Numbers Chapter 20
Verses 20:1 – 22:1: These chapters record the beginning of the transition from the old generation (represented by Miriam and Aaron), to the new generation (represented by Eleazar). Geographically, Israel moves from Kadesh (20:1), to the plains of Moab (22:1), from where the conquest of the Land would be launched (there is an interval of 37 years between 19:22 and 20:1).
This passage deals with the march from Kadesh to the plains of Moab. This is the third and last travel narrative in Exodus through Numbers. The first was from the Red Sea to Sinai (Exodus 13-19); and the second from Sinai to Kadesh (Num. chapters 11 & 12).
Verses 1-13: Just as the children of Israel failed to trust in the Lord (14:11), and thus were not allowed to go into the Promised Land (14:30), Israel’s leaders, Moses and Aaron, would also not go into the Land because of failure to trust in the Lord.
Numbers 20:1 “Then came the children of Israel, [even] the whole congregation, into the desert of Zin in the first month: and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there.”
“Then”: It was now in the fortieth year after the Exodus. Aaron died in the fortieth year according to (Numbers 33:38, and his death is recorded in this chapter (verses 22-29). There is no mention of mourning following Miriam’s death, in contrast to the death of Aaron (verse 29), or Moses (Deut. 34:8).
“In the first month”: The year is not stated. However, at the end of this chapter, there is a report of the death of Aaron. According to (NHm. 33:38), Aaron died on the first day of the fifth month of the fortieth year after the Exodus from Egypt. Thus, the first month here must be of the fortieth year. Most of the older generation had died in the wilderness.
“Kadesh”: As the people had begun their wilderness wanderings at Kadesh (13:26), so they ended them there. Kadesh was located on the northern boundary of the wilderness of Paran (13:26), and on the southeast border of the wilderness of Zin.
“Miriam died”: Miriam, who led Israel in celebrating the victory over Egypt at the Red Sea (Exodus 15:20-21), also led the attack against Moses recorded in (Num. 12:1-15). Her death served as a symbol that the old generation would not enter Canaan.
We have mentioned before, the similarity between the march of the Israelites across the wilderness to their Promised Land, and the Christians journey through life on their way to their promised land (Heaven). I have said many times before; the most important thing is being able to enter into the Promised Land. There are hardships along the way and death of friends and loved ones, but we must stay steadfast in the faith. This seems to be an end of a very long journey here. They are back at Zin. They had been here 38 years before, and lacking in enough faith to go into the Promised Land. The first month of their year is Abib, or about the same as our April. The people have stopped at Kadesh. Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, died and was buried here. They probably mourned her for a month as was the custom. It seems, they stayed in this camp three or four months.
Verses 2-13: This incident resembles the first occasion when Israel complained about a total lack of water (Exodus 17:1-7). Both times the people “chode with Moses” and asked, “Wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt?” Both times Moses is told “take the rod”, the same rod with which he had performed miracles (Exodus 7:20; 14:16), and use it to bring water out of the rock. And both places are called “Meribah”, meaning “To Strive”. The verb in the command of (verse 8 is plural), indicating that Aaron was to be involved. In Exodus, Moses was commanded to strike the rock, whereas this action constitutes the essence of his disobedience. God told them to “take the rod … gather thou the assembly together” and “speak ye unto the rock”. But instead Moses “took the rod … gathered the congregation together”, and spoke to them in anger, calling them “rebels”, and then “smote the rock twice”. Moses’ unbelief was evident by his disobedience in not carrying out God’s instructions precisely. By not doing so he did not “sanctify me” [that is, set God apart, elevate Him as sovereign], “in the eyes of the children of Israel”, and forfeited his privilege to bring the people into the Promised Land (verse 12). Aaron was also included in the prohibition.
Numbers 20:2 “And there was no water for the congregation: and they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron.”
“No water”: During Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness, water was their greatest physical need. The Lord had provided it continually, beginning at Horeb (Exodus 17:1-7). The present lack of water stirred the people to contend with Moses.
There was no water for the people to drink, and they immediately blame Moses and Aaron. There was no mention of a shortage of water in this area, when they were here before, so this is, probably, just a passing shortage of water.
Numbers 20:3 “And the people chode with Moses, and spake, saying, Would God that we had died when our brethren died before the LORD!”
“Would God that we had died when our brethren died”: The situation was so desperate in the people’s mind that they wished they had been among those who died in Korah’s rebellion (16:41-50).
The word “chode” means murmured. This is the same thing their fathers did every time anything went wrong. On this point, they have not changed. This wishing they had died earlier has become a habit.
Numbers 20:4 “And why have ye brought up the congregation of the LORD into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there?”
The wilderness of Zin. Whither by various marches and journeys, and through different stations, they were at length come.
“That we and our cattle should die there?” With thirst. They seem to represent it, as if this was the end, design, and intention of Moses and Aaron in bringing them thither. Their language is much the same with their fathers on a like occasion. Which shows the bad influence of example, and how careful parents should be of their words and actions. That their posterity be not harmed by them (see Exodus 17:3).
This is almost identical to the complaint their fathers had made. The few who remained who had known Egypt, were the ones who started this. It seems one complainer speaks for everyone.
Numbers 20:5 “And wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in unto this evil place? it [is] no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither [is] there any water to drink.”
They represent that affair in such a light, as if they were forced out of Egypt by Moses and Aaron against their wills. Or at least were over persuaded by them to do what they had no inclination, namely, to come out of Egypt. Though they were in the utmost bondage and slavery. And their lives were made bitter by it, and they cried by reason of their oppression, and the hardships they endured. But this was all forgot. Aben Ezra says, it is a strange word which is here used, which shows the confusion they were in.
“To bring us unto this evil place”: Dry and barren, where there was neither food nor drink, as follows.
“It is no place of seed”: Or fit for sowing, as the Targum of Jonathan. Any sort of seed, as wheat, barley, rye, rice, etc.
“Or of figs, or vines, or pomegranates”: It is not a soil fit to plant such trees in. Nor would they grow were they planted.
“Neither is there any water to drink”: For them and their cattle, and therefore must be a miserable place for so large a body of people to subsist in.
These ungrateful people had been miraculously fed for 40 years, and yet they were not satisfied. Moses did not make them come out of Egypt. They have forgotten the hard bondage they were under, and that they cried out to God to deliver them. They want delicacies. They have not done without water for 40 years, why would they have to do without now?
Numbers 20:6 “And Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and they fell upon their faces: and the glory of the LORD appeared unto them.”
“Fell upon their faces”: As he had done in the past, Moses sought the Lord’s counsel (see 14:5; 16:4).
Moses and Aaron are humiliated and horrified at the ingratitude of the people. They fall on their faces before God. The glory of the Lord has been with them all this time in a smoke by day, and a fire by night. The presence of the LORD appears to Moses and Aaron.
Numbers 20:7 “And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,”
This message is for Moses.
Out of what was the token of his glory, which perhaps was the cloud, with an uncommon luster and brightness in it.
“Saying”: As follows.
Numbers 20:8 “Take the rod, and gather thou the assembly together, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock: so thou shalt give the congregation and their beasts drink.”
“Speak ye unto the rock”: Though God told Moses to take his rod with which He had performed many wonders in the past (Exodus 4:1-5; 7:19-21; 14:16; 17:5-6), he was only to speak to the rock for it to yield water.
There was a time earlier, when Moses had smote the rock, and the water gushed forth. The Rock is symbolic of Jesus. He was crucified for us one time.
1 Corinthians 10:4 “And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ.”
Exodus 17:6 “Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.”
In this verse above, God told Moses to speak to the rock. He had already smitten the Rock at Horeb.
Numbers 20:9 “And Moses took the rod from before the LORD, as he commanded him.”
Which was laid up somewhere in the sanctuary, as well as the rod of Aaron (Num. 17:7).
“As he commanded him”: Being always faithful and obedient to him that appointed him.
This rod was the miracle rod God had given him, to do signs and wonders with.
Numbers 20:10 “And Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation together before the rock, and he said unto them, Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?”
“Ye rebels”: Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses spoke to the people, accusing them of being rebels against God. By his actions, Moses joined the people in rebellion against God (see 27:14).
Moses was angry with them. He gathered them to the Rock to see the water come forth.
Psalms 106:32 “They angered [him] also at the waters of strife, so that it went ill with Moses for their sakes:”
Numbers 20:11 “And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts [also].”
At first it only brought out some drops, as Jarchi conjectures. And therefore Moses smote again, when it brought forth water plentifully. In one respect this rock was a type of Christ, as the other at Horeb, and the smiting of it an emblem of Christ being smitten with the rod of justice, according to the law of God. And of the abundance of water flowing from it. As typical of the abundance of grace, and the blessings of it. As coming through a smitten wounded Savior (see note on Exodus 17:6). Where the same things are said of another rock as of this, and both were types of Christ.
“And the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also. There was enough for them and their cattle. For it came out in great quantities, in large streams, so that it ran down like a river, and which gave them drink as out of the great depths (Psalm 78:15). Where the Psalmist makes mention of rocks in the plural number. For there were two that were smitten in two different places, and at two different times. The one was at Rephidim, the other, as here, in Kadesh. The one was in the first year of Israel’s coming out of Egypt. This in the fortieth year of it.
Jesus is that Rock. To smite the Rock, after smiting it at Horeb, would be like crucifying Jesus all over again.
Numbers 20:12 “And the LORD spake unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.”
“Ye believed me not”: The Lord’s evaluation of Moses was that he failed to take God at His word and thus to treat Him as holy to the people. Moses here failed in the same way as Israel had at Kadesh 38 years previously (14:11).
“Ye shall not bring this congregation into the land”: God’s judgment upon Moses for his sin of striking the rock was that he would not take Israel into the land of Canaan. The inclusion of Aaron demonstrated his partnership with Moses in the action against the Lord.
We see from the verse above and the following verses that Moses and Aaron did not go into the Promised Land because they did not obey God at the Rock. Moses smote the Rock the second time, instead of speaking to It.
Deuteronomy 32:49-51 “Get thee up into this mountain Abarim, [unto] mount Nebo, which [is] in the land of Moab, that [is] over against Jericho; and behold the land of Canaan, which I give unto the children of Israel for a possession:” “And die in the mount whither thou goest up, and be gathered unto thy people; as Aaron thy brother died in mount Hor, and was gathered unto his people:” “Because ye trespassed against me among the children of Israel at the waters of Meribah-Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin; because ye sanctified me not in the midst of the children of Israel.”
Numbers 20:13 “This [is] the water of Meribah, because the children of Israel strove with the LORD, and he was sanctified in them.”
“Meribah”: The name “Meribah” is a play on words, meaning “contention” or “striving” in Hebrew. This place name also appears in the earlier incident, right after the Exodus, in which God brought water from the rock for the people (Exodus 17:7). That first location was called Massah, which means “testing” (Psalm 95:8).
The “water of Meribah” is the water of strife. Here, Moses disobeyed God, when he smote the Rock. God sanctified Himself, when the water flowed from the Rock (symbolic of Jesus).
Verses 14-22: Edom was Israel’s “brother” and was handled gently (Deut. 23:7). They were descended from Esau, the brother of Jacob (Israel, Gen. 32:28). Israel was confronted with force (Gen. 32:6-8). Moses’ attempt to pass through the territory of Edom was rejected by the king.
Numbers 20:14 “And Moses sent messengers from Kadesh unto the king of Edom, Thus saith thy brother Israel, Thou knowest all the travail that hath befallen us:”
“Thy brother”: The people of Edom were descended from Esau, the brother of Jacob (see Gen. 36:1).
Edom was founded by Esau, the brother of Jacob (Israel). He is asking for their assistance, and reminds them they are closely related.
Numbers 20:15 “How our fathers went down into Egypt, and we have dwelt in Egypt a long time; and the Egyptians vexed us, and our fathers:”
Jacob and his twelve sons, with their children.
“And we have dwelt in Egypt a long time”: Even the space of four hundred and thirty years (Exodus 12:40).
“And the Egyptians vexed us and our fathers”: Used them ill, brought them into bondage, and made their lives bitter. Laid heavy tasks and burdens upon them, as well as slew their male children (see Exodus 1:7).
Moses explains the hardships of the people in Egypt.
Numbers 20:16 “And when we cried unto the LORD, he heard our voice, and sent an angel, and hath brought us forth out of Egypt: and, behold, we [are] in Kadesh, a city in the uttermost of thy border:”
By reason of their bondage, and to be delivered from it (Exodus 2:24).
“He heard our voice”: Their prayer to him, as the Targum of Jonathan. For help and deliverance (Exodus 2:24).
“And sent an angel, and hath brought us forth out of Egypt”: One of the ministering angels, as the same Targum, and so Aben Ezra. Whereas to understand it of some divine and heavenly agent, sent by the Lord on so important an affair, might make it the more remarkable, and to be regarded by him. And indeed no other is meant than the Angel of God’s presence, who appeared to Moses in the bush, and sent him to Pharaoh to demand the dismissal of the children of Israel. And who, by him, wrought the wonders in Egypt, and brought Israel from there, and went before them in a pillar of cloud and fire.
“And, behold, we are in Kadesh, a city in the uttermost of thy border”: Not that they were properly in the city, but near it. For they dwelt in tents in the wilderness. Nor would that, or any one city, hold so large a number as they consisted of.
Truly God Himself, had obtained their release after 10 plagues on Pharaoh and his people. The LORD led them through the desert in a smoke by day, and a fire by night. Now they are waiting near Edom in Kadesh.
Numbers 20:17 “Let us pass, I pray thee, through thy country: we will not pass through the fields, or through the vineyards, neither will we drink [of] the water of the wells: we will go by the king’s [high] way, we will not turn to the right hand nor to the left, until we have passed thy borders.”
“The Kings high way”: The major north-south trade route from the Gulf of Aqabah north to Damascus, which passed through the Edomite city of Sela.
They were asking to go through Edom into their Promised Land. They will not eat their crops, nor drink from their wells. They will just pass through on their highway, if it is permissible.
Numbers 20:18 “And Edom said unto him, Thou shalt not pass by me, lest I come out against thee with the sword.”
The king of Edom replied to Israel, represented by the messengers sent in their name.
“Thou shall not pass by me”: Through my country.
“Lest I come out against thee with the sword”: Or with those that use the sword, as the Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan. That is, with an army of soldiers with their drawn swords in their hands, to slay them as enemies.
They could have done no harm to the land, so this has to be hatred of Edom for Israel. Their answer was, they would fight them if they came through. God never forgave Edom for this act against Israel.
Numbers 20:19 “And the children of Israel said unto him, We will go by the high way: and if I and my cattle drink of thy water, then I will pay for it: I will only, without [doing] any thing [else], go through on my feet.”
The messengers sent by the children of Israel made answer to the king of Edom.
“We will go by the highway”: We desire no other favor but that of the public road. We propose not to go through any part of the country that is enclosed and cultivated, to do any damage to it.
“If I and my cattle drink of thy water, then I will pay for it”: As it was usual, and still is, to buy water in those countries near the Red sea, where it is scarce. We are told, that at Suess, a city on the extremity of the Red sea, there is no water nearer than six or seven hours’ journey towards the north east. Which is brought from there on camels. And a small vessel of it is sold for three or four medinas, and a larger vessel for eight or ten, according to the demand for it. A medina is an Egyptian piece of money.
“I will only, without doing anything else, go through on my feet”: As fast as I can, without saying anything to the inhabitants to terrify and distress them. And without doing them any injury. Some render it, I will only go “with my footmen”; foot soldiers, an army on foot, as Israel were.
This makes no sense to Israel, so they offer to pay for anything they might use going through the land.
Numbers 20:20 “And he said, Thou shalt not go through. And Edom came out against him with much people, and with a strong hand.”
“With much people, and with a strong hand”: The king of Edom sent out his army to intercept Israel. Since Israel was forbidden by the Lord to engage in warfare with Edom (Deut. 2:4-6), they turned away from Edom’s border.
Edom had always been jealous of Israel, since Esau lost his birthright to Jacob. They will not let them come through their country. They enforce their refusal with an army ready to fight, if they try to cross.
Numbers 20:21 “Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his border: wherefore Israel turned away from him.”
Notwithstanding their near relation to each other, and the fair promises Israel made.
“Wherefore Israel turned away from him”: Patiently bearing the refusal, and not resenting it. Being ordered, as the Targum of Jonathan expresses it, by the Word of heaven, not to make war with them. Because the time was not yet come to take vengeance on Edom by their hands.
Israel did not fight. They chose another route.
Verses 22-29: Eleazar succeeded his father Aaron as High-Priest. Aaron’s death further marked the passing of the first generation.
Numbers 20:22 “And the children of Israel, [even] the whole congregation, journeyed from Kadesh, and came unto mount Hor.”
“Mount Hor”: Likely a mountain to the northeast of Kadesh on the border of Edom.
This congregation is speaking of the near three million people. It appears, they went to the end of Edom, and then turned back toward their Promised Land.
Verses 23-29: The death of Aaron, the high priest, stands in sharp contrast to the eternal priesthood of Christ (compare Heb. 23-24).
“Gathered unto his people” is the usual phrase to describe the death of a righteous man; Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses (in Gen. 25:8, 17; 35:29; 49:33). It was a fearful mark of divine judgment to be left unburied and not “be gathered” (Jer. 8:2; 25:33; Ezek. 29:5). Some take the phrase to indicate the belief in a continued existence in the realm of the dead, and that people will be reunited with other members of their family. Moses and Aaron died outside of the Promised Land, but in death they are on a par with the patriarchs and other saints of the Old Covenant.
Numbers 20:23 “And the LORD spake unto Moses and Aaron in mount Hor, by the coast of the land of Edom, saying,”
When they were at the foot of that mountain, in the valley adjoining to it.
“By the coast of the land of Edom”: Which they were still upon the borders of, and were going round it, not being permitted to go through it.
“Saying”: As follows.
Mount Hor was on the frontier of Edom. God speaks to Aaron and Moses here.
Numbers 20:24 “Aaron shall be gathered unto his people: for he shall not enter into the land which I have given unto the children of Israel, because ye rebelled against my word at the water of Meribah.”
“Because ye rebelled against my word”: Aaron had joined Moses in rebellion against God (verse 12). Aaron’s death fore-shadowed the death of Moses.
Moses and Aaron disobeyed God, and smote the Rock (Jesus Christ), the second time. This was like crucifying Jesus twice. It was as if, they were saying the sacrifice Jesus made at Calvary was not enough.
Hebrews 6:6 “If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put [him] to an open shame.”
Numbers 20:25 “Take Aaron and Eleazar his son, and bring them up unto mount Hor:”
His eldest son, who was to succeed him in the priesthood, and did.
“And bring them up unto Mount Hor”: To the top of it, they being now at the foot of it, where the people of Israel lay encamped.
Eleazar was next in line to be high priest in the tabernacle, if his father died. Moses was to bring them both to the mount.
Numbers 20:26 “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.”
His priestly garments, as the Targum of Jonathan, and so Jarchi.
“And put them upon Eleazar his son”: Thereby declaring him to be high priest in his father’s stead.
“And Aaron shall be gathered unto his people, and shall die there”: The phrase of gathering to his people is here explained of his dying.
Moses was to take Aaron’s priestly garments, and put them on his son, Eleazar. This is like passing of the mantle down to the next minister. Aaron dies on the mountain.
Numbers 20:27 “And Moses did as the LORD commanded: and they went up into mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation.”
Though it must be very cutting, distressing, and afflicting to him, to part with a brother so dear to him. And who had been so many years a companion of him, and a partner with him in the care and government of the people of Israel. But it being the Lord’s will, he submits unto it, and faithfully and readily obeyed his orders, as he always did.
“And they went up into Mount Hor, in the sight of all the congregation”: That is, Moses, Aaron, and Eleazar, and perhaps there might be some others that went with them as servants, to attend them and assist them in some things to be done, particularly in the burial of Aaron. They all saw Aaron go up, but he came down no more. And so it was ordered in this public manner, that they might be witnesses of the translation of the priesthood from Aaron to Eleazar. Who, after this affair was over, came down with Moses.
This is speaking of the request the LORD had made being carried out by all three of them.
Numbers 20:28 “And Moses stripped Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son; and Aaron died there in the top of the mount: and Moses and Eleazar came down from the mount.”
His priestly garments, which, very probably, were put on at the foot of the mountain. On purpose for the transaction of this affair, since they were not in common worn, but only when in service. The same hands that clothed Aaron with them at first, stripped him of them, and both were done at the command of God. As the stripping of those garments was divesting Aaron of his office, so it was a figure of the disannulling of his priesthood. When the Messiah should come, a priest after another order.
“And put them upon Eleazar his son”: Which was an investing of him with the office of high priest in his father’s stead. And which, as it must give Aaron pleasure and satisfaction to see his son put into his office before he died. So, it signified the continuance of it in succession in his posterity, and was a confirmation of it. And it must be pleasing to Moses and the people of Israel to observe the care and faithfulness of God in providing for the succession of the priesthood.
“And Aaron died there in the top of the mount”: Quietly, comfortably, and contentedly, without the least murmuring or repining. This was on the first day of the fifth month, as appears from (Num. 33:38). That is, of the month Ab, as the Targum of Jonathan here says. And in this the Jewish writers agree in general. Which month answers to part of July and part of August. And in this same place where he died he was buried. As is evident from (Deut. 10:6). “And Moses and Eleazar came down from the mount”: After Aaron was dead and buried.
On the trip up the mountain, Eleazar had been a priest. Coming down the mountain, he was high priest in the place of his father. This was the transferring of the authority to Eleazar.
Numbers 20:29 “And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they mourned for Aaron thirty days, [even] all the house of Israel.”
“Mourned … thirty days”: This was the same mourning period as for Moses (Deut. 34:8). Since the normal time for mourning was 7 days (see Gen. 50:10), the length of this mourning showed the importance of Aaron and the loss to Israel.
Egyptians mourned their dead for over twice the amount of time as the Israelites. Thirty days, the entire congregation mourned the death of Aaron.
Numbers Chapter 20 Questions
1. Where did Miriam die?
2. What does the author relate their journey across the wilderness to?
3. When had this same group been here before?
4. There was no _________ for the congregation.
5. What does the word “chode” mean?
6. What was almost identical to the complaint their fathers had made?
7. They had been miraculously fed for ______ years, and they are still complaining.
8. What effect did their complaining have on Moses and Aaron?
9. What did God tell Moses to do, to get water out of the Rock?
10. The Rock is symbolic of ____________.
11. Where had Moses struck the Rock before, and it brought forth water?
12. Which rod was this rod?
13. What did Moses do to the Rock?
14. What was this like?
15. What was Moses’ punishment for not obeying God?
16. Where will Moses die?
17. What were these waters named?
18. What does it mean?
19. Who did Moses send messengers to?
20. What did he ask them?
21. What was their reply?
22. Why did Edom not let them pass?
23. How long had Edom been jealous of Israel?
24. Where did the LORD lead the people to, away from here?
25. Who dies at mount Hor?
26. Why would God not let Aaron enter the promised land?
27. Who took Aaron’s place as high priest?
28. Why did Moses take Aaron and Eleazar to the mountain top?
29. They mourned for Aaron ________ days.