Summary: Losing your temper may lead to losing a lot more than that.
One of my favorite shows is Law and Order, and so of course I’ve been watching the new spin-off, Trial by Jury. Last Friday the story featured a man who shot a pedophile who had been paroled back to the neighborhood where he had been apprehended for his original crime. And of course many people viewed the shooter as a hero, and the tension was between following the law - which the neighborhood did not believe would protect them - or rooting for the father who was, it turns out, justifiably angry and afraid because the perp had recently targeted his own 12-year-old daughter.
Fortunately for us all - because my own sympathies were with the father - the real villain turned out to be someone else: the defendant’s attorney who had maneuvered the whole situation to get publicity for her run for public office.
But even when the law is very clear that vigilante justice is not good for society in the long run, many of us I think, have a sneaking sympathy for people who act out of “righteous anger.” But James says something very important in his short letter to the Jerusalem church: “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness.” [Jas 2:19-20] Even righteous anger doesn’t accomplish God’s ends.
Moses’ action in Numbers 20 is an excellent example of how human anger doesn’t bring about righteousness in anybody’s life. The chapter begins with the children of Israel arriving at the desert region of Zin and with the death of Moses’ sister Miriam. Now, while we can’t be absolutely certain that her death played a part in Moses’ attitude in this incident, it certainly couldn’t have helped. We know that Moses loved his sister, and not only because he interceded with God on her behalf when she was struck with leprosy a few chapters before this one. They had been together from the beginning, in fact she’s the one who put him in the river when he was a baby so that Pharaoh’s daughter would find and rescue him. And now she’s gone. So he - like all of us - was far more vulnerable to temptation because he was physically or emotionally drained, because that’s when our resources are low and our feelings are close to the surface. And while God has given us emotions, and we need to pay attention to them, he doesn’t want us to be controlled by them, any more than he wants us to be controlled by our bodies’ needs and desires. How many times have you heard the advice to “just follow your heart”? That’s just as reliable a guide as saying “just follow your stomach” or “just follow your - er - reproductive instincts.”
So there is Moses, already at a low ebb because of his personal loss, and what do you think he hears? "Would that we had died when our kindred died before the LORD! Why have you brought the assembly of the LORD into this wilderness for us and our livestock to die here? Why have you brought us up out of Egypt,
to bring us to this wretched place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink." [Num 20:3-5] How many times have we heard this? “Are we there yet?” More to the point, how many times do you think Moses has heard this? He was, as the saying goes, down to his last nerve, and the Israelites stepped on it.
Now, this is not the only time Moses ever lost his temper. When he came down from the mountain to find the Israelites dancing around the golden calf, he was so angry he threw the stone tablets down and they broke. Obviously this didn’t do any good, he just had to go back up and get another copy. Moses also got angry when Aaron’s sons failed to follow the proper procedures for one of the offerings, and at other times when the Israelites grumbled or disobeyed God. And there were times when he himself complained and questioned and argued with God. But this time his anger got Moses into big trouble. And the consequence was that both he and his brother Aaron were denied entrance to the Promised Land.
Why? What was the difference? Previously, Moses had kept his temper pretty well leashed. Throwing the stone tablets on the ground was probably better than having them all beheaded, and after he ground up the idol into powder and made the Israelites drink it he actually interceded for them before God. In fact, Moses was usually in the position of trying to turn God’s anger away from the Israelites. But this time things were different. This time Moses let his anger get in the way of obeying God.