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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 20

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Verse 1

The Death of Miriam

The wilderness journey is nearing its end. The death of Aaron, at the end of this chapter, takes place in the fortieth year after the exodus from Egypt (Numbers 33:38). They arrive in Kadesh, at the border of Edom. Miriam dies in the first month of that, it is believed, the fortieth year. She also belongs to those who fall in the wilderness. This will also happen to Aaron and Moses. Through this excellent trio God has led His people out of Egypt (Micah 6:4), but none of them will enter the land with the people.

The death of Miriam, just before the end of the journey, gives the tone of the past forty years, about which hardly anything has been recorded. Scripture is silent about this. But it has been a death march. Every day men died, until the whole unbelieving generation is fallen in the wilderness. With the death of Miriam, the joy of redemption, a joy she expressed after the people had passed through the Red Sea (Exodus 15:20-Ecclesiastes :), is silenced. That joy had to make way for the sadness of the ubiquitous death.

It seems that Miriam, together with her brother Aaron (Numbers 12:1-Exodus :), has completely disappeared from the scene after her attack on the authority of Moses. Perhaps she never got back the privileged position she had before her uprising. It may be a lesson that, even if someone is forgiven for a great sin, he or she will not regain the influence or position in the work of God that was there before that sin occurred.

Verses 2-6

New Rebellion of the People

The people are rebelling again. Instead of feeling the loss of Miriam and being extra grateful for the leaders they still have, they turn against Moses and Aaron. The reason is the lack of water. The lack of water is a test by which God wants to test them. He wants to see if they have understood anything about being a high priest. In the previous chapters He has shown His appreciation of it. Now He wants to see their appreciation of it.

A people – or a person – who feels short, lacks gratitude and becomes unreasonable. The people wish again that they would have died, just like their brothers. They pretend that they died a natural death. They forget that their brothers were killed by the judgment over their sins. By their wrong view of what happened, they forget to be thankful that they themselves have been spared.

It is a people who live by the here and now and not by the promises of God. Their mind is expressed in the “why” questions by which they reveal their lack of trust in God (Numbers 20:4-Deuteronomy :). They lack water, but not only that, they are also starting to complain about the lack of more food. Here and now a lot lacks. That is why they no longer want to continue to live. Their greatest shortcoming is faith in what God has promised them.

This people, who are now almost made up of people younger than twenty at the beginning of the journey or born in the wilderness, is no better than those who died in the wilderness. As so often, history repeats itself because the essence of man does not change.

The “why” questions are not answered because they stem from unbelief and rebellion. Moses and Aaron do not respond to the complaints of the people, but go to the only right place, to the dwelling place of the LORD. There they throw themselves down again, and there the glory of the LORD appears to them.

Verses 7-13

Moses Strikes the Rock

The rod that Moses must take is that of Aaron, the rod that has flourished. Moses takes it, for he lies before the LORD, and there he takes it away (Numbers 20:9). The rock also has a meaning: “And the rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4). Moses once struck a rock (Exodus 17:6). Then water came out. That stream of water has been following the people throughout their journey through the wilderness. Probably the stream has dried up because of the unbelief of the people. That is why they are now without water. However, they are not without a high priest.

The LORD gives Moses instructions. The LORD does not appear to discipline His people with a plague, as he did before (Numbers 16:46). There is no judgment, no anger. From what He gives Moses will come a new proof of His grace and care for His ungrateful and contradictory people. Moses must now speak to the rock and not strike it.

The rock was once struck, by the rod of Moses, the rod that changed water into blood and cleft the Red Sea. It is a rod of judgement. Because Christ was struck by the striking hand of God, streams of water have emerged. That first strike happened at the beginning of the wilderness journey. Christ was struck once, He suffered once as “[the] just for [the] unjust, so that He might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Now He always lives to make intercession for us (Hebrews 7:25).

Any new appeal to be made to Him must not be made by striking the rock again, but by speaking to it. The source of blessing is at our disposal. We only need to speak to the High Priest, to approach Him in prayer, and He will give blessing and refreshment.

Weren’t Moses and Aaron prepared for this demonstration of grace from God for the sake of a people yet again rebellious? In any case they do not act in accordance with the grace the LORD wants to show here. They are reproached by the LORD for acting in unbelief (Numbers 20:12) and resisting His command (Numbers 27:14). Instead of speaking to the rock, they speak to the people. The attitude of the people has excited Moses, he loses his patience and speaks rash words (Psalms 106:32-Micah :). But the LORD has not said that they should say anything to the people. Yet Moses says to them: “Shall we …? He forgets that it concerns the LORD.

Moses strikes and God responds with … water, much water. This blessing is not proof that Moses acted correctly. God can still give much blessing to believers who gather in a place that is not in His mind. He can even give blessing by an unbelieving pastor. Blessing says nothing about the place or about the person, it says something about the goodness and sovereignty of God.

Moses strikes the rock with his rod (Numbers 20:11), all against the LORD’s command. He strikes with the rod of judgment, while God wants to show Himself as the God of grace to His people. Many people speak to God’s people only about a judgmental God. He is, but not only that. God has judged. Therefore, He can be presented as a gracious God.

Moses and Aaron are given notice of the judgment. They have committed a “sin to death” (1 John 5:16) and will not enter the land. This punishment marks the seriousness of the sin, committed by the most responsible of the people. If we do not sanctify God, God sanctifies Himself.

The place where this happens is Meribah, which means ‘a place of struggle’. It is the same name that was used forty years earlier on a same occasion (Exodus 17:7). The events there speak, on the one hand, of the rebellion of the people (Psalms 95:8) and, on the other, of the grace of God (Psalms 114:8).

Verses 14-21

Edom Refuses Israel to Pass Through

Edom is not just a people, but a brotherhood. This determines Israel’s attitude in Edom’s refusing to allow the people to pass through their territory. They must not fight against them. They can and must do that against hostile peoples. The request of Moses reveals the ingrained hatred of Edom against the people of God.

The name Edom is related to Adam. In Adam we see what we are in our old nature. Edom represents our ‘brotherhood’, our flesh. The flesh is hostile to God “because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God” (Romans 8:7). We are not called to fight against it, but to be guided by the Spirit. Then we will be kept from fighting against the flesh (Galatians 5:16-Esther :). If we do fight against it, we will end up in the situation of Romans 7 and our lives will become a life of defeats. Consider ourselves to be dead to it (Romans 6:11) does not mean ignoring or fighting against it, but go around it. That means recognizing hostility, while taking the right attitude to it.

God uses Edom’s refusal to deflect his people and bring them on the way to the Jordan. By taking the right attitude towards our flesh, that is to give the flesh the place God’s Word gives it, we come into the right position to take the blessings of the land.

This rejection of Edom is reminiscent of the rejection of “a village of the Samaritans” to receive the Lord Jesus. The Lord has also sent messengers there, as Moses does here to the king of Edom. By responding to the rejection as Israel does here, the people act in the spirit of the Lord Jesus (Luke 9:52-2 Thessalonians :; Luke 9:56).

Verses 22-29

The Death of Aaron

The LORD commands Moses regarding the death of Aaron. He gives the reason for his death. He also takes care of a successor. Eleazar becomes high priest instead of his father Aaron. Eleazar brings the people into the land. Aaron is the high priest of a people travelling through the wilderness. This change indicates the different facets of the High Priesthood of the Lord Jesus.

Moses does as the LORD has commanded. His obedience to the LORD is unbroken, despite all the setbacks he has suffered in this chapter:
1. First the death of his sister Miriam,
2. then the uprising of the people,
3. then his own failure and the punishment for it,
4. the refusal and hostility of Edom which means a by-way and thus postponement of the goal to be achieved, and
5. finally the death of his brother Aaron, whom he sees dying with his own eyes.
Moses is a great example for us when we have to deal with setbacks. Let us also always remain open to the Lord’s Will.

Eleazar is the third son of Aaron. He is a type of the Lord Jesus as High Priest, but in connection with the land. The number three speaks of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, Who rose from the dead on the third day (Matthew 16:21; Luke 24:46; 1 Corinthians 15:3-Numbers :; 1 Peter 1:21). Eleazar presents the Lord Jesus as High Priest who has been dead and now lives. By His death He opened the heaven and all the blessings that are there, to all who are connected with Him. That is what the promised land speaks of.

Before Aaron dies, he saw Eleazar being clothed with his garments (cf. Isaiah 22:20-Ecclesiastes :). He might have been able to repeat what Simeon says in Luke 2 (Luke 2:29-Amos :). Eleazar derives everything from Aaron. He continues Aaron’s work in a new form. Aaron silently submits to what the LORD says. He dies, 123 years old, in dignity and peace, not as someone who is exterminated from the people. After that he is buried (Deuteronomy 10:6), we may accept by his brother and his son.

The people weep for him thirty days. They weep for the loss of him, against whom they have so often grumbled during his life. Similarly, there is often grief about the loss of blessings that we have not appreciated before. Godly people are often given more honor after death than during their lives.

Similarly, prophets have been persecuted and killed during their lives, but once they are killed, their graves are decorated as a kind of homage: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had been [living] in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in [shedding] the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets” (Matthew 23:29-Obadiah :).

Bibliographical Information
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Numbers 20". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kng/numbers-20.html. 'Stichting Titus' / 'Stichting Uitgeverij Daniël', Zwolle, Nederland. 2021.
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