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In Exodus, God commands Moses to strike a rock, and promises to make water flow in the desert for the people.

Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. (Exodus 17:6 ESV)

Later on, God tells Moses to speak to a rock, promising to make water flow in the desert again. However, Moses strikes the rock again instead of speaking to it. Because of just this one thing, God tells Moses that he will no longer be permitted bring the people into the Promised Land.

“Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” 9 And Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he commanded him. 10 Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” 11 And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. 12 And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:8-12 ESV, emphasis added)

Why was the punishment so harsh for what seems like a small infraction? Was there something greater or more symbolic going on here?

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    See also: What exactly did Moses do wrong at Meribah? Apr 17, 2013 at 23:23
  • This is a very good and important question, and does have a strongly illustrative allegory, but as asked the question is opinion based. You might ask for an overview of allegorical or symbolic interpretations. They should come out clearly in a few commentaries.
    – Andrew
    Sep 9, 2016 at 15:38
  • (-1) with that in mind, questions that are readily answered by commentaries are "good" questions in general, but are not good for this site as they demonstrate a lack of research effort.
    – Andrew
    Sep 9, 2016 at 15:39

15 Answers 15

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Like the forefathers of those who eventually ended up in the Promised Land, Moses's problem was that he failed to trust in God. In chapter 12 of Numbers, Aaron and Miriam oppose Moses as God's messenger and their leader. As a result, they also are refused entry to the land (by death, like Moses).

Moses' problem wasn't that he misinterpreted God or thought that since he'd hit the rock before that it was okay to do it again. Rather, Moses was utterly rejecting God and trying to take control.

  1. Moses was violent. He struck the rock twice when God just said to speak to it.
  2. Moses was usurping God's place. He said to the people, "hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?" The emphasis is technically mine, but it was already there. Moses didn't say "God will bring water out of this rock for you." He (with Aaron, evidently) took God's place and assured them that he would do it for them.

Verse 12 is pretty revealing as to the nature of Moses's crime:

"Because you did not believe in me," (emphasis mine)

Moses totally failed to trust God for the life-supplying water. He tried to take matters into his own hands. He was supposed the be the leader, but also the servant of God. He tried to usurp God's place.

Additionally, I think there might be some symbolism to the rock. Back in Exodus 17, God tells Moses

"Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink" Ex. 17:6

To quote my study bible notes on this, "An astonishing statement. In this trial God takes the place of the accused, standing in the dock."

1 Corinthians 10:4 explains that "the Rock was Christ." In striking the Rock, Moses was striking God for the people. Christ was punished for the nourishment of his people.

Back to Numbers, it seems that maybe the situation is similar here. God has provided a rock (Christ) that will bring forth water (salvation) for his people. This is somewhat speculative, but it seems that this time, Moses is in the position of the people. He's supposed to ask God for salvation, to request the water from the rock. But instead, he takes up his previous position as judge, and strikes the rock (Christ). Before, he was commanded to. This time, he willingly strikes his Savior.

It's interesting to note, in support of that theory, that the Hebrew word used for "strike" is the same in both cases (link), and the words for rock are quite similar (Numbers word & Exodus. word)

Ultimately of course, it's because Moses did not believe that God could bring the water out of the rock, and hit it himself. (perhaps he was trying to knock loose rocks to open up a stream, or he thought that his staff held some special Mosaic power - either way, he thought he was the key to the equation)


I used my study bible a good deal on this one, the ESV Reformation Study Bible by Ligonier

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    I am a little surprised that no one brought out James 3:1--that teachers will be judged more strictly--or Matt. 5:48--that perfection is the standard--and Lev. 11:45--be holy because I am holy (perhaps particularly significant in context of "you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy"--personal holiness as witness to Divine holiness, the contrary a form of blasphemy--"in the eyes of the people"--addressing a leader/teacher). The explanations of the offence are very good, but it seemed that adding such would also address the harshness a little more. Dec 6, 2012 at 22:36
  • Christ the Rock, was struck (crucified) once, thereafter we speak to or pray to the eternal Rock, Jesus Christ.
    – Rick
    Sep 10, 2013 at 17:51
  • This reminds me of Heb 6:4-8, which talks about those who have "the goodness of the word of God", and then fallen away. That passage doesn't directly match what you've said, but it's 'intuitively close', in the sense that the continued striking is the really bad thing. But after the one strike, the Word must take over; if [godly] language doesn't replace physical force, somehow hope of salvation is lost, or at least hope of 'better' this side of the afterlife is lost (see Moses at the Transfiguration, per a comment below). Maybe you'll be able to do something with this vague connection. :-/
    – labreuer
    May 23, 2014 at 16:15
  • Uzzah met with a similar dire consequence (he was struck dead) when he touched the Ark of the Covenant: 2 Samuel 6:1-7. He was a priest and should have known the ark of the covenant was to be carried as God commanded, not placed on an ox cart. Failing to respect God's holiness is a deep sin, especially among leaders. E.g. see Mark 9:42 for a similar dire admonition for those who cause children to stumble. Sep 8, 2021 at 14:23
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The answer is right there in verse 12:

And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.”

It's a classic example of lack of faith. God tells Moses to do something that doesn't sound reasonable to him, so he decides "no, that'll never work" and do something that he thinks would work better, such as striking the rock to get water out of it.

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    It's an interesting lesson. How many times do we pray to God in unbelief. Striking the rock multiple times so to speak without praying, believing and receiving as in Mark 11.
    – hookenz
    Sep 10, 2013 at 21:08
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The section you quote contains the answer: because Moses did not believe. He was told to "tell the rock... to yield its water" but instead he struck the rock twice, apparently believing God's command to be insufficient. He expected God to act in exactly the same way as He had before*, but God apparently wanted to reveal His power to Moses in a new way.

As the leader, Moses was being watched. When Moses did not believe, this could easily lead to lack of belief amongst the Israelites, which had been a problem before.

Finally, God had previously to deal with men not trusting His promise but taking matters into their own hands.

* There's a lesson in this for all of us: we cannot expect God to be predictable and solve our problems in the same way He always has done. He's in the business of making things new!

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    It doesn't seem like the problem was that he struck it twice - it was that he struck it at all. God didn't even tell him to strike the rock once - that was a different occasion. He said to "tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water"
    – user971
    Apr 3, 2012 at 23:52
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    @Eric: thanks, I have corrected my answer. (This is what happens when I answer from memory instead of checking my facts...) Apr 4, 2012 at 10:48
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Christ is the main subject in the Old Testament "concealed". God speaks of Him in types and shadows. At Rephidim (Exodus 17:4) God told Moses to strike the Rock.The Rock is Christ (1st Corinthians 10:4), Moses represents the Law. Jesus was struck by Israel for presuming to violate the Law, for claiming to be God, which He is! When He was struck "crucified", living water (John 4:10) for all humanity who would "believe" was poured out. Moses was told to speak to the Rock at Meribah (Numbers 20:8). As a prerequisite for Jesus to return, to save Israel during the Great Tribulation they must ask Him, (Luke 13:35). So by striking the Rock, Moses messed up God's model or type which would have modeded the 1st and 2nd comings of Christ.

So to counter this mistake by Moses, He was not allowed to take Israel into the Promised Land which is a type of Heaven, Moses represents the Law, only God's Grace gets you in Heaven "the Promised land, so Joshua took them in! Joshua is Hebrew for Jesus! The Law is the 1st five books of the Old Testament, called the Torah by the Jews, The very next book is "Joshua"

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    Welcome to the forum. Very nice answer!
    – Narnian
    Dec 6, 2012 at 19:09
  • So you read this passage as an allegory for Israel's future rejection of Jesus? I'm sorry, but I don't buy it. Can you present more evidence that the rock symbolises Christ? What does it symbolise for the Law (Moses) to strike Christ (the rock)?
    – curiousdannii
    May 31, 2014 at 13:08
  • Never heard that before!Brilliant answer.Who is preaching that the next book Joshua is a symbol of Jesus?
    – Aigle
    Jun 30, 2016 at 9:26
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You guys made some good points on this article. Just wanted to add to something else to support this qiestion. Moses was also complaining when he said his comments. The Hebrew word for Complain means: To Remain or Remaining. Because of this the children of Israel remained in the wilderness for 40 yrs. Moses also complained and he remained. They were not able to enter the promise land because they were cursed by complaining, lack of faith, lack of obedience, bitterness, anger.. Etc. All these acts will hinder all believers to receive the breakthrough to receive the promises of God. Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted for. (1 Cort.10:8) Again, now all these things happened unto them for examples: and they are written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the world are come. Wherefore let him or her that thinketh he or she standeth take heed lest he or she fall.(1 Cort.10:11-12)

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Mosses was not punished for striking the rock instead of speaking to it. His sin is much larger than that.. His sin is that of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.

Numbers 20:10 Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?”

Moses is acting as if He and Aron are the responsible party for the miracles rather than acknowledging God as the cause. They are taking the credit when the credit belongs to God. Shall we bring you water from this rock yet again???? Rather than shall we bother God for water yet again? This is blasphemy. Now blasphemy is not forgiven so this sin of Moses may hold him out of the kingdom of God. Yet perhaps Moses pays for this sin by not being allowed into the promised land.

It is also why Jesus never claims that anything he does to be of himself. He acknowledges that nothing he does is of himself. He says the power is not his. Instead Jesus points to the Holy Spirit as the Active reason for all that he says and all that he had done. He claims that the Spirit is within him. He says the Father, as we know that to be the Holy Spirit, is with him and had not left him. He does what the Father shows him and says as the Father directs. It is establishing that He unlike Moses does things exactly as God instructs him to do.

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  • Welcome to the site. Please see the faq and the tour page. This is a good first answer. To make it a bit better you should mention that Moses is present at the Transfiguration, so his punishment for blasphemy is not permanent. However, some might argue that the sin was not blasphemy at all, but pride.
    – fгedsbend
    Apr 17, 2013 at 22:52
  • Yes, Moses is showing emotion and maybe pride from his frustration, but in 20:10 (shall WE bring water) reflects the statement from God to Moses in 20:8 (so YOU shall bring water). "We" probably means Moses and God, but maybe an arrogant prideful approach could mean Moses and Aaron. The Moses and God approach could mean Moses sees he is part of a collaboration with God at God's direction, not making himself equal to God or claiming any credit for himself.
    – jKevinBarr
    Sep 28 at 15:31
  • also, the phrase "blasphemy of the Holy Spirit" is a specific idea Jesus said is unforgivable, it seems odd God would confuse people and apply it here, then show other positive references to Moses later (as in appearing with Elijah in the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9)
    – jKevinBarr
    Sep 28 at 15:37
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There is something else hidden in the sentence when Moses striked the rock when he was told to speak to it. Here he was believing in himself his soul power, not god's power. His eyes were lifted from god and it was on his soul power. Hence he also says, "Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?”

Remember Jeremiah 17:5 says

This is what the LORD says: "Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the LORD.

Moses by trusting in himself was inadvertently bringing on gods curse.

Dear brothers and sister we too some times end up trusting in our soul power, it is very subtle, but let us pray that when that happens god gives us wisdom to see it and repent.

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  • I love the Jer 17:5 reference, but does Moses' "we" refer to (a) multiple humans, or (b) a human-God communion and co-working (see 1 Cor 3:9a)?
    – labreuer
    May 23, 2014 at 16:23
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I've usually heard the explanation as being that Moses struck the rock when God said to speak to it. And I don't doubt that his failure to follow instruction may have been a part of it. But it seems to me the key problem is that he said, "Shall WE bring water for you out of this rock". Rather than give glory to God, he tried to take credit for it himself. "God and I will do this."

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  • What about 1 Cor 3:9a? "For we are God’s fellow workers." Seeing God as the only source of action seems in conflict with imago dei. There are actually three options: “Hear now, you rebels: shall { God, we, I } bring water for you out of this rock?” It seems like 'we' might actually be the correct choice! God wants to work with us, as Ezekiel 22:29-31 makes clear. Ezekiel 34 makes it clear that God is angry when humans don't do their part. 'I' is also clearly wrong, as it attempts the autonomy that Adam and Eve attempted.
    – labreuer
    May 23, 2014 at 16:22
  • @labreuer Belated reply: God wants us to take action and not be passive bystanders. But there's a difference between doing God's will and co-operating with God versus claiming credit for what God does. There's a difference between being a faithful servant and supposing that you are an equal partner. It would be quite fair and accurate for Noah to say, "I worked for many years to build this boat that God commanded me to build." It would be absurd and presumptuous for Noah to say, "God and I sent a flood."
    – Jay
    Jun 28 at 18:59
  • Sure. Moses did no more than turn on a faucet. "Shall I bring water out of the faucet?" I'll grant you ambiguity here. My larger point is that Moses did three things: (i) said "shall we bring water out of this rock"; (ii) struck the rock rather than speaking to it; (iii) addressed the people as "you rebels". If you consult the rehash of the event between Moses and YHWH in Deut 3:23–29, you see Moses blaming the Israelites for his own failure, passing the buck like Adam & Eve. That inclines me a bit toward (iii) …
    – labreuer
    Jun 30 at 0:21
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The rock symbolizes Jesus Christ who is to be crucified once. Striking the rock symbolizes crucifying Jesus Christ. After crucifying Jesus Christ (striking the rock), we ought to speak (pray) for solutions. However, Moses did strike (crucify) again and again! No one can ever or should never try to change the plans of God!

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    This answer would be a lot better if you could add references showing that this is a common understanding, and who teaches/believes it. Remember that "I believe it means..." isn't an acceptable answer, since this site isn't about personal interpretation. See How we are different than other sites? and What makes a good supported answer? Oct 25, 2013 at 19:27
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    Jesus is often represented as the unhewn Rock in scripture. For example Nebuchadnezzar's vision of the unhewn rock establishing an everlasting kingdom. There is a very clear link with the scene at Golgotha: Moses struck the Rock with a staff and water came out. The Roman soldiers 'struck' the side of Christ with a spear and water came out.
    – Pete B
    Nov 20, 2014 at 9:30
  • While this makes perfect sense, since it is like striking Jesus down twice (especially if he had been hitting it once at any time prior), this is not the image here. God said "speak to the rock" and Moses clearly did not. This is an example of disobedience only. May 22, 2015 at 19:11
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The rock is indeed Jesus Christ who died once and for all for our sins. In the first instance God told Moses to take Moses' rod which brought judgement and hit the rock. It symbolises Jesus being punished instead of us. In the second instance God told Moses to take the rod from God's presence, which is the High priest' rod symbolising grace.As many have explained when Moses hit the rock when God told him to speak to the rock, Moses being the shepherd of the Israelites did not demonstrate God's grace as God intended, in the presence of the people. But he demonstrated judgement. As St. Paul says crucifying Christ again. Such leaders cannot lead their congregation into the promised land because they will only look at the judgement but not accept God's grace. Only through grace we shall enter into the rest of the promised land!

Note that although Moses hit the rock God did not withhold the water. So although as leaders we see results amidst our congregations be watchful of the message you give. If you don't preach the message of grace you cannot lead your flock to where God wants them to be. That's in the promised land. Praise be to God!

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All the aforementioned answers were very correct. Just to add my own view point... The matter of Moses with God was simply what I call TOTAL obedience and also a failure to acknowledge God in the sight of the Israelites, as we all know that God says we should be perfect as He is. There is not 0.000001% imperfection in God, so 99.999% obedience is not of God (1John 1:5b). God could still have forgiven King Saul in 1 Samuel 15, but because he failed to carefully and totally obey God, God regretted selecting Saul in the first place.

God's standard in our service to Him is that we TOTALLY and CAREFULLY obey him, which is the simple definition of HOLINESS.

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    Welcome to C.SE. When you get the chance, please check out our tour and specifically How we are different than other sites. Please don't be offended by this, but your "own view point" isn't what we do here. I don't disagree with what you say, but we're generally looking for answers with support (and you do a decent job of that) and an established doctrinal perspective. I think you're heading in that direction, but just be aware of your sourcing. Thanks! Nov 5, 2013 at 15:01
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A bit of confusion arises when the topic of giving glory to God arises. Giving glory is figuratively like using a highlight pen. It raises the visibility of the object or text, separates it (makes holy?).

The point in giving glory is to make sure that the cause of the good work is not missed: God. Not because God is a praise seeking ego maniac, but because He is the only source of good things. Depending on Him is everything, depending on anything else, futile. A very, very, important lesson.

How much glory must be given to God? Enough so that He is unequivocally identified as the cause of the good work:

Matthew 7:22-23 NET On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons and do many powerful deeds?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!’

Mark 9:39 NET But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, because no one who does a miracle in my name will be able soon afterward to say anything bad about me.

Try to locate where Moses said anything good about God in His speech.

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Paul writes (1 Cor 10.4) that the Rock was Christ, and (in accord with Jewish tradition) the same Rock (perhaps figuratively) actually followed Israel from Horeb (Ex 17 where Moses struck the rock) to Nebo (Deut 32 where he got in trouble for striking it again). In my view, the faithlessness of Moses was in not accepting that "the Christ suffered once for all."

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  • Could you expand this? I'm interested in how you make the jump here? What did Moses know about Christ?
    – wax eagle
    Sep 10, 2013 at 19:53
  • Moses perhaps knew nothing about Christ, like Abraham knew nothing about Christ yet said 'a sacrifice will be provided' before offering Issac. It had a local meaning and a prophetic meaning which he may not have known himself at the time.
    – Pete B
    Nov 20, 2014 at 9:23
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Although an answer has already been accepted, I cannot agree that Moses' punishment was "because Moses did not believe that God could bring the water out of the rock." Rather, it was because Moses struck the Rock in anger against the Israelites. He should have given hope to the people at this crucial moment, just prior to their entering Canaan. Instead, he allowed his anger to overcome him, striking the rock twice instead of once as commanded in Exodus 17:6.

The idea that Moses lacked faith in God's ability to bring forth the water should be rejected on the grounds that Moses, the greatest prophet of the OT age, had witnessed many demonstrations of God's power greater than the one here. However, in this case, he was frustrated by the people's complaints and let his temper get the best of him. In so doing he confused his own power with God's declaring:

“Hear now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his rod twice (Num. 20: 10-11)

To resolve the apparent contradiction between Exodus 17:6 and Numbers, I suggest we accept that Moses should have first spoken to the Rock and then struck it once.

I do not discount the that striking the Rock had important significance symbolically. But the problem was not that Moses struck the rock instead of speaking to it, or that he did not believe God could fulfill His promise to bring forth water. Moses should have spoken in hope to God (the Rock), and then struck the Rock once. He was punished because he struck it twice, in anger, and did not address God in humility and hope for the people before he struck it.


As a side note, there is an Jewish tradition that gives insight into the people's faithlessness in this episode: The lack of water was connected to the recent death of Miriam. Her merit was so great that a well there, hidden under the famous rock, dried up when Miriam the prophetess died. (Ta'anit 9a) They thus despaired, and Moses' own grief over Miriam's death may also have been a factor.

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There is another lesson that people then and now can gain from this. The second water event was near the end of the forty years of wandering in the desert, so Moses had already received the history of Genesis. Moses was at least partly punished because he ignored or forgot the lesson of God warning Cain about the danger of anger (Genesis 4:3-8). Cain became angry when God refused his sacrifice and then tried to teach him what a good sacrifice would be. God warned Cain that his anger made him vulnerable to sin, and sin wanted to possess him (which would block Cain from hearing God trying to guide him further). This led Cain into killing Abel. At the second water event Moses was angry with the stubborn people and let sin possess him. He voiced his frustration at needing to be responsible for getting water for people that he said were rebelling against God (Numbers 20:10) then struck the rock in disobedience (It is probably not an offense that Moses claimed he was bringing the water instead of God because in 20:8 God says that Moses will bring the water). So after all his experiences walking with God he ultimately failed because he was still vulnerable to the same weakness as Cain.

God was upset and told Moses he failed by not representing God properly to His people when he let his anger control him (Numbers 20:12). God blamed HIM alone for his failure (even though the people were rebellious God still wanted to provide for them) and punished him by denying his entrance to the Promised Land. Moses gave a farewell speech to the people and while warning them about their rebelliousness he showed his lack of repentance for his failure when he told the people it was THEIR fault that God was punishing him (Deuteronomy 4:21). This was Moses failing again by behaving like Adam and Eve just after the Fall (which he also knew the lesson of) when they pointed fingers at others for their mistake instead of facing the truth and owning up to it.

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