Bible Commentaries
Numbers 20

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 1-13

Moses’ rebellion at Kadesh 20:1-13

At the end of 37 years the Israelites returned to the wilderness of Zin and Kadesh. Kadesh included a large area of desert located on the edge of the wilderness of Zin. God had previously judged the older generation of Israelites for not believing Him (ch. 14). Now He judged Moses for the same thing. Miriam and Aaron also died in the wilderness for their sins. The leaders fell before the same temptation as the people.

"Failure to enjoy God’s promises was the result of unbelief. At this point in the narrative the writer shows that it was not a failure to keep the law that led to their death in the wilderness." [Note: Sailhamer, p. 397.]

Miriam was a significant person in the Exodus drama. The writer recorded her death as having occurred in the first month. He did not give the year. Perhaps this was the fortieth year because the next dated event, the death of Aaron, occurred on the first day of the fifth month of the fortieth year (cf. Numbers 20:27-28; Numbers 33:38).

The root of Moses’ sin in disobeying God (Numbers 20:11) was unbelief (Numbers 20:12). Quite clearly this was not a failure to believe that God could or would provide water for the people. Rather it was a failure to believe that simple obedience to God’s command was best (cf. Genesis 4:1-7). In this, Moses acted as the older generation of Israelites had done since they left Egypt. [Note: See also Martin Emmrich, "The Case against Moses Reopened," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 46:1 (March 2003):53-62, for additional insights.]

Moses did more than God told him to do. He failed to believe that God’s way was best and took matters into his own hands. His motives may have been one or more of the following. He may have had a desire for the greater glory of God. He may have been proud or may have relied on his own ability to work miracles. We know he was impatient with the Israelites’ complaining and felt frustrated by their slowness to learn a lesson God had previously taught them (cf. Psalms 106:32-33). In any case he failed to accept God’s will as best, and this is unbelief.

"Faith is the correct response to God’s word, whether it is a word of promise or a word of command." [Note: G. Wenham, Numbers, p. 151.]

Instead of speaking to the rock (Numbers 20:8) Moses spoke to the Israelites (Numbers 20:10) "rashly" (Psalms 106:33; cf. Leviticus 5:4). He struck the rock twice with the rod with which he had done many miracles (Numbers 20:11), as though this miracle required his power rather than simply the power of God. One interpretation is that Moses’ short speech in Numbers 20:10 b, not the striking of the rock, was the actual transgression. [Note: See M. Margalith (Windreich), "The Transgression of Moses and Aaron-Numbers 20:1-13," Proceedings of the Fifth World Congress of Jewish Studies, p. 225.] The text does not seem to bear this out. Evidently Moses, in his frustration with the people, thought that he was the performer of the miracle rather than only God’s instrument. This is a common error in modern ministry, and it still produces great frustration: thinking that we need to be manufacturers rather than simply distributors of blessing to others. [Note: For development of this insight, see Warren W. Wiersbe, On Being a Servant of God, pp. 5-8.]

"The promise was that the moment the word was spoken to the lifeless rock, the miracle would occur before the eyes of all the people and the water would gush from the rock in amounts sufficient to quench the thirst of man and beast. This was God’s intention, a change from his attitude in the case of earlier rebellions: here mercy won over judgment. To accept this kindness toward a sinful people demanded even more faith from Moses (especially when we recall Numbers 16:15, in which we read that he asked God to turn away from the people who so seriously but falsely accused him). God’s power and God’s mercy-these are the two focal points that were to be brought once more to the attention of the people." [Note: Maarsingh, p. 71.]

Perhaps there was a measure of sacrilege in striking the rock since rock was a symbol of God (cf. Deuteronomy 32:4; Deuteronomy 32:15; Deuteronomy 32:18; Psalms 18:2; Psalms 31:3; Psalms 42:9; 1 Corinthians 10:4; et al.). However I doubt that this was a significant factor (cf. Exodus 17:6).

Moses’ anger complicated his unbelief. He was a faithful servant of God except on this occasion. If another person had committed this sin it might not have been so serious, but it was very serious because the man in Moses’ office committed it. God therefore shortened the term of Moses’ service as punishment. Moses would not bring the nation into the Promised Land (cf. 1 Samuel 13:14; 1 Samuel 15:26). Leaders of God’s people lose their ability to lead when they cease to rely on God and impede the manifestation of God’s power and holiness.

Exactly what was Moses’ sin, which the text calls unbelief?

"Judging from the passage alone, the faithlessness of Moses does not appear to have consisted in his striking the rock or in his harsh words but rather lies just out of reach somewhere in the numerous ’gaps’ of the story. We should stress that this is not a result of a deficiency in the story. It rather appears to be part of the story’s design. It is just at the point of recounting the nature of their sin that the author abbreviates the narrative and moves on to the divine speech (Numbers 20:12). Moreover, it is just this divine speech that ’fills the gap’ with the word about faith, giving the story a sense far larger than that of its own immediate concerns. . . . The rebellion of Moses and Aaron (. . ., Numbers 20:24), which appears at some point to have been an important feature of the narrative, has been replaced with the focus on their faithlessness (. . ., Numbers 20:12). Such an interpretation has raised the actions of Moses and Aaron in the narrative to a higher level of theological reflection-the issue of faith versus obedience to the law. Their actions epitomize the negative side of the message of faith. Moses and Aaron, who held high positions under the law, did not enjoy God’s gift of the land. They died in the wilderness because they did not believe." [Note: John H. Sailhamer, "The Mosaic Law and the Theology of the Pentateuch," Westminster Theological Journal 53 (Fall 1991):258-60.]

To summarize, Moses harshly rebuked the people (Numbers 20:10), took credit for what God had done (Numbers 20:10), resented the Israelites (Numbers 20:10), lost his temper (Numbers 20:11), disobeyed God (Numbers 20:11), did not trust God’s power (Numbers 20:12), failed to glorify God (Numbers 20:12), and rebelled against God (Numbers 20:24).

Aaron was guilty (Numbers 20:12) because he did not prevent Moses from sinning. Evidently he could have done this, and God punished him because he did not. Both men inappropriately took God’s place as the center of attention.

Meribah (Contention) is the name the Israelites gave the water that came out of the rock. It is also the name of the site where this incident took place (Numbers 20:13). The people had already named another place Meribah (Exodus 17:7). The present incident doubtless brought the former to memory.

In spite of Moses’ disobedience God still provided for the people by giving them water. God blesses people even through His disobedient servants. Nevertheless this in no way justifies a light view of sin. Moses experienced severe discipline for his unfaithfulness to God.

"The lesson is clear: grace is never a ground for complacency or presumption. By our carelessness, by our sinful neglect, we can sin away forever some of the privileges of our calling-not salvation itself, but our opportunities for service, our possibility for usefulness, our contribution to the ongoing purposes of God." [Note: Philip, p. 225. Cf. Romans 11:20.]

Verses 1-29

The departure from Kadesh ch. 20

Here begins the fourth and last leg of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.

1. From Egypt to Sinai (Exodus 12-19)

2. From Sinai to Kadesh (Numbers 11-12)

3. From Kadesh back to Kadesh-38 years of wilderness wandering (Numbers 15-19)

4. From Kadesh to Transjordan (Numbers 20-21)

The first two of these journeys each began with triumph but ended in tragedy. The third and fourth each began with tragedy but ended in triumph.

"The focus of the narratives in chs. 13-19 has been the sin of the people and the trouble caused by it. In chs. 20-21 this focus is still present, to be sure (Numbers 20:2-13; Numbers 21:4-9), but it is beginning to shift to victories given by Yahweh as the people approach Canaan (Numbers 21:1-3; Numbers 21:21-35). It should be remembered that these victories were given to the old generation that was under a death sentence in the wilderness. A new day is coming for the Israelites." [Note: Ashley, p. 375.]

Verses 14-21

The Edomites’ resistance 20:14-21

The cloudy pillar led the Israelites, but apparently Moses had reason to believe that God was directing them eastward into the territory of Edom and from there north to Transjordan. Consequently he sent messengers to the King of Edom requesting permission to pass through his land (Numbers 20:14).

The Edomites were Israel’s "brother" (Numbers 20:14) in that they were the descendants of Esau. The "king’s highway" (Numbers 20:17; Numbers 20:19) was a major thoroughfare through Edom that caravans and armies as well as private citizens traveled. It was a trade route connecting the Gulf of Aqabah and Syria. [Note: The New Bible Dictionary, 1962 ed., "King’s Highway," by D. J. Wiseman.] The Israelites did not take this route.

Moses took an irenic approach in dealing with the Edomites because they were the Israelites’ relatives. They were not Canaanites that God had commanded His people to attack and destroy. However the Edomites refused to let Israel pass. This antagonistic attitude characterized Edom’s approach to Israel throughout the history of these two nations and finally drew God’s judgment upon Edom (cf. Obadiah 1:10-14).

The Israelites remained in the area west of Edom temporarily and then proceeded to circle around Edom taking a generally southeasterly course toward the Gulf of Aqabah (cf. Numbers 21:4).

"A close reading of these narratives shows that the pattern in the account of Israel’s failure to believe (Numbers 14) is repeated in this account of Moses’ unbelief. The complaints of the people (Numbers 14:1-4; Numbers 20:2-5) lead the Lord to conclude that Israel (Numbers 14:11) and Moses (Numbers 20:12) are lacking in faith. Moreover, both narratives are followed by an account of Israel’s aborted attempt to gain immediate entrance into the Promised Land. In chapter 14, it was Israel’s defeat by the Amalekites (Numbers 14:40-45), and in the present passage it is Edom’s refusal to let Israel pass through their land (Numbers 20:14-21). In these various ways, the author seems intent on showing the similarities between Israel’s failure of faith and that of Moses. Both failed to believe God and hence could not go into the land." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 399.]

Verses 22-29

The death of Aaron and the succession of Eleazar 20:22-29

Mount Hor seems to have stood on the western border of Edom (Numbers 20:23). [Note: Yohanan Aharoni and Michael Avi-Yonah, The Macmillan Bible Atlas, pp. 41-42.]

Aaron died on the first day of the fifth month in Israel’s fortieth year (Numbers 33:37-38). He was 123 years old (Numbers 33:39). Before Aaron died, Moses formally removed his brother’s high priestly vestments and clothed Eleazar, Aaron’s son, with them. Israel now had a new high priest. Similarly before Moses died, God installed Joshua as Israel’s new leader (cf. Deuteronomy 34:9).

God has not revealed how Aaron died. His disobedience to God at Meribah near Kadesh led to a premature death (Numbers 20:12). Aaron appears to have been a man of weak will whom the people rather easily influenced to compromise his obedience to God’s word. Nevertheless he was an extremely important individual because of his ministry, his office, and his role as founder of the Aaronic priesthood. His great responsibilities before God were second only to his privileges under God.

"So ends the dark chapter. In it has been recorded the death of a prophetess, the critical sin of Moses and Aaron, the refusal of negotiation, the death of Aaron, and the mourning of the people. The chapter has emphasized the limitations of man-even God’s leaders! Now with a brighter spotlight on the grace and glory of God, Numbers resumes its story of advance." [Note: Jensen, p. 87.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Numbers 20". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.