Why Didn’t Moses Lead God’s People into the Holy Land?

That’s right. Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, and all through the desert, but Moses did not lead God’s people into the Holy Land.

Why not?

That’s the subject of a spiritual conundrum posed by darcydee:

My question to you is, “Why was Moses refused entrance into the Holy Land, after he led God’s people there?”

Thanks for the great question, darcydee! It points to some fascinating stories in the Bible. And those stories point to some wonderful insights on the mental and emotional changes we must pass through in order to reach our own “holy land” of spiritual adulthood.

The short answer to your question is that Moses, because of his character and his cultural and spiritual significance, was the right person to lead the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt; but he was the wrong person to lead them into the Holy Land.

Why was Moses the wrong person to lead God’s people into the Holy Land?

As great a leader as he was, like every human being Moses had his character flaws. He was not allowed into the Holy Land because of his:

  1. Lack of trust in God
  2. Grumbling and complaining
  3. Failure to follow God’s commands exactly
  4. Grandstanding and stealing God’s glory in front of the people

These failings in Moses’ character all came out at a place near Kadesh (also called Kadesh Barnea), just south of Palestine. This place came to be called Meribah (“quarreling”) because of a certain incident that took place there.

That’s where God commanded Moses for a second time to bring water out of a rock for the thirsty people.

And where, instead of following God’s simple instructions, Moses made a big production of it in front of the people.

And thus where God told Moses and his brother Aaron that because they had neither trusted God nor given God the glory, they would never set foot in the Holy Land (Numbers 20:12).

Let’s take a closer look.

Moses: the privileged son

You see, it all has to do with the personality and character of Moses.

To understand Moses’ character, it helps to realize that he had a privileged upbringing. Yes, he was born in Egypt of enslaved Hebrew stock. But as an infant he was saved by Pharaoh’s daughter from Pharaoh’s decree of death upon male Hebrew babies. After being nursed by his own mother, Moses lived among the royal family as an adopted grandson of Pharaoh (see Exodus 1:22–2:10). According to ancient tradition recorded in Acts 7:20–29, he received an excellent education in Egypt, and lived among the Egyptian elite until he was forty years old.

It was only then that he took any thought for his own people. He went out to see what life was like for them. When he saw the miserable conditions under which they were living, he took pity on them. But when his actions on their behalf became public and he incurred the wrath of Pharaoh, he quickly fled Egypt. He settled in Midian, a region east of Egypt and the Sinai Penninsula, which is today part of northwestern Saudi Arabia. There Moses married, settled down, started a family, and built a new life for himself. (See Exodus 2:11–22.)

Map of the Exodus from Egypt to the Holy Land, courtesy of Bible-History.com

Map of the Exodus from Egypt to the Holy Land

(Map courtesy of http://www.bible-history.com/maps/)

Did Moses take thought for his fellow Hebrews, whom he had left groaning under the oppression of slavery back in Egypt? If so, he didn’t do anything about it. He enjoyed a comfortable life in Midian. Was it his problem if his fellow Hebrews weren’t so fortunate?

Moses: the reluctant leader

In fact, it was not at all Moses’ idea to lead the people out of slavery. For the whole story, see Exodus 2:23–4:31.

Moses was eighty years old, tending his father-in-law’s flocks and minding his own business, when God got his attention with a burning bush on a mountainside. This was something Moses had to see. Why didn’t the fire burn up the bush?

“Moses! Moses!” God called out from the bush.

God then delivered to Moses an eloquent speech about the travails of his people in Egypt. God outlined a plan for Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt into a rich land that would become their own.

Moses jumped for joy! At last he would be able to save his poor, downtrodden people!

Oh, wait . . . . No he didn’t.

In fact, Moses started raising objections and making excuses. God calmly replied to each one with additional eloquent speeches, not to mention several miracles.

After all the speeches and miracles, Moses, with his back to the wall, got to the nub of the matter: “O my Lord,” he said, “please send someone else” (Exodus 4:13). Moses had zero interest in leading God’s people out of Egypt!

However, God had no intention of sending someone else. What God did do was send Moses’ older brother Aaron along with him to serve as his aide and spokesman.

And so it was a very reluctant Moses who left behind his comfortable, settled life in Midian to lead his fellow Israelites out of Egypt. And as the story unfolds throughout the book of Exodus, Moses, like the rest of his people, continually grumbles, complains, and resists God’s will.

Moses: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Still, Moses was the right person for the job of leading the people out of Egypt. Unlike his Hebrew brothers and sisters who had been living as abject slaves on the bottom rung of the social ladder in Egypt, Moses was highly educated, and he had lived his formative years on the upper rungs of the social ladder, in an atmosphere of greatness and leadership.

Yet the very fact that Moses had led a life of privilege and comfort among the educated elite led him to continually resist God’s leadership.

When it finally came time for God’s people to enter the Holy Land, God needed an enthusiastic, driven leader, not a reluctant foot-dragger.

Don’t get me wrong. For all his resistance to God’s leadership, Moses did do a wonderful job of leading God’s people out of slavery in Egypt, and through their forty years of wandering in the desert. His intercessions with God for the people, and with the people for God, are eloquent and inspired. He was also the great lawgiver who gave form and structure to the future nation of Israel, under God’s inspiration.

However, the incident at Kadesh clarified the fact that Moses did not have the right character to lead the people in battle as they conquered the Holy Land. It was time for him to step aside in favor of someone who had a character more suited to guide the Israelites on the next steps toward their destiny as a nation.

Moses and Aaron engage in some grandstanding . . .

What did happen at Kadesh?

That was where Moses brought water out of a rock . . . for a second time.

The first time was not long after the Israelites escaped from slavery in Egypt, and began their trek into the desert of the Sinai Peninsula. At a place called Rephidim, the people quarreled with Moses over the lack of water. (Hello! It’s the desert!)

God commanded Moses to bring the elders of the people to a rock at Mt. Horeb (also called Mt. Sinai), where the Ten Commandments would soon be given. Moses was to strike the rock with his staff, and water would come out for the people to drink. You can read the story in Exodus 17:1–7.

Moses Strikes the Rock, by James Tissot, 1902

Moses Strikes the Rock, by James Tissot

Fast forward to almost forty years later, when the Israelites were finally approaching the Holy Land to enter it. The people once again quarreled with Moses, and with Aaron his brother, over a lack of water. The story is found in Numbers 20:1–13.

Once again, God commanded Moses, together with Aaron, to bring water out of a rock. But this time he was to go about it differently. He was to gather not just the leaders, but the whole assembly of the people in front of the rock. He was to take the rod with him, and speak to the rock in front of the people. Then water would pour out of it.

Apparently Moses had gotten frustrated with the people. Perhaps he had also gotten fed up with God for roping him into forty years of leading those fractious Hebrews through the desert when he could have had a nice, quiet retirement in Midian.

Instead of speaking to the rock as God had commanded, Moses and Aaron did a fine piece of grandstanding by speaking these words to the people: “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?”

Then, instead of speaking to the rock as God had commanded, Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff.

Water gushed out of the rock anyway, so that the people and their livestock could drink.

. . . And bring their careers to an end

But God was not happy. That was when God handed down the decision to Moses and Aaron: “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” (Numbers 20:12).

In the Bible story, this is the stated reason why both Moses and his brother Aaron, who was the first High Priest of Israel, were refused entrance into the Holy Land after Moses had led God’s people there.

Besides, by the time the Israelites’ forty years of wandering in the desert were over, and they were finally ready to enter the Holy Land, Moses was 120 years old, and Aaron was 123. You’ve got to die some time and let the next generation take over!

In the same chapter as the incident at Kadesh, Aaron died (see Numbers 20:22–29), and the mantle of High Priest was passed on to his son Eleazar.

Moses continued to lead the people right up to the edge of the Holy Land. After blessing the people, he climbed Mount Nebo, just across the south end of the Jordan River from the Holy Land. From that peak, God showed him the land that his people would soon enter. But Moses himself died on the mountain. His mantle of leadership passed on to Joshua, who had been the people’s military commander throughout their desert wanderings. (See Deuteronomy 32:48–52; 34.)

The cultural and spiritual significance of Moses

In the Bible story, Moses became synonymous with the Law.

In the narrowest sense “the Law” means the Ten Commandments, written by God on two stone tablets on Mount Sinai, and delivered to the Israelite people by Moses.

In a broader sense, “the Law” (Hebrew, “Torah”) means the first five books the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. According to tradition, Moses was the author of these books. So in the New Testament, these five books of “the Law” were also called simply “Moses,” as compared to the other highly sacred section of Hebrew Scripture, called “the Prophets.” See, for example, Luke 16:29, 31; 24:27, 44; John 1:45.

By extension, “the Law” also came to mean the entire Bible, which contains God’s laws for humanity in the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

So culturally, when people of Old and New Testament times spoke of “Moses,” they were speaking about God’s law, or the Bible.

Spiritually, Moses has the same significance. If we are reading the Bible for insight into our own spiritual life, when we read the name “Moses,” we can think of it as representing the various laws of God that we are commanded to obey.

Moses = obedience to God’s law . . . or not

Now we’re ready to understand spiritually why Moses could lead God’s people out of slavery in Egypt, but could not lead them into the Holy Land.

You see, in addition to Moses’ symbolic meaning as the Law of God, Moses also represents a stage of our spiritual life in which obedience to God’s law is our primary focus. When we are in this stage, our whole struggle is whether we will or will not obey God’s law in our everyday, outward behavior.

This is reflected in Moses’ life and character as outlined above.

When God first called to Moses out of the burning bush, Moses had no interest whatsoever in obeying God’s command to lead his people out of slavery. God had to get angry with Moses, and practically bludgeon him into doing it! And the whole time Moses was obeying God, he was also complaining about the task. Once too often (at the waters of Meribah), he simply did not do what God commanded him to do.

Our spiritual stage of obedience . . . or not

Isn’t this how it is for us when we first start turning our life around?

The Hebrews’ condition as slaves in Egypt is a clear symbol of our own life when we are “enslaved” to various worldly pleasures and passions.

  • It may be a literal enslavement to alcohol, drugs, or other types of addictions.
  • It may be a figurative enslavement to money, power, sex or any of the other perks and pleasures this material world has to offer.
  • It may be a psychological and spiritual enslavement to pride in our own supreme intelligence and a sense that everyone should listen to us and bow down to us.
  • On the opposite end of the psychological scale, it may be enslavement to a sense that we are worthless scum, that we deserve all the abuse being heaped upon us, and that there is no escape for us, and no hope.

How do we get out of these destructive enslavements?

We start with the first step.

And that step involves:

  • Listening to God’s law and commandments
  • Recognizing that these addictions and attitudes are wrong and destructive
  • Forcing ourselves to change both our behavior and the attitudes behind them

And like Moses, at first we simply don’t want to do it. It’s so much easier and more comfortable to just keep living in our old habitual way.

Like Moses, God has to practically force our better self into taking control, and dragging our sorry you-know-what out of our old destructive habits and patterns of life.

The first step of turning our life around involves doggedly forcing ourselves not to do everything we are used to doing—everything we dearly want and long to do—and instead moving to a new and better life according to God’s law. We long for the old “luxuries” of our slavery (see “Don’t Look Back! Press Onwards and Upwards!”).

At this stage of our life, obedience to God’s law looks dry, uninviting, hard, and painful. In other words, it looks exactly like the desert that the Israelites encountered when they finally took their first halting steps out of slavery in Egypt.

Spiritually, Moses as a leader of God’s people represents this early stage in our spiritual life, when we must force ourselves to obey God’s law, dragging our feet and complaining the whole way.

That’s no way to enter the Holy Land!

Our initial phase of obedience

It took the ancient Israelites forty years of wandering in the desert under Moses’ leadership before their old slavish, irresponsible, and resistant attitudes died out, and they were finally ready to enter the Holy Land. By that time, all but two of the people who were adults at the time of the Exodus from Egypt had died off (see Numbers 14:26–39; 26:63–65). And the last of them to die was Moses himself.

In the same way, when we make the decision to turn away from our old life of literal, figurative, or spiritual slavery, it may take us years of forcing ourselves to obey God’s law and do the right thing, and many episodes of stubbornness and backsliding, before we finally make it out of our own internal desert.

That is what must happen before we are ready to enter our own Holy Land of spiritual adulthood.

Simply put, the phase represented by Moses’ leadership of the Israelites out of Egypt and through the desert represents a phase of simple, dogged obedience in a behavioral sense. We must stop living and stop thinking the way we were before by sheer force of will and determination, all while desperately longing to go back to our old ways.

This phase is characterized by obedience to law. It is a phase of knowing what we ought to do—what God is commanding us to do—and then forcing ourselves to do it.

Eventually, if we keep at it through all of the struggles, we will reach a stage in which our old ways are no longer attractive to us. We will finally reach a time when it is no longer a struggle not to slip back into our old habits. By sheer force of behavioral obedience, we will have formed new and better habits that are strong enough to stick.

That is when we are finally ready to move on to the next phase of our spiritual life.

A new phase requires a new leader

Charlton Heston as Moses in the epic 1956 Cecil B. DeMille film, The Ten Commandments

Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments

Moses was the ideal leader for the Israelites during their Exodus from Egypt and their desert wanderings. He laid down the law. When the people disobeyed, he punished them. When they obeyed, he rewarded them. And the new generation that grew up under this very behavioristic regime developed a healthier and more self-responsible attitude toward life.

In the next phase, the people no longer required such a strict application of the law to motivate them to obey God’s will. Yes, if they disobeyed God’s law they would still be punished. But unlike the adults who left Egypt, the adults who entered the Holy Land were ready, willing, and eager to take on the task ahead of them!

In order to do that task, they needed a new kind of leader. That leader was Joshua.

Unlike Moses, Joshua was ready and willing to follow God’s orders, even at great risk, right from the start. And when God commanded him to lead the Israelites in the conquest of the Holy Land, Joshua was raring to go!

On our spiritual journey, the leadership of Joshua represents a new phase, not of mere obedience to the law, but eagerness to use God’s truth in battling the evil and false things we see both within ourselves and in the world around us.

Why Moses was refused entrance into the Holy Land

Spiritually, why was Moses refused entrance into the Holy Land, after he led God’s people there? Because struggling to obey God’s law (represented by Moses) as we leave behind our old destructive life can only get us to the border of our own Holy Land.

When we have finally killed off our old addictive and slavish attitudes, and we are ready to follow the laws of God with the courage and conviction of Joshua, then we can at last begin to inhabit the Holy Land of genuine, enthusiastic spiritual life.

In addition to being a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader, this is one in a series of articles on the theme “The Bible Re-Viewed.” Each article takes a new look at a particular selection or story in the Bible, and explores how it relates to our lives today. For more on this spiritual way of interpreting the Bible, see “Can We Really Believe the Bible? Some Thoughts for Those who Wish they Could.”


Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in Spiritual Growth, The Bible Re-Viewed
26 comments on “Why Didn’t Moses Lead God’s People into the Holy Land?
  1. loganfields2 says:

    I am nominating you for a Christian blogging award! More info at cor13ministries.wordpress.com

  2. sagar gupta says:

    Thanks for the upload. It was a vivid description made simple to read.

  3. Jacki B. says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. Very informative and easy to understand/read.

  4. Raymund Joseph says:

    Good reading and informative and reflects on our selves.
    Having said, Moses was a great leader, followed by St Paul to lead the human race and make the change in history

    • Lee says:

      Hi Raymund,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your thoughts. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. God has sent us many human leaders and teachers. Like all human beings, none of them are perfect. But all who did the work God sent them to do, even if imperfectly, have blessed us through their leadership, their teachings, and their actions.

  5. Frank says:

    Outstanding explanation! Thank you! I understand this much better now, and more importantly, how it applies to my life. (Now I can’t wait to get out of my own ‘desert’)

  6. Peter says:

    What a wonderful and simple explanation of the story of Moses
    Thanks Lee

  7. Lester Bailey says:

    I have been studying exodus and I’m a new Christian these events really opened my eyes it bothered me at first because this was a forty year journey I would have thought Moses would have begged jesus for forgiveness it let you see how straight and narrow the path must be I will study this more

  8. Newton says:

    Good to read and simple to understand continue insiring many souls and kindly send a copy to my email.Thank you and may God bless you

    • Lee says:

      Hi Newton,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

      To receive email notices of new articles as they appear here, just enter your email address in the “Follow by Email” box on the right side of any page, under the “What’s Trending?” list, or scroll down to the bottom to find it if you’re on a small screen.

  9. Angel says:

    Excellent! Thank you for laying this out in such a clear, organized way.
    It helped tremendously.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Angel,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your good words. I’m glad the article was helpful to you! Godspeed on your spiritual journey.

  10. Gafar says:

    its really a mind setting, really enjoyed reading this and may God bless you as you continue putting more light into our darkness

  11. Love it! God bless both of you.Thanks so much for sharing.

    Oh by the way my husband also named Lee.

  12. endarmalk says:

    Moses didn’t bring Israel into the promised land because Joshua did. The entire bible is a compare and contrast of Law vs Grace. Moses brought forth the Law, and Jesus brought forth Grace. The old covenant is the covenant of the law and the new covenant is the covenant of Grace. Joshua is another name for Jesus. The promised land represents all that God wants people to have and enjoy, so put it all together.

    Law (Moses) does not bring you into the promised land, but GRACE (JESUS) can, does, and will.

    • Lee says:

      Hi endarmalk,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment. Without getting into biblical and doctrinal specifics, I do agree with you that Joshua in the Old Testament is a representative figure pointing to Jesus in the New Testament.

  13. Enock says:

    I love this. It’s very enlightening bibilically speaking.

  14. Immanuel says:

    A wonderful Midianite true visionary message, May God bless you for the future Scriptural messages. Really wonderful. Glory to God. Immanuel in Midian.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Immanuel,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Godspeed on your spiritual journey!

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Lee & Annette Woofenden

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