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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 20

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary



The New Beginning.

After the gap for the wilderness wanderings and the return to Kadesh, there now follows a series of historical events which bring Israel to the plains of Moab, and point to a new beginning. History has become important again because Yahweh’s purposes were now going forward. The first section (Numbers 20:1 to Numbers 21:20) deals with the view that was to be taken of the future. It was to be a move from dearth to abundance, from death to life. The old was being put to one side, so that the new could take over, although only under Yahweh.

· It commences with the arrival at Kadesh (qdsh - the holy place) to find little water there, followed by the death of Miriam, the prophetess, who would have been greatly influential among those who had come out of Egypt. All is death. But at the same time it promises that the resulting seeming dearth will be followed by abundant water (Numbers 20:1-11), although even that at the cost of death for it goes on to reveal that neither Aaron nor Moses will enter the land. They will die in God’s time and be replaced by new leaders (Numbers 20:12-13).

· It warns against seeing the future simply in terms of aggression and spoliation. When Edom resist their advance they must not show aggression and seize their land but must go another way. For Edom’s land belongs to Edom and has been given to them by God (this is implicit in Numbers and explicit in Deuteronomy 2:0), just as shortly their land will belong to them (Numbers 20:14-21). Israel is only to offer death to those who deserve death.

· It tells of the death of Aaron and his replacement as ‘the Priest’ by his son, Eleazar, a member of the new generation, which will lead on to greater blessing (Numbers 20:22-29). Out of death comes life.

· It describes the first defeat of the Canaanites, a further indication of the new beginning and a firstfruit of what was to come. They are at last ready to take the land (Numbers 21:1-3).

· It then warns of what the result will be for those of the new generation who rebel against God, in the judgment of the fiery serpents which were a flashback to and reminder of the old wilderness days (Deuteronomy 8:15). Let them remember the wilderness, for that is what awaits those who rebel against Yahweh, as it had awaited their fathers (Numbers 21:4-10).

And it finally describes the arrival at a place of abundance of water sufficient to cause them to sing with joy and praise, a symbol of the new beginning, a symbol of life (Numbers 21:11-20 compare Numbers 22:5-8).

The second section (Numbers 21:21 to Numbers 25:18) will go on to deal with victory in the Wars of Yahweh including the defeat of the Amorites who had once defeated them (Numbers 21:21 to Numbers 22:1 compare Deuteronomy 1:44), the ‘battle’ with Balaam (Numbers 22:1 to Numbers 24:25), and their establishment in the plains of Moab having received their first instalment of Yahweh’s inheritance (Numbers 25:1 a) which results in the sin of Peor and deliverance by the hand of Phinehas, son of Eleazar (Numbers 25:1-18).

(I). The Turning Point of the Death of Miriam and Aaron and the Change in the High Priesthood, The Warning of the Demise of Moses, and The New Approach to Be Taken As They Enter The Land (Numbers 20:1 to Numbers 21:20 ).

This section commences with shortage of water and terrible thirst, and the death of Miriam, with abundance of water then provided by Yahweh (Numbers 20:1-13), but at the cost of the lives of Moses and Aaron. It then continues, with the death of Aaron and appointment of Eleazar coming between (Numbers 20:22-29), and ends with even greater abundance of water (21:11-20). The new beginning produces new life. This is not just a coincidence. In a similar way in referring to the death of Aaron, and appointment of Eleazar in his place in Deuteronomy 10:6-7, Moses preceded the incident with being at the springs of the sons of Yaakan, leading on to Moserah (chastisement), and followed it with arrival at Yotbathah, a land of brooks of water. In both cases his aim was to bring out that through this change of High Priesthood, which no doubt filled the people with foreboding, God was going to bring even greater blessing. To a nation of farmers water was the essence of all that was good in life. It represented life itself (Numbers 24:5-7).

In the same way Paul likened God’s continual provision of water to His people in the wilderness as like the availability to us today of the lifegiving, thirst quenching presence of Jesus Christ, He is our rock, once smitten (as at Massah and Meribah in Exodus 17:6), that we may drink of Him (see 1 Corinthians 10:4), and Jesus Himself continually pictured the provision of life by the Holy Spirit in terms of abundance of water (John 3:5; John 4:6-15; John 6:35; John 7:37-39).

Analysis Of The Section.

a The people suffer dire shortage of water (Numbers 20:1-2 a).

b The people grumble at lack of water and are sent deliverance by the water from the rock at Meribah, which causes the sin of Aaron and Moses (Numbers 20:2-13).

c Edom seek to block Israel’s way forward. Israel not to show aggression but to seek peace with their neighbours (Numbers 20:14-21).

d Aaron climbs Mount Hor to his death and is replaced by Eleazar (Numbers 20:22-29).

c The king of Arad seeks to block Israel’s way forward. Israel to destroy the Canaanite as God had commanded (Numbers 21:1-3).

b The people grumble at lack of food and water and are sent fiery serpents followed by deliverance by the brazen serpent (Numbers 21:4-9).

a Yahweh provides further abundance of water (Numbers 21:10-20).

The section is divided into sub-divisions which all follow the same pattern. The first deals with the death of Miriam (mrym) and the provision of the waters of Meribah (myrbh).

Verses 1-3

1). The Waters of Meribah (Numbers 20:1-13 ).

This first incident occurred through lack of water (Numbers 20:1-13). Shortage of water in the hot and dry desert and semi-desert areas had been a continuing problem throughout the wilderness experience and it raised its head here seemingly for the last time. Note the play on words. The passage begins with the death of Miriam (mrym) and the dearth of water at Kadesh (qdsh = holy place) and ends with the life-giving waters of Meribah (mrybh) and the ‘making holy’ (yqdsh) of Yahweh.

This can be analysed as follows:

a “The children of Israel” come into the wilderness of Zin and dwell in Kadesh (qdsh) (Numbers 20:1 a).

b Miriam (mrym) dies there and the people strive (ryb) with Moses and Aaron for lack of water (Numbers 20:1-3).

c The people complain because they are excluded from the pleasures of Egypt and Moses and Aaron intercede before Yahweh (Numbers 20:4-6).

d Yahweh promises water from a rock at the voice of command (Numbers 20:7-8).

d Water gushes out from the rock when Moses strikes the rock in anger (Numbers 20:9-11)

c Yahweh complains at Moses and Aaron because they have not sanctified Him in the eyes of Israel and He punishes them by exclusion from the land (Numbers 20:12).

b The place is called the waters of Meribah (mrybh) because water is provided in the face of the people’s striving (ryb)(Numbers 20:13 a).

a This was because ‘the children of Israel’ strove (ryb) there with Yahweh and He was sanctified (yqdsh) in them (Numbers 20:13 b).

We must now consider this in detail.

Miriam (mrym) Dies and The People Strive With Moses and Aaron For Lack of Water (Numbers 20:1-3 ).

Numbers 20:1

‘And the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, came to the wilderness of Zin in the first month. And the people abode in Kadesh, and Miriam died there, and was buried there.’

In the first month the people arrived at the wilderness of Zin in the Negeb. (This was probably the first month of the fortieth year after leaving Egypt (Numbers 33:38). But the emphasis here is on which month it occurred in). ‘The first month’ would spring out at those early readers. It was the anniversary of the Passover. It should have reinvigorated the people and encouraged their hopes of deliverance, but instead of the joyous celebration and hope that there should have been we find sorrow. As the people settled down in the area of Kadesh (qdsh) Miriam died there.

There was a threefold reason for the mention of this sad event. The first was because her death linked with the shortage of water. There was both physical drought and spiritual drought. This suggests what a blow this was to the people. In spite of her failings Miriam had been a provider of spiritual sustenance to the people, and they recognised that her death would bring them a spiritual drought along with the physical drought caused by lack of water.

The second was that Miriam’s death brought home God’s warning that the generation of which she was a member were doomed to die in the wilderness. It was even true of Miriam.

The third was because the death of Miriam (Mrym) would lead on both to the production of abundance of water at Meribah (Mrybh), and the ‘contention’ (mrybh) of God both with the people and with Moses and Aaron. When the people of God are at their lowest God always meets them with greater blessing, but in this case it would be a mixed blessing, for at Meribah Aaron and Moses would disqualify themselves from entry into the land. This would lead on to the death of Aaron, and more gloom. But it would then result in the appointment of a new High Priest and the even greater abundance of water at Beer (Numbers 21:16). Man proposes, but God disposes, and then comes in with even greater blessing for His people. He is ever ready to begin with us again.

Life is like that. God takes our disappointments and uses them to make us look to Christ. There we find in Him sustenance and life. But how easily we can then spoil it all by allowing sin to take over, so hindering our growth.

The arrival at Kadesh (qdsh) would also result in the ‘sanctifying’ (yqdsh) of Yahweh ‘in (by) them’ (Numbers 20:13), that is either by the provision of the waters of Meribah or in the people. His holiness was revealed either by the demonstrating of His compassion in miraculously providing water or through His being made holy in the sight of His people.

As previously mentioned above this can be compared with Deuteronomy 10:6-7, where Moses preceded the death of Aaron with being at ‘the springs of the sons of Yaakan’, leading on to Moserah (chastisement), and followed it with arrival at ‘Yotbathah, a land of brooks of water’. The final emphasis of the whole section is therefore on blessing beyond Aaron.

The shortage of water at Kadesh (qdsh) is at first sight surprising. The site we identify with it included a group of oases in the Negeb. If that was the Kadesh mentioned here then this shortage of water may thus have been due to exceptionally dry conditions, to drought, which might explain why the people were so disappointed as a result of finding Kadesh short of water when they had been expecting an abundance. Coming to such a place with such expectation and finding insufficient water would have been a huge shock, which might well have precipitated their despair. Or it may be that it was another Kadesh (it was likely to be a common name), on the borders of Edom, where there was no water.

It will be noted that the name Kadesh (qdsh - holy place) relates to yqdsh in Numbers 20:13. It was to be the place where Yahweh was sanctified. God’s holiness and mercy is often revealed when an unexpected period of darkness is followed by a period of blessing.

Numbers 20:2

‘And there was no water for the congregation, and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron.’

At the same time as Miriam died there was a real shortage of water. The dry wilderness and the hot sun were beginning to tell. So instead of a feast of rejoicing all was gloom. Miriam had died and Kadesh had failed them. They had no song and they had no water. They were at a low ebb.

Numbers 20:3

‘And the people strove with Moses, and spoke, saying, “Would that we had died when our brethren died before Yahweh” ’

The result was that once more the people began to rebel. They sent their leaders to make their feelings known to Moses. They ‘strove’ (ryb) with Moses, and their cry expressed the wish that they had never survived to have to face up to such thirst. They rather wished that they had died when their fellow-tribesmen had died ‘before Yahweh’. Judgment would have been better than this. Their thoughts were seemingly still on the ground that had swallowed up Dathan and Abiram, and the fire that had destroyed the rebellious Levites (Numbers 17:0). Better had it been for them, they said, if they had been included. Although it is equally possible that they were referring to those who had died throughout the period in the wilderness as having died ‘before Yahweh’, because it was seen as His specific judgment on them.

Verses 4-6

The People Complain Because They Have Been Dragged Away From the Pleasures of Egypt and Moses and Aaron intercede before Yahweh (Numbers 20:4-6 ).

Numbers 20:4

And why have you (ye) brought the assembly of Yahweh into this wilderness, that we should die there, we and our beasts?”

Why, the only result of their still being alive was that they had now been brought to this wilderness to die along with all their herds and flocks. All was despair. Note their accusation. They claimed to be ‘the assembly of Yahweh’. And yet they had no trust in Yahweh to provide. They were simply using the idea in order to put Moses and Aaron in the wrong. They were trying to force home on Moses and Aaron the greatness of their failure. How could they bring ‘the assembly of Yahweh’ to such a pass. Did Moses and Aaron not realise that they were to be seen as completely to blame for their predicament and for letting down Yahweh’s holy people? It was they who had brought the assembly of Yahweh into the wilderness to die, when they could have been worshipping Yahweh in Egypt. They were responsible before Yahweh.

Such was their hypocrisy. Yet it was not only an accusation against Moses, it was an unspoken, backhanded accusation against Yahweh Himself. Moses had told them that they were His people, that they were ‘the assembly of Yahweh’, but now even He had brought them to die miserably here in the wilderness.

But they should have recognised that if they were the ‘assembly of Yahweh’ their disappointment would only be for a moment. If they would but look to Him in confident trust they would be doubly blessed, first by the joy of trusting in the darkness, and then by the equal joy of receiving blessing and experiencing God’s power when the water came.

Numbers 20:5

And why have you made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in to this evil place? It is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates, nor is there any water to drink.”

Instead they were angry at the thought that they had been so well off in Egypt, and yet Moses had dragged them away from it! There they had had seed, and figs, and vines, and pomegranates, and above all plenty of water. To listen to them you would have thought that life in Egypt had been a bed of roses. But their main point was that Moses had promised a land of ‘milk and honey’, of seed, and figs, and vines and pomegranates, and that this evil place in which they found themselves was the very opposite. At least in Egypt they had had something. This was a place of total dearth and barrenness. And even Miriam was dead so that the song had gone from their hearts.

And it should be noted that this was the new generation in which Moses had pinned such hopes, and for whom God had such great plans. But they had had thirty eight years in the wilderness and hope had grown dim. They were beginning to despair of any prospects for the future. Hope deferred was making the heart sick (Proverbs 13:12).

Numbers 20:6

‘And Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the door of the tent of meeting, and fell on their faces, and the glory of Yahweh appeared to them.’

The reaction of Moses and Aaron was to leave the assembly and approach the door of the Tent of meeting. That is always a good move to make in a crisis. And there they fell on their faces, ‘and the glory of Yahweh appeared to them’. He had not deserted them. He was still the same as ever. He does not change. It is we who change.

There comes a time in most of our lives when we have to face the dearth in the wilderness. It is then that the test of our faith comes. Will we grumble and look back and wish we had never been converted? Or will we approach the door of the Tent of meeting that we might see the glory of God? For if we do this latter we can be sure that soon we will again begin to see His wondrous working on our behalf.

Verses 7-8

Yahweh Promises Water From A Rock At The Voice of Moses’ Command (Numbers 20:7-8 ).

Yahweh’s response was gracious and generous. He recognised the strain under which His people were, and He responded accordingly. There was no hint of criticism in that response. He was ready to meet His people’s needs. He recognised the disappointment that they had received on arriving at Kadesh. And he knew that, unlike their fathers, they had not recently received good reports of the land. They had grounds for discouragement. So He was eager to encourage them, and at a word of command from Moses, to provide them with abundance of water. He was all compassion.

It should therefore have become a time of abundant blessing for all, a time when all experienced God in a way that would never be forgotten. But it would not be so for Moses and Aaron. There is no indication at this stage of the devastating event that would soon follow, an event that would blight Moses’ final days. But those who would serve God and be used by Him have to follow in the way of obedience, and must recognise that to fail to do so can only result in loss. While God was patient and understanding, Moses and Aaron were sadly less so. It was in fact in its own way an indication that they needed to be replaced. Yet as the future would reveal, this event probably raised Moses from the depths to which he had sunk to a new spiritual level. Without it his career might well have been over. He learned again that he was the servant of Yahweh, not the lord of Israel, a lesson all God’s leaders have to keep in mind.

Numbers 20:7

‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying,’

Once again we have confirmed that we are dealing with words spoken to Moses by God.

Numbers 20:8

Take the rod, and assemble the congregation, you, and Aaron your brother, and speak you (ye) to the rock before their eyes, that it give forth its water. And you shall bring forth to them water out of the rock. So you shall give the congregation and their cattle drink.”

Patiently God prepared to give His people an indication of the power of His word. They would see what Yahweh could do using but the voice of His servants, and He would from it receive great glory. He would be ‘sanctified’, set apart as the Holy One, the unique and peerless One, in their eyes. And the people would gain great assurance in readiness to face the future. And they would see that all it would require was a word. They would go forward confident in the One Who spoke and it was done. They would be reminded of how when God had spoken through His word the world came into being (Genesis 1:0).

“Take the rod.” This was possibly the one Moses had used in Egypt through which such wonders had been done. Or it may have been the one which had budded revealing Aaron’s authority as High Priest. Or it may have been a specific one which revealed Moses’ status. Certainly it was the one that was the sign of Moses’ authority from Yahweh. This in itself was a significant action. To take the rod, the symbol of Moses’ authority received from God, was to declare to the people that they were about to act on the authority of Yahweh. It was a symbol not a weapon.

Then they were to assemble all the congregation in order that they might see the great thing that their God was going to do. He was going to give them abundant water in the wilderness at the spoken word of His servant acting in Yahweh’s name.

“Speak you (ye) to the rock before their eyes, that it give forth its water. And you shall bring forth to them water out of the rock. So you shall give the congregation and their cattle drink.” The instructions were quite clear. In the eyes of the whole congregation Moses and Aaron were to speak to the rock which would produce water. They were to bring forth water from the rock with a word. In this they would reveal that they were the favoured servants of Yahweh. And there would be sufficient for all to drink, both men and cattle. So would God be magnified and the faith of the people strengthened. The future would suddenly become bright again. By the word of Yahweh the water would gush forth, and they would recognise that He and He alone was the One to Whom they could always look with full confidence, even when there appeared to be no water.

Before the Reed Sea he had lifted up his rod and the sea had parted. Here he would lift up his rod and speak and water would gush forth. In its own way it would be a repeat of the Reed Sea miracle.

Verses 9-11

Moses Strikes The Rock In Anger and Water Gushes Out (Numbers 20:9-11 ).

But Moses and Aaron were seething with anger. They had had enough of these treacherous people. First it had been their fathers, and now it was them. They were almost reluctant to act to provide the water. They considered that the people did not deserve it. But what they failed to consider was their own attitude. What they did not realise was that by their behaviour they were forfeiting their own right to lead the people of God, and that God could see it. Not only Aaron, but Moses also, had come to a low ebb. They were no longer fit to lead.

Numbers 20:9

‘And Moses took the rod from before Yahweh, as he commanded him.’

Outwardly all seemed well. Moses obeyed Yahweh’s commandment and took the rod ‘from before Yahweh’. That it was essentially Yahweh’s rod that he used was well recognised by the people. But in taking it from before Yahweh he ought to have recognised how obediently he should have used it. It was not given to him for the glory of Moses. He was within the sphere of God’s commands, and it was intended to be for the glory of God. Even the rock would recognise the authority symbolised by that rod. The Creation would gladly respond to its Creator. But it was to be through the word of power, not through ill-will and violence.

Numbers 20:10-11

‘And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Listen now, you 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.’

But in the eyes of all the people, the whole assembly, the two leaders, instead of revealing the gracious power and provision of Yahweh, castigated the people, calling them rebels, and then pointed to themselves as the providers of what was to come. ‘Shall we bring you forth water?’ And then reluctantly and peevishly Moses, such was his lack of control, struck the rock twice with ‘his’ rod. What should have been a glorious revelation of Yahweh’s power and goodness and authority, and have enhanced Moses reputation as the servant of Yahweh, became a petty display of temper and highhandedness against God’s express command. Moses and Aaron had taken over from, and misrepresented, Yahweh.

Apart from Moses’ anger the people might not have known that anything was wrong. They were not party to God’s commands. What they heard was their leaders’ accusation of rebellion. What they saw was Moses striking the rock twice with the rod of God, and the water pouring out. And they rejoiced and hastened to drink.

But God saw something very different. He saw two men who were taking God’s very symbol of authority and wildly misusing it, appropriating Yahweh’s authority to themselves and in the process wholly misrepresenting Him. He heard anger that should have been compassion. He saw resentment that should have been love. He witnessed the unbelievably arrogant behaviour of these two who claimed to be leaders and to represent Him. He heard the claim that the water was being brought forth by Moses and Aaron. And He saw Moses take His rod and with it disobediently smite the rock, not once but twice. We might almost suggest that He could not believe His eyes. It was as though all the disobedience of the people was being lived out by these two men. They had got above themselves.

The water did come. The people were satisfied. But God was very ‘angry’ indeed. His servants had totally failed Him. They had proved themselves unfit for His service. They were no longer suited to the task ahead.

Verse 12

Yahweh Complains at Moses and Aaron Because They Have Not Sanctified Him in the Eyes of Israel and Punishes Them by Exclusion from The Land (Numbers 20:12 ).

Numbers 20:12

‘And Yahweh said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” ’

God then made clear to them how desperately wrong their behaviour had been. It was not so much the people who were in the wrong, and who were rebels, it was Moses and Aaron. They, His trusted leaders, had flouted His will and disobeyed Him. They had demonstrated that they no longer willingly did His will. They had shown total lack of control and a totally wrong attitude towards the people. They had dared to misuse the sacred rod which had come from ‘before Yahweh’, the instrument of His authority and of His Name, which to take in the hand indicated that they were the especial chosen of Yahweh. And they had shown that they themselves were no longer fitted to lead the people of God into the land, that they could misuse the holy. It was a wonder that they were not struck down on the spot as others had been before them (Numbers 16:35; Leviticus 10:1-2).

Sadly what had been apparent about the fathers of these people at the beginning of the thirty eight years was now equally apparent of Moses and Aaron at the end. It had become apparent that they would not be able to cope with the entry into the land. They had excluded themselves. They were no longer fitted for it, and it would have to be made the responsibility of someone else.

For instead of performing the wonder with a word as they were commanded they had done it by twice smiting the rock. They had forgotten themselves. They had overlooked who and what they were, servants of God from whom obedience was required. They had misused the rod of God and the authority that had been given to them. Instead of demonstrating His gracious power, they had revealed reluctance of spirit. Instead of showing His lovingkindness they had revealed anger. The people had gained the impression that Yahweh resented giving them water, and that the gift was in the end due to the rod in Moses’ hand, which he could use as he pleased, and not to Yahweh Himself. Why the claim had even been made that it was ‘they’ who had produced the water. It was almost unbelievable.

Perhaps also He knew that Moses was in such a state that he had not fully believed that the water would come out with only a word. That he had struck the rock in a kind of unbelief, remembering the previous incident at another Meribah (Exodus 17:1-12). It demonstrated that Moses’ faith was no longer up to the task ahead. He was no longer obedient. He was not listening carefully. He was doing his own thing. Whatever it was these two men had marred the image that God was seeking to represent. And it had been because of their lack of faith. So God would now need to seek a new leader for the entry into the land, one who would be obedient to His will, and would trust Him and obey Him fully.

It is the great danger for all Christian leaders that they can begin to think that God’s work is in their own hands. They can begin almost to think that they can choose to do whatever they want, that God is subject to their whim. And even the greatest can wane in their behaviour and faith, and begin to magnify themselves. It is one of the greatest dangers facing Christian leaders. It is then that they have to be set aside to be replaced by those more trusting and obedient. God will not give His glory to another. While Moses was meek, God glorified him. Now he had become overbearing, God would replace him.

Note the accusation. ‘Because you did not believe in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel.’ It was their attitude towards Yahweh that was at fault, an attitude that was far worse than the people’s. They may have been justified in their view of the people, but they were not justified in their attitude towards God’s orders. And that attitude had resulted in their totally misrepresenting God, and reducing the presentation of His glory, and violating the rod of Yahweh. Moses and Aaron had an attitude problem, and they had suggested that Yahweh had one as well.

“Therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” The land was only available for those who would trust and obey God. That had been the theme right from the beginning. Thus the lesson had to come over strongly that those who would not trust and obey could not enter the land, whoever they were. That this gave Moses a huge jolt is unquestionable (Deuteronomy 1:37; Deuteronomy 4:21-22). But his exclusion from the land was certain from that moment on. And yet he undoubtedly became a humbler and a better man for it, and learned the humility that would enable him to better prepare the people for that entry, as Deuteronomy reveals. In his diminished dedication God had had mercy on him. Without this lesson he may well have had to be replaced earlier. And as a result, while he could not enter the land, he was able to possess it with his eyes. But in the end even Moses was only a man.

Another at another time would endure a ‘contradiction of sinners against Himself’ (Hebrews 12:3). He too would be faced with the question of obedience to the will of God in the light of an ungrateful people. He too would be tested to the very edge of man’s ability to cope. But in His case He would reply, ‘not my will but yours’ (Mark 14:36). And through full obedience to God’s will in the face of all provocation He would be proved fit to be a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, thus demonstrating that He was not only a man but God’s Instrument in the fulfilling of His will (see especially Hebrews 10:5-10).

Verse 13

The Place is Called the Waters of Meribah (mrybh) Because ‘the Children of Israel’ Strove (ryb) There with Yahweh and He Was Sanctified (yqdsh) In Them (Numbers 20:13 ).

Numbers 20:13

‘These are the waters of Meribah, because the children of Israel strove with Yahweh, and he was sanctified in them.’

And the waters were given the name Meribah, which means ‘contention’ (rib = quarrel, complaint). The same name had been given at an earlier incident at the beginning, soon after the departure from Egypt, when the people had also there contended with Moses because of lack of water. Thus the children had repeated what their fathers had done before them. The repetition of the name was probably deliberately in order to bring out that very fact. Moses wanted the people to recognise that they were following in their fathers’ footsteps, and that they were behaving little differently from their fathers. There had been a previous Rephidim (contention with God, resulting in blessing), and the people had gone on to disaster. Now they had their own Rephidim. They too had been contentious, and yet had received blessing. Let them take warning from it not to go on as their fathers had done. The repetition indicated a new beginning for God’s people. Now they could go forward if they had learned their lesson.

But the two incidents were clearly quite different. In Exodus 17:1-7 only Moses was involved, and the ‘miracle’ was performed before the elders of Israel only. There it was out of sight of the people. Here it was deliberately in front of all the people. Furthermore there Moses was told to strike the rock, which he did obediently, not in anger. Indeed the smiting was deliberately drawn attention to, and specifically stated to be similar to the smiting of the Nile (Exodus 7:20), and thus as bringing glory to God. The striking revealed Yahweh’s power. Here the striking of the rock is portrayed as nearly destroying all that God was attempting to reveal. At that stage the people had needed to recognise that the God of the Exodus was working though Moses in the same way as He had before in Egypt. But here, after all that had gone before, the people had needed a new lesson, the lesson that God was with them and would graciously provide for them through His word. Here He had wanted His peoples’ eyes turned from Moses to Himself. And that was where Moses had failed. Considering what had happened to Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-2) for the misuse of holy things Moses might well have been smitten down. To hold the rod of God is an awesome thing. It puts someone under a huge responsibility. It was only because he was so favoured in God’s sight, and because it had been more unwitting than highhanded, that his punishment was less.

“And he was sanctified in them.” Moses and Aaron had failed Him, but they had not prevented His final aim. As a result of receiving the ‘waters of contention’ (called such because the people ‘contended’ with Him there) He was sanctified in the eyes of the people. They did recognise in it a wonderful provision from Yahweh. And in view of their contentiousness He was even more sanctified as a result of His graciousness being revealed in the face of their contention.

Perhaps we may conclude this section by again drawing attention to the word play on Miriam (mrym) and Meribah (mrybh). The section commences with the death of mrym and ends with the waters of mrybh. This is surely deliberate. It indicates the passing away of the old order. First in the death of Miriam, and then in embryo in the coming death of Aaron and Moses. For at the waters of mrybh not only did the people quarrel (ryb) with God, but God quarrelled with Moses and Aaron. But it also indicates that after death came life through the waters. The advance had begun. But they had to learn stage by stage that it would not always be straightforward.

EXCURSUS Note on Kadesh.

In the time of Abraham a place called En Mishpat was seen as later called Kadesh (Genesis 14:7), which was ‘in the country of the Amalekites’, a wilderness tribe. In Numbers 20:16 a Kadesh is declared to be a city on the border of the Edom (compare Kedesh in Joshua 15:23). One problem that we have here is that we do not know how far the borders of Edom extended, but it is very doubtful if they reached to Kadesh-barnea. Secondly it may well be that this Kadesh was called Kadesh (qdsh - holy place) by Israel, simply because that was where Yahweh was sanctified in the eyes of Israel (Numbers 20:13). The names are given so that the people of Israel can identify the places. Most places around that area would have different names to different peoples, each identifying them in their own terms. It is doubtful how many places, if at all, would have standard names. However, a Kadesh is mentioned in Genesis 16:14; Genesis 20:1, thus the name for at least one site appears to come from earlier times.

Kadesh-barnea is not referred to as such until Numbers 32:8; Numbers 34:4; Deuteronomy 1:2; Deuteronomy 1:19; Deuteronomy 2:14; Deuteronomy 9:23; Joshua 10:41; Joshua 15:3 and was the Kadesh from which the scouts went out and to which they returned. ‘Barnea’ may well have been added simply to distinguish it because it was well known that there was another Kadesh. Kadesh-barnea may, in fact, be identifiable with ‘Ain Qudeirat, where a small fortress would later be built in 10th century BC, and it is possible that it was originally called Barnea. It is noteworthy that it is not mentioned in the itinerary in Numbers 33:0 until the second visit in Numbers 33:36, whereas an earlier visit must have been made around Numbers 20:17-18, as mentioned in Numbers 13:26 and in the above references. Perhaps then it was called Rithmah. Or Rithmah may have been a more important landmark, only being superseded because of the events Numbers 20:0. There were a number of oases around Kadesh-barnea. In view of the meaning of the name, ‘holy place’, it is not inconceivable that there were a number of Kadeshes. End of Excursus.

Verses 14-21

2). The Appeal to Edom (Numbers 20:14-21 ).

The incident at Meribah was followed by an appeal to Edom to be allowed to use the King’s Highway through their territory. Compare here Deuteronomy 2:4-8. The march on Yahweh’s land had begun in earnest. But in the event they were required to skirt the territory and were not allowed through. God’s presence with His people was not a guarantee that they would face no problems, only that He would help them to overcome them in one way or the other. The reference to Kadesh being on the borders of Edom would support the idea that this was a different Kadesh (‘holy place’) from Kadesh-barnea as the latter was in the heart of the Negeb.

This incident was firstly a reminder to Israel of the obstacles that lay ahead. They had to recognise that they were not going to be welcomed in their project. Even a brother tribe refused them assistance. It would be tougher later. But secondly it stressed to Israel that they were not there as aggressors and seekers of spoil. The Canaanites (including the Amorites) were there for the taking for Yahweh’s judgment was coming on them. But with neighbouring tribes they were to seek peace not aggression. This was stressed in Deuteronomy 2:0 in respect of Edom, Moab and Ammon.

All Christians have to face constant attack. Sometimes, as here, the way to fight it is to avoid the place of testing, and go around it. ‘Abstain from every form of evil’ (1 Thessalonians 5:22). ‘Flee youthful desires’ (1 Timothy 2:22). In the battle of the flesh avoidance is often a primary weapon. At other times when the battle is in the mind flight is of little use, then we have to stand and fight, ‘take to you the whole armour of God that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand’ (Ephesians 6:13), just as Israel would be required to stand against the enemies of God, against Arad and the Canaanites (Numbers 21:1-3). In the battle of the mind we cannot flee, but must stand firm on the promises of God, as Jesus did during His temptations.


a Moses’ request to be allowed through peaceably (Numbers 20:14-17).

b Edom’s refusal and threat (Numbers 20:18).

c Israel try again and lay out terms of passage (Numbers 20:19).

b Edom still refuses and make clear their threat (Numbers 20:20).

a The request being refused, Israel turn away peaceably (Numbers 20:21).

The Request To Be Allowed Through Peaceably (Numbers 20:14-17 ).

Numbers 20:14-15

‘And Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom, Thus says your brother Israel, You know all the trouble that has 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.’

It was to Moses’ credit that having learned that he himself would not be allowed to enter the land there was no hint of his refusing to go forward so as to bring God’s people there. We are probably to see from this that he recognised how grievously he had been at fault. He had learned the lesson of obedience. It would mean that his usefulness could continue. Indeed that lesson came in useful in this next incident. Without it he might well have smitten Edom with the rod of God. But he had learned obedience.

Here (at God’s command - Deuteronomy 2:2-7) he sent messengers to Edom with just that advance in mind. Note the contrast of the description here with Numbers 20:5. This description was the truer picture of what life in Egypt had been like.

The words in which Moses expressed his request were typical of a diplomatic letter of the time as witnessed at El Amarna, Alalakh and Mari. It was addressed to the king of Edom, contained the formula ‘thus says’ (compare Numbers 22:16), provided the identity of the sender, claimed kinship, outlined their problem, and made a plea for response.

He pointed out that Israel were brothers to Edom (Jacob was Esau’s brother, and Esau had established himself in Edom), and reminded them that Canaan was their real home. They were not coming to make trouble. They were going home. They had a right to be on the way there. He also sought to draw on Edom’s sympathy by reminding them how Israel had, as they well knew, suffered in Egypt, and how they had been treated. This knowledge of what Edom was aware of may well suggest that he knew that the two tribal groups had maintained contact with each other through the years.

His words are also an almost incidental confirmation of what we know of Israel’s history, and are in conformity with the Exodus account. They ring true.

Numbers 20:16

‘And when we cried to Yahweh, 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 furthest extent of your border.’

Moses’ aim was to indicate why they, with such a large force, were almost on Edom’s borders, and explained precisely where they were camped. He knew that Edomite scouts would already have reported back their presence. He wanted it known that they had no ill intent. They were there because Yahweh had heard their pleas, and had sent His angel (ml‘k - a messenger) to bring them out of Egypt. They were thus there on Yahweh’s instructions. His message also contained the gentle hint that not to assist them would be to go against Yahweh. And all knew what that entailed for news of His activities would have gone before them (Exodus 15:14-16; Numbers 14:14; Joshua 2:9).

Numbers 20:17

‘Let us pass, I pray you, through your 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 your border.’

So he made the reasonable plea that they be allowed to pass along the King’s Highway. That was a recognised trade route that led through Edom towards the land on the east of the Jordan and up towards Damascus. Its length was marked by early bronze age settlements and fortresses, some of which are know to have been occupied at this time. It was called the King’s Highway, partly because it was the way used by travelling kings and was suitable for the travel of larger bodies of people.

He promised that while passing along it Israel would be totally circumspect. They would use their own provisions and would not trespass on Edomite property or springs. They would pass right through Edom without straying right or left.

Edom’s Refusal and Threat (Numbers 20:18 ).

Numbers 20:18

‘And Edom said to him, You shall not pass through me, lest I come out with the sword against you.’

Edom’s reply was a firm ‘no’. If they did seek to pass through they would be met with the sword. Edom’s armies would positively resist them. Edom were taking no chances with such a large body of people.

Patiently Israel Tried Again and Laid Out The Terms of Peaceable Passage (Numbers 20:19 ).

Numbers 20:19

‘And the children of Israel said to him, We will go up by the highway; and if we drink of your water, I and my cattle, then will I give its price. Let me only, without doing anything else, pass through on my feet.’

The messengers were again sent to the king of Edom, on behalf of the whole of Israel. But the change to the first person indicates the hand of Moses. The promise was repeated that they would go through peaceably, and it was added that they would pay for anything that they required. All they wanted was passage through.

Edom Still Refuse and Make Clear Their Threat (Numbers 20:20 )

Numbers 20:20

‘And he said, You shall not pass through. And Edom came out against him with much people, and with a strong hand.’

The king of Edom again refused permission, but recognising that his refusal might result in warlike action from the advancing host, moved to his borders with a display of strength, at the points where he knew they might make the attempt. If they wanted to come through, they would have to fight every step of the way. With its mountain passes Edom was fairly easy to defend in that area.

The Request Being Refused, Israel Turned Away Peaceably (Numbers 20:21 )

Numbers 20:21

‘Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his border, for which reason Israel turned away from him.’

Moses was clearly determined not to antagonise a related tribe. He possibly recognised how sensible it would be to maintain good relations with those who lived on the borders of Canaan. They would not want them interfering during the invasion. Furthermore he was under Yahweh’s strict instructions (Deuteronomy 2:4-6). And he had learned at Meribah that he must not misuse the rod of Yahweh. War would be a waste of time as Israel were forbidden to occupy the land of a brother tribe, a tribe who themselves had received the land from Yahweh. By this the point was got over to the people that the land that Yahweh did wish them to occupy was specific and fixed. They were there on Yahweh’s business. They should therefore receive a certain amount of assurance from the fact that Yahweh had previously given land in the area, whose inhabitants were still in safe occupation of it, and were protected by Him.

Thus Moses was recognising (and being made to recognise) that they were not there as aggressors to take into possession any land they liked, but were there under the command of God to take only the land that He had given them.

However, the blunt statement in Numbers 20:21 contains a double entendre. Had Edom been more helpful it might have made a great difference to relations in the future. As it was Israel ‘turned away from Edom’. The opportunity of a lasting friendship had been lost so that later Israel would have no hesitation in invading Edom (Numbers 24:18). But in the context the main point was that they did not seek to force their way through. They took another route. Note how the historicity of this whole incident is confirmed in Judges 11:16-18.

Verses 22-29

3). The Death of Aaron (Numbers 20:22-29 ).

This advance forward was evidence of a new beginning. This was confirmed by the fact that as a result of his sins over the Cushite wife of Moses (Numbers 12:11) and at Meribah (Numbers 20:12) Aaron was to die and be replaced by his son who would introduce the new era (Numbers 35:25; Numbers 35:28). Note that apart from the final verse the incident is not described in terms of being a sad occasion, although it was for Aaron for he had failed to achieve the final goal, but simply as a solemn moving forward of God’s purposes. However, God would still achieve His final goal, but He would do it without Aaron. We must beware of ever thinking that we are indispensable, with the result that we grow careless. For God can soon strip us down.


a Aaron to die and not to enter the land (Numbers 20:22-24).

b Aaron to be stripped of his garments on Mount Hor and Eliezer, his son, appointed (Numbers 20:25-26).

c Moses obeys Yahweh’s command and ascends with them into Mount Hor in the sight of the people (Numbers 20:27)

b Aaron is stripped of his garments and Eliezer, his son, appointed (Numbers 20:28).

a Aaron seen to be dead and mourned for (Numbers 20:29)

Aaron Was to Die and Not Enter The Land (Numbers 20:22-29 ).

Numbers 20:22

‘And they journeyed from Kadesh: and the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, came to mount Hor.’

They journeyed from the place where Yahweh had been revealed as holy in their eyes, and skirting round Edom came to Mount Hor, whose whereabouts is unknown. Edom was in mountainous country. Mount Hor was ‘on the way of Atharim’ (Numbers 21:1). We do not have enough information to know which route round Edom Israel took, but this may suggest the western border in view of the forthcoming clash with the Canaanites (assuming the order to be chronological, which it may not be. It may be more in theological order. But see Numbers 33:40 which also supports the chronological order).

Numbers 20:23

‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses and Aaron in mount Hor, by the border of the land of Edom, saying,’

This would be the last time that Yahweh spoke to ‘Moses and Aaron’. Soon Aaron would be no more. We are simply told that Mount Hor was by the border of the land of Edom. Elsewhere we learn that it was near Moserah (Deuteronomy 10:6), but that is also unidentifiable. This is not surprising. Different names would be given to places by different peoples, and this was not settled land. But both were clearly identifiable at the time of writing. Moserah (chastisement) was not necessarily the same place as Moseroth (plural of Moserah - strong chastisement) (Numbers 33:30-31). See commentary on Deuteronomy 10:6. Indeed it would seem that Moses (or the people) liked to give duplicate names (as with Meribah) in order to back up Yahweh’s repeated lessons. The giving of the name would bring to mind what had happened preciously. It was a wise teaching technique.

Numbers 20:24

Aaron shall be gathered to his people; for he shall not enter into the land which I have given to the children of Israel, because you (ye) rebelled against my word at the waters of Meribah.’

The time had come for the death of Aaron as chastisement (moserah) for his failures. After the failure of Moses and Aaron at ‘the waters of Meribah’ there had to be a new beginning, although even now it was not yet time for Moses to be replaced. But it was now time for Aaron’s replacement to take over. It was the next step in the new beginning.

However, it should be noted that neither Moses nor Aaron were ‘struck down’. Both died with dignity. God did not overlook their years of faithful service. Being ‘gathered to his fathers’ indicated proper burial, and that he was not dying under God’s judgment. He was joining the faithful who had gone before (Genesis 25:8; Genesis 25:17; Genesis 35:29; Genesis 49:33).

Yet in all this it was made clear that what was happening was within the will of Yahweh. It was not to be seen as a disaster but as Yahweh’s next step forward.

Aaron Was To Be Stripped of His Garments on Mount Hor and Eliezer, His Son, Appointed (Numbers 20:25-26 ).

It is apparent from what is described that Aaron had ascended the mountain in his High Priestly regalia. For this was a solemn ceremonial in which one High Priest was replaced by another.

Numbers 20:25-26

Take Aaron and Eleazar his son, and bring them up to mount Hor, and strip Aaron of his garments, and put them on Eleazar his son. And Aaron shall be gathered to his people, and shall die there.”

Moses was therefore commanded to take Aaron and Eleazar up into Mount Hor, where Aaron was to be stripped of his High Priestly garments which were then to put on his son Eleazar who was to be the new High Priest. Such a lofty place was seen as bringing men nearer to God, but had the advantage of not being too public. Aaron was to be allowed to be replaced in quiet and private dignity. And it was to be the place where he would die and be buried. It was a reminder that the High Priesthood did not pass at the will of man but at the will of Yahweh.

Numbers 20:27

‘And Moses did as Yahweh commanded: and they went up to mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation.’

So in accordance with Yahweh’s commandment (a constant stress throughout the Pentateuch) Moses took Aaron and Eleazar into the mountain.

Yet to some extent the people were being made aware that some change was taking place for they were aware of their entry into the mountain. It was not something done in secret. However, they were used to the fact that when Moses took men into a mountain they would have a special revelation of God (Exodus 24:1-2; Exodus 24:9-11) and that it was not a place for them to be, and they waited patiently for their return.

Numbers 20:28

‘And Moses stripped Aaron of his garments, and put them on Eleazar his son; and Aaron died there on the top of the mount, and Moses and Eleazar came down from the mount.’

And there in the mountain Moses took off from Aaron his High Priestly garments and put them on his son. Provision would undoubtedly have been made for this to happen with all decency. Indeed the likelihood is that both were wearing a similar priestly undergarment and that it was only the top garments that were exchanged. But the change signified to both that Eleazar was now taking Aaron’s place as High Priest of the whole of Israel. A new epoch was beginning (Numbers 35:25; Numbers 35:28). And there Aaron died after a long and useful life and there he joined his fathers.

Numbers 35:25; Numbers 35:28; Numbers 35:32 make clear that the death of the High Priest in some way counters the defilement of the land by the innocent shedding of blood. The High Priest represented the whole people. Thus his death may have been seen as having an atoning significance for innocent failure. Through it the land may have been seen as being cleansed from the shedding of innocent blood through the necessary death of a representative. It may suggest that in the High Priest Israel as it were died and was reborn. But this idea is not specifically stated, is never suggested and does not appear elsewhere. So it may rather be that it was seen as a carrying out of the principle of a life for a life. That was why until a death of his representative had take place the slayer had to remain in the city of refuge. Until there had been a balancing death the man in the city of refuge could not be free. This seems to be the main principle in mind (see 35; Exodus 21:12-14; Deuteronomy 19:2-13). Compare how when a slaying was discovered where the killer was unknown, an animal’s slaughter had to take place (Deuteronomy 21:4). And then there was no suggestion of sacrifice, it was not offered sacrificially, although legal forgiveness did ensue (Deuteronomy 21:8-9). What was, however, certain was that the High Priest’s death was seen as the end of an epoch.

In the same way the death of our Great High Priest, our Lord Jesus Christ, brings legal forgiveness for the sin of all who are His (compare Galatians 3:10-13). As our representative He died where we should have died. He was both dying priest and dying sacrifice (see Hebrews 1:3; Hebrews 2:17-18; Hebrews 4:14-16; Hebrews 5:5-10; Hebrews 6:20; Hebrews 7:26-28; Hebrews 8:6; Hebrews 9:11-12; Hebrews 9:15; Hebrews 9:24; Hebrews 10:12-14; Hebrews 10:21; Hebrews 12:24, where the High Priesthood is again and again seen as finding perfect fulfilment in Him).

Numbers 20:29

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

When Moses and Eleazar descended from the mountain the people would recognise from the way that Eleazar was dressed that Aaron was dead. And their hearts were moved and they wept. And for Israel there was thirty days of weeping, which would seem to have been standard on the passing of a great chieftain (Deuteronomy 34:8). In Israelite terms thirty days was a complete period (3 x 10). In Egypt it was seventy days (Genesis 50:3) but that may simply have been because of the exalted position of Joseph, and therefore of his father.

While mourning was a requirement at all such occasions we can be sure that in this case much of it was genuine. At such a time they would remember the great debt that they owed him, and old enmities would be forgotten.

But the most important thing of all was that the High Priesthood continued on unbroken. God’s purposes did not come to a halt. It was simply that there was a different Aaronide in the clothing. Yahweh went on for ever.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Numbers 20". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/numbers-20.html. 2013.
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