Bible Commentaries
Numbers 20

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-29


THERE is a mustering at Kadesh of the scattered tribes, for now the end of the period of wandering approaches, and the generation that has been disciplined in the wilderness must prepare for a new advance. The spies who searched Canaan were sent from Kadesh, {Numbers 13:26} to which, in the second year from the exodus, the tribes had penetrated. Now, in the first month of the fortieth year it would seem, Kadesh is again the headquarters. The adjacent district is called the desert of Zin. Eastward, across the great plain of the Arabah, reaching from the Dead Sea to the Elanitic Gulf, are the mountains of Seir, the natural rampart of Edom. To the head of the Gulf at Elath the distance is some eighty miles in a straight line southward; to the southern end of the Dead Sea it is about fifty miles. Kadesh is almost upon the southern border of Canaan; but the way of the Negeb is barred by defeat, and Israel must enter the Promised Land by another route. In preparation for the advance the tribes gather from the wadies and plateaus in which they have been wandering, and at Kadesh or near it the earlier incidents of this chapter occur.

First among them is the death of Miriam. She has survived the hardships of the desert and reached a very great age. Her time of influence and vigour past, all the joys of life now in the dim memories of a century, she is glad, no doubt, when the call comes. It was her happiness once to share the enthusiasm of Moses and to sustain the faith of the people in their leader and in God. But any service of this kind she could render has been left behind. For some time she has been able only now and then with feeble steps to move to the tent of meeting that she might assure herself of the welfare of Moses. The tribes will press on to Canaan, but she shall never see it.

How is a life like this of Miriam’s to be reckoned? Take into account her faith and her faithfulness; but remember that both were maintained with some intermixture of poor egotism; that while she helped Moses she also claimed to rival and rebuke him; that while she served Jehovah it was with some of the pride of a prophetess. Her devotion, her endurance, the long interest in her brother’s work, which indeed led to the great error of her life-these were her virtues, the old great virtues of a woman. So far as opportunity went she doubtless did her utmost, with some independence of thought and decision of character. Even though she gave way to jealousy and passed beyond her right, we must believe that, on the whole, she served her generation in loyalty to the best she knew, and in the fear of the Most High. But into what a strange disturbed current of life was her effort thrown! Downcast, sorely burdened women, counting for very little when they were cheerful or when they complained, heard Miriam’s words and took them into their narrow thoughts, to resent her enthusiasm, perhaps, when she was enthusiastic, to grudge her the power she enjoyed, which to herself seemed so slight. In the camp generally she had respect, and perhaps, once and again, she was able to reconcile to Moses and to one another those whose quarrels threatened the common peace. When she was put forth from the camp in the shame of her leprosy, all were affected, and the march was stayed till her time of separation was over. Was she one of those women whose lot it is to serve others all their lives and to have little for their service? Still, like many another, she helped to make Israel, Of good and evil, of Divine elements and some that are anything but Divine, lives are made up. And although we cannot gather the results of any one and tell its worth, the stream of being retains and the unerring judgment of God accepts whatever is sincere and good. Miriam from first to last fills but a few lines of sacred history; yet of her life, as of others, more has to be told; the end did not come when she died at Kadesh and was buried outside Canaan.

Spread through a diversified and not altogether barren region, over many square miles, the tribes have been able during the thirty-seven, years to provide themselves with water. Gathered more closely now, when the dry season begins they are in want. And at once complaints are renewed. Nor can we wonder much. In flaming sunshine, in the parched air of the heights and the stifling heat of the narrow valleys, the cattle gasping and many of them dying, the children crying m vain for water, the little that is to be had, hot and almost putrid, carefully divided, yet insufficient to give each family a little, -the people might well lament their apparently inevitable fate. It may be said, "They should have confided in God." But while that might apply in ordinary circumstances, would not be out of place if the whole history were ideal, the reality, once understood, forbids so easy a condemnation of unbelief. Nothing is more terrible to endure, nothing more fitted to make strong men weep or turn them into savage critics of a leader and of Providence, than to see their children in the extremity of want which they cannot relieve. And a leader like Moses, patient as he may have been of other complaints, should have been most patient of this. When the people chode with him and said, "Would God that we had died when our brethren died before the Lord! And why have ye brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die, we and our cattle?" they ought surely to have been met with pity and soothing words.

It is indeed a tragedy we are to witness when we come to the rock; and one element of it is the old age and the weary spirit of the leader. Who can tell what vexed his soul that day? how many cares and anxieties burdened the mind that was clear yet, but not so tolerant, perhaps, as once it had been? The years of Moses, his long and arduous service of the people, are not remembered as they ought to be. Even in their extremity the men of the tribes ought to have appealed to their great chief with all respect, instead of breaking in upon him with reproaches. Was no experience sufficient for these people? After the discipline of the wilderness, was the new generation, like that which had died, still a mere horde, ungrateful, rebellious? From the leader’s point of view this thought could not fail to arise, and the old magnanimity did not drive it away.

Another point is the forbearance of Jehovah, who has no anger with the people. The Divine Voice commands Moses to take his rod and go forth to the rock and speak to it before the assembly. This does not fall in with Moses’ mood. Why is God not indignant with the men of this new generation who seize the first opportunity to begin their murmuring? Relapsing from his high inspiration to a poor human level, Moses begins to think that Jehovah, whose forgiveness be has often implored on Israel’s behalf, is too ready now to forgive. It is a failing of the best men thus to stand for the prerogative of God more than God Himself; that is, to mistake the real point of the circumstances they judge and the Divine will they should interpret. The story of Jonah shows the prophet anxious that Nineveh, the inveterate foe of Israel, the centre of proud, God-defying idolatry, should be destroyed. Does God wish it to be spared, to repent and obtain forgiveness? So does not Jonah. His creed is one of doom for wickedness. He resents the Divine mercy and, in effect, exalts himself above the Most High. In like temper is Moses when he goes out followed by the crowd. There is the rock from which water shall be made to flow. But with the thought in his mind that the people do not deserve God’s help, Moses takes the affair upon himself. The tragedy is fulfilled when his own feelings guide him more than the Divine patience, his own displeasure more than the Divine compassion; and with the words on his lips, "Hear now, ye rebels: shall we bring you forth water out of this rock?" he smites it twice with his rod.

For the moment, forgetting Jehovah the merciful, Moses will himself act God; and he misrepresents God, dishonours God, as every one who forgets Him is sure to do. Is he confident in the power of his wonder-working rod? Does he wish to show that its old virtue remains? He will use it as if he were smiting the people as well as the rock. Is he willing that this thirsting multitude should drink? Yet he is determined to make them feel that they offend by the urgency with which they press upon him for help. There have been crises in the lives of leaders of men when, with all the teaching of the past to inspire them, they should have risen to a faith in God far greater than they ever exercised before; and more or less they have failed. This is not the will of Providence, they have thought, though they should have known that it was. They have said, "Advance: but God goes not with you," when they should have seen the heavenly light moving on. So Moses failed. He touched his limit; and it was far short of that breadth of compassion which belongs to the Most Merciful. He stood as God, with the rod in his hand to give the water, but with the condemnation upon his lips which Jehovah did not speak.

In this mood of assumed majesty, of moral indignation which has a personal source, with an air of superiority not the simplicity of inspiration, a man may do what he will for ever regret, may betray a habit of self-esteem which has been growing upon him and will be his ruin if it is not checked. In the strong mind of Moses there had lain the germs of hauteur. The early upbringing in an Egyptian court could not fail to leave its mark, and the dignity of a dictator could not be sustained, after the anxieties of the first two years in the desert, without some slight growth of a tendency or disposition to look down on people so spiritless, and play among them the part of Providence, the decrees of which Moses had so often interpreted. But pride, even beginning to show itself towards men, is an aping of God. Unconsciously the mind that looks down on the crowd falls into the trick of a superhuman claim. Moses, great as he is, without personal ambition, the friend of every Israelite, reaches unaware the hour when a habit long suppressed lifts itself into power. He feels himself the guardian of justice, a critic not only of the lives of men but of the attitude of Jehovah towards them. It is but for an hour; yet the evil is done. What appears to the uplifted mind justice, is arrogance. What is meant for a defence of Jehovah’s right, is desecration of the highest office a man can hold under the Supreme. The words are spoken, the rock is struck in pride; and Moses has fallen.

Think of the realisation of this which comes when the flush of hasty resentment dies, and the true self which had been suppressed revives in humble thought. "What have I done?" is the reflection-"What have I said? My rod, my hand, my will, what are they? My indignation! Who gave me the right to be indignant? A king against whom they have revolted! A guardian of the Divine honour! Alas! I have denied Jehovah. I, who stood for Him in my pride, have defamed Him in my vanity. The people who murmured, whom I rebuked, have sinned less than I. They distrusted God, I have declared Him unmerciful, and thereby sown the seeds of distrust. Now I, too, am barred from Israel’s inheritance. Unworthy of the promise, I shall never cross the border of God’s land. Aaron my brother, we are the transgressors. Because we have not honoured God to sanctify Him in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore we shall not bring this assembly unto the land He gives them." By the lips of Moses himself the oracle was given. It was tragical indeed.

But how could the brothers who had yielded to this dictatorial hierarchical temper be men of God again, fit for another stroke of work for Him, unless, coming forth into action, their pride had disclosed itself, and with whatever bad result shown its real nature? We deplore the pride; we almost weep to see its manifestation; we hear with sorrow the judgment of Moses and Aaron. But well is it that the worst should come to light, that the evil thing should be seen, God-dishonouring, sacrilegious; should be judged, repented of, punished. Moses must "feel himself and find the blessedness of being little." "By that sin fell the angels," that sin unconfessed.

Here in open sight of all, in hearing of all, Moses lays down the godhead he had assumed, acknowledges unworthiness, takes his place humbly among those who shall not inherit the promise. The worst of all happens to a man when his pride remains unrevealed, uncondemned; grows to more and more, and he never discovers that he is attempting to carry himself with the air of Providence, of Divinity.

The error of Moses was great, yet only showed him to be a man of like passions with ourselves. Who can realise the mercy and lovingkindness that are in the heart of God, the danger of limiting the Holy One of Israel? The murmuring of the Israelites against Jehovah had often been rebuked, had often brought them into condemnation. Moses had once and again intervened as their mediator and saved them from death. Remembering the times when he had to speak of Jehovah’s anger, he feels himself justified in his own resentment. He thought the murmuring was over; it is resumed unexpectedly, the same old complaints are made and he is carried away by what appears zeal for Jehovah. Yet there is in him even, the man, much more in God, a better than the seeming best. Pathetic indeed is it to find Moses judged as one who has failed from the high place he could have reached by a final effort of self-mastery, one more generous thought. And we see him fail at a point where we often fail. Sternly to judge our own right of condemning before we speak sternly in the name of God; neither to do nor say anything which implies the assumption of knowledge, justice, charity we do not possess-how few of us are in these respects blameless for a day! Far back in sacred history this high duty is presented so as to evoke the best endeavour of the Christian soul and warn it from the place of failure.

There is preserved in the Book of Exodus (chapter 36) a list of the Kings of Edom reaching down apparently to about the establishment of the monarchy of Israel. Recent archeology sees no reason to question the genuineness of this historical notice or the names of the Dukes of Edom given in the same passage. With varying boundaries the region over which they ruled extended southward from Moab and the Dead Sea as far as the Elanitic Gulf. Kadesh, considerably west of the Arabah, is described as being on its uttermost border. But the district inhabited by the Edomites proper was a narrow strip of rugged country eastward of the range of Mount Seir. One pass giving entrance to the heart of Edom led by the base of Mount Hot towards Selah, afterwards called Petra, which occupied a fine but narrow valley in the heart of broken mountains. To reach the south of Moab the Israelites desired probably to take a road a good deal farther north. But this would have led them by Bozrah the capital, and the king who reigned at the time refused them the route. The message sent him in Moses’ name was friendly, even appealing. The brotherhood of Edom and Israel was claimed; the sore travail of the tribes in Egypt and the deliverance wrought by Jehovah were given as reasons; promise was made that no harm should be done to field or vineyard: Israel would journey by the king’s way, turning neither to the right nor the left. When the first request was refused Moses added that if his people drank of the water while passing through Edom they would pay for it. The appeal, however, was made in vain. An attempt to advance without permission was repelled. An armed force barred the way, and most reluctantly the desert road was again taken.

We can easily understand the objection of the King of Edom. Many of the defiles through which the main road wound were not adapted for the march of a great multitude. The Israelites could scarcely have gone through Edom without injuring the fields and vineyards; and though the undertaking was given in good faith by Moses, how could he answer for the whole of that undisciplined host he was leading towards Canaan? The safety of Edom lay in denying to other peoples access to its strongholds. The difficulty of approaching them was their main security. Israel might go quietly through the land now; but its armies might soon return with hostile intent. Water, too, was very precious in some parts of Edom. Enough was stored in the rainy season to supply the wants of the inhabitants; beyond that there was none to spare, and for this necessary of life money was no equivalent. A multitude travelling with cattle would have made scarcity, or famine, -might have left the region almost desolate. With the information they had, Moses and Joshua may have believed that there were no insuperable difficulties. Yet the best generalship might have been unequal to the task of controlling Israel in the passes and among the cultivated fields of that singular country.

There is no need to go back on the history of Jacob and Esau in order to account for the apparent incivility of the King of Edom to the Israelites and Moses. That quarrel had surely been long forgotten! But we need not wonder if the kinship of the two peoples was no availing argument in the case. Those were not times when covenants like that proposed could be easily trusted, nor was Israel on an expedition the nature of which could reassure the Idumaeans. And we have parallels enough in modern life to show that from the only point of view the king could take he was amply justified. There are demands men make on others without perceiving how difficult it will be to grant them, demands on time, on means, on good-will, demands that would involve moral as well as material sacrifice. The foolish intrusions of well-meaning people may be borne for a time, but there is a limit beyond which they cannot be suffered. Our whole life cannot be exposed to the derangements of every scheme-maker, every claimant. If we are to do our own work well, it is absolutely necessary that a certain space shall be jealously guarded, where the gains of thought may be kept safely and the ideas revealed to us may be developed. That any one’s life should be open so that travellers, even with some right of close fraternity, may pass through the midst of it, drink of the wells, and trample down the fields of growing purpose or ripening thought, this is not required. Good-will makes an open gate; Christian feeling makes one still wider and bids many welcome. But he who would keep his heart in fruitfulness must be careful to whom he grants admission. There is beginning to be a sort of jealousy of anyone’s right to his own reserve. It is not a single Israel approaching from the West, but a score, with their different schemes, who come from every side demanding right of way and even of abode. Each presses a Christian claim on whatever is wanted of our hospitality. But if all had what they desire there would be no personal life left.

On the other hand, some whose highways are broad, whose wells and streams are overflowing, whose lives are not fully engaged, show themselves exclusive and inhospitable-like those proprietors of vast moors who refuse a path to the waterfall or the mountain-top. Without Edom’s excuse, some modern Idumaeans warn every enterprise off their bounds. Neither brotherhood nor any other claim is acknowledged. They would find advantage, not injury, in the visit of those who bring new enthusiasms and ideas to bear on existence. They would learn of other aims than occupy them, a better hope than they possess. Their sympathy would be enlisted in heavenly or humane endeavours, and new alliances would quicken as well as broaden their life. But they will not listen; they continue selfish to the end. Against all such Christianity has to urge the law of brotherhood and of sacrifice.

We have assumed that Kadesh was on the western side of the Arabah, and it is necessary to take Numbers 20:20 as referring to an incident that occurred after the Israelites had crossed the valley. Not otherwise can we explain how they came to encamp among the mountains on the eastern side. The repulse must have been sustained by the tribes after they had left Kadesh and penetrated some distance into the northern defiles of Idumaea. Bozrah, the capital, appears to have been situated about half way between Petra and the southern extremity of the Dead Sea, and a force issuing from that stronghold would divert the march southward so that the Israelites could safely encamp only when they reached the open plain near Mount Hor. Hither therefore they retreated: and here it was that Moses and Aaron were parted. The time had come for the high priest to be gathered to his people.

Scarcely any locality in the whole track of the wandering is better identified than this. From the plain of the Arabah the mountains rise in a range parallel to the valley, in ridges of sandstone, limestone, and chalk, with cliffs and peaks of granite. The defile that leads by Mount Hor to Petra is peculiarly grand, for here the range attains its greatest height. "Through a narrow ravine," says one traveller, "we ascended a steep mountain side, amid a splendour of colour from bare rock or clothing verdure, and a solemnity of light on the broad summits, of shade in the profound depths - a memory forever. It was the same narrow path through which in oldtimes had passed other trains of camels laden with the merchandise of India, Arabia, and Egypt. And thus having ascended, we had next a long descent to the foot of Mount Hor, which stands isolated." The mountain rises about four thousand feet above the Arabah and has a peculiar double crest. On its green pastures there graze flocks of sheep and goats; and inhabited caves-used perhaps since the days of the old Horites-are to be seen here and there. The ascent of the mountain is aided by steps cut in the rock, "indeed a tolerably complete winding staircase," for the chapel or mosque on the summit, said to cover the grave of Aaron, is a notable Arab sanctuary, resorted to by many pilgrims. "From the roof of the tomb-now only an ordinary square building with a dome-northward and southward, a hilly desert; eastward, the mountains of Edom, within which Petra lies hid; westward, the desert of the Arabah, or wilderness of Zin; beyond that, the desert of Et-Tih; beyond that again, in the far horizon, the blue-tinted hills of the Land of Promise."

Such is the mountain at the foot of which Israel lay encamped when the Lord said unto Moses, "Take Aaron and Eleazar his son, and bring them up unto Mount Hor; and strip Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son: and Aaron shall be gathered unto his people and shall die there." We imagine the sorrowful gaze of the multitude following the three climbers, the aged brothers who had borne so long the burden and heat of the day, and Eleazar, already well advanced in life, who was to be invested with his father’s office. Coming soon after the death of Miriam, this departure of Aaron broke sharply one other link that still bound Israel with its past. The old times were receding, the new had not yet come into sight.

The life of a good man may close mournfully. While some in leaving the world cross cheerfully the river beyond which the smiling fields of the heavenly land are full in view, others there are who, even with the faith of the Conqueror of death to sustain them, have no gladdening prospect at the last. Only from a distance Aaron saw the Land of Promise; from so great a distance that its beauty and fruitfulness could not be realised. The sullen gleam of the Lake of Sodom, lying in its grim hollow, was visible away to the north. Besides that the dim eyes could make out little. But Edom lay below; and the tribes would have a great circuit round that inhospitable land, would have to traverse another desert beyond the horizon to the east, ere they could reach Moab and draw near to Canaan. A true patriot, Aaron would think more of the people than of himself. And the confidence he had in the friendliness of God and the wisdom of his brother would scarcely dispel the shadow that settled on him as he forecast the journey of the tribes and saw the difficulties they were yet to meet. So not a few are called away from the world when the great ends for which they have toiled are still remote. The cause of liberty or of reformation with which life has been identified may even appear farther from success than years before. Or again, the close of life may be darkened by family troubles more pressing than any that were experienced earlier. A man may be heavily burdened without distrusting God on his own account, or doubting that in the long run all shall be well. He may be troubled because the immediate prospect shows no escape from painful endurance for those he loves. He does not sorrow perhaps that he has found the promises of life to be illusory; but he is grieved for dear friends who must yet make that discovery, who shall travel many a league and never win the battle or pass beyond the wilderness.

The mind of Aaron as he went to his death was darkened by the consciousness of a great failure. Kadesh lay westward across the valley, and the thought of what took place there was with the brothers as they climbed Mount Hor and stood upon its summit. They had repented, but they had not yet forgiven themselves. How could they, when they saw in the temper of the people too plain proofs that their lese-majesty had borne evil fruit? It needs much faith to be sure that God will remedy the evil we have done; and so long as the means cannot be seen, the shadow of self-reproach must remain. Many a good man, climbing the last slope, feels the burden of transgressions committed long before. He has done his utmost to restore the defences of truth and rebuild the altars of witness which in thoughtless youth or proud manhood he cast down. But circumstances have hindered the work of reparation; and many who saw his sin have passed far beyond the reach of his repentance. The thought of past faults may sadly obscure the close of a Christian life. The end would indeed be hopeless often were it not for trust in the omnipotent grace which brings again that which was driven away and binds up that which was broken. Yet since the very work of God and the victory of Christ are made more difficult by things a believer has done, is it possible that he should always have happy recollections of the past as life draws near its end?

It was no doubt honourable to Aaron that his death was appointed to be on that mountain in Seir. Old as he was, he would never think of complaining that he was ordained to climb it. Yet to the tired limbs it was a steep, difficult path, a way of sorrow. Here, also, we find resemblance to the close of many a worthy life. High office in the Church has been well served, overflowing wealth has been used in beneficence; but at the last reverses have come. The man who was always prosperous is now stripped of his possessions. Darkened in mind by successive losses, bereaved of friends and of power, he has to climb a dreary mountain-path to the sharp end. It may be really honourable to such a man that God has thus appointed his death to be not in the midst of luxury, but on the rugged peak of loss. Understanding things aright, he should say: "The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." But if dependence is felt as shame, if he who gave freely to others feels it a sore thing to receive from others, who can have the heart to blame the good man because he does not triumph here? And if he has to climb alone, no Eleazar with him, scarcely one human aid, what shall we say? Now life must gird itself and go whither it would not. Sad is the journey, but not into night. The Christian does not impeach Divine providence nor grieve that earthly good is finally taken away. Though his life has been in his generosity, not in his possessions, yet he will confess that the last bitter trial is needful to the perfecting of faith.

Should the believer triumph over death through Christ? It is his privilege; but some display unwarranted complacency. They have confidence in the work of Christ; they boast that they rest everything on Him. But is it well with them if they have no sorrow because of days and years that ran to waste? Is it well with them if they deplore no failure in Christian effort when the reason is that they never gave heart and strength to any difficult task? Who can be satisfied with the apparent victory of faith at the last of one who never had high hopes for himself and others, and therefore was never disappointed? Better the sorrowful ending to a life that has dared great things and been defeated, that has cherished a pure ideal and come painfully short of it, than the exultation of those who even as Christians have lived to themselves.

Perhaps the circumstances that attended the death of Aaron were to him the finest discipline of life. Climbing the steep slope at the command of God, would he not feel himself brought into a closer relation with the Eternal Will? Would he not feel himself separated from the world and gathered up into the quiet massiveness of life with Him who is from everlasting to everlasting? The years of a high priest, dealing constantly with sacred things and symbols, might easily fall into a routine not more helpful to generous thought and spiritual exaltation than the habits of secular life. One might exist among sacrifices and purifications till the mind became aware of nothing beyond ritual and its orderly performance. True, this had not been the case with Aaron during a considerable portion of the time since he began his duties. There had been many events by means of which Jehovah broke in upon the priests with His great demands. But thirty-seven years had been comparatively uneventful. And now the little world of camp and tabernacle court, the sacred shrine with its ark, the symbolic dwelling-place of God, must have their contrast in the broad spaces filled with gleaming light, the blue vault, the widespread hills and valleys, the heavens which are Jehovah’s throne, the earth which is His footstool. The bustle of Israel’s little life is left behind for the calm of the mountain land. The high priest finds another vestibule of the dwelling of Jehovah than that which he has been accustomed to enter with sprinkled blood and the pungent fumes of the incense.

Is it not good thus to be called away from the business of the world, immersed in which every day men have lost the due proportions of things, both of what is earthly and what is spiritual? They have to leave the computations recorded in their books, and what bulks largely in the gossip of the way and the news of the town; they are to climb where greater spaces can he seen, and human life, both as brief and as immortal, shall be understood in its relations to God. Often those who have this call addressed to them are most unwilling to obey. It is painful to lose the old standards of proportion, to hear no longer the familiar noise of wheels, to see no machinery, no desks, no ledgers, to read no newspapers, to have the quiet, the slow-moving days, the moonless or moonlit nights. But if reflection follows, as it should, and brings wisdom, the change has saved a man who was near to being lost. The things he toiled for once, as well as the things he dreaded, -that success, this breath of adverse opinion, -seem little in the new light, scarcely disturb the new atmosphere. One thus called apart with God, learning what are the real elements of life, may look with pity on his former self, yet gather out of the experience that had small value, for the most part, here and there a jewel of price. And the wise, becoming wiser, will feel preparation made for the greater existence that lies beyond.

Moses accompanied his brother to the mountain top, by his hands, with all considerateness, the priestly robes were taken from Aaron’s shoulders and put on Eleazar. The true friend he had all along relied upon was with the dying man at the last, and closed his eyes. In this there was a palliation of the decree under which it would have been terrible to suffer alone; yet in the end the loneliness of death had to he felt. We know a Friend who passed through death for us, and made a way into the higher life, but still we have our dread of the solitude. How much heavier must it have weighed when no clear hope of immortality shone upon the hill. The vastness of nature was around the dying priest of Israel, his face was turned to the skies. But the thrill of Divine love we find in the touch of Christ did not reassure him. "These all received not the promise, God having provided some better thing concerning us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect."

Eleazar followed Aaron and took up the work of the priesthood, not less ably, let us believe, yet not precisely with the same spirit, the same endowments. And indeed to have one in all respects like Aaron would not have served. The new generation, in new circumstances, needs a new minister. Office remains; but, as history moves on, it means always something different. When the hour comes that requires a clear step to be taken away from old notions and traditions of duty, neither he who holds the office nor those to whom he has ministered should complain or doubt. It is not good that one should cling to work merely because he has served well and may still seem able to serve; often it is the case that before death commands a change the time for one has come. Even the men who are most useful to the world, Paul, Apollos, Luther, do not die too soon. It may appear to us that a man who has done noble work has no successor. When, for instance, England loses its Dr. Arnold, Stanley, Lightfoot, and we look in vain for one to whom the robes are becoming, we have to trust that by some education they did not foresee the Church has to be perfected. The same theory, nominally, is not the same when others undertake to apply it. The same ceremonies have another meaning when performed by other hands. There are ways to the full fruition of Christ’s government which go as far about as Israel’s to Canaan round the land of Moab, for a time as truly retrogressive. But the great Leader, the one High Priest of the new covenant, never fails His Church or His world, and the way that does not hasten, as well as that which makes straight for the goal, is within His purpose, leads to the fulfilment among men of His mediatorial design.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Numbers 20". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".