Bible Commentaries
Numbers 20

Calvin's Commentary on the BibleCalvin's Commentary

Verse 1

1.Then came the children of Israel. In the twenty-third chapter of this book many intermediate stations are mentioned, which are not here referred to: perhaps because, from the time that God compelled them to draw back, they had made no advance for thirty whole years, but had wandered about by circuitous paths. In connecting the history, therefore, in this place he relates that they passed from the desert of Paran to the desert of Sin; because they then began to direct their journey straight towards the land of Canaan, and to advance more closely to it, so as at length to conclude their wanderings. When he tells us that Miriam died here, we may infer from hence that her life was greatly prolonged. It is probable that she was a girl of ten or twelve years of age, when Moses was born, since she was able to provide adroitly for his safety, (Exodus 2:4;) for although her name is not actually given, yet it may be reasonably supposed that she was the person who fetched her mother to nurse the child that had been exposed. She reached the age, then, of about 130 years, (107) an unusual length of life, and especially for a woman.

(107) “Ainsi elle a passe six vingts ans;” thus she was more than six-score years of age. — Fr.

Verse 2

2.And there was no water for the congregation. We have already seen a similar, though not the same, history. For, when the people had hardly come out of Egypt, they began to rebel in Rephidim on account of the scarcity of water; and now, after thirty-eight years, or thereabouts, a new sedition arose in Kadesh, because there, too, they wanted water. Their first murmuring, indeed, sufficiently showed how great was their depravity and contumacy; for, when God gave them their food from heaven every day, why did they not supplicate Him for water, so that their sustenance might be complete? Yet, not less with foul ingratitude than with impious refractoriness, they assail God with reproaches, and complain that they are deceived and betrayed. But this second rebellion is far worse; for, when they had experienced that it was in God’s power to extract plenty of water from the barren rock, why do they not now implore His aid? why does not that marvelous interference in their behalf recur to their minds? Yet, in their madness, they clamor that they have been more cruelly dealt with than as if they had been swallowed up by the earth, or consumed by fire from heaven, as if there were no remedy for their thirst. Assuredly this was incredible stupidity, designedly, as it were, to shut the gate of God’s grace, and to east themselves into despair. It is true that they rebel against Moses and Aaron; but they direct their complaints like darts against God Himself. They deem it a very great injustice that they had been brought into the desert, as if they had not in their own impious obstinacy themselves preferred the desert to the land of Canaan, and were deserving, therefore, of pining, in want of all things, to death itself. Perversely, then, do they throw the blame, which belongs to themselves alone, upon the ministers of their salvation. With truth, indeed, do they call the place evil and barren; but God would not have wished to keep them imprisoned there, unless they had voluntarily refused the land flowing with milk and honey, after it had been set before their eyes, and an easy entrance to it had been accorded to them under the guidance and authority of God. Thus the Prophet, in Psalms 105:0, in recounting the history of their redemption, before he descends to the punishments inflicted upon their sins, relates that they were brought forth by God “with joy” and “with gladness.” (108) But, further, taking occasion from the inconvenience they experienced from thirst, they maliciously heap together other complaints. There was no lack of food to satisfy their hunger, and such as was pleasant to the taste; yet they complain exactly as if hunger oppressed them as well as thirst. God daily rained for them food from heaven, which it was mere sport for them to gather; but the ground of their murmuring is that they had not to fatigue themselves with ploughing and sowing. Behold to what senselessness men are driven by preposterous lust, and by contempt of God’s present blessings! The climax of their madness, however, is that they lament their fate in not having been swallowed up with Korah and his companions, or consumed by fire from heaven. They had been overwhelmed with great fear at that melancholy spectacle; and justly so, for God had exhibited a prodigy, terrible throughout all ages. Now they quarrel with Him because His lightnings did not smite them also. Nor do they only lament that they were not destroyed by that particular kind of death, but they willfully provoke God’s vengeance upon their heads, which ought to have terrified them more than a hundred deaths: for it is emphatically added, that those, with whom they desired to be associated, had “died before the Lord.” They acknowledge, therefore, that the destruction, which they imprecate upon themselves, had come to pass not by chance, but by the manifest judgement of God, as if they were angry with God for having spared themselves. Most truly do they call them their brethren, to whom they were only too like; yet is it in brutal arrogance that they desire to be accounted God’s Church; for, whilst they professedly connect themselves with the adverse faction, they arrogate falsely this title to themselves.

(108) These expressions occur, Psalms 105:43. It is in Psalms 106:0 that the Psalmist proceeds to narrate the history of their rebellions and punishments.

Verse 6

6.And Moses and Aaron went from the presence. It is probable that they fled in fear, inasmuch as the tabernacle was a kind of refuge for them from the violence of the people. Still, we may conjecture from other passages that they had consideration not only for themselves, but for the wretched people, howsoever unworthy of it they might be so also, when they throw themselves upon their faces, I understand that they did so, not so much (to pray) that God would protect them from the wrath of their enemies, but also that He would calm these madmen by some appropriate remedy. Still their agitation appears to have been such as to deprive them of their ordinary self-restraint. Neither, indeed, does God try their faith and patience, as He often did on other occasions; perhaps because He saw that they were too much overwhelmed to be able to persevere inflexibly in pious zeal, patience, and care for the public good. Consequently the appearance to them of God’s glory was a support for their weakness, as in a case of extremity.

This example shows us how earnestly God should be entreated constantly to support us with new supplies of His grace, since otherwise the boldest of us all would fail at every moment. The invincible resolution of Moses had so often overcome every obstacle, that there seemed to be no fear of his being in danger of falling; yet the conqueror in so many struggles at length stumbles in a single act. Hence we should more carefully bear in mind the exhortation of Paul: Because

“it is God which worketh in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure,” we should “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12.)

Verse 8

8.Take the rod. It is unquestionable that the faith of Moses had now begun to waver; but we gather from his prompt obedience that it had not altogether failed; for he wastes no time in discussion, but comes straight to the rock in order that he may perform God’s command. His faith, then, was only so smothered, that its hidden rigor at once directed him to his duty. Thus is it that the saints sometimes, whilst they totter like children, still advance toward their mark.

By the sight of “the rod,” God would recall both to Moses and the people so many miracles, which were well fitted to awaken confidence for the future; just as if He were uplifting the standard of His power. The command to speak to the rock is not unattended with a severe reproach, as if He had said, that in the lifeless elements there was more reason and intelligence than in men themselves. And assuredly it was a thing much to be ashamed of, that the rock, as if it could hear and was endued with sense, should obey God’s voice, whilst the people, to whom the Law had been given, remained in deafness and stupidity.

Verse 10

10.And Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation together. There is no doubt but that Moses was perplexed between hope and doubt, so that, although he committed the event to God, he was still to a certain extent oppressed with anxiety; for he would never have been so ready and prompt in obeying, and especially in such an unusually arduous matter, if he had been without faith. Aaron and himself had recently hidden themselves in alarm; it was, therefore, a task of no slight difficulty straightway to call the people, from whom they had fled, and voluntarily to encounter their madness. Thus far, then, we see nothing but a readiness to obey, conjoined with magnanimity, which is deserving of no common praise; but inasmuch as the unbelief of Moses is condemned by the heavenly Judge, in whose hands is the sovereign power, and at whose word we all stand or fall, we must acquiesce in His sentence. We scarcely perceive anything reprehensible in this matter, yet, since God declares that the fall of Moses displeased Him, we must abide by His decision rather than our own. And hence, too, let us learn that our works, on the surface of which nothing but virtue is apparent, are often abounding in secret defects, which escape the eyes of men, but are manifest to God alone.

If it be asked in what respect Moses transgressed, the origin of his transgression was unbelief; for it is not allowable, when this species of sin is expressly referred to in the answer of God, to imagine that it was anything else. But it is doubtful in what point he was incredulous; unless it be, that in asking whether he could fetch water out of the rock, he seems to reject as if it were impossible and absurd what God had promised to do. And, in fact, he was so entirely taken up by considerations of their contumacy, that he did not acknowledge the grace of God. He inquires whether he shall fetch water out of the rock? whereas he ought to have recollected that this had already been permitted to him by God. It became him, then, confidently to assert that God had again promised the same thing, rather than to speak with hesitation.

Others think that he sinned, because he was not contented with a single blow, but smote the rock twice. And this perhaps did arise from distrust. But the origin of the fault was that he did not simply embrace God’s promise, and strenuously discharge the duty assigned to him as an evidence of his faith. Although, therefore, his smiting the rock twice might have been a token of his want of confidence, still it was only an aggravation of the evil, and not its origin or cause. Thus, then, we must always come back to this, that Moses did not give God the glory, because he rather considered what the people had deserved, than estimated the power of God according to His word. And this, too, has previous reprimand denotes, when, in accusing the Israelites of rebellion, he shows, indeed, that he was inflamed with holy zeal; yet, at the same time, he does not bestir himself with suitable confidence in order to their conviction; nay, in a manner he confesses that the power of God fails beneath their wickedness. Thus it is said in Psalms 106:32,

“That it went in with Moses for their sakes, because they provoked his spirit, so that he spoke with his mouth:” (109)

for the Prophet does not there excuse Moses; but shows that in consequence of the wickedness of the people, he was carried away by inconsiderate fervor, so as to deny that what God had promised should take place. Hence let us learn that, when we are angered by the sins of others, we should beware lest a temptation of an opposite kind should take possession of our minds.

(109) A. V., “He spoke unadvisedly.”

Verse 12

12.And the Lord spoke unto Moses and Aaron. God here both sets forth their crime, and pronounces its punishment. Now, whilst unbelief is in itself a gross and detestable evil, God aggravates its guilt by declaring its consequence, viz., that He was defrauded of His glory, when Moses and Aaron, who ought to have been the proclaimers of the miracle, lay as it were confounded with shame. For, whereas their confidence, by exciting attention, would have sanctified God’s name, so by their mistrust it came to pass that all were led to think that there was nothing to be hoped from His assistance.

When Moses not only ingenuously confesses his guilt, but also relates how he was condemned by God, and, in order that his disgrace may be more complete, introduces Him speaking as from His judgment-seat, this does not a little tend to establish the truth of his doctrine. For what human being, unless he had renounced all carnal affections, would voluntarily endure to declare himself guilty before all the world? His angelic virtues were sufficient to exempt him from all suspicion. Having erred in one particular only, he proclaims the disgrace which he might have concealed, and does not hesitate to disparage himself, in order to magnify the goodness of God. And surely it is obvious from the passage that, whenever God had before pardoned the people at the request of Moses, the pardon was no less gratuitous than as if he had not interceded for them. For the intercession of Moses ceases on this occasion, yet God does nod; fail to deal kindly with them in their unworthiness, according to His wont.

Verse 13

13.This is the water of Meribah. (110) This name was given: to the place in order that the ingratitude of their fathers might be detestable to their descendants, and hence the mercy of God more illustrious. Thus the Prophet, referring to it, says:

“That the generation to come might know them, — that they might not forget the works of God, — and might not be as their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation; a generation that set not their heart aright, and whose spirit was not steadfast with God.”
(Psalms 78:6.)

And elsewhere both the name of Meribah and that of Massah are employed, in order that the Israelites might learn not to imitate their fathers, (Psalms 95:8; (111))although Moses here uses the plural number, whereas he has the singular in Exodus 17:0.

The expression at the end of the verse, that God “was sanctified” among the children of Israel, is not used in approval, but rather in reproof, of their conduct. Israel is called elsewhere God’s “holiness,” (112) (Psalms 114:2,) because God magnificently displayed tits glory in their deliverance; but He is here said to have sanctified Himself in a different sense, because, by the overthrow of their iniquity and frowardness, He rescued his holy name from contempt. In fine, it was a proof of his inestimable mercy, that the water, which might have justly been destructive to them, was not only given to be the sustenance of their bodies, but also was converted into an aid for their salvation; for which reason Paul says that this was “spiritual drink.” (1 Corinthians 10:4.)

(110) Lat., “These are the waters of strife.” See margin A.V.

(111) In C.’s translation of this verse he retains the proper names Meribah and Massah, which in A.V. are rendered, “in the provocation, and in the day of temptation.” See C. Soc. Edit., vol. 4, p. 40; and Mr. Anderson’s note.

(112) A.V., “Judah was his sanctuary.” V. “Facta est Judaea sanctificatio ejus.” See C. Soc. Edit. of Psalms, vol. 4, pp. 336, 337.

Verse 14

Numbers 20:14.Thou knowest all the travel that hath befallen us. This preface was well calculated to conciliate favor, when the sons of Jacob, descended from the same blood, familiarly approached the Edomites: for their connection ought to have rendered them hospitable. But there are two principal points whereby Moses endeavored to influence the mind of the king of Edom, so that he should grant them a passage through his dominions. The first is derived from the ordinary feelings of humanity; for nature dictates that aid should be extended to the wretched, who are unjustly oppressed. In this view, he says, that the afflictions which they had endured were notorious; viz., that as sojourners in Egypt they had been tyrannically harassed and oppressed. In saying that “the Egyptians vexed us and our fathers,” although they were not, at that time, endowed with capacity for estimating the injuries inflicted upon them (114) yet it is not without reason that they complain that these injuries had been inflicted on themselves, which affected their whole body and name, especially since the final act of cruelty directly concerned them, when Pharaoh commanded all the male infants to be destroyed. The second argument is more effective: since nothing can be less in accordance with propriety than to deny our assistance to those whoso welfare God recommends to us by His own example. In order, then, that they may obtain help from their brethren, they make mention of the grace of God, which at that time might have been everywhere celebrated. When, therefore, this message is given to their ambassadors, We cried unto the Lord, who hath heard us, their design was to exhort the Edomites to be imitators of God, who had been merciful in delivering His people. If any should object that the cry of the people had not been praiseworthy, as not having arisen from a true and sincere faith, nor from a serious feeling of the heart, the reply is easy. that the Israelites were not here boasting of any merit of their own, as if they had prayed duly and perfectly, but that they were simply professing their innocence, since they could not have had recourse to God, unless they had been unjustly oppressed. The fact, then, that God had heard them, had the effect of commending their cause. They prove, however, from the result, that God was their deliverer: because their exodus had been incredible; although this point is but lightly touched upon.

Their notion is a poor one, who understand Moses by “the angel:” since by this name they unquestionably magnify the miracles which God had wrought. (115) Now, although the angels encamp around the servants of God — and it is certain that many angels had been the ministers of the people’s safety — still they especially designate, as the angel, Him who had been often before called Jehovah, and in whom the, majesty of God perfectly shone forth. Paul, however, teaches that he was Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:4.)

(114) “Ils prennent sur eux les injures qui avoyent este faites devant qu’ils les peussents sentir, n’estans point encore nez, ou estans petits enfans;” they take upon themselves the injuries which had been done before they could feel them, not being yet born, or being but little children. — Fr.

(115) C. found in S’.M. that Rabbi Salomon interpreted the ambiguous word מלאך, messenger, here, instead of angel; and said that the messenger was Moses. — W.

Verse 19

19.And the children of Israel said unto him. It is doubtful whether or not the ambassadors were sent a second time, in order to remove all unjust suspicions, and to appease the ferocity (of the Edomites.) It is probable, however, that we have the relation of what was done in one and the same expedition. The sum is, that the Israelites tried every means, in order that a free and unmolested passage might be accorded them by the Edomites: whence their repulse might appear the more harsh and intolerable. But God, by this test, would prove the obedience of His people. As regards the Edomites, although by rashly taking up arms they would have drawn upon themselves just destruction, still God spared them for a time; not by freely pardoning them, but by deferring their punishment, as He is wont to do, until its due season.

Verse 23

23.And the Lord spoke unto Moses. First of all, in the death of Aaron, we must consider the execution of the sentence, whereby he had been condemned; for God wished to show that He had not threatened either him or Moses in vain, with what then occurred, as children are wont to be threatened. If Aaron had died without any such prediction, since he might have seemed from his extreme age to have but discharged the debt of nature, as it is called, the people might have been so overcome by their grief, as to have no inclination to proceed. But now, when, in the death of one man, the condemnation of their public and common guilt is clearly manifested, such great severity on God’s part against the high-priest, who had before propitiated God towards them all by his intercession, must have been a very sharp spur to them all. For it must needs have suggested itself to them, that God was no longer to be trifled with, before whom not even this sacred dignity could escape punishment. This was the reason why Aaron was called forth to die in the sight of all, that the survivors might learn to live to God, inasmuch as He instructed them to obey by this notable example. For the rebuke is added not so much for the sake of Moses and Aaron, viz., that they should not enter the land, because they had been rebellious against God’s word, as that the people might perceive that they deserved to perish ten times over; since, by their contumacy, they had exasperated the holy men, so that in the excess of their zeal they had almost fallen away from the faith.

Verse 25

25.Take Aaron and Eleazar his son. Aaron’s successor was to be designated whilst he was himself still living; first of all, that the perpetuity of the priesthood might be secured; and, secondly, lest the people, with their usual temerity, should take upon themselves the election in a matter depending on the will of God, alone. For, unless Eleazar had been appointed priest whilst his father was yet alive, the office itself might fall into disesteem, since the high dignity of any individua! is often odious. Lest, therefore, their perverse envy might impel them to repudiate the priesthood, God anticipates them, and provides that religion, which ought to be perpetual, should not perish together with the men. Again, we know how great was the audacity of this people in innovation; lest, then, they should, at their own caprice, take to themselves a priest from another tribe, it was well that he of whom God approved, should be firmly established, so as to be received without controversy as the true and lawful one. In this matter an external symbol was made use of, in that Eleazar was invested with the sacred garments; nor does this refer to the shirt, or the slippers, but to the sacerdotal ornaments. The effect, therefore, of this ceremony was as if Aaron should resign the office, which he had discharged till that day, to his son. Moreover, it is worthy of observation that Aaron not only voluntarily cedes his dignity, but his life also. By this proof his faith was confirmed, for had he not been persuaded that an inheritance was laid up for him in heaven, he would not have so calmly migrated from the world. Since, however, he composes himself to die, just as if he were but lying down on his bed, it is altogether beyond a doubt that his mind was lifted up to the hope of a blessed resurrection, from whence arises a cheerful readiness to die. And it is probable that his faith was elevated and strengthened when he saw that the testimony of God’s grace, on which the safety of the people depended, was made to rest upon the person of his son. For it was exactly as if the image of the Mediator were set visibly before his eyes. This consolation, then, being of no ordinary character, rendered him superior to the terrors of death. Meanwhile, Eleazar succeeded, in the presence of the people, so that his authority might not hereafter be exposed to their murmurs.

Verse 29

29.And when all the congregation saw. This has been an error common to almost all nations and ages, but which reigned peculiarly amongst the people of Israel — to pay due honor to God’s holy servants, rather after their deaths than in their lives. They had frequently wished to stone Aaron; they had raised great tumults, in order to cast him down from the dignity in which God had placed him; now, forgetting their malignity and envy, they lament for him when dead.

The question, however, occurs, whether the mourning for a month, which is here recorded, was praiseworthy or not? But it could not be otherwise than improper, inasmuch as it was a means of aggravating their grief; for men are naturally only too much inclined to excessive grief, even although they do not indulge it; and besides, the hope of a better life avails to mitigate sorrow. Hence we infer, that those are endued with scarcely any taste of eternal salvation, who give way to immoderate grief. But, since believers have another cause for mourning, i.e., to exercise themselves both in the fear of God, and in the hope and desire of the future resurrection, this solemn mourning has not been unreasonably received as a general custom. Since death is a mirror of God’s curse upon the whole human race, it is profitable for us, whenever any of our belongings dies, to mourn our common lot, so as to humble ourselves beneath God’s hand. Besides, if mourning is directed to its proper end, it in a manner unites the living with the dead; so that in death itself the communion of the new and immortal life shines forth. And further, the weakness of the ancient people had need of being propped and supported by such aids as this; for, amidst their dark shadows, it would not have been easy to rise above the world, unless they had been taught that the dead still belonged to them, and that there remained some bond of connection between them. But if the utility (of this custom) be corrupted by its abuse, it is not just that what is right in itself should be blamed for the fault of men.

Bibliographical Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Numbers 20". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". 1840-57.