Numbers 20 – The Beginning of the End
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 back to Kadesh, the place where they rejected God’s offer (Numbers 13:26).
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 an important demonstration of the fulfillment of what God promised: 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 us 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 giants in the account of the Exodus.
ii. Many people still deceive themselves into thinking they have a special exception from God, believing they are a special case, with their own special arrangement with the Lord. If Moses and his siblings had no special deal, we should not be so arrogant to think we have our own deal with God.
c. Miriam died there and was buried there: Miriam died a complex character. She was great for her courage in assisting Moses and his parents (Exodus 2:4-8), and great for her leading Israel in praise (Exodus 15:20-21). But she was also disgraced for her rebellion against Moses (Numbers 12). One incident of rebellion left a black mark on her whole life.
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: The need was real, but the response of Israel was filled with unbelief and bad attitude – which always go together! When you find a bad attitude, you will also find a lack of simple, secure trust in God.
b. If only we had died when our brethren died before the Lord: Their contention led them to outrageous statements, words lacking any 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.
c. Why have you brought up the congregation of the Lord into this wilderness, that we and our animals should die here: Their contentions lead them to outrageous accusations. The new generation accuses Moses just as the generation of unbelief did!
d. Not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates: Their contentions lead them to a stunted vision. Of course, the wilderness was not a fruitful land. But they would never make it to the land of rich fruit until they came through the wilderness trusting God.
e. Moses and Aaron… fell on their faces: They realized how serious this was. With this contentious attitude, the new generation would be just as unbelieving, as untrusting in God as the old generation was, and they would likewise perish in the wilderness.
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. Water would be provided if Moses would speak to the rock before their eyes.
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). But now he was merely to speak to the rock, yet with the rod in his hand. This rod was a symbol of his authority from God.
4. (9-11) Moses’ contention with the people – 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: Take the rod and gather the people of Israel.
b. Hear now, you rebels! Must we bring water for you out of this rock: God did not command him to speak to the nation, and to speak so severely to the nation, yet Moses did.
i. Moses, after doing what God had told him to do, then did something God had not told him to do: He lectured the nation.
ii. Worse, he lectured the nation with an attitude of heart he had not shown before – one of anger and contempt for the people of God, with a bitter heart. Before, Moses fell on his face before God when the people rebelled (Numbers 16:4). At Marah, when the people contended with Moses because the waters were bitter, Moses cried out to the LORD, not against the people (Exodus 15:22-25). When the people did need to be boldly confronted, Moses did it (as at Massah and Meribah in Exodus 17:1-7); but without the edge of anger, contempt, and bitterness we see here. There are a hundred explanations for Moses’ frustration here (Psalm 106:32-33 describes how the people provoked Moses here), but not a single excuse.
iii. Worse yet, Moses not only took the rebellion of the people against the Lord too personally, he also over-magnified his own partnership with God: Must we bring water for you out of this rock? Moses spoke as if he and God would do the job, as if they divided the work fifty-fifty; as if God couldn’t bring water unless he was around to speak to the rock. His lapse into contempt for the people led him into a lapse of subtle pride.
c. 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.
i. 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, but now, out of anger and frustration, he did it twice.
d. Water came out abundantly: Yet, despite Moses’ lapse into sinful attitude and action, God still provided abundantly for the people.
i. This teaches us that God’s love for His people is so great, he will use very imperfect instruments, and that the fact God uses someone is no evidence – to themselves or to the people – that they themselves are really right with God or ministering according to God’s heart.
ii. God would deal with Moses, but the people needed water – and so it was provided. Moses might have come away thinking he did right, and the people probably thought so as well – because what Moses did seemed to work. But what works is not the best measure of what is right before God.
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 the Promised Land. Here, Moses was also unbelieving, but in different circumstances. Moses did not trust God to correct His people, and took it upon himself to do so when God did not want to correct Israel.
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 temperamental 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; he would not lead Israel into the Promised Land. That which he dreamed of and felt called to even as a child in the palaces of Egypt – to deliver God’s people – would not be completed. Another person would finish the job.
i. This was only painful because of Moses’ faithful heart; an unfaithful man is not pained at the idea that he cannot complete what God had called him to.
ii. 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 – after all, Moses was Moses! 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 excessively harsh punishment for Moses. It seems that with only one slip-up, he now had to die short of the Promised Land. But Moses was being judged 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 right for teachers and leaders to be judged by a stricter standard (James 3:1); though it is unrighteous to hold teachers and leaders to a perfect standard. It is true the people’s conduct was worse than Moses’, but it is irrelevant.
ii. Worst of all, Moses defaced 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, 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, much less again twice, 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. God will get His glory, God will be hallowed – but will it come through our obedience or our correction?
B. On the way to the Promised Land – again.
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: Israel was now at Kadesh, and they wanted to go through the land of Edom – taking them closer to the Promised Land than they had ever been before, beyond where they failed to go in because of unbelief. This was the fifth stage of the Exodus.
· First, from Egypt to Mount Sinai (Exodus 12:31-18:27).
· Second, the sojourn at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:1 to Numbers 10:10).
· Third, 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).
· Fourth, the 38 years of wandering in the wilderness until the generation of unbelief had died (Numbers 15:1-20:13).
· Now, fifth, 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 brother to the nation of Edom, because the patriarch Israel (also known as Jacob) was brother to Esau (also known as Edom), as related in Genesis 25:19-34.
c. Please let us pass through your country: All Moses asked for on behalf of Israel was the permission to pass through. They expected no provision from the Edomites because they trusted God to provide all their needs.
2. (18-21) The Edomites refuse passage to the Israelites.
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 been a genuine gesture of goodwill. But the Edomites, perhaps out of suspicion or fear, refused.
b. So Israel turned away from him: 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 Edomite as a brother (Deuteronomy 23:7). God here showed Israel how to leave the judgment of those who hurt you up to the Lord, and how to love those who have acted as enemies against you – even if they were brothers.
3. (22-29) 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.” 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. Then the children of Israel, the whole congregation, journeyed from Kadesh and came to Mount Hor: Here a definite marker, indicating the end of the 38 years Israel had been “sentenced” to in the wilderness. Numbers 33:38 tells us Aaron died there in the fortieth year after the children of Israel had come out of the land of Egypt.
i. There is very little record of what happened during these years; they are 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. These were just years of surviving in the desert, wasted years, waiting for the “old man” to die.
ii. During those 38 years, there was much movement – but no progress. Our walk with God can be the same way.
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 in Pulpit Commentary)
b. Aaron died there on the top of the mountain: The passing of Aaron is a huge landmark in the history of Israel; he was the first high priest of the nation – and yet, not exempt from the decree that his generation would perish in the wilderness.
i. Moses, who represented the law, could not lead them into the Promised Land. Miriam, who represents the prophets, could not lead them into the Promised Land. Aaron, who represents the priests, could not lead them into the Promised Land. Only Joshua, that is, Jesus, could lead them into the land of God’s promise.
c. 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 grotesque debacle of the golden calf (Exodus 32) and in challenging Moses’ authority with his sister Miriam (Numbers 12).
i. Aaron’s life shows us, among other things, 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.
d. Moses stripped Aaron of his garments and put them on Eleazar his son: God gave special warning about Aaron’s death, so a smooth and graceful transition could be made in passing down the position of high priest to Aaron’s oldest living son, Eleazar.
i. The man dies, but the priesthood – and the access and relationship with God it describes – carries on. No one’s relationship with God in Israel was to depend on Aaron, but on the high priest – whomever he was. God has ensured there will always be a high priest for us to come to in Jesus (Hebrews 4:14-16), and we need not depend on any man for our relationship with God.