Considering Moses’ sin and God’s treatment of his transgression, Henry Melvill explores the bounds of divine wrath and human piety using descriptive language, at times re-creating while commenting upon Moses’ experience. Melvill explains that Moses, although an “honoured and faithful” prophet, did not refrain from sin and therefore was made an example despite his more frequent pious consistency. Melvill’s consideration of Moses brings to question how the other, less consistently pious followers of God’s will — the people towards whom he is directing this sermon, perhaps — can dream of salvation with God when he denies the same to one of his most devout prophets. Melvill goes on to suggest, however, that Moses’ piety would make him an even greater target as scapegoat, for God must prove that even his most dedicated followers are not to disobey.

To us, accustomed, as we unhappily are, to offend more grievously than Moses, even when the utmost has been said in aggravation of his sin, it may seem that God dealt harshly with his servant, in immediately pronouncing as his sentence, that he should not bring the congregation into the land which he would give them. It was a sentence of which Moses himself felt the severity; for he describes himself as pleading, earnestly for a remission But he pleaded in vain; nay, he seems to have been repulsed with indignation; for it is thus that he describes the issue of his supplication. "But the Lord was wroth with me for your sakes, and would not hear me; and the Lord said unto me, Let it suffice thee, speak no more unto me of this matter." Let it however be remembered, that the eyes of all Israel were now upon Moses and Aaron; and that, the more exalted their station, and the more eminent their piety, the more requisite was it that God should mark their occurrence; thus proving that He will not tolerate sin even in those whom He most loves and approves. It is not because a man stands high in the favour of his Maker, that he may expect to escape the temporal retributions of a fault; on the contrary, since he is not to sustain its eternal retributions, there is the greater reason why the temporal should not be remitted; for if they were, his sin would be wholly unvisited, and therefore apparently overlooked by God. And though indeed Moses had been singularly faithful and obedient, who can fail to perceive that the uncommonness of his fault would only have made his being unpunished more observable; whereas it gave, on the other hand, opportunity for a most impressive lesson, as to God's hatred of sin, and his resolve that it shall never go unrecompensed? The whole congregation had seen the sin committed; had they seen it also unnoticed by God, they might have argued that impatience and unbelief were excusable in certain persons, or under certain provocations. [“The Death of Moses,” p. 5]

Melvill points to the “temporal” relevance of Moses’ sin and transgression from belief. Whether Moses’ action was truly generated by disbelief or a simple frustration is more questionable. Furthermore if his striking of the rock was truly a gesture made from frustration or oversight, Melvill suggests that God nonetheless treats this motive as sin. In fact, the motive of Moses’ action seems almost irrelevant to his punishment. To generalize and include the addressees in his thought process, Melvill writes that “it is not because a man stands high in favour of his Maker,” that men cannot be excused for transgression regardless of intent, and regardless of their general piety. Perhaps Moses here is also being depicted as a possible common man — one who demonstrates that even a prophet can transgress and thus does everyone. Perhaps Melvill is suggesting, especially in his inclusive statement that “accustomed, as we unhappily are, to offend more grievously than Moses,” that we are all doomed to similar retribution. Moses, though, seemingly is held on a higher pedestal than the common man. He merits even less exemption from punishment for he truly should not sin. Then there appears a discrepancy in God’s wrath — Melvill somehow appears to be suggesting that the more pious the man, the greater he can expect the punishment to be for his arguably unlikely sin.


1. Is the sin for Moses, and the resulting punishment arguably greater than it might be for a more common man? Or is Melvill suggesting that Moses is going to receive a greater punishment than per se the common man who might make the same error?

2. If Moses’ sin is based, as Melvill earlier suggests, in the idea of non-belief as opposed to frustration or simply error, then is God here truly being structurally depicted as loving? Furthermore, do less pious followers face the same fate as Moses if they are more likely to sin — and does that mean that all humanity is somehow equivalently doomed?

3. This passage suggests that the most devout of God’s followers must also be the most consistently pious, however, should then the common man aspire to be like Moses or condemn Moses as He does?

4. Is the shift between descriptive language not just in this passage but throughout the sermon and then language directed sharply to the addressee, designed to make us sympathetic with Moses, empathetic, or distressed?

Last modified 31 January 2011