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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 20

Garner-Howes Baptist CommentaryGarner-Howes

Verses 1-6

NUMBERS - CHAPTER TWENTY

Verses l-6:

The setting: the "desert of Zin," the region near the border of Canaan (Nu 13:21), bordered by Edom on the east, and the wilderness of Paran on the south. This is not the same as the "wilderness of Sin," the two terms being quite different in the Hebrew text. Kadesh-Barnea was included in this region.

The "first month," Abib or Nisan, corresponding to March-April in today’s calendar. This was the time of the beginning of the barley harvest.

A comparison of Nu 14:33; 33:38 shows that this was at the beginning of the fortieth and final year of Israel’s trek from Egypt to Palestine.

This assembly was in the same area that Israel had camped thirty-eight years earlier, and from which they had turned back in unbelief from the opportunity to enter the Land. This illustrates an important spiritual principle: one must return in repentance to where he has departed from God before he can resume his journey of the Christian life.

It was at Israel’s second camp at Kadesh that Miriam died and was buried. Only Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Caleb remained of the "old guard," after the death of Miriam. The new generation who had grown up in the wilderness had not experienced first-hand the mighty miracles of deliverance from Egypt, nor the solemn giving of the Law from Sinai. They had only heard of these things from their fathers.

One thing the new generation had in common with the old was a tendency to complain and murmur! The pattern of rebellion which their fathers had set had become ingrained in them, and they repeated many of the same complaints their fathers had expressed before them, see Ex 15:23-26; 16:2, 3; 17:1-7; Nu 14:1-5, et. al.

The people complained that the land was unsuitable for agriculture, and that there was no water for their needs.

A wise man once said, "They who will not learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them." This was the case with Israel’s generation which returned to Kadesh.

Verses 7-11

Verses 7-11:

God heard Israel’s complaining, and instructed Moses to provide for them water to drink.

The "rod" was the same with which Moses had performed the miracles before Pharaoh (Ex 7:9, et. al.), and with which he had struck the rock at Rephidim (Ex 17:6). The absence of any mention of this rod since that time imples that it may have been laid up before the Lord in the Tabernacle.

The "assembly" is a figure which denotes the representatives of the people, rather than the entire population of Israel.

"The rock" sela, a "cliff rock." The word is not the same as that of Ex 17:6, which is tsur, denoting a sharp or flinty rock. It is the same word David used in describing this event, in Ps 78:16.

The Old Testament text does not specify that the rock of Rephidim was the same as the rock at Kadesh. The Jewish rabbis had a tradition that a fragment of rock fifteen feet high followed the people during their wanderings, and it was this fragment that water gushed forth. Paul refers to this rock in 1Co 10:4 as one which "went with them." This does not mean that Paul accepted the rabbinical tradition; rather, he used this as a type of Christ.

When Moses stood before the rock, instead of speaking to it as God had instructed, he struck it - twice. Water came from the rock as God had promised, in sufficient supply for all the people and their livestock.

Verses 12-13

Verses 12, 13:

God instructed Moses to speak to the rock, and promised that water would flow from it. He was to serve in his role as mediator between God and Israel, as he had faithfully done on prior occasions. But this time, Moses failed. He lost his temper, and lashed out at the people in anger. His speech indicated that he was exasperated with them, and that he himself was the one to give them water. In this he slandered the reputation and work of Jehovah God. He put himself in the place of God, thus bringing the holy One of Israel down to the level of mortal man. Ps 106:32, 33 refers to this incident, that Moses "spake unadvisedly with his lips," literally, he "babbled," from beta, "to talk foolishly or rashly, to boast."

Moses’ sin appears to have been more a sin of attitude than of action. It is true that he struck the rock - twice - when God told him to speak to it. This spoiled the type of Christ our Rock who was "smitten" for sin once, Isa 53:4; Heb 10:12-14. But, the fact that God instructed Moses to take with him the rod with which he struck the rock at Rephidim could imply that this was not Moses’ primary sin.

Aaron was included in the sentence God pronounced upon Moses, that the two brothers would not be allowed to lead Israel into the Land of Promise. Aaron died not many days later and was buried at Mount Hor. Moses died at the end of the fortieth year, just prior to Israel’s passage into the Land, Nu 27:12-14; De 34:1-7.

The site of this event was called "Meribah," meaning "strife." A similar occurrence of the term is in Ex 17:7, implying that there may have been at least two places which bore this name.

Verses 14-17

Verses 14-17:

Moses abandoned plans to invade Palestine from the south. This was likely because of Israel’s refusal earlier to enter the Land from that route. He chose instead a circuitous route, far more difficult and dangerous than the original one. This is a reminder that when one refuses to follow God’s directives, the alternative is often marked by far greater difficulties.

Moses requested permission from the king of Edom for Israel to pass through his territory. He promised that they would not deviate from the main route, that Israel would not take any food nor water from the country along their way.

Moses’ appeal was based upon two considerations:

1. The mutual kinship of Edom and Israel, both being descendants of Abraham and Isaac.

2. The natural kindness which should be shown to those who suffer unjustly and greatly, as had Israel in Egypt and in their journeys.

Verses 18-21

Verses 18-21:

The king of Edom refused Moses’ request for safe passage through the Land of Edom. Israel offered assurance that they would pay for whatever their livestock at or drank along the way. Still the fear and jealousy of the king of Edom prompted him to deny their request. He reinforced his refusal by mustering a large, well-armed military force in the mountain passes east of Kadesh to prevent Israel’s entering his territory, see De 2:1-8. The Prophet Obadiah pronounced God’s judgment upon the Edomites because of their continued hostility toward Israel.

Israel turned southward, to make a circuit around the land of Edom, in keeping with the Divine edict.

Verses 22-29

Verses 22-29:

Israel turned southward from Kadesh, to make a circuit around the land of Edom. They crossed the plateau of Paran to the Arabah, opposite to Mount Hor. They then turned eastward and camped at God’s command at the foot of Mount Hor. There God informed Moses and Aaron that it was time for Aaron to die. The reason for his death at this point: his "rebellion" against the Lord at Meribah.

Moses, Aaron, and Eleazar climbed Mount Hor, in the view of all the congregation. At a secluded spot on the mountain, Moses stripped the holy garments of the high priest from Aaron, and clothed Eleazar with them. God then took Aaron’s life on the mountain top. No details are-given of this solemn event. It may be assumed that God buried Aaron on the mountain, just as He later did Moses. Otherwise, if Moses and Eleazar had buried him, they would have been ceremonially unclean.

Moses and Eleazar descended to Israel’s camp from the top of Mount Hor. Eleazar’s investment with the high priest’s garment declared his succession to that office. Israel remained at the foot of Mount Hor for a thirty-day period of mourning for Aaron.

Thus ended the colorful ministry of Israel’s first high priest, and brought to a close an era in Israel’s history.

Bibliographical Information
Garner, Albert & Howes, J.C. "Commentary on Numbers 20". Garner-Howes Baptist Commentary. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ghb/numbers-20.html. 1985.
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