Bible Commentaries
Numbers 20

The Pulpit CommentariesThe Pulpit Commentaries

Verses 1-29



Numbers 20:1

Then came the children of Israel, even the whole congregation. The latter words are emphatic here and in Numbers 20:22, and seem intended to mark the period of reassembly after the dispersion of nearly thirty eight years. Probably a portion of the tribes had visited Kadesh many times during those years, and perhaps it had never been wholly abandoned. Into the desert of Zin, i.e; if the western site be maintained for Kadesh, the Wady Murreh. See the note on Kadesh. In the first month. In the month Abib (Nisan), the vernal month, when there was "much grass" (cf. John 6:10) in places at other seasons desert, and when traveling was most easy. From comparison of Numbers 14:33; Numbers 33:38 and the sequence of the narrative, it appears to have, been the first month of the fortieth, and last year of wandering, Then it was that they reassembled in the same neighbourhood from whence they had dispersed so long before (see the note before Numbers 15:1-41). And the people abode in Kadesh. From the date given in Numbers 33:38 it would seem that they remained three or four months in Kadesh on this occasion. This delay may have been occasioned partly by the ingraining for Miriam (cf. Numbers 33:29), and partly by the necessity of awaiting answers from Edom and from Moab (see on Numbers 33:14). And Miriam died there, and was buried. Nothing could be more brief and formal than this mention of the death of one who had played a considerable part in Israel, and had perhaps wished to play a more considerable part. It can scarcely, however, be doubted that her death in the unlovely wilderness was a punishment like the death of her brothers. There is no reason whatever to suppose that she had any part in the rebellion of Kadesh, or that the sentence of death there pronounced included her; she was indeed at this time advanced in years, rut that would not in itself account for the fact that she died in exile; it is, no doubt, to the arrogance and rebellion recorded in Numbers 12:1-16 that we must look for the true explanation of her untimely end.

Numbers 20:2

There was no water. There was a large natural spring at Kadesh, and during the time of their previous sojourn there no complaint of this sort seems to have arisen. At this time, however, the bulk of the encampment may have lain in a different direction (cf. Numbers 20:1 with Numbers 13:26), or the supply may have failed frorn temporary causes. In either case a total absence of water need not be imagined, but only an insufficient supply.

Numbers 20:3

And the people abode with Moses. As their fathers had done in similar circumstances, as recorded in Exodus 17:1-16. Would God that we had died. See on Numbers 14:2. When our brethren died before the Lord. This is difficult, because the visitations of God at Kibroth-hattaavah (Numbers 11:34) and at Kadesh (Numbers 14:37) had overtaken not their brethren, but their fathers, some thirty-eight years before. On the other hand, the daily mortality which had carried off their brethren is clearly excluded by the phrase, "before the Lord." It may he that the rebellion of Korah happened towards the end of the period of wandering, and that the reference is to the plague which followed it; or it may be that the formula of complaint had become stereotyped, as those of children often do, and was employed from time to time without variation and without definite reference. The latter supposition is strongly supported by the character of the words which follow.

Numbers 20:4

Why have ye brought up the congregation of the Lord into this wilderness? These words are almost exactly repeated from Exodus 17:3. They, and those which follow, are no doubt out of place if considered as expressing the feelings of the great bulk of the people, who had no knowledge of Egypt, and had grown up in the wilderness. But on such occasions it is always the few who put words into the months of the many, and the ringleaders in this gainsaying would naturally be the survivors of the elder generation, whose dis. position was exactly the same as ever, and who had always shown a remarkable want of originality in their complaints.

Numbers 20:5

No place of seed. Septuagint, τόπος οὗ οὐ σπείρεται. A place where there is no sowing, and therefore no harvest.

Numbers 20:6

They fell upon their faces. See note on Numbers 14:5.

Numbers 20:8

Take the rod. The ῥάβδος, or staff of office, with which Moses and Aaron had worked wonders before Pharaoh (Exodus 7:9 sq.), and with which Moses had smitten the rock in Rephidim (Exodus 17:6). This rod had not been mentioned, nor perhaps used, since then; but we might certainly have supposed that the instrument of so many miracles would be reverently laid up in the tabernacle "before the Lord," and, this we find from the next verse to have been the case. Gather thou the assembly together, i.e; by their representatives. Speak ye unto the rock before their eyes. The word used for the rock in this narrative is הַסֶּלַע instead of הַחּוּר, as in Exodus 17:1-16. It does not seem that any certain distinction of meaning can be drawn between the words, which are obviously interchanged in Judges 6:20, Judges 6:21, and are both translated πέτρα by the Septuagint; but the careful use of different terms in the two narratives serves to distinguish them, just as the use of κοφίνους and σπυρίδας by St. Mark helps to distinguish the two miracles of feeding the multitude.

Numbers 20:10

Hear now, ye rebels. הַמֹּרִים. Septuagint, οἱ ἀπειθεῖς. The verb is used in a similar sense of Moses and Aaron themselves in Numbers 20:24. It has been suggested that this was the word really used by our Lord in Matthew 5:22, and translated μωρός. This, however, is extremely precarious, and is indeed to accuse the Evangelist of a blunder, for there is no real correspondence between the words. Must we fetch you water. Septuagint, μὴ ἐξάξομεν ὑμῖν ὕδωρ. And this is no doubt the sense. It has been rendered by some "Can we fetch you water," on the supposition that Moses really doubted the possibility of such a miracle, but this seems to be an entire mistake (see next note).

Numbers 20:12

Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel. It is very important, and at the same time very difficult, to understand what the precise sin of Moses and Aaron was upon this occasion. That it was very serious is manifest from the punishment which is entailed. Aaron, indeed, does not appear in the narrative, save in his usual subordinate position as associated with his brother by the Divine mandate. It has been said that he might have checked the unadvised words of Moses, but that is wholly beside the mark. Aaron had obviously no control whatever over his far more able and energetic brother, and therefore could have no responsibility in that respect. We can only suppose that he inwardly assented to the language and conduct with which he was outwardly associated, and therefore shared the guilt. A less degree of sin was (so to speak) necessary in his cause, because he had on former occasions so greatly dishonoured his office; and the anger of God against the sin of his ministers, although laid to sleep, is ever ready to awake upon the recurrence of a similar provocation. We may therefore dismiss him, and consider only the case of Moses. It is impossible to suppose that Moses actually doubted the power of God to supply the present need, for he held in his hand the very rod with which he had struck the rock in Rephidim, nor is there anything in his words or acts upon this occasion to imply any such disbelief. The language of Numbers 11:21, Numbers 11:22 may be cited on the other side, but that was spoken in passion, and spoken to God, and cannot be held as expressing an actual failure of faith. Nor do subsequent references point to unbelief as having been the sin of Moses (cf. Numbers 27:14; Deuteronomy 32:51; Psalms 106:33). Rather, they point to disobedience and indiscretion; to such disloyal conduct and language as produced a bad impression upon the people, and did not place the Divine character before them in its true light. We must understand, therefore, that the want of belief with which Moses stood charged was not a want of faith in the power of God, but a want of obedience to the will of God, bearing in mind that the two faults of disbelief and disobedience are but two sides of one inward fact, and are perpetually confounded in the language of Scripture (compare the use of ἀπειθεῖν in the New Testament). What then was the disobedience of Moses? Here, again, the more obvious answer is insufficient. It is true that Moses struck the rock twice instead of (or perhaps in addition to) speaking to it; but God had bid him take the rod, and he might naturally think he was meant to use it as before; moreover, the people could not have known anything of the exact terms of the command, and would have thought no more of his striking the rock at Kadesh than at Rephidim; but it was the fact of the bad impression made upon the people which was the ground of the Divine rebuke. We come back, therefore, to the simple conclusion expressed by the Psalmist (Psalms 106:32, Psalms 106:33), that Moses lost his temper, and in the irritation of the moment spoke and acted in such a way and in such a spirit as to dishonour his Master and to impair the good effect of the Divine beneficence. It is quite likely that the repeated striking of the rock was one sign of the anger to which Moses gave way, but we could hardly have attached any serious character to the act if it had stood alone. It is in the words of Moses, words in which he associated Aaron with himself, that we must find the explanation of the displeasure he incurred. That he called the people "rebels" was unseemly, not because it was untrue, or because it was an uncalled-for term of reproach, but because he himself was at that very moment a rebel, and disloyal in heart to his Master (cf. Numbers 11:24). That he should say, "Must we fetch you water out of this rock?" showed how completely he was carried away. It is true that God had said to him, "Thou shalt bring forth to them water," and, "Thou shalt give the congregation … drink" (compare this with Exodus 17:6), and it is probable that his own words were more or less consciously dictated by this remembrance; but he knew very well that the Divine mandate afforded him no real justification; that he and Aaron were the merest instruments in the hand of God; that it was peculiarly necessary to keep this fact before the minds of the people; nevertheless, his vexation and anger betrayed him into putting himself—a mere man, and a man too in a very bad temper—into the place of God before the eyes of the whole congregation. Moses had fallen at least once before (see on Numbers 11:11-15) into a similar error, one so natural to an angry mind; but this was the first time that he had made his error public, and thereby dishonoured the Master whom it was his special duty to uphold and glorify. This was the sin, and if the punishment seem disproportionate, it must be remembered that the heinousness of a sin depends quite as much on the position of the sinner as upon its intrinsic enormity. Ye shall not bring this congregation into the land. That they should die in the wilderness was implied in this sentence, but was not strictly a part of the sentence itself. Moses, indeed, although he did not enter the land of promise in its narrower sense, yet he died within the inheritance of Israel. Since they had behaved unworthily of their high office as leaders of the people, therefore that office should be taken from them before the glorious end.

Numbers 20:13

This is the water of Meribah, or "water of strife." Septuagint, ὕδωρ ἀντιλογίας. The word "Meribah" appears, however, to form part of a proper name in Deuteronomy 32:51. A similar use of the word is recorded in Exodus 17:7. That the same name was more or less definitely attached to these two scenes is only another way of saying that there was a strong similarity between the two sets of associations. At the same time the differences are so marked in the narratives that they leave very distinct impressions upon the mind. And he was sanctified in them, i.e; he revealed there his holiness and power, and put to silence their evil murmurings against him. He was sanctified in them all the more abundantly because Moses and Aaron failed to sanctify him in the eyes of the people; but what they failed to do he brought to pass without their agency.

Numbers 20:14

And Moses sent messengers from Kadesh unto the king of Edom. On the kings of Edom see on Genesis 36:31. It would seem probable from Exodus 15:15 that the government was at that time (forty years before the present date) still in the hands of "dukes," and that the change had but recently taken place. It is stated in Judges 11:17 that Moses sent messengers at this time with a like request to the king of Moab. We are not indeed obliged to suppose that Jephthah, living 300 years after, stated the facts correctly; but there is no particular reason to doubt it in this case. That no mention of it is made here would be sufficiently explained by the fact that the refusal of Edom made the answer of Moab of no practical moment. That Moses asked a passage through the territory of Edom implies that he had renounced the idea of invading Canaan from the south. This was not on account of any insuperable difficulties presented by the character of the country or of its inhabitants, for such did not exist; nor on account of any supposed presence of Egyptian troops in the south of Palestine: but simply on account of the fact that Israel had deliberately refused to take the straight road into their land, and were therefore condemned to follow a long and circuitous route ere they reached it on an altogether different side. The dangers and difficulties of the road they actually traversed were, humanly speaking, far greater than any they would have encountered in any other direction; but this was part of their necessary discipline. Thy brother Israel. This phrase recalled the history of Esau and Jacob, and of the brotherly kindness which the former had shown to the latter at a time when he had him in his power (Genesis 33:1-20). Thou knowest all the travel that hath befallen us. Moses assumed that Edom would take a fraternal interest in the fortunes of Israel. The parallel was singularly close between the position of Jacob when he met with Esau, and the present position of Israel; we may well suppose that Moses intended to make this felt without directly asserting it.

Numbers 20:16

And sent an angel. It is probable, that Moses purposely used an expression which might be understood in various senses, because he could not explain to the king of Edom the true relation of the Lord to his people. At the same time it was in the deepest sense true (cf. Exodus 14:19; Exodus 32:34), because it was the uncreated angel of the covenant, which was from God, and yet was God (cf. Genesis 32:30; Joshua 5:15; Joshua 6:2; Acts 7:35), who was the real captain of the Lord's host. In Kadesh, a city in the uttermost of thy border. See note on Kadesh. It is clear that Kadesh itself was outside the territory of the king of Edom, although it lay close to the frontier.

Numbers 20:17

Let us pass, I pray thee, through thy country. Moses desired to march through Seir eastwards and northeastwards, so as to reach the country beyond Jordan. If the northern portion of the wilderness of Paran was at this time held by the king of Edom, it would be through this region that Israel would first seek to make their way from Kadesh to the Arabah; thence the broad and easy pass of the Wady Ghuweir would lead them through Mount Seir (properly so called) to the plains of Moab. Through the fields, or through the vineyards. These words attest the change for the worse in the condition of these regions. Even in the Wady Ghuweir, although springs and pasturage are abundant, fields and vineyards hardly exist. Neither will we drink, i.e; as appears from Numbers 20:19, without obtaining leave and making payment. By the king's highway. דֶּרֶךְ הַמֶּלֶךְ. The state road used for military purposes.

Numbers 20:18

And Edom said … Thou shalt not pass by me. This was the first of a series of hostile acts, prompted by vindictive jealousy, which brought down the wrath of God upon Edom (compare the prophecy of Obadiah). See, however, on Deuteronomy 2:29.

Numbers 20:19

And the children of Israel said, i.e; probably, the messengers sent by Moses. By the highway. בַּמְסִלָּה. The Septuagint translates παρὰ τὸ ὄρος, but no doubt the word means a "high road" in the original sense of a raised causeway (cf. Isaiah 57:14). Such a road is still called Derb es Sultan—Emperor-road. I will only, without doing anything else, go through on my feet. Rather, "It is nothing;" "I will go through on my feet." They meant, "We do not ask for anything of value, only leave to pass through."

Numbers 20:22

And the children of Israel, even the whole congregation (see note on Numbers 20:1), journeyed from Kadesh, and came unto Mount Her. If the narrative follows the order of time, we must suppose that the Edomites at once blocked the passes near to Kadesh, and thus compelled the Israelites to journey southwards for some distance until they were clear of the Azazimat; they would then turn eastwards again and make their way across the plateau of Paran to the Arabah at a point opposite Mount Hen It is supposed by many, although it finds no support in the narrative itself, that the armed resistance offered by Edom is out of chronological order in Numbers 20:20, and only occurred in fact when the Israelites had reached the neighbourhood of Mount Her, and were preparing to ascend the Wady Ghuweir. On the name of Mount Her (הֹר הָהָר) see on Numbers 34:7, Numbers 34:8. There can be no doubt that tradition is right in identifying it with the Jebel Harun (mount of Aaron), a lofty and precipitous mountain rising between the Arabah and the site of Petra. On one of its two summits the tomb of Aaron is still shown, and although this is itself worthless as evidence, yet the character and position of the mountain are altogether in agreement with the legend.

Numbers 20:23

By the coast of the land of Edom. Mount Her was on the eastern side of the Arabah, which at this point certainly formed the frontier of Edom; but it was no doubt untenanted, owing to its bare and precipitous character, and therefore was not reckoned as the property of Edom. We may suppose that at this time the encampment stretched along the Arabah in front of the mountain (see on Numbers 33:30; Deuteronomy 10:6).

Numbers 20:24

Aaron shall be gathered unto his people. On this expression see at Genesis 25:8.

Numbers 20:25

Bring them up unto Mount Hor. It can scarcely be doubted that the object of this command was to produce a deeper effect upon the people. The whole multitude would be able to see the high priest, whose form had been so familiar to them as long as they could remember anything, slowly ascending the bare sides of the mountain; and they knew that he went up to die. The whole multitude would be able to see another and a younger man descending by the same path in the same priestly robes, and they knew that Aaron was dead, and that Eleazar was high priest in his room. Death is often most striking when least expected, but there are occasions (and this was one) when it gains in effect by being invested in a certain simple ceremonial.

Numbers 20:28

Moses stripped Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son. This was done in token that the office was transferred; it was done out of sight, and far above, in token that the priesthood was perpetual, although the priest was mortal. Aaron died there. In this ease, as in that of Miriam (Numbers 20:1), and of Moses himself (Deuteronomy 34:5), no details are given. God drew as it were a veil over a departure hence which could but be very sad, because it was in a special sense the wages of sin. We may perhaps conclude that Aaron died alone, and was buried, as Moses was, by God; otherwise Moses and Eleazar would have been unclean under the law of Numbers 19:11 (cf. also Le Numbers 21:11).

Numbers 20:29

They mourned for Aaron thirty days. The Egyptians prolonged their mourning for seventy days (Genesis 1:3), but thirty days seems to have been the longest period allowed among the Israelites (cf. Deuteronomy 34:8).


Numbers 20:1-29


We have in this chapter, spiritually, the final departure of the Church of God upon its last journey towards the promised land; and we have certain sad incidents of moral failure, of disappointment, and of death which marked the commencement of that journey.


1. That he was once more at Kadesh, not one step nearer home than he had been thirty-eight years before. Because he had rebelled then his life had run to waste ever since, and been lost like the fountain of Kadesh in the salads, and only now. after such a lapse of time, and after so much suffering, did he find himself in a position to recommence the march then suspended. Even so it is with Churches which have reached a certain point, and then have rebelled against the voice of God. Their history runs to waste; they exist, but hardly live; there is indeed a movement in them, but it has no definite aim, it leads no whither; they do but return upon themselves. Only after a long time (if God have mercy upon them) do they find themselves once more in a position to start afresh, and not one step further forward than all those years, or centuries, ago. Even so it is with individuals who will not go resolutely on when they are called. They are spent and wasted in movement to and fro which is not progress. After many years perhaps—perhaps after a whole lifetime—of wandering in dry places they find themselves once more at the very point to which they had attained, not one step nearer heaven than so long ago.

2. That although Israel was once more at Kadesh, yet he was in a far worse position than on the former occasion. Then he might have marched straight into Canaan, now he must reach it by a long and circuitous route. Even so with Churches and with individuals which have done despite to the Spirit of grace. By God's mercy their aimless wanderings may be ended, and they may take up the broken thread of spiritual progress; but they cannot take up the opportunities and possibilities which once were theirs. If their position be the same, they are not the same; the effects of past faithlessness remain, a far more weary course awaits them ere they attain to rest than if they had obeyed from the beginning.

3. That Miriam died in Kadesh, and went not with them on the lass march. She was a "prophetess," and uttered inspired words of praise and thanksgiving, and was especially associated with the glorious triumph of the exodus (Exodus 15:20-22). Even so the soul which has greatly erred and lost itself, and is at last recovered and sets its face Zionward, may not look to be cheered with song's of gladness and of triumph on its way, but must do without them. And note that Miriam, Aaron, Moses all died this year, a little before the entrance into Canaan under Joshua. The Fathers see in this a figure of the passing away of prophecy, the priesthood, and the law, and their giving place to Jesus. "Videtur mihi in Maria (Miriam) Prophetia mortua; in Moyse et Aaron Legi et Sacerdotio Judaeorum finis impositus, quod nec ipsi ad terrain repromissionis transcendere valeant nec credentem populum de solitudine hujus mundi educere: nisi solus Jesus Deus Salvator."

II. WITH RESPECT TO THE WATERS OF STRIFE (see at Exodus 17:1-16). Consider—

1. That it was in Kadesh that this temptation befell the people, where they had apparently not experienced any want of water before. Even so it often happens that great religious trials and deprivations are permitted to overtake us when and where we are least prepared to face them, and perhaps at the very moment when we hope to begin a new life and make a decided advance.

2. That of all gifts which were necessary to their life, water was the one the absence of which was most terrible. Conceive the suffering and terror of the multitude! Even so it is the water from the Rock of Ages, the grace of Christ, upon which we daily and hourly depend in this evil world; and there are moments when that grace threatens to fail us, and spiritual death stares us in the face (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:4; 1 Corinthians 12:13).

3. That they should have trusted him who had followed them as a spiritual Rock, giving them both water and shade in a thirsty land; but their temper and their very words were the same as forty years before. Even so do we fail again and again under trial, as if all experience went for nothing, and as if fallen human nature were never going to be really altered in us for the better. Nothing is more striking than the way in which a man's behaviour under temptation repeats itself in spite of all that he has learnt.

4. That the Lord did not show any displeasure with them, but gave them water at once, knowing their sore necessity. Even so patient and long-suffering is he with us, however unreasonable and impatient we are, for he knoweth our feebleness, and our great need, and that we must die without his grace.

5. That the Lord was angry with Moses because he spoke and acted impatiently and unworthily; for what he overlooked again and again in the ignorant and unstable people, that he could not pass over in the wise and powerful leader, who was to them the visible representative and mouthpiece of the invisible God. Even so the Lord will pass over a thousand errors and faults in the poor and ignorant and miserable more easily than one in him that has known him, and that has a ministry from him, and that stands to others in the place of leader and guide. It is a fearful thing by word or act to dishonour God or his gospel in the eyes of those who look up to us, and who will more or less consciously take their ideas of religion from our practice of it.

6. That Moses erred because he lost his temper, and regarded the sinful murmuring of the people only as a trial and vexation to himself. He had in fact nothing to complain of, for he was only an instrument in God's hand, and it was against God that they were sinning. Even so we, if we are angry when men do wrongly and foolishly, are sure to err greatly; for anger can only see the bad conduct of others as an offence to itself, and so resent it, thereby placing self in the room of God, and presuming to judge and to condemn in his stead.

7. That Moses spake unadvisedly with his lips in calling the people "rebels," because he was himself a rebel in heart. He was indeed, considering his position and advantages, more disloyal to his Master at that moment than even they were. Even so when we sit in judgment on others, and call them by hard names, it often happens that we are in truth more unfaithful to our calling than even they. Their unfaithfulness may be of a kind to arouse our disgust and disdain, but ours may be in truth more heinous in the eyes of God.

8. That he spake yet more unadvisedly in saying, "Must we fetch you water?" as though it were their power and goodness to which the supply of water was due. Even so it is a sore evil when the stewards of the manifold grace of God magnify themselves even in hasty words, and speak as if they were the authors instead of the mere dispensers of the gifts of God, and lead men to look to them instead of through them, and pass (as it were) the free grace and goodness of God through the discoloured medium of their own selfish tempers.

9. That he erred also through willfulness, in that he smote the rock twice instead of speaking to it—an error trifling in itself, but betraying the irritation under which he acted, and suggesting that the copious supply was in some way due to his energy. Even so men often err greatly and do harm by acts in themselves inconsiderable which are prompted by impatience and self-will, as though the necessary supply of Divine grace and the blessings of the gospel were really dependent upon their efforts. If we are stewards of the grace of God at all, we have to act

(1) with careful obedience towards him,

(2) with quiet patience towards his people, knowing that the result lies altogether with him.

10. That Moses was probably tempted to speak and act as he did because God had said to him, "Thou shalt bring forth to them water," &c. Even so we find our temptation to a self-asserting temper which dishonours God in the fact that God has really made the interests of religion (humanly speaking) dependent upon his servants' efforts. It is our trial to remember this as far as labour and earnestness are concerned, to forget it (or rather to remember the complemental truth) as far as personal feeling's are concerned.

11. That God did not withhold the stream because Moses acted wrongly. Even so the blessings of the word and sacraments are not withheld from the souls of men because there is error and even disobedience in those that minister them.

12. That God punished Moses and Aaron with personal exclusion from the promised land because they had failed to sanctify him in the eyes of the people; i.e; they had, as far as in them lay, obscured the revelation of the Divine power and goodness, and impaired the good effect of it upon the people. Even so God will certainly lay sin to the charge of all who, being in any way his representatives to others, have in anything dimmed the luster of his beauty or distorted the features of his perfection in their eyes. Thus have all, even Moses, sinned and come short of the glory of God, so that none have wholly pleased him except Christ (Matthew 3:17; Matthew 17:5; 2 Peter 1:17); nor can any look for an entrance into rest save in Christ.

13. That the Lord was sanctified in the children of Israel at Meribah, albeit his appointed servants failed to sanctify him. Their sentence was perhaps the most effective possible revelation of his exceeding holiness. Even so the Lord will make his glory to be known and felt through his servants if they be faithful, but without them if they be faithless. He will be sanctified in us to our great reward in the one ease, to our shame and sorrow in the other.


1. That he was now very old, in his hundred and twentieth year. An irritable and hasty temper is the special temptation of old age.

2. That he had shown the same temper on at least one previous occasion (Joshua 11:1-23), and had then been betrayed into the use of unseemly and untrue language, which ought to have been a warning to him. There is nothing which people have more need to watch very carefully than their temper, for there is nothing that grows upon a man more certainly than bad temper.

3. That God had been very forbearing with him on that occasion, but on this was very strict; the reason no doubt being that then Moses uttered his unreasonable and passionate complaints only in the ear of God, whereas now his angry insolence was vented upon the people. If we address ourselves directly to God he will receive graciously even the outpourings of a disordered and embittered mind, and we shall find relief; if we reserve our angry temper for our neighbours—much more for those committed to our keeping—God will be sore displeased at us for their sakes. Art thou angry? Go and complain to God (cf. Psalms 77:3, P.B.V.).


1. That Israel had reason to expect no friendly treatment from Edom, because of the bad conduct of Jacob towards Esau, which had left an angry and jealous spirit in the minds of his descendants against Israel. The quarrels and injuries of individuals bear evil fruit in years to come, and in after generations, and that especially among brethren, whether in blood or in religion.

2. That, nevertheless, Israel addressed Edom as his brother, and bespoke his friendly sympathy and help. We are bound to treat others as our brethren, and to approach them as such, and to bespeak their sympathy in our religious interests, until we are actually repulsed.

3. That Israel did not claim any right, as the chosen people of God, to be served by Edom, or to take anything of him without payment, but only asked the ordinary courtesy due to a friendly people. In addressing ourselves to others in matters of this world we must be careful to ask and to expect only what is strictly fair and reasonable from their point of view, and not to claim any exceptional regard or deference because we are more highly-favoured than they.

4. That when Israel found himself rudely denied and opposed, he did not attempt to avenge himself, but turned away from Edom. If we meet with opposition and hostility where we looked for help and sympathy, it is useless to complain, and wicked to bear malice; the only thing is to turn away from such, and leave them to God and to themselves.

5. That the hostile conduct of Edom was not forgotten of God, but in due time (not being amended) was punished. It is a great sin, out of personal (or collective) jealousy and dislike, to cast obstacles in the path of others, or to refuse them such friendly assistance as they seek of us.


1. That it testified to the infirmity of human nature at its greatest. Aaron had been invested with a sacred character, and to that generation (which had not known his origin) must have seemed an awful being, almost more than man; yet he died, and was not.

2. That it testified to the inherent imperfection of the Levitical priesthood, in that Aaron could not continue by reason of death, so that the continuance of the office depended upon natural succession, which must some day fail—and has failed.

3. That it testified to the exceeding sinfulness of sin. For one little sin. and one to which he was merely accessory, the high priest must die without even beholding the land so long sought, and now so nearly found.

4. That the demise of Aaron in that lonely mountain, in a foreign land, testified to the mysterious and typical character of his office. The anointed of the Lord, although, as being man and sinful, he must die, yet not as other men die, but in a vast far solitude alone with God.

5. That the transfer of the priestly robes from Aaron to Eleazar testified that the priesthood was abiding, and would abide until it vested in One who should live for ever. Therefore was it effected out of sight of the people, and far above them, in order that no gap or interval might be perceptible to them.

6. That the mourning for Aaron during thirty clays testified that, with all his faults, he was yet honoured as a great leader in Israel; and perhaps this too, that Aaron as a man was not so swallowed up in Aaron as a priest but that his personal loss was duly felt and lamented.


Numbers 20:12


There must have been something in this sin of Moses at the crag in Kadesh very unworthy of his high place, and very displeasing to God. The sharpness of the Lord's reprimand and the severity of the punishment make this sufficiently clear. By Moses himself the punishment was felt to be severe. And no marvel. For eighty long years he had waited and laboured for the fulfillment of the promise. During the last thirty-seven of these he had been cheering himself with the hope that he, along with Joshua and Caleb, and the men of the younger generation, would be suffered to take possession of the land. This lay so near his heart that, after learning that he was not to set foot within the promised rest, he laboured hard to get the sentence reversed (Deuteronomy 3:25).

I. WHAT THEN WAS MOSES' SIN? Two circumstances are obvious on the face of the story.

1. Moses, being directed to speak to the rock that it might give forth its water, smote it instead with the rod of God which was in his hazed; and this he did not once only, but twice.

2. He spoke to the people, not with meekness and calm authority, but in heat and bitterness. "Ye rebels, must we fetch you water out of this rock?" Thus he "spake unadvisedly with his lips" (Psalms 106:33). It is not difficult to understand how Moses should have so far forgotten himself on this occasion. Let the facts be weighed. The servant of the Lord is now 120 years old. The generation which sinned thirty-seven years ago, and was condemned to die in the wilderness, is nearly all gone. Moses is mortified to find that the new generation is infected with a touch of the same impatient unbelief which wrought in their fathers so much mischief. No sooner are they at a loss for water than they rise against Moses with rebellious murmurings. For once he loses command of himself. On all former occasions of the kind his meekness was unshaken; he either held his peace, or prayed for the rebels, or at most called on the Lord to be his Witness and Judge. Now he breaks out into bitter chidings. At the root of this there was a secret failure of faith. "Ye believed me not,"—did not thoroughly rely on my faithfulness and power,—"to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel" (verse 12). His former meekness had been the fruit of faith. He had been thoroughly persuaded that the Lord who was with him could accomplish all he had promised, and therefore he faced every difficulty with calm and patient resolution. Now a touch of unbelief bred in him hastiness and bitterness of spirit.


1. The failings of good men may be culpable in God's sight and displeasing to him out of all proportion to the degree of blameworthiness they present to our eye. So far is it from being true (as many seem to think) that believers' sins are no sins at all, and need give no concern, that, on the contrary, the Lord dislikes the stain of sin most when it is seen in his dear children. The case of Moses is not singular. Sins which the Lord overlooks in other men he will occasionally put some mark of special displeasure upon, when they are committed by one who is eminent for holiness and honourable service. It is, no doubt, a just instinct which leads all right-thinking people to be blind to the failings of good men who have been signally useful in their day. But if the good men become indulgent to their own faults they are likely to be rudely awakened to a sense of their error. The better a man is, his sins may be the more dishonouring to God. A spot hardly visible on the coat of a labouring man, may be glaringly offensive on the shining raiment of a throned king.

2. The sins we are least inclined to may nevertheless be the sins which will bring us to the bitterest grief. Every man has his weak side. There are sins to which our natural disposition or the circumstances of our up-bringing lay us peculiarly open; and it is without doubt a good rule to be specially on our guard in relation to these sins. Yet the rule must not be applied too rigidly. When Dumbarton Rock was taken, it was not by assailing the fortifications thrown up to protect its one weak side, but by scaling it at a point where the precipitous height seemed to render defense or guard unnecessary. Job was the most patient of men, yet he sinned through impatience. Peter was courageous, yet he fell through cowardice. Moses was the meekest of men, yet he fell through bitterness of Spirit. We have need to guard well not our weak points only, but the points also at which we deem ourselves to be strong.—B.

Numbers 20:23-29


The fortieth year of the Wanderings, remarkable in so many other respects, was remarkable also for this, that it witnessed the removal of the three great children of Amram, who had been the leaders of the nation from the time that the Lord began to plague the Egyptians till the day that the host removed from the camping-ground at Kadesh. Of the three, Miriam, seemingly the eldest, was the first to be removed. She died, and was buried at Kadesh, in the beginning of the year. Aaron. the elder of the brothers, followed in the fifth month. Lastly, Moses died at the end of the year. The surpassing fame of Moses has thrown that of Miriam and Aaron into the shade. Nevertheless, they were eminent both for sanctity and public usefulness. It was not the least of the Lord's benefits that they, as well as Moses, were spared to the people during so many years.

I. THE TERMS IN WHICH THE DEATH OF AARON IS FORETOLD (Numbers 20:23). Moses is the first to hear of the coming event; and there is something of wrath, or at least of displeasure, against both him and Aaron in the way in which it is announced: "Ye shall not enter the land, because ye rebelled against my word at Meribah." But the displeasure is only, as it were, a passing frown. There is in the words much more of loving kindness and tender mercy. Not only is the saintly high priest forewarned of his approaching departure, but this is done in terms at once most kindly in tone and strongly suggestive of hope regarding the future life. "Aaron shall be gathered unto his people." Christian readers have always, as by a kind of instinct, taken this to mean that Aaron, upon his departure from this world, was to pass into the company of those who were his relatives in the truest and tenderest kindred—the patriarchs who had died in faith before him, the congregation of the righteous beyond the grave. The interpretation is distasteful to certain critics, who have persuaded themselves that in the Mosaic age the views and hopes of the best of men were bounded by the grave. It is easy to cite texts which seem to countenance that low estimate of the views which God had opened up to the early saints of the patriarchal and Mosaic times. But after all it is no better than a paradox, as hard to reconcile with historical fact as with the instinctive perceptions of devout readers of God's word. It is a familiar fact that the Egyptians, among whom Moses and Aaron were brought up, not only believed that men survive the dissolution of the body, but occupied their minds exceedingly about the other world. In the absence of clear and explicit statements to the contrary, we must suppose that Moses and Aaron knew at least as much as the Egyptians, and looked for a continued conscious existence after death. But we are not left to surmise. What can this "gathered unto his people" mean? It cannot mean "buried in the sepulcher where the ashes of his kindred lie," for in that sense neither Aaron nor Moses was ever gathered to his people. Each was buried in a Solitary grave. Nor can it mean merely" gathered to the mighty congregation of the dead" (although that also would imply continued existence after death), for the phrase is used in Scripture regarding none but the righteous (Genesis 25:8, Genesis 25:17; Genesis 35:29; Genesis 49:33, &c.). What then do we gather from this intimation?

1. There is, beyond the grave, a congregation of the righteous, where those who die in faith shall enjoy the congenial society of their own people—men and women like-minded with themselves. Surely a most comfortable thought I A great change has no doubt taken place in the view presented to faith of the future life ever since our blessed Lord rose and ascended. The ancient conception of the heavenly life has been thrown into the shade by the conception of it as being "for ever with the Lord." Yet the ancient conception has lost nothing either of its truth or of its power to comfort. A new source of comfort has now been added, but the old one has not been superseded. We who believe in Christ look forward not only to "the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ," but to" our gathering together unto him" (2 Thessalonians 2:1).

2. Into the congregation of the righteous God is careful to gather his people when they die. They are not driven away into darkness—dismissed like Judas to their own place. They are gathered; they are taken home: with care, that none be lost; with loving kindness also, that they may not fear.


1. He was divested of his office and robes before he died, and they were transferred to Eleazar in his sight. The priest was to die, but the priesthood was to live. The priesthood was entailed in Aaron's house, but the entail had not yet been confirmed by long transmission. To prevent any attempt to alter the succession, the transference took place while Aaron was yet alive. Probably there was an eye also to Aaron's comfort. It would be a satisfaction to him to see his son invested with office before he died.

2. Aaron's death and burial took place on Mount Her. This was, in the first instance, designed for publicity. Eleazar was to be high priest to the congregation. It was due to them that his investiture should take place in their sight (cf. Numbers 27:22). Ordination to a public office ought to take place in public. This particular mountain was chosen because from it Aaron's eye might descry the southern outskirts of the land of promise. Moses and Aaron were forbidden to enter it; but to each there was vouchsafed a distant prospect of it before he died.

REFLECTION. In this life good and evil are inextricably conjoined. Within the same town, in the same street, in the same congregation, in the same family, there are to be found believers and unbelievers, just and unjust, children of God and children of the wicked one. But hereafter there will come a great severance—lamentable separations, joyous reunions. The haters of God will be taken from among the just, and be dismissed to their own place. The lovers of God will be gathered to their own people, and sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom. This being so, it behooves me to ask myself the question, Who are my people? What is rite people whose likeness I bear, whose company is to me congenial, whoso tastes I share?—B.


Numbers 20:12


There are various ways in which we may show that sin is "exceeding sinful:" i.e; the character of God; the precepts of his ceremonial and moral law; the words and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Not the least impressive proof of God s estimate of sin is God's chastisement of his sinning children. Confining ourselves to the conduct of Moses, we note—

I. THE NATURE OF MOSES' SIN. It is described in Numbers 20:12, but is not easy to analyze.

1. Its root appears to have been a temporary failure of faith, indicated by the words "must we," or, "shall we bring you water," &c. In spite of the promise (Numbers 20:8), he expressed uncertainty as to whether such rebels will be gratified. Unbelief is infectious, and needs a robust faith to resist it. Like a powerful electric current, only a strong non-conductor can arrest its course. Apply to Christians fearing they must fail in their labours because of unbelief in others (cf. Matthew 17:17, Matthew 17:20). This distrust led to further faults, such as—

2. Haste of temper. Words, acts, and manner indicated this. May it not have been that because of his distrust, at the first blow, the water did not flow forth? Or was it that both blows were given in great haste? "He that believeth shall not make haste."

3. Disregard of instructions in striking when merely told to speak (cf. Deuteronomy 4:2; Deuteronomy 12:32; Proverbs 30:5, Proverbs 30:6).

4. The appearance, at least, of assuming too much honour to himself and Aaron, and thus failing to "sanctify" God before the people (Psalms 106:33). Distrustful or disobedient thoughts, when shut up, like rebels, within the citadel of the heart, do mischief enough and give a world of trouble; but if they sally forth in the form of words they may cause public injury and lead to consequences some of which may be irreparable. Combining the resolution of Psalms 39:1 with the prayer of Psalms 141:3, we may be safe. Yet in considering Moses' sin we may see—


1. Great provocations from the rebels, who, after all the lessons of the past, inherited and perpetuated their fathers' sins (cf. Exodus 16:3; Exodus 17:3; Numbers 11:5).

2. His first public offence. He was "very meek" (Numbers 12:3), and he needed to be. Now for the first time his meekness failed him.

3. His sin was very brief—a temporary failure of faith, causing a passing gust of anger, yet soon over; he was not "greatly moved" (Psalms 62:2).

4. It led to no public evil consequences appreciable by the congregation. But though we may see in our own sins or the sins of others many circumstances that seem to palliate the offence, we must not expect to escape chastisement if we reflect on—

III. MOSES' PUNISHMENT. Moses had one cherished desire of his life, that, having led the people through the wilderness, he might conduct them into the promised land. Illustrate this from the scene graphically suggested to our imagination in Deuteronomy 3:23-27. True, the punishment was only for this life, and, like many other of God's fatherly chastisements, was overruled for his child's good in sparing him from future conflicts (cf. 1Co 2:1-16 :32). But still it was a punishment, reminding us of the great sin of disobedience even under palliating circumstances. And the penalty may be more serious. Illustrate from the ease of the disobedient prophet deceived at Bethel (1 Kings 13:1-34); or from some case we may have known of a life blighted through one sin of haste or disobedience in word or act. The favour of God brings with it great privileges, but imposes on us grave responsibilities (cf. Amos 3:2; Luke 12:47; 1 Peter 4:17). What need for the confession and the prayer, Psalms 19:12-14!—P.

Numbers 20:28


This chapter begins with the death of Miriam and ends with Aaron's decease. No chapter of any length in the history even of a godly family without death in it. In every believer's death there is a blending of judgment and mercy. In this case we see—

I. JUDGMENT. Aaron's death was—

1. A chastisement (Numbers 20:24; Romans 5:12; Romans 8:10).

2. A deprivation (Numbers 20:26). His garments were taken off because his priesthood was taken away. So with the most sacred and honourable office of the Christian (Hebrews 7:23; 2 Peter 1:13-15).

3. A severance. The aged Moses loses the last companion of his early days.

4. A grief to many (Numbers 20:29).

II. MERCY; indicated in Aaron's death by such facts as these. It was,

1. A calm departure, not a sudden judgment. He was not "cut off from," but "gathered unto his people."

2. A release from the toils of life in the wilderness and the contradiction of sinners.

3. A gentle dismission from the responsibilities of office.

4. A transference of his duties and honours to a beloved son. He saw the robes and the office of the priesthood intrusted to Eleazar.

5. A promotion to the higher service of a sinless world; from the mount of communion to the heavenly Mount Zion.—P.


Numbers 20:1


1. The abiding in Kadesh. This was a return to the district occupied at the time when God pronounced the doom of wandering for forty years on the people (Numbers 13:26). We know also that the return took place as this long period was drawing to a close. There had been, so to speak, a profitless and melancholy wandering in a circle. We have but little information concerning this period, and what we have seems to have been given for the purpose of showing now rigorously God carried out the sentence. Numbers 33:1-56, tells us of the various halting-places, as if to impress us with the fact that Israel had not been allowed to go out of the wilderness. We are told of the rebellion of Korah and the giving of certain laws, but there is nothing to indicate progress. Probably, as has been suggested, there was more or less of dispersion during the forty years. God was waiting for an obstacle to be taken out of the way. In the Scriptures we do not find anything recorded unless as it bears on the advancement of the kingdom of God. Much of what the world calls history is after all mere trifling, and it is our wisdom and profit to notice not only what God has revealed, but also what he has concealed. This generation of the Israelites was thus a type of the many profitless lives that are lived in every generation. After a period of wandering and toil they come back to where they started from. There is nothing to show for all the years of weary work. Sadder still, there are many who come to be looked on as obstacles; their life stands in the way of human improvement and advance, and little or nothing can be done till they go. The return to Kadesh was like some great sign that a long and rigorous winter is drawing to its close.

2. The death of Miriam. There is a certain fitness in following up the regulations of Numbers 19:1-22 with a record of death and burial. Death had dogged these Israelites all through their wanderings. There was perhaps no halting-place but what might have had this sentence joined with it: "Such a one died there and was buried there." Why then is the death of Miriam singled out for special mention? In the first place, she was a person of distinction by her office as prophetess, particularly as she was not only a prophetess, but sister to the two chief men in Israel. Then, being so, it is very noticeable that none of the three, so eminent in their life, were allowed to enter the promised land. There is mystery in their calling, mystery in the services they are called to render, and mystery in the seeming thwarting of all their hopes. One feels the hand of God is in all this. Man proposes, and reckons with something like certainty, but God disposes in a very different fashion. Miriam had sinned a great sin (Numbers 12:1-16), but was it not a long while ago? She has lived on through all these wanderings, having seen many younger than herself falling on every hand. May she not then hope to live a little longer, and see the promised land before she dies? Perhaps such thoughts were in the aged woman's mind, perhaps many a time she had wept bitterly over her pride and envy in the past; but God's determinations cannot be set aside, and even when the earthly Canaan is again coming in sight, that sight is not for her. There was no way for Miriam, any more than the rest of us, to escape that suffering and loss in this world which so often come from wrong-doing. As to her possible part in the better country, there is necessary silence here. It is Christ who brought life and immortality to light. The great thing to be noticed is that Miriam died in Kadesh, was buried there, and consequently failed of entrance into the earthly Canaan.—Y.

Numbers 20:2-13



1. It was occasioned by a pressing and reasonable want. "There was no water for the congregation." The people were often discontented without cause, but here was a real strait. Experience shows that many so-called necessities, instead of being necessities, are even injurious. Life might be made more simple and frugal with no loss, but rather increase, of the highest joys of life. But if we are to live here at all there are some things necessary. The bread and the water must be sure.

2. There was no apparent supply for the want. We may presume that for the most part Israel had found water, even in the wilderness, without much difficulty. Unobserved and unappreciated, God may have opened up many fountains before the Israelites approached. Hence when they came to Kadesh and found the rocks dry, they hastily judged there was no water. We are very dependent on customary outward signs.

3. Past experience of similar circumstances should have led to calm faith and expectation. God had made sweet for them the bitter waters of Marah, and directly after brought them to Elim with its ample supply (Exodus 15:23-27). And when they came to Rephidim, and found no water, Moses by command of God smote the rock in Horeb (Exodus 17:1-16). But then the rising generation had not been sufficiently instructed in these things, and impressed with the goodness of God. How should unbelieving and forgetting fathers make believing and mindful children? If we would only base our expectations on what God has done in the past, we should look in vain for occasion of fear and doubt. After Jesus had fed one multitude, the disciples had yet to ask with respect to another, "Whence should we have so much bread in the wilderness, as to fill so great a multitude?" (Matthew 15:33). Consider also Matthew 16:5-10. We continually, and in the most perverse way, confine our views of what is possible within the limitations of our own natural powers. To God the wilderness is as the fruitful field, and the fruitful field as the wilderness. He can make the earth whatever pleases him (Psalms 107:33-39).

4. The complainers of the people were not confined to the urgent need. They do not approach Moses with a simple, humble plea for water. They had not considered why they had been brought to Kadesh, and that in the plans of God they were bound to come again into that district, whether water was there or not. First of all they utter an impious, hasty wish, though if it had been taken seriously they would have complained bitterly. Men are apt to say they wish they were dead when really their circumstances are more endurable than those of many who have learned, like the apostle, in whatsoever state they are, therewith to be content. A discontented heart makes a reckless tongue. The expression was used thoughtlessly enough, just as many take God's name in vain, hardly conscious of what they are saying. Next they advance to an unjust reproach. Forty years of Divine chastisements, sharp and severe, had taught them nothing. They could see nothing more than that Moses and Aaron were leading the people about at their own will. How easy it is through our ignorance of the unseen God to attribute to the men whom we do see a power immensely beyond their resources. The people came back to Kadesh as they left it, blind, ungrateful, inconsiderate as ever. Moses and Aaron, sorrowing for their dead sister, have once again to listen to accusations which long ago had been answered by God himself. The reproach is mingled with vain regrets, still surviving all these years of chastisement. There could not now be many survivors of the generation that had come out of Egypt, yet, doubtless, all the while Egypt had been so often mentioned as to have deeply infected the minds of the younger generation. Garrulous old people, who might so easily have inspired their children by telling them of God's dealings with Pharaoh in Egypt and at the Red Sea, and of all his goodness in the wilderness, were rather poisoning and prejudicing their hearts with recollections of carnal comforts and delicacies which seemed hopelessly lost. Instead of pointing out that the wilderness with all its hardships was a place of Divine manifestations, they could only see that it was no place of seeds, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates. The mention of water, coming in at the last, seems almost an after-thought, as much as to say, "Even if we had water, there would none the less be ground for great complaints."


1. The people speak against Moses and Aaron, who thereupon make their usual resort to God. Beforetime when his glory appeared in response to their appeal it was the herald of destruction (Numbers 14:10; Numbers 16:19, Numbers 16:42); but now there is no threatening of destruction. Even in the midst of their murmuring and ingratitude God recognizes their real need. Thus as we consider the work of God in Christ Jesus we find a similar recognition. Men came to Jesus with all sorts of selfish complaints; but while they found in him a pitying listener, there was no disposition to deal with them according to their complaints. God did not give to Israel at Kadesh, figs, vines, and pomegranates, but he gave water speedily and abundantly. It is made a charge against the Divine providence and government, and sometimes a ground for denying the reality of such things, that men are so unequally supplied with temporal possessions. But all this falls to the ground if only we notice how prompt, how effectual, God is in meeting real necessities. It is he who is to judge of these. There is no absolute necessity even for the bread that perisheth, but there is need, whether here or elsewhere, to be free from sin, to have that spiritual food, that bread and water of eternal life, which Jesus himself has spoken of so largely and attractively in the Gospel of John. Thus while the Jews went on wickedly complaining against Christ, showing more and more their ignorance and selfishness, he, on the other hand, went on in the midst of all, revealing, expounding, setting forth in the clear light of his matchless teaching the supreme want of men and his own adequate supply for it. We must cease clamouring for the figs, vines, and pomegranates, and be more athirst for that water of which if one drink he shall never thirst again. God will not supply everything we think to be wants. But let a man come to himself and discern his real needs, and God, like the father to the prodigal son. will run to meet him with an ample supply.

2. God makes the supply from an unlikely source. Moses was to speak to the rock before their eyes, the one nearest them at the time. There was no searching about among the hills if haply some natural reservoir might be found which a touch could open in all its fullness to the panting crowd. There was water in the rock before them, requiring nothing more than the word of God through his servant Moses. We must consider what happened as if Moses had completely carried out his instructions. Thus in many things connected with our salvation we are directed to unlikely places and unlikely methods. Who expects the King of the Jews to be born in Bethlehem? Why not in Jerusalem? Can any good thing come out of Nazareth? Shall one look for the food of a multitude among five loaves and two small fishes? Shall one look for an apostle of the Gentiles in Paul, the fierce and persecuting Jew? God makes a messenger out of the child Samuel, and a champion out of the stripling David. God delights in finding everything he needs where we can find little or nothing. We may be nearest help when to our natural judgment we may seem farthest from it.

3. There is thus a warning against all hasty judgments. We who are so utterly weak, so constantly in need of help, should be very slow to say, "Neither is there any water to drink." Let us bear in mind how ignorant we are of the Scriptures and the power of God. God will not leave his own true children unsupplied with any needful thing. He will choose the right time, and way, and form. It is the besetting sin of far too many minds to form conclusions not only when there is lack of sufficient information, but when there is no need of present conclusion at all. "Wait on the Lord, be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart." Do not say in haste and ignorance that there is no strength to be got anywhere.—Y.

Numbers 20:10-12


It was the sin of men who had been specially chosen, long occupied, often approved, and greatly honoured as servants of God. If they, being what they were, fell so easily, how important it is for us earnestly to consider the sin by which they fell! It is another proof of the hold which sin has on our nature, and of the need that we should walk warily, and look for snares at every step. Consider—


1. It was a sin of inattention. If there was anything which Moses and Aaron should have learned after forty years of service, it was that God's commandments required constant attention and exact obedience. They had a long experience of One who gave details as well as general instructions. Moreover, it was not the first time Moses had been charged to bring water from the rock. At Rephidim God said to him, "Thou shalt smite the rock" (Exodus 17:6). At Kadesh he says, "Speak to the rock." The very difference should have been enough to bring the command distinctly before him. Notice then what serious results simple inattention may bring; we know that thousands of lives have been lost by it. Furthermore, how many have failed in the attainment of salvation and spiritual blessedness through nothing more than lack of attention! They have not run greedily in the way of sin, but simply gone through a decent, reputable life, neglecting the way of salvation. In the things of God attention is required as a regular habit, not only that we may escape loss, but secure real advantage. The more attention there is, the more advantage there will be.

2. It was the inattention, of men whose very experience had made them habitually careful. Whatever Moses and Aaron may have been by nature, they bad been trained to faithfulness in little things. It has not perhaps been sufficiently noticed how diligent and exact Moses must have been in his apprehension of all that God revealed to him. When we think how easy misunderstandings are, how easy it is to get wrong impressions and be confused among details, then we feel how very carefully Moses must have listened. Aaron also in his priestly service was a man of derail.

3. Hence there must have been some extraordinary disturbing cause to throw them out of their usual carefulness. What this was we can hardly make out with certainty. In the murmuring and repining of the people there was nothing new either as to spirit or language. Moses had listened to the same sort of attack before, and through it all kept his meekness and feeling of personal unworthiness. But as the last straw breaks tile camel's back, so even the patience of Moses became at last exhausted. The weight of years and cares united were telling on him. He was now Moses the aged, and though we are assured that when he died his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated, yet we must not so take these words as to free him from every infirmity of age. It was a very hard thing for a man after forty years of service, through all which he had kept the consciousness of a heart true to God and to Israel, to have the people still meet him with the old ingratitude and the old slanders. Thus it was that he went into the presence of God with a mind preoccupied, thinking a great deal more about the rebellious spirit of the people than about the glory of his Master. There is no safety but in keeping God first in our thoughts. We must be like the house founded on the rock, never disconnected from it. The nature of the foundation may seem to matter little in calm weather, but the foundation and our connection with it are everything when the tempest comes. Let a believer wear the whole armour of God, and he is invincible, but let him lay it aside for a single moment, and the waiting, watching enemy may inflict a painful, serious, humiliating wound, even if it be not a mortal one.


1. In a want of faith. "Because ye believed me not." God says nothing about inattention or irritation, but goes at once to the root of the matter. Moses had failed in faith; not altogether, of course, for the very fact that he took the rod and approached the rock shows some faith and some spirit of obedience; but still faith must have been lacking, and to a very serious extent. It has been suggested that, seeing the spirit of the people, Moses was after all in doubt whether another long term of wanderings might not be in store for them. The one clear thing is that God ascribes the sin with its serious consequences to unbelief. Outwardly nothing appears but inattention and irritation; inwardly there is an unbelieving heart. Perhaps even Moses himself may have been startled to hear such a charge, and utterly unconscious that his faith was seriously imperiled. Had he been charged with inattention irritation, want of strict obedience, these were only too plain; but want of faith! Nothing but the clear word of God could make that credible. The lesson to us is that an impaired faith may be the cause of many of our spiritual troubles. We, worse than Moses, may be habitually inattentive and irritable, and afflicted with the sad consciousness that the habits are becoming more and more fixed. To treat them by direct effort is only to mitigate the symptoms of a deep disease, but to get into a truly believing state of mind, to have faith, and to have it more abundantly, will soon weaken and ultimately destroy these harassing spiritual infirmities.

2. In a consequent failure to sanctify God in the eyes of the people. The unbelief of Moses was not only a loss to him personally, but those who were out of the way already it led still further out of the way. All eyes were looking to Moses; his fall was not that of some obscure man. Furthermore, he made God's action appear stern and wrathful just at the very time when it was intended to be specially gracious. For forty years the people had been under God's displeasure. Now the gloomy cloud was breaking, the time for entrance into Canaan drawing near, and at the very place where God had once appeared in wrath he evidently intends now to appear in grace and mercy. But the conduct of Moses and Aaron spoils all this beautiful revelation. It was a strange reversal of what had hitherto happened. We no longer see God threatening wrath, and Moses offering ingenious pleas for mercy, but God is now gracious, overlooking a time of ignorance, and Moses, whom one would have expected to see radiant with benignity and satisfaction, goes to the very extreme of denunciation. The grace of the benefit was utterly spoiled. It seemed as if God threw down a supply for the people's need, as a churlish hand might fling a loaf at a beggar. We must labour to live as Christ would have us live, so that men may glorify God in us, and find no occasion to blaspheme; following in the footsteps of him who was able to say, "I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do" (John 17:4).

III. THE WAY IN WHICH THE SIN WAS PUNISHED. Those who fail to sanctify God before the people, and make his glory to appear, must in turn bear humiliation before the people. This was not a private intimation to Moses and Aaron, so that only they knew the reason why they were to die before entrance on the promised land. The publication of the doom was needed. Moses himself at the beginning of Deuteronomy (Numbers 1:37) seems to make some allusion to this doom upon him: "The Lord was angry with me for your sakes, saying, Thou also shalt not go in thither;" though certainly there is some difficulty arising from the blending of these words with the general doom on the Israelites forty years before. Anyway it is plain that the people knew Moses was to die with the doomed generation. His death happening as it did was a kind of blotting out of all that seemed harsh in the giving of the water. It was an. impressive reminder to all future generations of what God had meant to be done. We must not exaggerate this penalty beyond its proper extent and purpose. To the people it would seem very great, and to Moses also at that time it would seem great. But, at the worst, it was only a temporal deprivation. Moses lost the earthly Canaan, but the better land he did not lose. Who was it that appeared in glory to Jesus on the mount? This very Moses, with whom God for a time dealt so sternly. The greatest of temporal losses, the one that now brings most pain, and seems as if it never could be made up, will look a very little thing from among the attainments of eternity. What shall it hurt a man if he lose the whole world and gain a place in the inheritance of the saints in light? Learn, lastly, that none can humiliate us or bring us into loss but ourselves. It may not be our own fault if we are ridiculed; it is always our own fault if we are ridiculous. Moses had suffered many things from the people in the way of scorn and threatening, but through all these things he moves with unimpaired hopes and possessions. It is his own unbelief that brings this bitter disappointment. One traitor within the gates is more dangerous than all the army outside.—Y.

Numbers 20:14-21



1. It is the claim of a kinsman, even a brother. The message is not from Moses, but "thy brother Israel," who was also a twin-brother. The long intervening space of years seems to fade away, and with it the hosts of the Israelites and Edomites. Jacob and Esau stand before us, as on the morning of reconciliation, after the wrestling at Peniel (Genesis 33:1-20). The descendants had passed through very different experiences, and were now in very different positions; but Moses felt that this common ancestry constituted a claim which he might reasonably plead. So wherever the believer travels, though he cannot put in the claim of grace upon the unbeliever, he may put in the claim of nature. "God hath made of one blood all nations of men," said the Jew Paul to the Gentiles of Athens. The changes of grace transform the ties of nature, but do not destroy them. Believers must always do their best to keep hold of unbelievers by virtue of their common humanity. Israel must remind Edom of brotherhood, not only that Israel may profit by the tie, but may also have the chance of profiting Edom (1 Corinthians 7:12-16).

2. It is the claim of a kinsman in need. We are not told exactly how the request came to be made. God commanded the people to pass through the coasts of Edom (Deuteronomy 2:4), and the presumption is that Moses discovered on approach that the way through Edom would be the most direct and convenient to the land of Canaan. One gets the impression that the people were now allowed to make their way to Canaan with what speed they could, as if to make contrast with the penal delay which God had so long and sternly imposed. If Edom had been willing, Israel might have got to Jordan all the sooner. And so the Church of Christ, in its onward rush, has had to plead with the world, its brother, for toleration and free passage, freedom to speak and act according to conviction. Our chief resort, and always our last one, is to God himself, but there are some ways in which the world can help. Paul counted it part of his advantage, as an apostle, that he could plead for justice, protection: and free course as a Roman before Roman tribunals.

3. It is the claim of a kinsman who had been through very peculiar experiences. The great need of Israel was that it wanted to get home again. The plea is the plea of an exile, who has been in a strange land for a long time, and amid cruel oppressors. Further, the experiences had been peculiar not only in respect of the cruelty of men, but also of the goodness of God. He had sent an angel to deliver and guide. More indication Moses could not give, because it would not have been understood. So peculiar had these experiences been that Edom had heard something of them. The presumption is that all through the past Edom had known something of Israel's history, and Israel something of Edom's. The histories of the Church and the world intermingle. The world cannot but know such experiences of the Church as are perceptible to the eye of sense. "This thing was not done in a corner," said Paul to the incredulous Festus. The course of the Church has been one of sufferings, marvels and mysteries, interpositions and favours of God, which are not to be concealed in any appeals which are to be made to the world. "He hath not dealt so with any nation" (Psalms 147:20). "Blessed is the nation whoso God is the Lord; and the people whom he hath chosen for his own inheritance" (Psalms 33:12).

4. It asks comparatively little, and promises much in return. The request throws great light on Moses' own character, and shows clearly how far he was from reckless ambition. It was an honest request, founded in truth, and Moses made it as one quite reasonable and safe for Edom to grant. The people of God have but little to ask the world for themselves, if it will but let them go through quietly and peaceably. They want none of this world's goods and pleasures, and are ready to assure it that these will remain untouched. There is nothing in the shape of a holy city, a new Jerusalem, among this world's possessions. It is a grand assurance to give, that no one in the world will be the worse for the true Christians who pass through it. Moses might even have said, "Let us through, and a blessing will rest upon you." Wherever the Christian goes, he not simply refrains from evil, but does positive good. "Ye are the salt of the earth; ye are the light of the world."


1. It was rejected without giving reasons. There is no answer but that of the "much people" and the drawn sword. This in general has been the method by which the world has met the Church when pleading for toleration, liberty of conscience, liberty to serve God according to his will. The world in its pride will not stoop to understand or calmly consider what the Church may feel it needful to ask. It gets its brute force ready at once, whether in coarser or more refined forms, for those who have different purposes and sympathies (Acts 4:3, Acts 4:17, Acts 4:18; Acts 5:18, Acts 5:40; Acts 7:57, Acts 7:58; Acts 9:1, Acts 9:2; Acts 14:5, Acts 14:19, &c.).

2. Though no reasons were given, yet Edom had them, strong and potent, in its heart. It is not always easy or decent to avow reasons for action; beside which, Edom felt that promptitude in action was required. Moses had sent a message which called up all the past, nut only what he wished called up, but many things he would rather not have brought to mind. The name of Esau's brother was Jacob as well as Israel, and both names were connected with disturbing recollections to the Edomites. "Thou knowest," said Moses. But his way of presenting the facts, and that alone, could not be confidingly accepted by Edom. A great deal of ugly and disquieting news must have filtered through with respect to this great host of fighting men. The great difficulty Moses had in keeping them in order was probably not unknown to surrounding peoples. Thus the Edomites would feel in their hearts that the pledges of Moses were but as broken reeds to rely on. How could he be responsible for the orderliness and honesty of such a host, a host with such a suspicious history? The world has ever had its instinctive fears of the Church. It bears of certain promises and prophecies, and interprets these against its own present security. Herod, trembling for his throne, slays the infants of Bethlehem to make sure of it. The world, loving its own and thinking there is nothing like it, ignorantly supposes that its possessions must stand esteemed by the Church in the same way. Edom, in its suspicious spirit, looked on Israel much as the Jews in Thessalonica on Paul and Silas: "These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also." The Church says, "I am thy friend, O world, thy brother; I will not harm thee;" but the world thinks it well to he on the safe side, and give no chance of harm, if it can prevent it.

3. The refusal of Edom emphasizes the peculiar destiny of Israel. Moses said that Israel wanted nothing of all Edom's treasures. Its treasures were elsewhere, and it pressed onward to possess them. Nevertheless, the treasures of Edom would not have been without temptation, and Edom, unconsciously, spares Israel a trial of its steadfastness. The true people of God have reason to be thankful even for the intolerance of the world. The delays and toils of circuitous roads, where mountains and hills are not yet brought low, nor the crooked made straight, and the rough ways smooth, may have more advantages than in the midst of present discomforts we dream of. The temporal prosperity of its members has not been the boon to the Church that many think. The great boon is to have God continually impressing on our minds that this is not our home. "I gave our brethren a solemn caution not to love the world, neither the things of the world. This will be their grand danger. As they are industrious and frugal, they must needs increase in goods. This appears already in London, Bristol, and most other trading towns. Those who are in business have increased in substance seven-fold, some of them twenty, yea, a hundred-fold. What need then have these of the strongest warnings, lest they be entangled therein and perish!" (‘Wesley's Journal,' 3:139).—Y.

Numbers 20:22-29


The chapter, beginning with the death of the sister, closes with the death of the brother, and Moses, in the midst of many official anxieties, is further smitten with great personal bereavement. But not a word of his feeling appears. This is a history of the children of Israel, and the death of Aaron is recorded here not because of Aaron the man, but because of Aaron the priest. The whole solemn event, peculiarly dignified in the transaction of it, is peculiarly dignified also in the record of it. He who had been Specially holy to God during his life passes away in circumstances accordant with the dignity and holiness of his office.

I. HIS DEATH, NEVERTHELESS, IS A PENAL ONE. All the holiness of the office cannot obliterate, it cannot even condone, the sin of the man. Great as his privileges had been, and great as the power shown when he stood successfully between the living and the dead, the difference between him and his brethren was only in office, not in nature. The people were to be impressed with the fact that the priest was not only a great chosen mediator, but a sinful brother. He died, not in the seclusion and privacy of a tent, but upon the mountain, in sight of all the congregation. His part in the sin of Meribah, subordinate as that part seemed, could not be passed over. The sin of omission is as serious as the sin of commission. God had spoken the command in the ears of both the brothers, and what Moses failed to recollect or attend to, Aaron should have supplied from his own knowledge. Thus holy, faithful, and honourable as his life might rightly be called, his sin at the hour of death is brought right into the foreground. We justly magnify the lives of God's servants, and point with satisfaction to the serenity and expectancy that mark their closing days, and often their closing hour itself, but never let us forget what sin has had to do in bringing them where they are. It is because of Christ that his people die peacefully, but it is because of sin that they have to die at all. He surely dies the calmest who, forgetting his own good works, casts himself, more conscious than ever of his sin, on the mercy of God and the redeeming work of Christ.

II. THOUGH PENAL, IT WAS TRANQUIL; we may even say it was hopeful. A great deal—more than we can fathom—may be hidden in that expression, "gathered unto his people." If Aaron did not receive the promise, it was because he could not be made perfect without us (Hebrews 11:39, Hebrews 11:40). The man who presumptuously neglected the passover was to be cut off from among his people (Numbers 9:13; Numbers 15:30); Korah and his companions perished from among, the congregation; but Aaron was gathered to his people. Doubtless he went up in repentance, faith, obedience, and deep humility to face the great mystery. Though he had sinned at Meribah, disobedience to God and self-seeking were not the chosen and beloved principles in his life. It is a dreadful thing to die in sin, but to the repentant sinner, showing his repentance in sufficient and appropriate fruits, and steadfastly believing in Christ, how can death be dreadful? Many who have lived in long bondage to the fear of death have been wonderfully relieved and calmed as the dreaded hour drew nigh.

"Many shapes
Of Death, and many are the ways that lead
To his grim cave, all dismal; yet to sense
More terrible at th' entrance than within."

III. THE CONTINUITY OF HOLY SERVICE IS PROVIDED FOR. Among the kingdoms of this world the cry is, "The king is dead—long live the king." The departing king keeps his authority and pomp to the last breath. But here while Aaron is still alive, before death can stain those rich and holy garments with its hated touch, they are taken from the father and assumed by the son. Consider this transfer of office thus made, in the light of Numbers 19:1-22. It was not on Aaron's part a spontaneous abdication,—that he could not make,—but a further significant hint how abominable death is to God. It is not the priest who dies, but the sinful man. There in the sight of all the people it was signified that though they had lost the man, never for a moment had they lost the priest. There was nothing Aaron had done which Eleazar could not do as welt. Aaron personally does not seem to have been a very remarkable man; if anything, wanting in individuality, and easily led. Do not let us look with apprehension when those who seem to be pillars are giving way. The word of Jesus should reassure our doubts, and make us utterly ashamed of them. "Lo, I am with you alway, even to the end of the world."—Y.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Numbers 20". The Pulpit Commentary. 1897.