Moses’ sin and why the punishment for it was so severe. A few different explanations have been posited:

    • Moses sinned by not following the Lord’s instruction. The Lord told Moses to take his staff in hand and bid the rock to bring forth water. He was told to speak to the rock, but instead he struck it—twice. The striking of the rock, while not specifically directed according to the passage in Numbers, does not seem particularly egregious; in fact, in another description of this event (see Exodus 17:6) God does tell Moses to strike it. The Fathers of the Church (e.g., St. Jerome) did not view this as sinful, even interpreting the striking of the rock twice as a sign of the two bars of the cross.
    • Moses exhibited sinful pride. Having assembled the people, Moses reviled them, saying, “Hear now, you rebels!” He then continued, perhaps pridefully, “Shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” Neither Moses nor Aaron can bring forth water, however; only God can do that. Some of the Fathers of the Church interpreted this not as pride on Moses’ part but rather as an indication of the wavering of his faith.
    • Moses sinned by speaking harshly and rashly. Psalm 106 seems to favor this interpretation. They angered the Lord at the waters of Meribah, and it went ill with Moses on their account, for they made his spirit bitter, and he spoke rashly with his lips (Psalm 106:32-33).

This third explanation leads us back to the heart of our meditation: grumbling causes harm to the ones who grumble and to others who hear it. Moses was worn out by their complaining; as Psalm 106 says, his spirit grew bitter. He spoke rashly and reviled the people; in a flash of anger, he may also have yielded to sinful pride.

Why God punished him so severely is somewhat mysterious. St. Basil the Great used it as an object lesson to us all: “If the just man is scarcely saved, where shall the ungodly and sinner appear?” (Preface on the Judgment of God).

Whatever the reason for the drastic punishment, behold what grumbling does. It fuels discontent and bitterness. Be careful, fellow Christians; we can all succumb to the temptation to draw others into our anger, doubts, dissatisfaction, and fears. After all, misery loves company. Sharing concerns with friends is good and necessary, but this must be tempered by the knowledge that too much can harm them and us. A steady diet of grumbling is not good for anyone.

Grumbling, grousing, and complaining seem to be all around us. In our relative affluence, we often expect or even demand comfort. We are very particular about the way we want things to be, and often expect that it be made so without much if any effort on our part.

Moses was worn down by the constant grumbling of the people. Be cognizant of the toll that such behavior takes on others. Practice gratitude, an important antidote to the poison spread by grumbling.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What Was Moses’ Sin?

What Is the Significance of the Veil Moses Wore?

The readings toward the end of the week in daily Mass come from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. In it, he spends substantial time developing the fact that Moses wore a veil to cover the afterglow of God radiating from his face.

In most traditional Catholic settings, we think of the veil as something a woman wears as a sign of traditional modesty. In this sense most of us consider it something good and positive, though perhaps some are less enthusiastic than others.

In Exodus, however, the veil is presented in far more ambivalent terms:

As Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the commandments in his hands, he did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant while he conversed with the LORD. … the children of Israel … were afraid to come near him. … he put a veil over his face. Whenever Moses entered the presence of the LORD to converse with him, he removed the veil until he came out again. On coming out, he would tell the children of Israel all that had been commanded. Then the children of Israel would see that the skin of Moses’ face was radiant; so he would again put the veil over his face until he went in to converse with the LORD (Exodus 34).

The mere afterglow of God’s glory was something that the people of old could not tolerate, so Moses wore a veil to shield them from it. Man, in his sinful state, is incapable of withstanding even the afterglow of God’s holiness.

The humility that they demonstrated is in many ways admirable. Unlike many people today, the ancients knew that God was utterly holy, and they were not. Many and varied were the rituals they carried out that recalled God’s holiness and man’s sinfulness.

An often repeated (but disputed) tradition is that the High Priest who went into the Holy of Holies once a year on the feast of Yom Kippur entered with much incense lest he catch a glimpse of the Holy One and be struck dead on account of his sins. It is also said that he wore bells sewn into his garment so that when he prayed, bowing and moving as he did so, those outside the veil knew that he was still alive. It is further said that he had a rope tied around his ankle so that if he were to be struck dead, he could be dragged out without others having to enter the inner sanctum and risk their own death in order to retrieve the body!

Whether this is true or not, it is clear that the ancient Jews understood that it was an awesome thing to be in the presence of the living and holy God, for who can look on the face of God and live? (cf Exodus 33:20)

How different this understanding is from that of us moderns, who manifest such a relaxed and comfortable posture in the presence of God in His holy Temple! Almost any sense of awe and holy fear has today been replaced by an extremely casual disposition, both in dress and in behavior. If the ancient Jewish practice was at one extreme, we are clearly at the other.

However, it would be a dubious position to hold that God expects the kind of fearsome reverence manifested in ancient Israel. Jesus came to grant us access to the Father through the forgiveness of our sins. Scripture says that as He died on the cross,

… Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split (Matt 27:50-51).

Yes, the veil in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. Extra-biblical traditions (e.g., Josephus) also hold that after the earthquake the large brass doors of the temple swung open and stayed that way.

Isaiah said, On this mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the shroud that covers all nations (Is 25:7). This prophesy is fulfilled at the moment that Jesus dies on the cross on Mount Moriah (Golgotha) and the veil of the Temple is rent. On account of the cleansing blood of Jesus that reaches us in our baptism, we gain access again to the Father. Therefore, we have a perfect right (granted us by grace) to stand before the Father with hands uplifted to praise Him.

The veil is parted, torn asunder by Jesus. Thus, the veil that hid Moses’ face has a dual quality. While it does symbolize a great reverence, it also signifies a problem in need of resolution. We were made to know God, to be able to look on His face and live. Sin made us incapable of doing this, so the veil that Moses wore was one that ultimately needed to be taken away.

St. Paul speaks of us as looking on the face of the Lord with unveiled faces:

Setting forth the truth plainly, we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is only veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. … For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ (2 Cor 4:2-6).

We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. … And we, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Cor 3:13-18).

For some the veil remains; it is a veil that clouds their minds. It is not a veil of modesty or reverence; it is a veil of “unknowing,” which must be removed by the gift of faith.

In the Exodus account we have a kind of “veil in reverse.” Most of us, at least those with a traditional bent, think of the veil as something beautiful and reverent—and it is—but the veil of Moses spoke of the sins and sorrows of the people; it was a veil that needed to be removed.

That said, I think that we moderns must find our way back to a greater degree of reverence and awe before the presence of God. Even in the New Testament and after Jesus’ resurrection, there are stories of both St. John and St. Paul encountering the glory of the Lord Jesus manifested from Heaven. So awesome was this theophany that both of them were struck down. Paul, as yet unbaptized, was also blinded. John, though not blinded, fell to his face.

The removal of the veil of Moses is both necessary and prophesied. Cringing fear must give way to hopeful confidence and joy in the presence of the Lord. Especially in these proud times, when self-esteem is an inordinate focus, we must come to realize that we are in the presence of the Holy One of Israel.

As the ancient hymn from the Liturgy of St. James says, All mortal flesh must keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand, pondering nothing earthly minded, for with blessing in His, Christ our God to Earth descendeth, our full homage to demand.

The veil of Moses is removed, but the “veil” of reverence, whether physical or metaphorical, must remain.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard:  What Is the Significance of the Veil Moses Wore?