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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible
Numbers 20

 

 

Verse 1

ARRIVAL AT KADESH, Numbers 20:1.

1. The whole congregation — This form of expression strongly confirms the suggestion of a wide dispersion of Israel during the years of Jehovah’s displeasure. But now, when his judicial sentence is about to expire, there is a grand rally of all the wanderers unto Kadesh, the point from which they diverged.

Desert of Zin — This is the Arabah, or valley along the western side of Mount Seir. See Numbers 13:21, note. It must be distinguished from the Wilderness of Sin, on the eastern shore of the Red Sea, northwest of Mount Sinai. Exodus 16:1, note. Palmer advances the theory that Zin is the “south-east corner of the Desert et Tih, between Akabah and the head of Wady Garaiyeh.”

First month — The subsequent account proves that this is the first month of the fortieth year of the Exode. See Introduction, (4.) Kadesh is by some regarded as a district on the south of Canaan, and extending eastward into the Arabah, or Wilderness of Zin. Various points in this district have been selected by travellers as the site of the camp — as, Petra, by Stanley; Ain-el-Weibeh, by Robinson; and Ain Gadis, by Rowlands and Williams, about fifty miles west-northwest of Mount Horeb, according to Palmer’s map. See Genesis 14:7, note. Miriam is probably the sister of Moses who watched the ark in the flags of the Nile. Exodus 2:4. She never lost the influence of seniority. In Micah 6:4, she is enrolled as one of the three deliverers. She was the first of the family who exhibited prophetic gifts. Exodus 15:20. She was unenviably conspicuous in the opposition to Moses (Numbers 12:1) when the ambitious prophetess was smitten with leprosy, and restored at the entreaty of her sorrowful brothers. This was the last public event in her life. According to Josephus she was the wife of Hur and grandmother of Bezaleel the architect. She must have been about one hundred and thirty years old. In the Koran she is confounded with the Virgin Mary.


Verses 2-13

CLAMOUR FOR WATER — THE ROCK SMITTEN, Numbers 20:2-13.

2. No water — Twice before had the cry for water come up into the ears of Moses. On the first occasion the bitter waters were miraculously sweetened. Exodus 15:25. While at Rephidim, apparently near Horeb, (Exodus 17:6,) water gushed from the smitten rock. The recurrence of the same want is not surprising, in view of the multitude of the people and their flocks in a desert. At Kadesh En-Mishpat was the “fountain of judgment.” Genesis 14:7. It was now, probably, dry, and so insufficient for the demands of the people.

Against Moses and… Aaron — The logic of the congregation is very defective. If Moses and Aaron are mere men they cannot create a supply of water, and hence are not worthy of blame. If they are the representatives of Jehovah, to execrate them is to curse Him.

In either case blame is folly. Patience and trust were qualities which would have made them victorious over their most forbidding surroundings.


Verse 3

3. Chode with Moses — Greek, railed at; Hebrew, quarrelled with. As the government was a theocracy administered by Moses, this conduct was treason against God.

Would God… we had died — By the sudden stroke of divine wrath. Numbers 11:1. “Died by the plague before the Lord.” Numbers 14:37. Vivid in their memories must have been the swallowing up of Korah and two hundred and fifty princes, and the plague on the morrow, which cut down fourteen thousand and seven hundred murmurers. Numbers 16:32; Numbers 16:49. In their despair and rage they wickedly wish that they had thus miserably perished.


Verse 5

5. No place of seed — That is, No place for sowing seed. We call attention to the fact that in this complaint there is no mention of a lack of pasturage. They murmur because there are no arable lands, and delicious fruits, and abundant waters. Travellers agree in the opinion that before the wilderness was stripped of its trees for making charcoal for Egyptian markets, its numerous ravines were covered with grass. Revelation F.W. Holland, after spending many months in wandering on foot over the Sinaitic Peninsula, says: “It is wonderful how apparent difficulties melt away as one’s acquaintance with the country increases. I see no difficulty in the provision of sufficient pasturage for the flocks and herds if, as I have shown, there are good reasons for supposing the rainfall was in former days larger than it is at present. I have several times’ seen the whole face of the country, especially in the wadies, marvelously changed in appearance by a single shower. A slight increase to the present rainfall would produce an enormous addition to the present amount of pasturage.”

Pomegranates — Recent researches have discovered this fruit on Egyptian sculptures, thus proving that this native of Asia was cultivated in Egypt at a very early date. As its name indicates, it is a “grained apple,” red when ripe, and grows on a bush.


Verse 6

6. Unto the door of the tabernacle — Perhaps too much awed by the “glory” to attempt further entrance.

Upon their faces — See note on Numbers 14:5.

The glory of the Lord — See note on Numbers 14:10. This is the last occasion on which the glory of the Lord flashed out before Israel in the camp. But the cloud still continued visibly present over the tabernacle. The last mention of it is just before the death of Moses.

Deuteronomy 31:15. From this time we have no record of either the cloud, or the glory, or the voice from between the cherubim, till the dedication of Solomon’s temple. 1 Kings 8:11. The glory appears in the New Testament to the shepherds. Luke 2:9. St. John (John 1:14) says of the Logos, “We beheld his glory.” St. Paul enumerates “the glory” as one of the peculiar blessings of the Hebrews. Romans 9:4. Its last terrific out-flashing in the eyes of men will be “when the Son of man cometh in his glory.”


Verse 8

8. Take the rod — The wonder-working staff with which the miracles in Egypt were wrought. There is no doubt that the fabled thyrsus of Bacchus, and the caduceus of Mercury, the instrument of his mythic marvels, are distorted traditions of this rod of Moses.

Speak ye unto the rock — There is no command to strike. The only human action which is authorized is, that Moses take the rod, and, probably, stretch it out toward the rock, and that both the brothers speak to it. It is remarkable that the Hebrew for rock is sela, or cliff, and not tzur, as the rock at Rephidim is called. Exodus 17:6. From this Stanley argues that Kadesh is ancient Petra, or Sela, the wonderful rock city, “the basin of which is known by the Arabs by no other name than the Valley of Moses.” — Sinai and Pal., p. 95.

Before their eyes — These words indicate some conspicuous rock, such as Dr. Robinson sought for but did not find at Ain-el-Weibeh, which he supposes to be Kadesh.

Thou shalt bring forth… water — As the agent, and not the efficient cause. Did not the fault of Moses, in part, consist in forgetting this distinction?


Verse 9

9. The rod from before the Lord — This wonderful instrument was doubtless, most sacredly kept in the tabernacle. Aaron’s rod was kept in the ark of the covenant, (Hebrews 9:4;) hence it is reasonable to suppose that the rod of Moses was also carefully kept in the holy place. From the words “before the Lord,” some suppose that Aaron’s rod was used on this occasion. It does not seem probable that Moses would have used the symbol of the priestly power. The rod implies the most distinguished rod, which was that of Moses.


Verse 10

10. Hear now, ye rebels — Moses, as a legislator, had a right to address the seditious as rebels, and to suppress and punish them. In a proclamation made to this effect, this style of address would be admissible: “Disperse, ye rebels.” But on this occasion the execution of law is not contemplated, hence the epithet “rebels” seems to be a violation of the law of love. “Charity suffereth long and is kind.”

Must we fetch you water — The word must is not Hebrew, nor is the we emphatic: “Shall we bring water for you?” The strain of uncharitable depreciation is still kept up. Kennicott translates it, “Can we,” etc. This is admissible, since the future tense is often used for the potential mood, which is wanting in the Hebrew. (See Nord., Gram., § 993.) This shows the unbelief in the heart of Moses, with which Jehovah charges him in Numbers 20:12.


Verse 11

11. Smote the rock twice — As if one blow were not sufficient, showing an excessive dependence on human agency, and a forgetfulness of the divine efficiency. There was no command to smite even once. The injunction to speak to the rock may have been given to show how small a human element was required in the miracle, and at the same time to test the faith and humility of Moses — faith, that only words were sufficient; and humility, since his part of the miracle was so insignificant.

Abundantly — Hebrew, many waters. The magnitude of the miracle is seen in the inadequacy of the natural cause and the greatness of the effect. The earliest attempt to divest this transaction of its supernatural character is found in Tacitus’s Hist., book Numbers 5:3-5, which is quoted in the note on Exodus 17:6.


Verse 12

12. Because ye believed me not — Or, rather, trusted not in me. Belief relates to the intellectual assent to the truth, while trust signifies reliance on a person. Self-confidence was in excess, and humble reliance on Jehovah was deficient. These, usually, are present in an inverse ratio, so that God is greatest when self is least in our esteem. As trust in God is the root of all the virtues, its absence is the source of all evil qualities in human character; hence the following complaint against Moses:

To sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel — Jehovah had not been magnified as the source of all power. Self-trust had robbed him of his glory before Israel. The absence of trust in God caused the removal of that imperturbable repose, that tranquillity, which neither wind nor wave can disturb; hence the impatience of Moses, his angry spirit and hasty words. As a leader he represented Jehovah to the Hebrews. Their conceptions of God’s moral character would be derived from the conduct of the man who was so intimate with him. Thus a wrong temper, an unadvised word, reflects on God’s honour in the eyes of men. This is true not only of Moses and Aaron, but of all who profess to be godly, (godlike,) especially ministers of the Gospel of Christ.

Ye shall not bring this congregation into the land — They had not forfeited heaven, but Canaan. Jehovah still loved them, while he set the mark of his displeasure upon this fault, so great in his eyes, and yet so trifling in men’s esteem that they are not agreed respecting the nature of the offence. The punishment was grievous. For many years had they looked with longing eyes toward the Land of Promise. Thirty-eight years they had uncomplainingly endured the hardships of the wilderness, cheered by the hope of eventually enjoying its rest. But now the finger of hope no longer beckons them on. They must die in the wilderness. We can give no explanation of this sin of distrust. All sin is inexplicable and causeless. To give a good reason for sin is to justify it. There is no reasonable ground for unbelief. The Saviour’s question, Wherefore do ye doubt? is still unanswered. It is possible that there was a more grave defect than a momentary wavering of faith. There may have been a slow decay of Moses’s confidence during the term of the penal wanderings, and of great apostasy from Jehovah. It is very difficult to maintain a degree of faith far above the average of those around us. Lesson: No Christian, however eminent in usefulness and piety, can ever in this life become impeccable. He may talk face to face with God on the mountain top, and come down with a shining countenance, and then forget his might and doubt his truth.

“What I say unto you, I say unto all, Watch.” Thus Moses and Aaron knew Jehovah’s “breach of promise.” Numbers 14:34. In all God’s promises of good to individuals there is a tacit condition of continued fidelity. This decree was irrevocable. Moses prayed that it might be recalled, and that he might “go over and see the good land.” “Speak no more unto me of this matter, for thou shalt not go over this Jordan,” is the reply. Deuteronomy 3:25-27.


Verse 13

13. Meribah — That is, Strife. The two miracles of bringing water from the rock are thus distinguished: that at Rephidim, nearly forty years before, was called Massah, or Temptation; that in Kadesh is called Meribah. Deuteronomy 33:8. That the second is not a mythical repetition of the first is evident from the new features which it presents — the sin of Moses and his consequent exclusion from Canaan.

Strove with the Lord — In reproaching and vilifying his servants. Jesus Christ always identifies himself with his disciples: “He that receiveth you receiveth me.”

And he was sanctified in them — He showed himself holy (kadesh) on them, or in their case, putting to shame the unbelief of the people and punishing Moses and Aaron for their misconduct. Since the best men on earth had failed to reflect a perfect image of the holy God, he had vindicated and glorified himself among men by his signal rebuke of Moses and Aaron. God’s judgments do for him what his grace fails to prompt us to do, by reason of the abuse of our free agency. “God’s name,” says R. Solomon, “is much revered when he doth not spare even his holy ones.” His power was magnified by bringing water out of the rock, and “his holiness and impartial justice were exhibited in punishing his greatest friends for their unbelief.” — Bishop Patrick. For the practical lesson see Hebrews 3. Learned Jews advance three opinions: 1.) That he was sanctified in the waters; 2.) In the Israelites; 3.) In the punishment of Moses and Aaron. See Numbers 20:12, note, where the last opinion is maintained.


Verse 14

14. Moses sent messengers — There is no proof that this message was commanded by the Lord, though it may be inferred from Deuteronomy 2:1-6.

Edom — The territory formerly called Mount Seir. In later times it was known as Idumea. It extended southward as far as Elath, its only seaport, on the eastern arm of the Red Sea. On the east it was bounded by the great Arabian Desert, and on the north by the Dead Sea. Its western boundary is involved in the dispute relative to the location of Kadesh. See Numbers 20:16, note. A right of way was also requested of Moab, probably at the same time. See Judges 11:17-18, note.

Thy brother Israel — Edom was a kindred nation. “The Lord would have the brotherly relation cheerfully acknowledged on the part of his people, as they both looked to a common ancestor in Isaac, and both inherited the rite of circumcision, which would naturally be a bond of fraternal connexion. By this fraternal appeal to Moab, Moses sought to obtain the king of Moab’s permission to pass through his territory. He acted herein in the spirit of the precept, “Thou shalt not abhor an Edomite, for he is thy brother.” Deuteronomy xxiii, 7. — Bush.

Travail — Distress. See Exodus 18:8, note. The message assumes a perfect acquaintance thus far with the history of Israel on the part of Edom. This is not strange considering the nearness of Edom to Egypt, their commercial intercourse, and the marvels which had attended the outgoing of Israel from this house of bondage.


Verses 14-21

A PASSAGE THROUGH EDOM REQUESTED AND REFUSED, Numbers 20:14-21.

Here we have the first intimation that the original purpose of entering Canaan by the direct route had been abandoned for the circuitous way east of the Dead Sea. Jehovah commanded this flank movement against the enemy to be made, as we learn from Deuteronomy 2:1-6. The advantages of this movement were: (1) the encouragement of the people by their victories over their trans-Jordanic foes, who failing to unite were easily conquered in detail, and (2) the gaining of a foothold in the valley of the Jordan as a base of operations against western Palestine.


Verse 15

15. Vexed us Oppressed us. The message is designed to awaken sympathy and to allay the old grudge cherished by Esau toward his artful brother Jacob.


Verse 16

16. We cried… he heard — Their piety, as evinced by their prayers and the signal answer to their cry for help, is a further commendation. Thus Moses showed that they were not a gang of freebooters, but a moral and religious nation worthy of being trusted with the courtesy of a right of passage through the territory of another people.

Sent an angel — The term angel one sent — points to the second Person in the Godhead in his office of Revealer and Mediator. Acts are attributed in a special way to Christ which the Old Testament writers, with as much particularity, have predicted of the Messenger of Jehovah. Luke 1:15-17; 1 Corinthians 10:4; Hebrews 12:25-26; comp. Malachi 3:1; Exodus 17:6; Haggai 2:6; see full discussion Biblioth. Sacra, vol. 16:805.

In the uttermost of thy border — In accordance with this description Dr. Robinson located Kadesh near Mount Seir, at the fountain el-Weibeh, in the northern part of the great valley Arabah. But the advocates of Ain Gadis are obliged to stretch Edom a long distance westward. Numbers 33:36-37; Joshua 10:41, notes.


Verse 17

17. Not pass through… fields… vineyards — The promises made in this verse were specific commands given by Jehovah. The Edomites were exempted from conquest or annoyance by Israel on his journey because they are “your brethren, the children of Esau.” The command also was, “Distress not the Moabites,” because they are “the children of Lot,” more distant kindred of Israel. See Deuteronomy 2:4-6; Deuteronomy 2:9; Genesis 19:36-37.

Water of the wells — Wells or cisterns are of great value in a country where man and beast are dependent during the greater part of the year upon the reservoirs filled in the rainy season. Hence the charge, given in Deuteronomy, “Ye shall also buy water of them for money, that ye may drink.” This sounds strangely in the ears of the Western nations. Still more surprising is the lament of captive Israel, “We have drunken our water for money,” paid to foreign despots who have seized our wells and cisterns. Lamentations 5:4.


Verse 18

18. Thou shalt not pass by me — Literally, in me. This refusal was dictated partly by the hereditary grudge cherished by Esau against Jacob, (Genesis 27:41,) and partly by fear of so great a multitude passing through his country. Exodus 17:8-16. In consequence of this refusal, Israel, instead of marching through some pass in Mount Seir, was obliged to make a detour southward around Edom. The only alternative was an aggression upon the country of Edom and a fratricidal war which was against the divine will. Deuteronomy 2:5; see Numbers 21:4, note.


Verse 19

19. The high way — A causeway or raised way, as the single term signifies in the Hebrew. It is the same as the king’s way in Numbers 20:17, and was probably a road used for military purposes. See Matthew 3:3, note. The Seventy render it, “We will pass along the mountains.”

Water… pay for — Says Dr. Thomson: “Water is often difficult to be had either for love or money. A friend of mine informed me, that passing through a part of the country east of the Jordan in the autumn, he could barely secure water absolutely necessary for his animals; and the article was so precious that all washing, even of his own face, was dispensed with for several days.”

Go through on my feet — The Vulgate, “Only let us go through swiftly.” They would make no encampment nor incur needless delay.


Verse 20

20. Edom came out against him — This show of strong resistance gave emphasis to the refusal. But there was no battle, because Israel turned southward to compass Edom. “Instead of allowing them water they would shed their blood.” This “perpetual hatred” called down the curse of extermination upon Edom, especially upon Petra, its principal stronghold, hidden in a wild ravine, and for many centuries lost to the world till discovered by Burckhardt in the year 1812. Jeremiah 49:7-22; Ezekiel xxxv, notes.


Verse 22

JOURNEY TO MOUNT HOR — DEATH OF AARON, Numbers 20:22-29.

22. Mount Hor Hor, the mountain — This is remarkable as the only case in which the name comes first. Hor is an old form of har, mountain. So that the meaning of the name is, “the mountain of mountains.” Vulgate, mons altissimus, a very high mountain. It is on the western side of Mount Seir, and is the highest and most conspicuous of this whole sandstone range, being 4,800 feet above the Mediterranean, and 1,700 above Petra, close beneath its eastern side. To an observer on the highlands west of the Arabah, or great valley west of Edom, Mount Hor seems to stand alone among the cliffs of Seir, in the form of an irregularly truncated cone, having three ragged points or peaks. On the highest peak,

[image]

that on the north-east, is the traditional tomb of Aaron. “This,” says Stanley, “is one of the very few spots connected with the wanderings of the Israelites which admit of no doubt.”


Verse 23

23. By the coast — On the border of Edom. This would argue that Kadesh, which was in “the uttermost of thy border,” was near Mount Hor. See Numbers 20:16, note.


Verse 24

24. Shall be gathered unto his people — This phrase is a Hebrew euphemism for death, as is seen in Numbers 20:26. “Merciful men are gathered, none considering that the righteous is gathered from the evil to come.” See the Hebrew of Isaiah 57:1. Thus David was gathered unto his fathers. See the Greek of Acts 13:36. “His people” are “the spirits of just men made perfect.” That this “gathering” has reference to the soul, see David’s prayer, Psalms 26:9.

Because ye rebelled — Evinced a spirit not in harmony with Jehovah’s will. See Numbers 20:12, where the sin is stated, “because ye believed not.” The two statements are harmonized by the consideration that unbelief is the root and essence of every sin. John 16:9, note.

Meribah Numbers 20:13, note.


Verse 26

26. Strip Aaron of his garments — The high priest was to be disrobed before death, because his robes, the ordained investiture of his successor, (Exodus 29:29,) would be defiled by contact with his dead body. Numbers 5:2; Leviticus 10:5, notes.

Put them upon Eleazar — Eleazar was inducted into office before his father’s death in order that there might be no interruption in the high priesthood.


Verse 27

27. In the sight of all the congregation — This was an impressive lesson to all the people, teaching them the sad consequences of even a momentary indulgence in unbelief and unholy tempers. “No incident could be more touching than the ascent of Aaron in full priestly dress walking to his burial. The lonely height; the robes taken from the dying man that they might be put upon Eleazar as the successor in his pontificate; the very landscape on which his eyes now rested, move us. If they climbed to the top they would see around them a wilderness of craggy summits, the very image of desolation, sinking into a maze of fathomless defiles, which formed the ancient territory of Edom.” — Geikie. Though Aaron knew that he was climbing to his tomb, as did all in that vast camp spread out below, there was no farewell, because the priesthood never dies.

[image]


Verse 28

28. Aaron died there in the top of the mount — The chapel of Aaron’s tomb stands on the traditional spot. The chief interest of Mount Hor will always consist in the prospect from its summit — the last view of Aaron. Says Stanley, “We saw all the main points on which his eye must have rested. He looked over the valley of the Arabah, countersected by its hundred water-courses, and beyond over the white mountains of the wilderness they had so long traversed; at the northern edge of it there must have been visible the heights through which the Israelites had vainly attempted to force their way into the Promised Land. This was the western view. Close around him on the east were the rugged mountains of Edom, and far along the horizon the wide downs of Mount Seir, through which the passage had been denied by the wild tribes of Esau, who hunted over their long slopes. A dreary moment and a dreary scene. Such it must have seemed to the aged priest.”


Verse 29

29. They mourned — Literally, wept. The same verb is thus translated in Deuteronomy 34:8. The Hebrew tongue is exceedingly copious in words expressing the various actions characteristic of mourning, such as beating the breast, weeping, screaming loudly, wearing sad-coloured garments, singing dirges, funeral feasting, rending the clothes, sprinkling ashes or earth on the person, removal of ornaments, neglect of the body, fasting, shaving the head, plucking out the beard or hair, laying bare some part of the person, covering the upper lip, cutting the flesh, and sitting or lying in silence. One marked feature of Oriental mourning is what may be called its studied publicity, and the careful observance of the prescribed ceremonies. Genesis 23:2; 1 Samuel 11:4; 1 Samuel 30:4; 2 Samuel 15:30; Job 1:20; Job 2:8-13; Isaiah 15:3; Jeremiah 3:21.

Thirty days — The customary period of mourning varied. In the case of Jacob it was seventy days in Egypt and seven in Canaan, (Genesis 50:3; Genesis 50:10, notes;) of Moses thirty, and of Saul seven, days.

 


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Bibliography Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Numbers 20:4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/whe/numbers-20.html. 1874-1909.

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Tuesday, October 15th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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