Thursday, May 22, 2008

Righteous and Sinful Anger in Moses: Smashing the Tablets and the Rock at Meribah

By Dave Armstrong (5-22-08)

This is a follow-up, in a way, to my paper, "Did Moses (and God) Sin In Judging the Midianites (Numbers 31)?"

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I dealt in the paper above, with the notion that Moses was often merely giving his own opinion in Scripture, and acting sinfully. I showed, I think, how this was not the case in the incident with the Midianites in Numbers 31. Another opinion some hold is that Moses sinned when he smashed the tablets of the Ten Commandments. I don't think this is the case, either.

My concern is that we should have a compelling reason to conclude such a thing: pretty much, it ought to be in the text itself (or in some authoritative proclamation by the Church, which is rare, in terms of individual Scriptures) because we're dealing with a prophet, and writer of inspired Scripture.

I could be wrong on this, and am happy to be corrected if I am, but I believe there is no indication in the biblical text that would lead one to believe that Moses sinned when he smashed the tablets (Exodus 32:19). Again, he was merely reflecting God's wrath. In context, God was expressing wrath against the Israelites (Ex 32:7-10). Moses interceded for his people (Ex 32:11-14). God can't change His mind (being immutable and omniscient and outside of time). When it says He "repented" (Ex 32:14), that is an anthropomorphism (expressing Himself non-literally in terms that men can understand).

But anyway, the people had greatly sinned. God could very well have destroyed them, and it would have been perfectly just (as it was, "about 3000 men" were killed in judgment: Ex 32:28). So when "Moses' anger burned hot" (Ex 32:19) it was a reflection of God's anger (i.e., a righteous indignation: the same sort that Jesus displayed when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers at the Temple and made a whip of cords). I see no indication in the text that he did anything wrong (though it is not theoretically impossible, since the text is silent as to the status of this act). Moses is, shortly afterwards in the text, described as having atoned and interceded for his people once again, in a profound way (Ex 32:30-33).

Where we do see that Moses sinned, without doubt, is in the incident where he struck the rock, against God's command:
Numbers 20:1-13 And the people of Israel, the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there. Now there was no water for the congregation; and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. And the people contended with Moses, and said, "Would that we had died when our brethren died 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 evil place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink." Then Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the door of the tent of meeting, and fell on their faces. And the glory of the LORD appeared to them, and the LORD said to Moses, "Take the rod, 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; so you shall give drink to the congregation and their cattle." And Moses took the rod from before the LORD, as he commanded him. And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, "Hear now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?" And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his rod twice; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their cattle. And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, "Because you did not believe in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them." These are the waters of Mer'ibah, where the people of Israel contended with the LORD, and he showed himself holy among them.
Moses was instructed to "tell" the rock to yield water (20:8) but instead he lost his temper and he said "shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?" (20:10): as if it were his power and not God's (and as if the rebellion at bottom was against him and not God), and struck the rock twice, in disobedience (20:11). Because of this, he wasn't allowed to enter the Promised Land:
Numbers 27:12-14 The LORD said to Moses, "Go up into this mountain of Ab'arim, and see the land which I have given to the people of Israel. And when you have seen it, you also shall be gathered to your people, as your brother Aaron was gathered, because you rebelled against my word in the wilderness of Zin during the strife of the congregation, to sanctify me at the waters before their eyes." (These are the waters of Mer'ibah of Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin.)

Deuteronomy 32:51 . . . you broke faith with me in the midst of the people of Israel at the waters of Mer'i-bath-ka'desh, in the wilderness of Zin; because you did not revere me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel. (cf. Ps 106:32; Ps 81:7; Deut 33:8)
Thus we see clear indications in the inspired text that Moses sinned in this instance, but nothing (that I'm aware of) indicating that he did by throwing the tablets in righteous indignation. That being the case, I think we must give the prophet the benefit of the doubt, that he didn't sin by throwing and smashing the tablets.

I found a sermon by a Reformed pastor, Rev. Adrian Dieleman, that made the distinction between righteous and unrighteous anger, and noted this incident as an example of the former:
We also see righteous anger and indignation in Jesus. One day Jesus went into the synagogue and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of the Pharisees were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched Him closely to see if He would heal the crippled man on the Sabbath. Scripture tells us that Jesus was angry and deeply distressed at their stubborn, loveless hearts (Mk 3:1-6). Or, who can forget the time Jesus chased the money changers and cattle dealers out of the temple? Jesus was filled with a righteous wrath and indignation that the Temple of God was turned into a market (Jn 2:12-25). Christ was angry, but His anger never led to sin, because His emotions were always kept under perfect control.

God's servant Moses was also filled with a righteous wrath and indignation. Remember the time he came down the mountain with the two tables of the Law? As he approached the camp of Israel he saw the golden calf and dancing. Moses was angry that the children of Israel sinned against God by making and worshiping an idol. In his anger, Moses threw the tablets to the ground and destroyed the calf (Ex 32:19-20).


Aaron Blake said...

Hey man, just read your post and wanted to give some feedback just to help build your argument and maybe even change your thinking on this subject if you don't find otherwise. As Christians we're like iron sharpening iron so whether or not I'm right, this is just what I've come up with in my own personal study. Let me know what you think!

I believe that righteous anger always calls us to action because we see the issue and how to solve it. In the case of Jesus, as he is our example by which we should test all things, we see that he does in fact overturn the tables which is the action considered to be righteous. I think in order to get a different perspective we have to consider the actions he did not take, like taking the money and giving it to the poor or killing anyone. He did however deal with THE problem which was the things being sold within His Father's house.

When we have righteous anger we are called to remove the things that hinder us from God not the things that God gives to us as a gift from him. Study the passage more and you'll notice that the first time Moses was given the tablets completely from God. (Ex. 31:18) However the second time it was God's desire that Moses be the one to cut the stone tablets and God would write on them. (Deut. 10:1-2). I believe 100% redeemed Moses in using that picture to show that by breaking one commandment you have broken the whole law but I believe that in the circumstances God did not call Moses to break the tablets but rather to destroy the idol which was hindering them which he did do after that.

I don't know that Moses sinned by breaking them but I don't think he had righteous anger in doing that. Anyway just wanted to challenge your study a little bit and hope you can challenge me back that we can both learn more about this topic and what it truly means to be jealous for our God!

Dave Armstrong said...

Hi Aaron,

Very interesting thoughts. You might be right. I don't think it is absolutely clear-cut one way or the other,but I still favor the position I presented.

I looked up the passage in my new Keil and Delitszch 10-volume commentary, and it said that the breaking of the tablets was a "sign that Israel had broken the covenant." This would be consistent with God's use of metaphorical examples or pictures, such as Hosea (I think it was) marrying a prostitute or Isaiah walking around naked. God would certainly have disapproved of the sin, and He showed wrath by killing many of them, so Moses' anger, as the Lawgiver,I contend, directly reflected that.

In this scenario, Moses would be working with God by providing another graphic analogy / picture, to bring about repentance after the wicked sin.

Eerdmans Bible Commentary concurs:

"The law is shattered by Moses to illustrate to the people the meaning of their apostasy. His anger is not a fit of temper but the upsurge of righteous indignation." (p. 137)

The famous Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown Commentary takes the same view.

John Wesley's commentary also agrees:

"He saw the calf, and the dancing, and his anger waxed hot — It is no breach of the law of meekness to shew our displeasure at wickedness. Those are angry and sin not, that are angry at sin only. Moses shewed himself angry, both by breaking the tables, and burning the calf, that he might by these expressions of a strong passion awaken the people to a sense of the greatness of their sin. He broke the tables before their eyes, as it is Deuteronomy 9:17, that the sight of it might fill them with confusion when they saw what blessings they had lost. The greatest sign of God's displeasure against any people is his taking his law from them."

It looks to be general consensus by the commentators, then.

Dave Armstrong said...

I would add that as long as there is some plausible reason to believe that Moses' action reflected God's desire, and is consistent with other such vivid illustrations of His will, and given that the Bible lacks a direct condemnation of the act, that we should assume that Moses had not done wrong.

When wrong is done, it is usually condemned in the text, so that no one need guess or speculate. The ancient Jews were a very "concrete" and common sense people. Hence, when Moses struck the rock again for water to come out, it is stated outright that he sinned, and God didn't even allow him to enter the promised land because of it.

In light of that event, I think it is most reasonable to conclude that if this act were also a sin, that the text would almost certainly mention that it was, so that we could all learn from it, as we read about it, without doubt or need of speculation. But there is no such indication whatever.

Your comment on the different method of making the tablets is interesting speculation, but not a proof that he had sinned.

Aaron Blake said...

While it may not have been a sin, because I do agree that the Bible is always making clear to us when sin happens it doesn't go without discipline or punishment, do you still think that the breaking of the Tablets was righteous? It only seems reasonable that if God had desired Moses to break the tablets in righteous anger, that he would also provide the new ones.

Dave Armstrong said...

I think it's righteous indignation, yes: displayed in a graphic and symbolic way. God did provide new tablets.

The physical thing is not so important as what it represents. Think, e.g., of the Temple. God allowed His Temple to be destroyed three times. It was not the stones and rocks He was more concerned about, but the disobedience of His chosen people that brought about the judgment in the first place.

Same thing with the tablets. God could always make more tablets, and He did (or helped Moses). He wanted the heart obedience of the people (new covenant, sermon on the mount).

Sadheer Brave said...

as my brother dave armstrong said
tablets are broken by Moses but The Temple Jesus are talking about His boady is not broken by Jesus but by other people

Ola said...

In d time of ignorance GOd overlooked! Moses in his anger' not of GOD! Moses ad been a. Angry. Person even before he met GOD.I believe GOD MUST ave spoken to him about it! Cos u cannot go to. D promise land with such! Been a leader and a mediator.cos he was told of God not to talk shout it, deres alot in it! Which is beyond the text however God still thought him rest and that devil dint take is body! My views