Numbers 20 – The Beginning of the Last Year
A. Contention among the children of Israel.
1. (1) The death of Miriam.
Then the children of Israel, the whole congregation, came into the Wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh; and Miriam died there and was buried there.
a. The people stayed in Kadesh; and Miriam died there and was buried there: Miriam died in Kadesh. Through the years of wandering in the wilderness, Israel came now to Kadesh. This is likely another place named Kadesh but presented to remind us of the failure of faith at the Kadesh of Numbers 13:26.
i. Numbers 13:26 associates Kadesh with the Paran Wilderness, and Numbers 20:1 associates Kadesh with the Wilderness of Zin. It’s possible that there are two different places, each called Kadesh (“Holy Place”).
b. Miriam died there and was buried there: Miriam’s death was an important point in the journey from Egypt to Canaan. She was the first of Moses’ siblings to die in the wilderness, and her death was a demonstration of the fulfillment of God’s promise that the generation which refused to enter Canaan would die in the wilderness, and the new generation would enter instead (Numbers 14:29-34).
i. Miriam’s death shows there were no special exceptions for the family of Moses. God said only Joshua and Caleb would survive from that generation (Numbers 14:30), and that included Miriam, Aaron, even Moses himself. This chapter will show the frailty of each of these significant leaders.
ii. It is common for some people to deceive themselves into thinking they have a special exception from God, with their own special arrangement with the LORD. If Moses and his siblings had no special exception, we should not arrogantly think we have our own arrangement with God.
c. Miriam died there and was buried there: Miriam died a complicated character. She was great for her courage in helping Moses and his parents (Exodus 2:4-8), and great for leading Israel in praise (Exodus 15:20-21). Yet she was also disgraced for her rebellion against Moses (Numbers 12). That one incident of rebellion left a bad mark against her.
i. “Eusebius says that her tomb was to be seen at Kadesh, near the city of Petra, in his time.” (Clarke)
2. (2-6) Israel contends with Moses and Aaron because of thirst.
Now there was no water for the congregation; so they gathered together against Moses and Aaron. And the people contended with Moses and spoke, saying: “If only we had died when our brethren died before the LORD! Why have you brought up the assembly of the LORD into this wilderness, that we and our animals should die here? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt, to bring us to this evil place? It is not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates; nor is there any water to drink.” So Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the door of the tabernacle of meeting, and they fell on their faces. And the glory of the LORD appeared to them.
a. There was no water for the congregation: This was a legitimate need for the people and their livestock. Yet they could have trusted in the God who had daily provided for them and made a faith-filled appeal to Moses. Instead, they gathered together against Moses and Aaron.
b. If only we had died when our brethren died before the LORD: Their contention led them to make outrageous statements, and they spoke as those who have no trust in God. The older generation of unbelief was almost dead, and now the younger generation started to act like the unbelieving generation. They openly doubted God’s promise that He would lead them into the land of promise.
i. “As the fathers murmured, so also did the children.” (Clarke)
c. Why have you brought up the congregation of the LORD into this wilderness, that we and our animals should die here: Their contention led them to make outrageous accusations, accusing Moses and Aaron of plotting the murder of the people (and their animals).
d. Not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates: Their contention limited their vision. Instead of seeing the wilderness as the place of God’s faithful and miraculous provision, they could only see the wilderness as the place that did not have the abundance of Canaan.
i. Ironically, they would never come into the abundance of the land of Canaan unless they learned to trust God in the wilderness.
e. Moses and Aaron…fell on their faces: They realized how serious this was. With Israel’s contentious attitude, the new generation could turn out just as unbelieving and untrusting in God as the old generation. If that were true, they also would die in the wilderness.
i. “We have here the first act of a new epoch, and the question to be tried is whether the new men are any better than the old. It is this which gives importance to the event, and explains the bitterness of Moses at finding the old spirit living in the children.” (Maclaren)
3. (7-8) God’s command to Moses: Provide water for Israel.
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Take the rod; you and your brother Aaron gather the congregation together. Speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will yield its water; thus you shall bring water for them out of the rock, and give drink to the congregation and their animals.”
a. Take the rod… Speak to the rock before their eyes: Specifically, God told Moses to take the rod, but not to use it. God promised to provide water for Israel when Moses would speak to the rock.
b. And it will yield its water: Back at Mount Sinai, God told Moses to strike the rock and water came forth (Exodus 17:6). Here, God commanded Moses to only speak to the rock, holding the rod in his hand.
4. (9-11) Moses’ contention with Israel and with the LORD.
So Moses took the rod from before the LORD as He commanded him. And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock; and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels! Must we bring water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses lifted his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their animals drank.
a. So Moses took the rod from before the LORD as He commanded him: Moses began by doing exactly what the LORD had told him to do. He took the rod and gathered the people of Israel.
b. Hear now, you rebels! Must we bring water for you out of this rock? God told Moses to simply take the rod and speak to the rock (verses 7-8). God never told Moses to lecture the people of Israel, especially in this harsh and angry manner. There were times when Moses had to be the messenger of God’s anger, but this was not one of those times.
i. It was bad for Moses to lecture Israel; it was worse for him to do it with an angry attitude, filled with bitter contempt against them. On previous occasions when Israel contended against Moses, he reacted differently.
· At Kadesh, Moses fell on his face before God when the people rebelled (Numbers 16:4).
· At Marah, Moses cried out to the LORD, not against the people (Exodus 15:22-25).
· At Massah and Meribah, Moses confronted the people (Exodus 17:1-7), but seemingly without the edge of anger, contempt, and bitterness seen here.
ii. There are many reasons to explain the sinful reaction of Moses, but there were no adequate excuses. He was provoked, but he responded in sin, as later described in Psalm 106:32-33: They angered Him also at the waters of strife, so that it went ill with Moses on account of them; because they rebelled against His Spirit, so that he spoke rashly with his lips.
c. Must we bring water for you out of this rock? Since Moses and Aaron stood before the people (verses 6 and 10), we probably refers to them. Moses spoke to the people as if it were he and Aaron who would give the people water, not the LORD.
d. Then Moses lifted his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod: Moses disobeyed God directly, striking the rock instead of speaking to it. Not only did he strike it, but he struck it twice. When he struck the rock at the beginning of the Exodus journey, he only had to strike it once (Exodus 17:5-7). Here, out of anger and frustration, Moses struck the rock twice.
i. “The Palestinian Targum says very significantly, that at the first stroke the rock dropped blood, thereby indicating the tragic sinfulness of the angry blow.” (Maclaren)
e. Water came out abundantly: Despite Moses failure in both attitude and action, God still provided abundantly for the people. Perhaps because water was successfully provided Moses thought God was pleased and all was well.
i. God’s love for His people is so great, He uses imperfect instruments. The fact that God uses someone is not evidence that the person used is in right relationship with God and serving according to God’s heart.
ii. “Geographers and biblical interpreters have written for years of the extensive aquifers that exist beneath the surface rock strata of the Sinai peninsula…. So at the moment of Moses’ sin in striking the rock, God caused the water to erupt from underground water source, more than amply supplying the needs of the Israelite population.” (Cole)
5. (12-13) God’s rebuke and correction of Moses.
Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe Me, to hallow Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” This was the water of Meribah, because the children of Israel contended with the LORD, and He was hallowed among them.
a. Because you did not believe Me: Moses’ sinful attitude and action was rooted in unbelief. He didn’t really believe God when the LORD told him to speak to the rock and not to strike it.
i. Unbelief has many forms. It was easy to see Israel’s unbelief in Numbers 14 when they refused to trust God and enter Canaan. Here, Moses was also unbelieving, but in different circumstances. Moses did not trust God to correct His people, so he took it upon himself to do so at a time when God did not want to correct Israel. Moses acted more like an Egyptian prince than a servant of the Lord.
ii. Under the headings of you did not believe Me and a failure to hallow the LORD in the eyes of the children of Israel, there were many specific sins of Moses, sins that leaders among God’s people must take special care to avoid:
· It is possible that Moses suffered from unresolved grief over his sister’s death.
· Simple disobedience – not doing what God told him to do.
· Being a bad example – not showing God as holy before the people.
· Not listening when God wanted to do something different – thinking the miraculous could be made mechanical.
· Annoyance from wounded personal importance.
· Taking credit to himself for God’s work.
· Thinking God’s work had to have something more than a word.
· Presenting God as angry with His people when God wasn’t angry.
· Giving in to personal anger with God’s people.
· Giving into fearing the worst about God’s people unbelief and faithlessness.
· Failing to draw on God’s strength to endure until the end.
· Being a bad illustration of Jesus.
iii. “Perhaps there is no story in all the Old Testament more searching for all who are called to lead the people of God, than this of the failure of Moses. What he did was most natural. Therein lay the wrong of it.” (Morgan)
b. To hallow Me in the eyes of the children of Israel: What Moses did was an unholy thing. He made God look no different than an angry man or one of the moody pagan gods. He did not reflect the heart and character of God before the people.
c. Therefore you shall not bring this congregation into the land: God’s correction of Moses was hard. This great leader of Israel would not lead them into Canaan. Even as a young man, Moses dreamed of being a deliverer for his people, and he would now not complete this work. Another person would finish the job.
i. We might have thought, Israel might have thought, and Moses might have thought he was exempt from the decree that all the generation that was of age when the Exodus began would perish in the wilderness. But Moses, great a leader as he was, was still a man subject to God and God’s law.
d. You shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them: This may seem an unreasonably harsh punishment for Moses. With only one seemingly small error he now had to die short of Canaan. But God judged Moses by a stricter standard because of his leadership position with the nation, and because he had a uniquely close relationship with God.
i. It is unrighteous to hold teachers and leaders to a perfect standard, but it is right for teachers and leaders to be judged by a stricter standard (James 3:1).
ii. Most importantly, Moses ruined a beautiful picture of Jesus’ redemptive work through the rock which provided water in the wilderness. The New Testament makes it clear this water-providing and life-giving rock was a picture of Jesus (1 Corinthians 10:4). Jesus, being struck once, provided life for all who would drink of Him (John 7:37). But it was unnecessary – and unrighteous – that Jesus would be struck again, because the Son of God needed only to suffer once (Hebrews 10:10-12). Jesus can now be come to with words of faith (Romans 10:8-10), as Moses should have only used words of faith to bring life-giving water to the nation of Israel. Moses “ruined” this picture of the work of Jesus God intended.
e. And He was hallowed among them: At the end of it all, God was seen as holy among the children of Israel. Moses did not hallow God in this incident, but God hallowed Himself through the correction of Moses.
B. The start of the last stage of the journey to Canaan, the request to pass through Edom.
1. (14-17) Messengers to the king of Edom.
Now Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom. “Thus says your brother Israel: ‘You know all the hardship that has befallen us, how our fathers went down to Egypt, and we dwelt in Egypt a long time, and the Egyptians afflicted us and our fathers. When we cried out to the LORD, He heard our voice and sent the Angel and brought us up out of Egypt; now here we are in Kadesh, a city on the edge of your border. Please let us pass through your country. We will not pass through fields or vineyards, nor will we drink water from wells; we will go along the King’s Highway; we will not turn aside to the right hand or to the left until we have passed through your territory.’”
a. Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom: Much time had passed since Israel refused to enter Canaan by faith in Numbers 14. They were now ready to go closer to Canaan than ever before, going from Kadesh through Edom to Canaan. This section of Numbers 20 brings us to the fifth of five stages of Israel’s Exodus journey.
· Stage 1: From Egypt to Mount Sinai (Exodus 12:31-18:27).
· Stage 2: The sojourn at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:1 to Numbers 10:10).
· Stage 3: The first approach to the Promised Land, beginning at Mount Sinai, but being aborted at Kadesh with the refusal to enter the Promised Land in faith (Numbers 10:11-14:45).
· Stage 4: The 38 years of wandering in the wilderness until the generation of unbelief had died (Numbers 15:1-20:13).
· Stage 5: The second and final approach to the Promised Land (Numbers 20:14 to Joshua 2:24).
b. Thus says your brother Israel: The nation of Israel was a brother nation to Edom, because the patriarch Israel (also known as Jacob) was brother to Esau (also known as Edom), as described in Genesis 25:19-34.
i. “The request was couched in the form of a diplomatic letter that closely conformed to the conventions of oriental scribal practice, known from the archives of Mari, Babylon, Alalakh and El-Amarna. It consists of several standard parts.” (Wenham)
c. You know all the hardship: In his correspondence with the leader of Edom, Moses expected that he would know the general story of Israel’s time in Egypt and their deliverance. He also expected that he would know something of the LORD, the Angelof the LORD accompanying them, and God’s great faithfulness to Israel. One reason God delivered, guided, and provided for Israel was to glorify Himself before the nations.
d. Please let us pass through your country: Moses asked for permission to pass through the land of Edom, located on the eastern side of south part of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. Israel expected no provision from the Edomites because God provided all their needs.
i. The passage through Edom indicates a new strategy. “When they came to Kadesh thirty-eight years before, it seemed that their plan of attack was to march northward through the land of Canaan, conquering as they would go. But the events of the evil reports of the spies and the rebellion of the people against the Lord changed all that. This time the plan appears to be one of circumventing the south of the land, traversing southern Transjordan, then bursting into the land from the east.” (Allen)
ii. The King’s Highway was the trade route linking Damascus, Egypt, Arabia, and the lands in between.
2. (18-21) The Edomites refuse passage to Israel.
Then Edom said to him, “You shall not pass through my land, lest I come out against you with the sword.” So the children of Israel said to him, “We will go by the Highway, and if I or my livestock drink any of your water, then I will pay for it; let me only pass through on foot, nothing more.” Then he said, “You shall not pass through.” So Edom came out against them with many men and with a strong hand. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his territory; so Israel turned away from him.
a. You shall not pass through my land, lest I come out against you with the sword: This was an unnecessary refusal. It would have cost Edom nothing and would have been a genuine gesture of goodwill. But the Edomites, perhaps out of suspicion or fear, refused.
i. “Though every king has a right to refuse passage through his territories to any strangers; yet in a case like this, and in a time also in which emigrations were frequent and universally allowed, it was both cruelty and oppression in Edom to refuse a passage to a comparatively unarmed and inoffensive multitude, who were all their own near kinsmen.” (Clarke)
b. So Israel turned away: This refusal made the journey of the children of Israel much more discouraging and dangerous (Numbers 21:4-5), but there seems to be no record of God punishing Edom for this sin. In fact, Israel was still commanded to treat the Edomites as a brother nation (Deuteronomy 23:7).
i. Here, God showed Israel how to leave the judgment of those who hurt us up to the LORD, and how to love those who have acted as enemies against us – even if they were brothers.
C. The death of Aaron.
1. (22-29) The preparation for the death of Aaron.
Then the children of Israel, the whole congregation, journeyed from Kadesh and came to Mount Hor. And the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron in Mount Hor by the border of the land of Edom, saying: “Aaron shall be gathered to his people, for he shall not enter the land which I have given to the children of Israel, because you rebelled against My word at the water of Meribah. Take Aaron and Eleazar his son, and bring them up to Mount Hor; and strip Aaron of his garments and put them on Eleazar his son; for Aaron shall be gathered to his people and die there.”
a. Then the children of Israel, the whole congregation, journeyed from Kadesh and came to Mount Hor: Along with verse 14, this is another marker indicating the final stage of Israel’s journey in the wilderness. Numbers 33:38 says this happened in the fortieth year after Israel came out of Egypt.
i. There is little record of what happened during these years. The history of the period is compressed into only five and one-half chapters, while the single year at Mount Sinai is given almost 50 chapters. This was to demonstrate these years accomplished nothing, except the death of the generation of unbelief.
ii. During those 38 years, there was much movement – but no progress. Our walk with God can be the same way. “The larger part of the sojourn in the desert is left without record. This may be deliberate on Moses’ part. It is as though the time of sojourn was time that did not really count in the history of salvation.” (Allen)
iii. “Because Israel had rebelled, their life has run to waste ever since, and only now, after such a lapse of time, and after so much suffering, did Israel find itself in a position to recommence the march that was suspended at Kadesh. So it is with the churches which have reached a certain point, then rebelled against the voice of God. Their history runs to waste; they exist, but hardly live; there is indeed a movement in them, but it has no definite aim, it leads no where; they just end up in the same place all the time. Only after a long time (if God has mercy on them) do they find themselves once more in a position to start afresh, and with not one step further forward in all of those years. Even so it is with individuals who will not go resolutely on when they are called. They are spent and wasted in movement back and forth which is not progress. After many years perhaps – perhaps after a whole lifetime – of wandering in dry places they find themselves once more at the very point to which they had come before, and not one step closer.” (Winterbotham)
b. Aaron shall be gathered to his people, for he shall not enter the land: Miriam died (verse 1). Moses was told he would die before entering Canaan (verse 12). Now, Aaron learns that he also would soon die and shall not enter the land. Aaron was given the gift of time and awareness to prepare for his death.
i. “Gathered to his people. This is the usual phrase to describe the death of a righteous man in a ripe old age. It is used of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and Moses (Genesis 25:8, 17; 35:29; 49:33; Numbers 31:2)…. The phrase is more than a figure of speech: it describes a central Old Testament conviction about life after death, that in Sheol, the place of the dead, people will be reunited with other members of their family.” (Wenham)
2. (27-29) Aaron on Mount Hor.
So Moses did just as the LORD commanded, and they went up to Mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation. Moses stripped Aaron of his garments and put them on Eleazar his son; and Aaron died there on the top of the mountain. Then Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain. Now when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, all the house of Israel mourned for Aaron thirty days.
a. Moses stripped Aaron of his garments and put them on Eleazar: This was an important transition from Israel’s first high priest to his son, his successor Eleazar. Now, Eleazar wore the priestly garments for glory and beauty (Exodus 28:2).
i. The man died, but the priesthood – together with its access and relationship with God – carried on. No one’s relationship with God in Israel was to depend on Aaron, but on the high priest – whomever he was. In Jesus the Messiah, God has made sure there will always be a high priest for us (Hebrews 4:14-16), and we need not depend on any man for our relationship with God. If a priest never dies, then his priesthood remains forever – and the priesthood of Jesus remains forever.
b. Aaron died there on the top of the mountain: Aaron died as a great, but complex figure, even more so than Miriam. He was used of God mightily, as Moses’ partner (Exodus 4:27-31), to initiate the priesthood (Leviticus 8), and to plead with Moses for the people (Numbers 16-17). At the same time, he was instrumental in the outrageous idolatry of the golden calf (Exodus 32) and in challenging Moses’ authority together with his sister Miriam (Numbers 12).
i. Among other things, Aaron’s life shows us that the office is more important than the man himself. Aaron the man was not always worthy of respect, but Aaron the high priest always was worthy of honor.
ii. Both Aaron and Moses were buried on mountains that overlooked the land of Canaan. Miriam was buried at the oasis of Kadesh. They likely died all within the same 12 month period.
c. Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain: The passing of Aaron was a significant landmark in the history of Israel. The high priest died, but the institution of the priesthood continued. It would continue through Aaron’s descendants until it was fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah (Hebrews 2:17 and 3:1), and in Jesus’ people (1 Peter 2:9).
i. When only Moses and Eleazar returned to the camp of Israel, and Eleazar wore his father’s high priestly garments, all Israel knew that Aaron was dead and his son was the new high priest.
ii. Moses, who represented the law, could not lead them into the Promised Land. Miriam, who represented the prophets, could not lead them into the Promised Land. Aaron, who represents the priesthood, could not lead them into the Promised Land. Only Joshua, that is, Jesus, could lead them into the land of God’s promise.