What causes a great leader to stumble? The reasons vary widely, of course. But Moses' fall from leadership can offer us some general insight. The greatest paradigmatic leader in the Bible, Moses led the Israelites on the Exodus and through the wilderness for 40 years. Yet he was not allowed to enter the Promised Land, glimpsing it only from afar. It's a poignant scene: Moses gazing on the fulfillment of God's promise from Mount Nebo, unable to go there himself.

Why?

Different parts of Torah give slightly different answers, including one in the book of Numbers. Ellen Davis of Duke Divinity School insists this book is not the "gristle in the steak," or, as other scholars have called it, "the dustbin of the Torah," with everything that didn't fit anywhere else. Jewels can be found in the book's censuses and lists and especially in the stories stuffed in between. In several we see the gradual deterioration of Moses' stature as a leader until God delivers the final sad punishment.

In chapter 11 the people "complained bad," as Davis translates. It was customary for the Israelites to grumble, but occasionally they (we?) took it to another level. "Who will give us meat to eat?" they wondered aloud in Davis's translation of verse four. They were just getting warmed up, as the next two verses of the NRSV translation attest: "We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at."

Remember is a key word in biblical parlance -- it's what the Israelites are charged to do when they celebrate the Passover. But here they remember with longing their time in Egypt. And was that fish in their time of servitude really so readily available, even free?

Moses takes their complaining to heart. Notice they didn't actually rail against him this time, but he made it personal.

He wails to the Lord, "Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight?" (11:11) Moses takes his people's grumbling and raises it, outdoing them in complaint.

Careful what you wish for. The Lord promises to fulfill their demand for meat until they're sick of it: "Until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you." (11:20) And Moses -- he who saw the wonders in Egypt, who led the people through the sea, who saw God with his own eyes -- doesn't believe it. "Are there enough flocks and herds to slaughter for them? Are there enough fish in the sea to catch for them?" This he asks the One who made everything and who takes Moses' calls on the first ring. God's answer: "Is the Lord's power limited?" Or a more literal translation: "Is my arm getting short?"

The next time Moses and the Lord run afoul of one another, God has had enough. The people grumble, again. They long for Egypt, again. They complain to Moses, again. Moses appeals to God, again. God provides a remedy, again. Only this time Moses fails to pay close attention and follow God's directions precisely: "Command the rock before their eyes to yield its water. Thus you shall bring water out of the rock for them."

Moses gathers the people as he was told and announces to them, "Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?" Then he strikes the rock twice, water flows, and everyone drinks. But God is displeased. "Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them." God had told Moses to command the rock, to speak to it and order it to bring forth water.

Instead, Moses struck it. No mere technicality, this failure to follow directions reflected a lack of trust, God says, as Moses did not "show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites." As Davis translates the text, Moses did not make God kadosh, did not sanctify him, or make him holy.

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