Chapter 20

NUMBERS CHAPTER 20

Moses Strikes the Rock

    • The Israelites arrived in the Wilderness of Zin in the first month of the year and settled in Kadesh. While they were here, Miriam died and was buried.

      • Guzik points out that Kadesh is, incidentally, the very place where the Israelites had decided to reject God’s command to go into the promised land because of the poor report of the unfaithful scouts (Numbers 13:26).

      • Guzik writes, “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)…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.”

    • There wasn’t any water for the Israelites here, so again they gathered together to oppose Moses and Aaron. They argued with Moses saying, “ We wish we could’ve died when our brothers were killed in the Lord’s presence! Why did you lead us out of Egypt just to bring us and our livestock into this terrible wilderness to die? This land has no grain, no figs, no grapes, no pomegranates, and no water!”

    • NLT Illustrated Study Bible notes, “The Israelties identified themselves with Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-5), the gluttons killed by the first plague (Numbers 11:33), the skeptics who had already died in the wilderness (14:29), the ten unfaithful spies (14:36-37), Korah, Abiram, and Dathan, the 250 prominent men, and the 14,700 who died in the second plague (16:32, 35, 49).”

      • Guzik writes, “The need was real, but the response of Israel was filled with unbelief and bad attitude…Their contentions lead them to outrageous accusations. The new generation accuses Moses just as the generation of unbelief did!…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.”

    • Moses and Aaron left the people, went to the entrance of the Tabernacle and fell face down on the ground. The glory of the Lord’s presence appeared to them and said to Moses, “Take the staff, then you and Aaron gather the Israelites together. While they are all watching, speak to the rock and water will pour out of it. There will be enough water for the entire community as well as their livestock.”

      • 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…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.” (Guzik)

    • Moses took the staff from the Lord’s presence as he had been told, then he and Aaron called the people together in front of the rock. Moses shouted, “Listen you rebels! Do we have to make water come from this rock for you?” He then hit the rock twice with his staff and water came gushing our from the rock. All the people and their livestock drank as much as they wanted.

      • NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible adds, “The staff was taken from the Lord’s presence, implying this is the staff of Aaron that budded, blossomed, and produced )almonds in the divine confirmation of his priestly authority after the Korah rebellion (ch. 17). It was kept before the ark of the covenant law as a sign to any future grumbling rebels so that their murmuring might be summarily dismissed (17:10).”

      • Often times skeptics point to stories in the Bible that are very similar to stories in pagan cultures, implying that the Bible has borrowed from these traditions. However, the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible notes, “No parallel accounts exist in the ancient Near East of deities providing water in this way.” It also notes that a naturalistic explanation for this account is not plausible, “While geographers and Biblical interpreters have written of the extensive aquifers that exist beneath the surface of sedimentary rock strata of the Sinai peninsula, aquifers would not normally provide nearly enough water to care for the needs of a group the size of the Israelites.”

    • After this, the Lord told Moses and Aaron, “Since you didn’t trust that I would demonstrate My holiness to the people, you will not lead them into the promised land.” This site was called Meribah (which means “quarreling”) because it is where the Israelites argued with the Lord and He showed them His holiness.

      • This passage lends itself to two serious questions: (1) What exactly did Moses do wrong; and (2) Was the judgment God levied on Moses for his momentary lapse of disobedience too harsh? David Guzik provides excellent answers to these questions in his commentary:

        • In response to the first question Guzik writes, “Moses began by doing exactly what the Lord had told him to do: Take the rod, and gather the people of Israel.God did not command him to speak to the nation, and to speak so severely to the nation, yet Moses did. Moses, after doing what God had told him to do, then did something God had not told him to do: He lectured the nation.

          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 Meribah, when the people contended with Moses because there was no water, 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; but without the edge of anger, contempt, and bitterness we see here (as in Exodus 17:1-7). 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.

          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. 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, but now, out of anger and frustration, he did it twice.”

        • In response to the second he writes, “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. 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.

          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. This is 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…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 as leader as he was, was still a man subject to God and God’s law.

          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. 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.

          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 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.

          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?”

Edom Denies Passage

      • Guzik notes that this section begins the fifth and final stage of the Exodus, “First, from Egypt to Mount Sinai (Exodus 12:31 to 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 to 14:45). Fourth, the 38 years of wandering in the wilderness until the generation of unbelief had died (Numbers 15:1 to Numbers 20:13). Now, fifth, the second and final approach to the Promised Land (Numbers 20:14 to Joshua 2:24).”

    • While they were still in Kadesh, Moses sent messengers to the King of Edom to say, “This is what the people of Israel, your brothers, say: ‘You are aware of all that we have been through. Our ancestors went to Egypt and lived there for many years. During this time, our people were brutally mistreated. But, when we cried out to the Lord He heard us and sent an angel and rescued us- bringing us out of Egypt. We are now camped at Kadesh on the border of your territory. Please allow us to travel through your land. We will stay strictly on the King’s Highway. We won’t go through any of your fields or vineyards or drink any water from your wells.”

      • 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.” (Guzik)

      • NLT Illustrated Study Bible notes, “Moses’ appeal resembles the formal diplomatic correspondence of that era. While contracts with the Canaanites and other people groups were marked by hostility, communication with Edom was polite because of kinship ties. Those ties, however, were apparently not strong enough to overcome the ancient tension between Jacob and Esau.”

      • NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible writes, “The Israelites promise to respect Edomite dominion. Israel will not be a burden to Edom or disturb their agricultural activities. The seasonal description indicates springtime, and the grain fields are near harvest time. Thus it is important to ensure the Edomites that their crops will not be trampled or scavenged. Water rights were of great concern in the ancient Near East (as they are even today). The Israelites will presumably bring their own water from Kadesh during their passage of perhaps two days through the Edomite highlands.”

      • NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible includes some interesting information on the King’s Highway: “This famous north-south trade route connected the Damascus trade center with Arabia, Sinai, and Egypt via a route through the Transjordan tablelands and the southern mountains, paralleling Arabah on the eastern side. Egyptian kings such as Thutmose III passed along this road in their conquests of Transjordan and the eastern Levant. From southern Arabia caravanners brought the highly prized commodities of incense, spices, perfumes, and precious jewels, as well as copper from the Sinai and Desert of Paran.”

    • Edom responded, “You cannot travel through our land. If you try, we will attack you.”

    • The Israelites replied, “We’ll keep to the main road and if we or any of our herds drink any of your water we will pay you for it. Please let us pass through. We won’t be any trouble to you.”

    • However, Edom would not relent saying, “You cannot pass through.” Then their army marched out to meet the Israelites heavily armed. So, Israel was forced to turn around.

The Death of Aaron

    • The Israelites left Kadesh and came to Mount Hor which was on the border of Edom. Here, the Lord told Moses and Aaron, “The time has come for Aaron to be gathered to his people. He will not be allowed to enter into the promised land because you both rebelled against My commands regarding the water at Meribah. Take Aaron and his son Eleazar up Mount Hor and put Aaron’s priestly garments on Eleazar. Then Aaron will die and be gathered to his people.”

      • Guzik notes, “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…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…During those 38 years, there was much movement – but no progress. Our walk with God can be the same way.”

      • 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…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.” (Guzik)

    • They obeyed the Lord’s commands and all the Israelites watched them ascend Mount Hor. After Aaron’s priestly garments were transferred to Eleazar, he died. Moses and Eleazar came back down the mountain and all of the people mourned Aaron’s death for 30 days.

      • Regarding the length of time the people mourned Aaron’s death NLT Illustrated Study Bible notes, “This was an unusually high honor, since the normal period of public mourning was seven days.”

      • When an Old Testament individual dies, the phrase “gathered to his people” is often used. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible includes a good explanation of what this phrase meant according to the ancient Hebrew view, “This phrase conveys the idea of being reunited with one’s ancestral families in Sheol, the place of the dead. Being left unburied or ‘ungathered’ was viewed as an ignominious end of life (Jeremiah 8:2).”

– For more on Sheol, refer to the notes for Numbers chapter 16.