Awfully harsh penalty, isn't it?

Not when you remember that God has been patient with Moses' grumbling before, in chapter 11. Nor if you notice the psalmist's reflection on the event at 106:33: "They made his spirit bitter, and he spoke words that were rash." All that grumbling does have a cumulative effect. The Israelites grumbled, and eventually Moses grumbled like they did. He grew bitter and spoke rashly, both to the people and against the Lord, whom he grew not to trust.

In another context, Dr. Atul Gawande, the surgeon and writer, advises against a talent in the medical community and, indeed, in humankind: complaining. "Don't complain," he writes in "Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance." "It's boring, it doesn't solve anything, and it will get you down."

If a surgeon can see the damage that complaining can cause, why can't a leader of God's people, whose primary language is meant to be praise? But Moses' leadership flaws involve more than grumbling. In the story, we see a telling pronoun: "we." "Listen yourebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?" God had told Moses and Aaron what to do, Davis points out, but in their anger they drew attention to themselves.

"They failed to be transparent to God's power," Davis said. "Before Pharaoh, Moses was clear the power was God's. But now he's opaque." As a result, God's light doesn't shine through him. In fact, the only contribution Moses and Aaron brought to the drawing of water from the rock was sin -- the only thing "we" did was disobey.

"The flaw in Moses is characteristic of great and conscientious leaders," Davis said. They can lead so well and so long they forget they are dispensable, and fail to sanctify God by getting out of the way. "There's a reason Jesus taught us to pray ‘Hallowed be thy name,'" Davis said. To flip the pronoun is to fail to offer kadosh, to fail to sanctify the only Name that is genuinely holy.

Jason Byassee is an editor, writer and blogger for Faith & Leadership. He is an ordained elder in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. This article was first published in Faith & Leadership. Used with permission.

Publication date: March 1, 2010