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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 20

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


Between the first verse of this chapter and the last verse of Numbers 14, there was an interval of about thirty-eight years, only five short chapters (Numbers 15-19) having been allotted by Moses to record everything of any great importance that happened to Israel during the whole thirty-eight years. Even the things recorded do not appear to have been given in any pattern, and not even chronologically. “People talk about Israel being God’s Chosen People, but they didn’t amount to anything when not doing the will of God.”(F1)

During the long interval of a generation, Israel was in a period of “great declension, even apostasy. O.T. passages confirming this are in Ezekiel 20:15 f; Amos 5:25 f; and Hosea 9:10.”(F2) This view is fully confirmed by Acts 7:42 f.

The purpose of this chapter is apparently that of recounting the death of the great leaders of Israel before their entry into Canaan, the only reason for Moses’ own death not being recounted here probably being that Moses did not write the account of his own death, that account in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 34) being reserved for its addition by the inspired Joshua. Even so, Moses fully recounted the tragic failure, momentarily, of his great faith and the ensuing displeasure of God. Over and beyond the sin of Moses at Meribah, it was contrary to the will of God for Moses to enter Canaan as the leader of Israel. Had he done so, the essential truth that neither Moses (nor the Law that came through him) could lead men into heaven would have been compromised. That achievement belonged to Christ only, and Moses, as the great O.T. type of Christ, was destined at last to lay his homage at the feet of Jesus on the Holy Mountain. Not even Moses could save men from sin, and had he led Israel into Canaan the accuracy of the typology would have been compromised.

Verses 1-9

“And the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month: and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation: and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. And the people strove with Moses and spake, saying, Would that we had died when our brethren died before Jehovah! And why have ye brought the assembly of Jehovah into this wilderness, that we should die there, we and our beasts? 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. And Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly unto the door of the tent of meeting, and fell upon their faces: and the glory of Jehovah appeared unto them. And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Take the rod, and assemble the congregation, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes, that it give forth its water; and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock; so thou shalt give the congregation and their cattle drink. And Moses took the rod from before Jehovah, as he commanded him.”

“In the first month” (Numbers 20:1). “This is the first month of the fortieth year.”(F3) Of course, the people had already gone to Kadesh in the second year (Numbers 13:26), but this does not mean that they had remained in the same area all that time. During the long interim, there might have been maintained a kind of headquarters here centering around the tabernacle, but it is most likely that the greater part of Israel spread out over a large section of the Sinaitic area. The mention here of “the whole congregation” seems to imply this. The people were now assembled for the second time to begin the movement to Canaan.

“Against Moses and Aaron… and the people strove with Moses” (Numbers 20:2-3). Any thoughtful person must stand in consternation before the allegation that there is some kind of contradiction here. Gray affirmed that it was “with Moses alone that the people quarreled.”(F4) All such allegations are due to the paranoid preoccupation of finding discrepancies and contradictions in God’s Word. Allis has thoroughly refuted the unreasonable, inconsistent, and ridiculous nonsense involved in taking every little variation in terminology as “proof!” of divided sources. “Such rules cannot be consistently followed even by the critics themselves, as they freely admit the unity of many other passages having exactly the same little variations.”(F5)

“Why have ye brought up the congregation into this wilderness…?” (Numbers 20:5). The verbatim resemblance of these words to the complaint of a previous generation (Exodus 17:3) suggests a stylized type of complaint, probably utilized by Israel over and over again. “It is always the few who put words into the mouths of the many, and this probably indicates that the ringleaders of this complaint were from among the then-young survivors of the other.”(F6)

“Take the rod… speak ye to the rock before their eyes” (Numbers 20:8-9). The rod here certainly appears to be that rod alone which in the history of Israel could properly be called “the” rod, namely the one used as the instrument in the hands of Moses by which God wrought the mighty miracles of deliverance on behalf of Israel. Some very respected Bible scholars, however, see this as the rod of Aaron that had been laid up before the Lord in the ark of the covenant, the one that had leafed out with blossoms and ripe almonds. This view is based on Numbers 20:9, where it is declared that Moses took the rod from before Jehovah, and also in view of the fact that no mention whatever of Moses’ rod ever having been laid up “before the Lord” is made elsewhere in the Scriptures. While we disagree with this view, it nevertheless has much to commend it. There was certainly a variation here in the use of the rod, which apparently was not to be the instrument here but merely to be present when Moses spoke the word. There was thus-a variation also in the procedure Moses was instructed to follow: namely, that he should here “speak to the rock” and upon previous occasions that the rod itself was to be used for “stretching out” or for striking. These variations certainly make it possible to believe that there was also a variation in which rod was to be used. Furthermore, the symbolism of the whole event likewise fits into this view. “The Rock (Christ, 1 Corinthians 10:4) did not need to be struck twice. Christ, once smitten for our sins, did not need to be smitten (to death) the second time. Moses’ act of disobedience implied typically that one sacrifice was insufficient, thus setting aside the eternal efficacy of the blood of Christ.”(F7)

Verses 10-13

“And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said unto them, Hear now, ye rebels; shall we bring you forth water out of this rock? And Moses lifted up his hand, and smote the rock with his rod twice: and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their cattle. And Jehovah said unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed not in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them. These are the waters of Meribah; because the children of Israel strove with Jehovah, and he was sanctified in them.”

Moses did not follow Divine instructions here in any sense whatever. True, he and Aaron assembled the people, and Moses took “his rod.” (This indicates that our preferred interpretation above is correct.) After all, it was “not Aaron’s rod” which budded, that was used, but the rod of Moses. It is astounding that, beginning with the old International Critical Commentary in 1903, the allegation has been advanced and supported by many current scholars that, “Concerning the unbelief and rebellion of Moses and Aaron, neither is in this passage.”(F8) This should not surprise us, as it is an example of the usual blindness in the critical schools that really cannot see anything in the Bible except their discrepancies and various sources! Did Moses actually disobey God in this event?

God commanded Moses to SPEAK to the rock. Instead he addressed a rebuke to the people! See any difference?

God commanded Moses to SPEAK to the rock. Instead he omitted this altogether and struck the rock twice. Any difference here?

God had most carefully instructed Moses in all the prior forty years that God alone actually did any of the wonders mentioned, but in this passage Moses ascribed the SOURCE of the miracle as being from him and Aaron, “Shall we bring you forth water out of this rock?” Where does God’s honor appear in a public announcement like this?

There are many today, just like Moses in this incident, who think that God’s Word is not to be strictly followed at all, but that they may improvise in any manner that appears to be appropriate in their own eyes. Moses’ actions were sinful, and so are the actions of people today who suppose that when God commanded “singing” in his worship that they may bring in a whole orchestra or the Swiss Bell Ringers in addition, or that when God commanded all people everywhere to be “immersed” that a few drops of water sprinkled or poured will do just as good!

And, of course, scholars who have such views find all kinds of excuses for Moses. Whitelaw said:

“After all, God had told Moses to take the rod, and he might naturally think that he was to use it as before… Also, had not God told Moses that he should bring water forth to the people? … He struck the rock twice instead of once, but we could hardly have attached any serious character to the act if it had stood alone.”(F9)

Of course, we can supply many other excuses. After all, God had not commanded him not to strike the rock. God really doesn’t care about any legalistic compliance with his word. God could bring water out of the rock even if Moses had struck it twenty times. Sure, Moses left God’s name out of sight when ascribing the SOURCE of the wonder, but he said, “WE”; and maybe he included God in that! Just like the unbelievers who close their prayers, not “in the name of Jesus Christ” as commanded, but with a blunt “Amen.”

“Sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel” (Numbers 20:12). Failure to do this was one of Moses’ sins; and yet, in Numbers 20:13, it is recorded that “Jehovah was sanctified” in the event here reported. Although Moses and Aaron had indeed not sanctified the Lord in the implied taking of the wonder as their own instead of God’s, nevertheless, by the condemnation of the leaders who had thus disregarded their duty, the Lord indeed was “sanctified.”

Upon the former occasion when God brought water from the rock, the place was called Meribah, but here the waters are so called.

Verses 14-21

“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: how our fathers went down into Egypt, and we dwelt in Egypt a long time; and the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and our fathers: and when we cried unto Jehovah, he heard our voice, and sent an angel, and brought us forth out of Egypt: and, behold, we are in Kadesh, a city in the uttermost of thy border. Let us pass, I pray thee, through thy land: we will not pass through field or through vineyard, neither will we drink of the water of the wells: we will go along the king’s highway; we will not turn aside to the right hand nor to the left, until we have passed thy border. And Edom said unto him, Thou shalt not pass through me, lest I come out with the sword against thee. And the children of Israel said unto him, We will go up by the highway; and if we drink of thy water, I and my cattle, then will I give the price thereof: let me only, without doing anything else, pass through on my feet. And he said, Thou shalt not pass through. And Edom came out against him with much people, and with a strong hand. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his border: wherefore Israel turned away from him.”

Forty years prior to the date in these passages, the government of Edom was still in the hand of various “dukes” (Exodus 15), and the mention of the King of Edom here shows that there had been some changes during the previous generation. The same thing had already occurred also in Moab (Judges 11:17). Edom’s negative answer here made the response of Moab (to whom Moses also sent messengers) immaterial.

The fact of Moses’ first promising not to drink of their wells (Numbers 20:17), and later promising to “pay the price” for any water that they drink is in no sense a contradiction. The wells were privately-owned, but waters from streams, which would normally be used by the cattle, were not mentioned in that verse. Numbers 20:19 has the promise that any water used by Israel from whatever source would be properly paid for.

The rather haphazard use of pronouns, switching persons and numbers here and there, is merely a characteristic of ancient writings. People will never understand Moses without taking this into account.

“The king’s highway” (Numbers 20:17). “This road was in use during the 23rd and 22nd centuries B.C.; and it was marked along its length with early Bronze Age settlements.”(F10) “It led from the gulf of Aqaba in the south up through Edom to Damascus; the fortifications along it were destroyed; and the road was rebuilt by the Romans in 108 A.D. by the Emperor Trajan.”(F11) “This is the first reference to this road by this name in the Bible.”(F12)

“Thou shalt not pass” (Numbers 20:18). Moses indeed appears to have hoped that Edom (descended from Israel’s brother) might respect the historic connection between the two peoples sufficiently to allow a friendly passage; but this was frustrated. This was but one of many hostile acts of the Edomites toward Israel, resulting in their final destruction through the wrath of God. The entire prophecy of Obadiah deals with this long and bitter hatred between the descendants of Jacob and Esau.

It certainly is true that any king has the right to deny passage of any alien group through his territory. The circumstances here were different. Even ignoring the family connection of the Jews and the Edomites, the king’s highway had been used for ages by the people of all nations, and Israel made earnest and specific promises with regard to the territory and the possessions of the Edomites - all of these things made the act of Edom in this instance, “A severe act of cruelty and oppression.”(F13)

“We know today that both Edom and Moab were ringed with fortresses, the remains of which have been identified by archeologists.”(F14) It was therefore very impractical for Israel at this time to attempt any forced passage of Edom’s border. Consequently, they detoured to the southward and skirted the southeast border of that nation, along by the Red Sea (Numbers 21:4). It should be remembered that there were two arms of the Red Sea lying, one west, the other east of the Sinaitic peninsula. The western arm was the Gulf of Suez, via which the children of Israel crossed miraculously into the Sinaitic area, and the eastern arm was the gulf of Aqaba. Most significantly, both these bodies of water in the sacred text are called the [~Yam] [~Cuwph],(F15) which has the meaning of the End Sea, and which in the 15th century B.C. was the accepted name of the entire Indian Ocean and all of its principal bays, gulfs, and adjacent waters. (See the discussion of the “Red Sea or Reed Sea” at the end of Exodus 13.)

Verses 22-29

“And they journeyed from Kadesh: and the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, came unto mount Hor. And Jehovah spake unto Moses and Aaron in mount Hor, by the border of the land of Edom, saying, Aaron shall be gathered unto his people; for he shall not enter into the land which I gave unto the children of Israel, because ye rebelled against my word at the waters of Meribah. Take Aaron and Eleazar his son, and bring them up into mount Hor; and strip Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son: and Aaron shall be gathered unto his people, and shall die there. And Moses did as Jehovah commanded: and they went up into mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation. And Moses stripped Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son; and Aaron died there on the top of the mount: and Moses and Eleazar came down from the mount. And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they wept for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel.”

“Unto mount Hor” (Numbers 20:22). All that is known of this place is that it was on the southern border of Edom. There is a mountain there upon which the Arabs have a mosque, allegedly over the site of the grave of Aaron. Kadesh is also mentioned here; and there are no less than three Kadesh’s in the Sinaitic area. Conflicting opinions about which is which are generally unconvincing. “Mount Hor cannot now be identified.”(F16) Smick mentioned: Kadesh-barnea, Kadesh-naphtali, and Kadesh on the Orontes.”(F17)

“And Aaron died there” (Numbers 20:28). The difficulty cited by many is that Deuteronomy 10:6 states that “Aaron died in Moserah” (Deuteronomy 10:6). The only difficulty here is that nobody knows where either Hor or Moserah was located; so the natural conclusion is that both sites are only different designations of one place. Another possibility is that the children of Israel took the body of Aaron with them from Hor (if the places are different) and reburied it at Mosereth, in which case “there” in Deuteronomy 10:6 would apply only to the second burial of Aaron and not to his death. A slight emendation of the text would allow such a translation. After all, Israel went to great lengths to transfer both the bodies of Jacob and of Joseph to the land of Canaan, and in Joseph’s case, long after his death and burial. There is no reason why a similar thing might not lie behind the problem here. Also, the fact that this would give Aaron two graves corresponds absolutely with the fact that both Jonah and Jesus Christ had two graves each! Aaron, it will be remembered was a “type” of Jesus Christ.

“The whole congregation” (Numbers 20:1; Numbers 20:22). “This may indicate a reassembling of the tribes scattered in the wilderness.”(F18)

This terrible chapter is marked by death. Miriam died in the first month, and Aaron died in the fifth month of that tragic fortieth year. Moses too would very shortly join his brother and his sister in death. Moses had yet to deliver speeches of warning and admonition to Israel, and then he, like Aaron, would be gathered to his fathers. “Aaron died on the first day of the fifth month in the fortieth year of the Exodus at age 123: see Numbers 33:38-39.”(F19)

Another of the many unanswered questions regarding these events is that which raised the query if Aaron, like Moses, was buried by God Himself. Whitelaw observed “that otherwise, both Moses and Eleazar would have been unclean under the Law (Leviticus 21:11; Numbers 19:11).”(F20) Such questions only demonstrate how extremely abbreviated is the sacred narrative throughout.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Numbers 20". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/numbers-20.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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