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Bible Commentaries

Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible

Numbers 20


The death of Miriam: the water of Meribah: the King of Edom refuses the Israelites a passage through his dominions; the death of Aaron upon mount Hor.

Before Christ 1452.

Verse 1

Numbers 20:1. Then came the children of Israel From Kadesh, where we left the Israelites, ch. Num 13:27 Numbers 14:25. They continued to wander in the desarts of Arabia thirty-seven years, and found there seventeen different encampments, ch. 33: After which, all that generation of murmurers being dead, Moses, always guided by the miraculous cloud, was ordered to return into the desart of Sin, upon the confines of Idumea.

In the first month That is to say, in the first month of the fortieth year after their departure from Egypt; which happening in the year of the world 2513, this, consequently, was the first month of the year 2552; see Bedford's Scripture Chronology, book 4: chap. 5. It may seem strange, perhaps, that Moses should pass in silence the transactions of these thirty and seven years which the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, and give us only the first and last years of their peregrinations: but M. le Clerc well remarks, that there is nothing strange in this, since Moses writes not so much in quality of an historian as of a legislator, whose purpose it was to deliver down to posterity all those laws which he received from God; and that system of laws being completed in the first two years after the Exodus, and no new law being delivered during the subsequent years, it did not fall in with his design to insert the history of those years in the Pentateuch. It appears, however, that during the long sojourn of the Israelites in the wilderness, they preserved, with an almost inconceivable obstinacy, their unhappy propensity to the idolatry of Egypt: not content, however, with the idols of Egypt, they borrowed those of the new people with whom they had any conversation. Moloch, Chiun, Remphan, and other such-like Divinities, of whom we know little more than the names, partook of their homage with the true and eternal God.

In Kadesh Not in Kadesh Barnea, the fifteenth station or encampment of the Israelites, upon the confines of the southern part of Canaan; but in another Kadesh, which was upon the confines of Idumea, and not far from the Red-sea.

And Miriam died there Four months before her brother Aaron, ch. Num 33:38 and eleven before Moses. She was the eldest of three, and was near a hundred and thirty years old, as may be collected from Exo 4:7 where it appears, that she was not a child when Moses was born. Eusebius tells us, that in his time the tomb of Miriam was found at Kadesh, at a little distance from Petra, the capital of Arabia Petraea. Several of the ancients believed that she died a virgin; and that she was the legislatrix and governess of the Israelitish women, as Moses was the legislator of the men.

Verse 2

Numbers 20:2. And there was no water for the congregation Here, almost all the commentators say, God permitted the water which flowed from the rock in Horeb, and followed the Israelites through the wilderness, to fail them; and that with a design to try them, as he had tried their forefathers. But in our notes on Exo 17:7 we have shewn the absurdity of the supposition of the waters following the people; and we must observe upon this miracle, that the same thing happened to the children at Kadesh, which had happened to the fathers at Rephidim: the water failed them, and they murmured; shewing the same unhappy disposition which their fathers had shewn.

Verse 8

Numbers 20:8. Take the rod The celebrated rod, wherewith Moses had wrought so many miracles in Egypt, and which, it is probable, had been laid up somewhere in the sanctuary; because it is said, Num 20:9 he took it from before the Lord: from which expression, Le Clerc and others understand it to have been Aaron's rod; but it appears from the 11th verse that it was the rod of Moses.

Verse 10

Numbers 20:10. Hear now, ye rebels See ch. Numbers 17:10. What we render, Must we fetch you water out of this rock? the Vulgate renders, Can we, or are we able to fetch you, &c. which Houbigant follows: an poterimus vobis aquam de ista petra extrahere? as much as to say, "What a strange demand! What! do you believe that we are able to make water flow from the rock? Who can do this but the omnipotent God?"

Verse 12

Numbers 20:12. Because ye believed me not Various have been the inquiries as to what the fault of Moses and Aaron was for which they were excluded the promised land. Some imagine that their manner of speaking to the people, Hear, ye rebels, &c. was culpable; and that it is to this the Psalmist refers, when he says of Moses, that he spoke unadvisedly with his lips, Psalms 106:33. Others suppose that he expressed his diffidence and want of faith in God, not only by smiting the rock twice, but by smiting it at all, as God bade him only speak unto the rock, Num 20:8 and, indeed, we find the rod sometimes made use of only as a sign, stretched out in view of the people. See Exodus 9:23. His fault, however, seems rather to have consisted in smiting the rock twice, which argued a mind impatient of delay, provoked, and seemingly doubtful of God's answering his first sign: God had commanded Moses (say the authors of the Universal History) to call for the water by only speaking to the rock; but he, whether out of impatience at their loud murmurs, or out of diffidence of the promised supply, smote it twice with his rod, and used some indecent expressions, either to the rock or the people; for which he was excluded from setting his foot in the promised land: Aaron was likewise excluded in the same sentence, doubtless, as having shared in the fault. See Saurin's 62nd Dissert.

Verse 13

Numbers 20:13. This is the water of Meribah So called from chiding or strife; and in Deu 32:51 distinguished from the other Meribah at Horeb, by the name of Meribah Kadesh. Here God was sanctified in them; i.e. glorified his power, goodness, and truth, in the eyes of the Israelites, by this signal miracle, and demonstrated his holiness and impartial justice, by punishing his greatest favourites for their incredulity.

REFLECTIONS.—Their years of wandering are now drawing to an end. The former generation being nearly consumed, the people once more see their faces toward the promised land, and encamp in Kadesh, near the borders of Edom, where we have,

1. Miriam's death. Though forgiven her murmuring, at Moses's intercession, she is excluded Canaan. Note; We may, for our sins, be corrected with temporal afflictions, though God has forgiven them, and saved us from eternal death. 2. The murmuring of the people for want of water. Note; (1.) It is too common for children to imitate their fathers' bad examples. (2.) They who cannot put up with inconveniences in their journey to Heaven, must never think of going thither. Never was greater unthankfulness and perverseness seen than in this people: instead of being affected with God's mercy in sparing them, they wish to have died with their brethren by the plague; and quarrel with Moses for having brought them from Egypt, though such an iron furnace, because of a present difficulty, which, by past experience, they might be assured God could easily remove. Note; They who seek occasion to quarrel will find fault with the best services done them, and reproach with ill intentions the friends to whom they have been most obliged. 3. Moses and Aaron fly to the sanctuary, and on their faces fall down, lest new judgments should overtake the people, and to beg direction how to act in the present emergency. Note; In all troubles, approach to God is the surest means for direction and relief. 4. God appears, not as before, in anger to destroy them, but in mercy to supply them. Note; If God were strict to visit for all our offences, the Spirit would fail before him. He often thinketh upon mercy when we deserve punishment. Moses is ordered to take the rod of God, and, in the presence of all the people, to speak to the rock, and the streams shall immediately flow. Behold, (1.) The rich grace of God to rebellious people. (2.) The power of God magnified in such a miracle. Are our hearts hard as this rock? The word of God can cleave them, and open sluices of penitential tears. 5. Moses and Aaron obey; but in such a manner as displeased their Master, and brought upon them exclusion from the land to which they were conducting the people. They were guilty of two great sins in this matter: (1.) Unbelief. They doubted whether God would really bring water from the rock for such a people. Note; No sin among God's people is more besetting, or more dangerous, than unbelief. (2.) Passion. They were out of patience with them, angrily abuse them as rebels, and, instead of calmly commanding the water to flow, Moses with repeated vehemence smites the rock; and as Israel were spectators of this hasty conduct, the offence was the greater. Note; (1.) Great provocations are no excuse for passion. (2.) The meekest men need watch over a self-willed spirit. (3.) If anger kindle in our heart, the more cause have we to keep our lips, as it were, with a bridle. (4.) That reproach may be very just, which in our mouth, as flowing from an enraged heart, may to us be exceeding evil. 6. God's displeasure at Moses and Aaron; and their punishment is to die in the wilderness. Note; (1.) God's own people must not think they shall sin with impunity. No; God, as he expects more from them, will often correct them more severely than others. (2.) The record Moses bears against himself is a proof of his impartiality, and a gracious token of his humiliation under his offence. 7. The place is called Meribah, like that other where they murmured and strove with God before. It is good to remark the place and spot where our sins have been committed, that we may, whenever we pass by, look, and be confounded on the remembrance of them.

Verse 14

Numbers 20:14. And Moses sent messengers The kingdom of Edom, founded by the posterity of Esau, was originally governed by dukes; Gen 36:15 but at this time it was governed by kings. The learned Usher is of opinion, that the king, to whom Moses now sent, was Hadar, the same with him mentioned Genesis 36:39. He adds, that God punished the inhumanity of the nation towards the Israelites by shortly destroying this monarch, and causing the kingdom of the Edomites to revert to a ducal government; because Moses, who after this wrote, or retouched, the Book of Genesis, mentions several dukes who reigned together, immediately after the death of Hadar. See Usher's Chronol. Sacr. cap. 11: However this might be, it was by the divine direction that Moses sent messengers to Edom. See Shuckford's Connection, b. 12: vol. 3: p. 247. The expression, thy brother Israel, refers to the two brothers, founders of the two nations, Jacob and Esau.

Verse 16

Numbers 20:16. And sent an angel We have, in various parts of the preceding commentary, shewn, that this was the great Angel of the Covenant, or the Messiah. See Exodus 3:2; Exodus 14:19; Exodus 14:31. The word fields, in the next verse, means the cultivated lands; and the whole offer of the Israelites is, that they would pass through peaceably and quietly, without injury to any public or private property.

Verse 19

Numbers 20:19. Without doing any thing else The Hebrew is only, not a word: to which the different versions give different senses. The meaning seems to be, "It is not a mere promise, or verbal declaration; but we will perform what we say." Houbigant renders it, Nulla erit concertatio; there shall be no contest, no dispute. In which, says he, I partly follow the Vulgate; for it is very uncertain what this phrase means. The following expression, I will only go through, on my feet, signifies, I will only pass through, I will make what haste I can in passing: Je ne serai que passer.

Verse 21

Numbers 20:21. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage Grotius censures this conduct of the Edomites, as contrary to equity and the law of nations; by which the highways, as well as the seas and rivers of all countries, ought to be free for all who have a mind to pass through them upon just occasions; insomuch, that he thinks the denial of this was an equitable ground of the war with the Amorites, mentioned ch. 21: as it might have been with Edom and Moab, had not God prohibited it. See De Jure, B. & P. lib. 2: cap. 2: sect. 13. But Gronovius, on the contrary, shews, that princes have a right to deny this liberty for their people's security. And this we find to have been the general sense of mankind; as appears by various examples, cited by Gronovius in his Notes on Grotius, and by Selden in his Mare Clausum, lib. 1: cap. 20. But granting the king of Edom had a right to refuse the Israelites a passage through his country, as indeed they themselves acknowledge, in begging him to grant them that liberty, yet he appears blameable in refusing so reasonable a request, after they had given him such strong assurances that they had no hostile intention against him, and that they would secure him against all damage; and if, notwithstanding those assurances, he was still afraid of them, he might have insisted on their giving him hostages. To refuse a petition thus qualified, was contrary to the principles of humanity and justice, especially considering the ties of consanguinity which subsisted between the two nations, with which plea the Israelites enforced their petition.

REFLECTIONS.—As the nearest way to Canaan now lay through the territories of Edom, Moses sent ambassadors to beg leave to pass through that land. 1. The message they brought was friendly and reasonable; they urge their kindred as a plea of favor. Near relations are doubly bound to every mutual act of kindness. They mention their sufferings from Egypt, and their mercies from God, both to excite a compassionate concern for their past vexations, and to engage them to assist those to whom God had shewed such peculiar favor. It is as much our interest as our duty to be kind to those who have God for their friend. They condescend to humble entreaty, though sufficiently able to force a passage unasked if they chose it. But power must never be employed to work injustice. Finally, they engage to do no damage, but to pay even for the water they drank; and to make no stay in the country, but with all speed march by the high-road to the borders of Canaan. Note; They who are marching to Heaven go straight forward in the high-road of holiness, and desire nothing in Edom, the world of sin, but a safe passage out of it. 2. They receive a peremptory refusal from the king of Edom; and, to enforce it, he draws out his people to the frontiers to oppose them: jealous of such a numerous army, lest they should seize the country; or inheriting the family feud of Esau, and willing to disappoint them of the inheritance they sought in Canaan. Note; (1.) No quarrels so lasting and inveterate as those of near relations. (2.) If we are the people of God, we must not wonder though we meet with the greatest un-kindness from those of whom we might reasonably expect the greatest affection.

Verse 22

Numbers 20:22. The children of Israel—came unto mount Hor A mountain, or chain of mountains, on the east border of the land of Edom, ch. Num 33:37 which, probably, had its name from Hori, the first possessor of it, Gen 36:30 and is called, Deuteronomy 10:6. Mosera. Dr. Shaw thinks it is very probable, that mount Hor was the chain of mountains which are now called Accaba by the Arabs, and were the easternmost range, as we may take them to be, of Ptolemy's Black Mountains. Here, from the badness of the road, and the very rugged passes that are to be surmounted, the Mahometan pilgrims lose a number of camels, and are no less fatigued than the Israelites were formerly in getting over them. Travels, p. 323.

Verse 24

Numbers 20:24. Aaron shall be gathered unto his people: for, &c.— See Genesis 25:8. It is an indisputable proof, as Bishop Patrick well observes, that the earthly Canaan was not the utmost felicity at which God's promises to the Israelites aimed, since the best men among them were excluded from it: the subsequent words in this verse are so strong, and give such an idea of an obstinate incredulity, that one is led to imagine that the whole crime of Moses and Aaron is not recorded in this chapter.

Verse 26

Numbers 20:26. Strip Aaron, &c.— This implied a solemn divesting Aaron of his office, and appointing Eleazar his successor in dignity and employment. The garments here mentioned were the robes of the high priest's office; see Isaiah 22:20-21.

Verse 28

Numbers 20:28. And Aaron died there And there he was also buried; Deu 10:6 for it was the ancient custom to bury persons of eminence in high places. See Joshua 24:30; Joshua 24:33.Judges 2:9; Judges 2:9. This event fell out in the fortieth year after they came from Egypt, on the first day of the fifth month, which answers to our July, when Aaron was one hundred and twenty-three years old. See ch. Numbers 33:38-39. In his death we see the insufficiency of the Levitical priesthood, and the necessity of an High Priest who should live for ever to intercede for the Israel of God.

Verse 29

Numbers 20:29. They mourned for Aaron thirty days For such was the usual time of mourning for great persons: they mourned so long for Moses. Deuteronomy 34:8. Hence, probably, arose the custom among the Greeks, which Plutarch mentions: when any one lost an intimate friend, he offered a sacrifice to Apollo; and thirty days after he offered another to Mercury, who was thought to receive the soul of the departed as the earth received his body.

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Bibliographical Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Numbers 20". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. 1801-1803.