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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 17

Gray's Concise Bible CommentaryGray's Concise Commentary

Verses 1-13


Quoting from the Scofield Bible:

The wilderness was part of the necessary discipline of the redeemed people, but this was not true of the years of wandering. The Red Sea, Marah, Elim, Sinai were God’s ways in Israel’s development and have their counterpart in Christian experiences; but from Kadesh-barnea to the Jordan all is for warning, and not imitation (1 Corinthians 10:1-11 ; Hebrews 3:17-19 ). There is a present rest of God, of which the Sabbath and Canaan were types into which believers may and therefore should immediately enter by faith, but alas, too many Christians never enter into it, and in a spiritual sense their carcasses fall in the wilderness. It is remarkable that just when the people are turning in unbelief from the land, God should be giving directions (as in chapter 15) for their conduct when they should enter it; but this is grace, and illustrates God’s purpose in human redemption always.

It is not for anything in us that God has redeemed us in His Son, but for the magnifying of His own Name, and hence he has the same reason for keeping us saved to the end that He has for saving us at the beginning. (See Romans 11:29 and Philippians 1:6 .)


The chief events of this section are the rebellion of Korah and his associates (chaps. 16-17), the death of Miriam and Aaron (chap. 20), and the miracle at Meribah (chap. 20), interspersed with particular laws and regulations of a Levitical chapter (chaps. 15; 18-19).

The Laws and Regulations (chap. 15) Note that the sin of ignorance needs to be atoned for as well as other sins (Numbers 15:22-29 ), and God in His grace has provided for it. Christians who talk about possessing sinless perfection need forgiveness for such talk, for it is sin.

Note the difference between ignorant and presumptuous sins, and the illustration furnished of the latter (Numbers 15:30-36 ), compare also Psalms 19:12-13 .

The law of the Sabbath was plain, and this transgression of it aggravated. Remember in the punishing that Jehovah was acting not only as Israel’s God, but King. Israel was a theocracy, whose Sovereign was Jehovah, which is not true of any other nation. This offense was not only a violation of a divine command in the ordinary sense, but a violation of the law of the realm. It was as Sovereign that God gave this order to execute the man.

The Great Rebellion (Numbers 16-17)

Who were its chief leaders (Numbers 16:1 )? How many joined, and who were they (Numbers 16:2 )? What was their grievance and their argument (Numbers 16:3 )? What test is proposed by Moses (Numbers 16:5-7 )? How does he describe the ambition of Korah (Numbers 16:8-11 )? What indicates that the rebellion of the other leaders was instigated by jealousy of the supremacy of Moses (Numbers 16:12-14 )?

How is God’s wrath expressed (Numbers 16:21 )? And His punishment (Numbers 16:32-35 )? What exhibition of popular passion follows (Numbers 16:42 )? Its punishment (Numbers 16:49 )? How does Aaron’s action (Numbers 16:48 ) typify Christ?

This controversy required a decisive settlement, which is why, as we see in the next chapter, a miracle was wrought. In a word, what was that miracle?

The Ordinance of the Red Heifer (Numbers 19:0 )

Among the regulations of this section that of the red heifer stands out with peculiar distinctness.

Was the heifer to be presented by an individual or the whole congregation (Numbers 19:2 )? This indicates that it was to be used for the general good. What must be its color? Just why is not known, unless it be in opposition to the superstition of the Egyptians who sacrificed red bulls and oxen, but never red heifers or cows which were sacred to their goddess Isis.

What ritualistic action of the priest showed that he was presenting an expiatory sacrifice (Numbers 19:3-4 )? How does Numbers 19:6 suggest the ordinance for cleansing the lepers (Leviticus 14:4-7 )?

The subsequent verses of the chapter show the uses to which this “water of separation” was to be applied. For example, in case of a death. As in every family which sustained a bereavement, the members of the household became defiled, so an immense population, where instances of mortality and other cases of uncleanness would be daily occurring, the water of separation must have been in constant requisition.

We need to remember that the defilement here to be remedied as, in some other cases we have met with, implied no moral guilt but had only a ceremonial and typical significance. It was a part of that system which God would teach Israel, and through Israel the whole world, the essential nature of holiness.

The Miracle at Meribah (Numbers 20:0 )

If you compare Numbers 20:1 with Numbers 20:22-23 and then Numbers 33:38 , you will see that between the last verse of the preceding and the first verse of this chapter there is a long and undescribed interval of thirty-seven years. In this book only the most important incidents are recorded, and these are confined chiefly to the first and second and the last years of the wanderings in the wilderness.

Where were the people now (Numbers 20:1 )? This was their second arrival there after an interval of thirty-eight years (compare Deuteronomy 2:16 ). The old generation had nearly all died, and the new was now encamped here with the view of soon entering Canaan.

We need not suppose that during all this time the people moved about in a compact mass without any employment or object, but that their life was similar to nomads generally.

What event occurred at Kadesh at this time (Numbers 20:1 )? What physical necessity arose (Numbers 20:2 )? How did the people deport themselves (Numbers 20:3-5 )? Where as usual, did their leaders take refuge (Numbers 20:6 )? What were they commanded to do (Numbers 20:8 )? What “rod” is meant (compare Numbers 17:10 )? How is the hasty and passionate conduct of Moses illustrated (Numbers 20:10 )? Compare Psalms 106:33 . He had been directed to speak to the rock, but what did he do? How were the leaders rebuked (Numbers 20:12 )?

Contrast this miracle with the one in Exodus 17:5-7 . The rock in both instances typified Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4 ); but Christ once smitten, needs not to be smitten (crucified) again. Moses’ act not only displayed impatience and perhaps vain glory, but (in type) made of none effect one of the most vital doctrines of grace. The believer from whom the divine blessing has been withheld through sin needs not another sacrifice. It is for him to confess his sins according to 1 John 1:9 , and receive cleansing and forgiveness. This is the symbolism of speaking to the rock instead of smiting it a second time.


1. How do the wanderings of Israel differ from their experience in the wilderness from a Scriptural point of view?

2. Give the chief events of this lesson?

3. Is ignorance counted a sin?

4. How did Israel in its government differ from every other nation?

5. State from memory what you know about the ordinance of the red heifer.

6. Do the same of the miracle at Meribah.

Bibliographical Information
Gray, James. "Commentary on Numbers 17". Gray's Concise Bible Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jgc/numbers-17.html. 1897-1910.
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