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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 20

Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - UnabridgedCommentary Critical Unabridged

Verse 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 came the children of Israel ... in the first month - i:e., of the fortieth year (cf. Numbers 20:22-23, with Numbers 33:38), reckoning the months of the year according to the calendar received by the Israelites. In this history only the principal and most important incidents are recorded-those confined chiefly to the first or second and the last years of the journeyings in the wilderness, thence called et-Tih. Between the last verse of the preceding and the first verse of this chapter there is a long and undescribed interval of 38 years. But there is no indication of this wide chronological gap in the record. The course of the narrative is continued in the beginning of this chapter by the prefixed conjunction (wa-); but the form or degree of connection intimated by this copulative is very various, and is frequently, as in this passage, left to be ascertained by the research of the reader, (see the notes at Genesis 1:2; Exodus 1:2; Deuteronomy 20:5-6; 1 Chronicles 10:14; Numbers 11:1, etc.)

Abode in Kadesh - (see the note at Numbers 13:26.) It was their second arrival after an interval of 38 years (Deuteronomy 11:16). The old generation had nearly all died, and the new one encamped in it with the view of entering the promised land; not, however, as formerly, on the south, but by crossing the Edomite region on the east.

Miriam died there - according to Josephus ('Antiquities,' b. 4:, ch. 4:, sec. 6), in the first day of the lunar month Zanthicus-four months before Aaron.

Verses 2-13

And there was no water for the congregation: and they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron.

There was no water for the congregation. There was at Kadesh a fountain, En-mishpat (Genesis 14:7), and at the first encampment of the Israelites there was no want of water. It was now, however, either partially dried up by the heat of the season, or had been exhausted by the demands of so vast a multitude.

Verse 4,5. Why have ye brought up the congregation of the Lord into this wilderness? What wilderness? Numbers 20:1 informs us that it was the desert of Zin [ midbar (H4057) Tsin (H6790)] - different from the wilderness of Sin. Midbar denotes an extensive open tract, with or without pasture, the country of nomads; and there were many isolated spots of verdure and fertility in the desert region which was the scene of Israel's protracted wandering. But that portion which is called "The wilderness of Zin" is always described as "great and terrible" (see the notes at Deuteronomy 8:15; Deuteronomy 8:19; Deuteronomy 32:10).

Verse 6. And Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly. Here is a fresh ebullition of the untamed and discontented spirit of the people, who threw the blame entirely on Moses for bringing them into that sterile and arid region: whence it may be inferred that the cloudy pillar had been withdrawn in just displeasure; otherwise Moses might have pointed to it as the divine conductor into that desert. The leaders fled to the precincts of the sanctuary, both as an asylum from the increasing fury of the highly excited rabble and as their usual refuge in seasons of perplexity and danger, to implore the direction and aid of God.

Verse 8. Take the rod - which had been deposited in the tabernacle (Numbers 17:10); the wonder-working rod by which so many miracles had been performed, sometimes called "the rod of God" (Exodus 4:20), sometimes Moses' (Numbers 20:11) or Aaron s rod (Exodus 7:12).

And speak ye unto the rock before their eyes - manifestly a particular rock; in all probability the rock on which the cloud had recently rested.

Verse 10. Moses ... said ... Hear now, ye rebels. The conduct of the great leader on this occasion was hasty and passionate (Psalms 106:33). He had been directed to speak to the rock; but he smote it twice in his impetuosity, thus endangering the blossoms of the rod; and instead of speaking to the rock, he spoke to the people in a fury.

Moreover, his speech conveyed the impression that it was by some power or virtue inherent in him or in the rod that the miracle was performed. Stanley gives a different view of the words of Moses, as implying a doubt or distrust. "Must we," he renders, 'can we fetch water out of this cliff?' ('Lectures on the Jewish Church,' p. 183.)

Both unbecoming impatience and unbelief were displayed by Moses on this occasion. There was an ebullition of impatience. The death of his sister, the contemporaneous want of water in the camp, and the general outbreak against him during this season, had so greatly discomposed his mind that his habitual equanimity forsook him, and he spoke under the influence of unaccustomed excitement. But besides this, there was a strong feeling of incredulity whether, though he was ordered to take the rod, the divine goodness would now graciously favour the people as formerly. Hence, some writers consider that his hasty smiting of the rock twice was an act of distrust-that such a rebellious rabble would be relieved by a miracle; and that as the water did not gush out immediately, his distrust rose into unbelief, a confirmed persuasion that they would get none. Lightfoot ('Chr. Temp.') thinks that as God had miraculously supplied the people with water on their entrance into the wilderness, Moses supposed that the second miraculous supply would be followed by a similarly protracted period of wandering; and that his sin consisted in his discrediting God's promise to lead the people into Canaan.

Verse 11. The congregation drank, and their beasts. Physically the water afforded the same kind of needful refreshment to both. But in a religious point of view this, which was only a common element to the cattle, was a sacrament to the people (1 Corinthians 10:3-4.).-it possessed a relative sanctity, imparted to it by its divine origin and use.

Verse 12. Because ye believed me not ... The act of Moses in smiting twice betrayed a doubt, not of the power, but of the will of God to gratify such a rebellious people; and his exclamation seems to have emanated from a spirit of incredulity akin to Sarai's (Genesis 18:13). These circumstances indicate the influence of unbelief; and there might have been others unrecorded which led to so severe a chastisement as exclusion from the promised land. Considering their public character and position as rulers and teachers of the people, the sentence denounced against Moses and Aaron for their disobedient conduct on this occasion was not disproportionate to their offence: They were guilty of great presumption in acting on their own account, or in endeavouring to inspire a superstitious reverence for themselves and their rod of office; and hence, they were doomed not to cross the Jordan or to enter the land of promise.

Verse 13. This is the water of Meribah. The word Kadesh is added to it to distinguish it from another Meribah (Exodus 17:7).

Verses 14-16

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:

Moses sent messengers ... unto the king of Edom. The Edomite monarchy was elective, not hereditary-the electoral body being, as Kurtz (vol. 3:, p. 340) suggests, the Alluphim or 'dukes' of the clan (cf. Genesis 36:1-43 with Exodus 15:15). The encampment at Kadesh was on the confines of the Edomite territory, because it was close to Teman, which was the northern extremity of Idumea, and adjacent to Palestine (Joshua 15:1; Ezekiel 25:13), being another name for mount Paran. 'Now, if the wilderness of Paran,' says Wilton ('Negeb,' p. 124), 'comprehended the entire tract of country (bounded on the north by Canaan, on the south by Jebel et-Tih, on the east by mount Seir, and on the west by the wilderness of Shur) answering to the modern desert et-Tih, which is generally admitted, then "mount Paran" must have been its northeast corner, which abruptly rises to a great elevation, and is known to geographers as the mountains of the Azazimeh' (see also Kurtz. 'History of the Old Covenant,' vol. 3:, pp. 226-236; 'Jour. Sac. Lit.,' July, 1848, pp. 89-96). The Edomites being the descendants of Esau, and tracing their line of descent from Abraham as their common stock, were recognized by the Israelites as brethren, and a very brotherly message was sent to them.

Verse 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.

We will go by the king's high way - probably Wady el-Ghuweir (Robinson), through which ran one of the great lines of road, constructed for commercial caravans, as well as for the progress of armies. The engineering necessary for carrying this road over marshes or mountains, and the care requisite for protecting it from the shifting sands, led to its being under the special care of the state. Hence, the expression, "the king's highway," which is of great antiquity (Numbers 21:22; Isaiah 40:3-4; Isaiah 62:10: cf. Josephus' 'Antiquities,' b. 8:, ch.

vii., sec. 4; Layard's 'Nineveh and Babylon,' p, 535, also plates 76, 81; refers to Strabo, lib. 16:, p. 1061; 'Institutes of Menu,' 9:, 282). 'The Israelites could not ascend the steep pass in opposition to the armed force of Edom, and his opposition was natural enough, since if their request had been granted, their way would have led them close by Bozrah, the chief city of his kingdom. For, though Petra was now inhabited, Bozrah, about 30 miles on the north of it, appears to have been the capital' (cf. Isaiah 63:1: Drew 'Scripture Lands,' p. 82).

Verse 18

And Edom said unto him, Thou shalt not pass by me, lest I come out against thee with the sword.

No JFB commentary on this verse.

Verse 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.

If ... drink of thy water ... pay for it. From the scarcity of water in the warm climates of the East, the practice of levying a tax for the use of the wells is universal; and the jealousy of the natives in guarding the collected treasures of rain is often so great that water cannot be procured for money.

Verse 20

And he said, Thou shalt not go through. And Edom came out against him with much people, and with a strong hand.

No JFB commentary on this verse.

Verse 21

Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his border: wherefore Israel turned away from him.

Edom refused to give Israel ... - a churlish refusal obliged them to take another route, and in submitting, instead of attempting, like a military chief bent on plunder and conquest, to force a passage through the Edomite territory, Moses acted in accordance with the peaceful genius of the dispensation he was commissioned to introduce (see the notes at Numbers 21:4; Deuteronomy 2:4; Judges 11:18; see also 1 Samuel 14:47; 2 Samuel 8:14, which describes the retribution that was taken).

Verse 22

And the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, journeyed from Kadesh, and came unto mount Hor.

The children of Israel ... journeyed from Kadesh. At that stage they had three routes to Canaan to decide upon. The one that led northward was the most direct and the shortest-that by which an unsuccessful attempt had been made on the first encampment at Kadesh (Numbers 13:1-33). The second, which was much longer, penetrated through the Edomite territory (2 Kings 14:7), passing in the immediate vicinity of Selah (Petra), and winding to the left along the eastern shore of the Dead Sea. But permission to go by this road having been denied, followed by the appearance of armed bands to repel the unwelcome wanderers from the confines of a country which at that time was richly cultivated (Numbers 20:17), the Israelites were constrained to adopt the only remaining line-by far the most circuitous-namely, that of traveling southward, and then, crossing by the northern extremity of the Red Sea, march in a northerly direction to the land of Moab.

And came unto mount Hor, [ Hor (H2023) haahaar (H2022); Septuagint, eis Oor to oros] - 'Hor, the mount.' This emphatic name was given to it, not on account of its extraordinary height, but of its isolated position and special form. Its site is described by geographical marks (Numbers 20:23: cf. Numbers 33:37; Numbers 33:41; Josephus, 'Antiquities,' b. 4:, ch. 4:, sec. 7) which have led to its being generally considered the hill which tradition points out on the east side of the great valley of the Arabah. This mountain, which is now called Jebel Haroun, is the most striking and elevated of the Seir range. It is a sandstone hill, variegated in colour, conspicuous for its double summit (Robinson mentions three peaks), rising 6,000 feet above the sea level (Robinson's 'Biblical Researches,' vol 2:, p. 589; Stanley, 'Sinai and Palestine,' p. 87; Kurtz, 'History of the Old Covenant,' vol. 3:, p. 342; Karl Ritter, ch. 14:, p. 1127). Wilton ('Negeb,' pp. 127, 128) rejects the traditional site of mount Hor, on the ground that it lay within the Edomite territory, from which the Israelites were repelled, fixes on Jebel Moderah (or Madura) south of the Sufah pass, and supports his view:

(1) By assuming that Moserah, which, as appears from Numbers 20:22-29; Numbers 33:37-39; Deuteronomy 10:6, is synonymous with Hor, is only another form of Moderah.

(2) Because, as mount Her was the next stage after leaving Kadesh, so Jebel Moderah is an average day's journey from Ain Kadeis.

(3) Because the terms, "by the coast" (Numbers 20:23) and "in the edge of the land of Edom" (Numbers 33:37), are applied (Joshua 15:1) to the northern frontier of Idumea.

(4) Because any transaction that took place on its summit would be "in the sight of all the congregation" encamped in the subjacent plain of Wady Murreh; and,

(5) Because it suits the circumstances connected with the attack of king Arad (Numbers 21:1) better than Jebel Haroun.

The traditional view is embraced by almost all writers of authority on subjects of Biblical geography.

Verse 23

And the LORD spake unto Moses and Aaron in mount Hor, by the coast of the land of Edom, saying,

No JFB commentary on this verse.

Verses 24-28

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.

Aaron shall be gathered unto his people. In accordance with his recent doom, he, attired in the high priest's costume, was commanded to ascend that mountain and die. But although the time of his death was hastened by the divine displeasure, as punishment for his sins, the manner of his death was arranged in tenderness of love, and to do him honour at the close of his earthly service. His ascent of the mount was to afford him a last look of the camp and a distant prospect of the promised land.

'From the flat roof of the chapel we overlooked his last view-that view which was to him what Pisgah was to his brother. We saw all the main points on which the eyes of Aaron must have rested. He looked over the valley of the Arabah, countersected by its 100 water-courses, and beyond, over the white mountains of the wilderness they had so long traversed, and at the northern edge of it, there must have been visible the heights through which the Israelites had vainly attempted to force their way into the promised land. This was the western view; close around him on the east were the rugged mountains of Edom, and far along the wide downs of mount Seir, through which the passage had been denied by the tribes of Esau, who hunted over their long slopes' (Stanley, 'Sinai and Palestine,' p. 87). The simple narrative of the solemn and impressive scene implies, though it does not describe, the pious resignation, settled faith, and inward peace of the aged pontiff.

Verse 26. Strip Aaron of his garments - i:e., his pontifical robes, in token of his resignation (see Isaiah 22:20-25).

Put them upon ... his son - as the inauguration into his high office. Having been formerly anointed with the sacred oil, that ceremony was not repeated, or, as some think, it was done on his return to the camp.

Verse 28. Aaron died there in the top of the mount - in the 123rd of his age (see the notes at Numbers 33:38-39; Deuteronomy 10:6). A tomb (Wely Haroun) has been erected upon or close by the spot where, according to tradition, he was buried.

Verse 29

And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they mourned for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel.

When all the congregation saw. Moses and Eleazar were the sole witnesses of his departure. According to the established law, the new high priest could not have been present at the funeral of his father without contracting ceremonial defilement (Leviticus 21:11). But that law was dispensed with in the extraordinary circumstances: the people learned the event not only from the recital of the two witnesses, but from their visible signs of grief and change; and this event betokened the imperfection of the Levitical priesthood (Hebrews 7:12).

Mourned ... thirty days - the usual period of public and solemn mourning (see the note at Deuteronomy 34:8).

Bibliographical Information
Jamieson, Robert, D.D.; Fausset, A. R.; Brown, David. "Commentary on Numbers 20". "Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jfu/numbers-20.html. 1871-8.
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