Num. 20:1-13 Commentary
A. Contention among the children of Israel.
1. (20:1) The death of Miriam.
Then the children of Israel, the whole congregation, came into the Wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh; and Miriam died there and was buried there.
a. The people stayed in Kadesh; and Miriam died there and was buried there: Miriam died in Kadesh. Through the years of wandering in the wilderness, Israel came back to Kadesh, the place where they rejected God's offer (Numbers 13:26).
b. Miriam died there and was buried there: Miriam's death was an important point in the journey from Egypt to Canaan. She was the first of Moses' siblings to die in the wilderness, and her death was an important demonstration of the fulfillment of what God promised: That the generation which refused to enter Canaan would die in the wilderness, and the new generation would enter instead (Numbers 14:29-34).
i. Miriam's death shows us there were no special exceptions for the family of Moses. God said only Joshua and Caleb would survive from that generation (Numbers 14:30), and that included, Miriam, Aaron, even Moses himself. This chapter will show the frailty of each of these giants in the account of the Exodus.
ii. Many people still deceive themselves into thinking they have a special exception from God, believing they are a special case, with their own special arrangement with the LORD. If Moses and his siblings had no special deal, we should not be so arrogant to think we have our own deal with God.
c. Miriam died there and was buried there: Miriam died a complex character. She was great for her courage in assisting Moses and his parents (Exodus 2:4-8), and great for her leading Israel in praise (Exodus 15:20-21). But she was also disgraced for her rebellion against Moses (Numbers 12). One incident of rebellion left a black mark on her whole life.
2. (20:2-6) Israel contends with Moses and Aaron because of thirst.
Now there was no water for the congregation; so they gathered together against Moses and Aaron. And the people contended with Moses and spoke, saying: "If only we had died when our brethren died before the LORD! Why have you brought up the assembly of the LORD into this wilderness, that we and our animals should die here? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt, to bring us to this evil place? It is not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates; nor is there any water to drink." So Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the door of the tabernacle of meeting, and they fell on their faces. And the glory of the LORD appeared to them.
a. There was no water for the congregation: The need was real, but the response of Israel was filled with unbelief and bad attitude - which always go together! When you find a bad attitude, you will also find a lack of simple, secure trust in God.
b. If only we had died when our brethren died before the LORD: Their contention led them to outrageous statements, words lacking any trust in God. The older generation of unbelief was almost dead, and now the younger generation started to act like the unbelieving generation. They openly doubted God's promise that He would lead them into the land of promise.
c. Why have you brought up the congregation of the LORD into this wilderness, that we and our animals should die here: Their contentions lead them to outrageous accusations. The new generation accuses Moses just as the generation of unbelief did!
d. Not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates: Their contentions lead them to a stunted vision. Of course, the wilderness was not a fruitful land. But they would never make it to the land of rich fruit until they came through the wilderness trusting God.
e. Moses and Aaron... fell on their faces: They realized how serious this was. With this contentious attitude, the new generation would be just as unbelieving, as untrusting in God as the old generation was, and they would likewise perish in the wilderness.
3. (20:7-8) God's command to Moses: Provide water for Israel.
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, "Take the rod; you and your brother Aaron gather the congregation together. Speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will yield its water; thus you shall bring water for them out of the rock, and give drink to the congregation and their animals."
a. Take the rod... Speak to the rock before their eyes: Specifically, God told Moses to take the rod, but not to use it. Water would be provided if Moses would speak to the rock before their eyes.
b. And it will yield its water: Back at Mount Sinai, God told Moses to strike the rock and water came forth (Exodus 17:6). But now he was merely to speak to the rock, yet with the rod in his hand. This rod was a symbol of his authority from God.
4. (20:9-11) Moses' contention with the people - and with the LORD.
So Moses took the rod from before the LORD as He commanded him. And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock; and he said to them, "Hear now, you rebels! Must we bring water for you out of this rock?" Then Moses lifted his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their animals drank.
a. So Moses took the rod from before the LORD as He commanded him: Moses began by doing exactly what the LORD had told him to do: Take the rod and gather the people of Israel.
b. Hear now, you rebels! Must we bring water for you out of this rock: God did not command him to speak to the nation, and to speak so severely to the nation, yet Moses did.
i. Moses, after doing what God had told him to do, then did something God had not told him to do: He lectured the nation.
ii. Worse, he lectured the nation with an attitude of heart he had not shown before - one of anger and contempt for the people of God, with a bitter heart. Before, Moses fell on his face before God when the people rebelled (Numbers 16:4). At Meribah, when the people contended with Moses because there was no water, Moses cried out to the LORD, not against the people (Exodus 15:22-25). When the people did need to be boldly confronted, Moses did it; but without the edge of anger, contempt, and bitterness we see here (as in Exodus 17:1-7). There are a hundred explanations for Moses' frustration here (Psalm 106:32-33 describes how the people provoked Moses here), but not a single excuse.
iii. Worse yet, Moses not only took the rebellion of the people against the LORD too personally, he also over-magnified his own partnership with God: Must we bring water for you out of this rock? Moses spoke as if he and God would do the job, as if they divided the work fifty-fifty; as if God couldn't bring water unless he was around to speak to the rock. His lapse into contempt for the people led him into a lapse of subtle pride.
c. Then Moses lifted his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod: Moses disobeyed God directly, striking the rock instead of speaking to it.
i. Not only did he strike it, but he struck it twice. When he struck the rock at the beginning of the Exodus journey, he only had to strike it once, but now, out of anger and frustration, he did it twice.
d. Water came out abundantly: Yet, despite Moses' lapse into sinful attitude and action, God still provided abundantly for the people.
i. This teaches us that God's love for His people is so great, he will use very imperfect instruments, and that the fact God uses someone is no evidence - to themselves or to the people - that they themselves are really right with God or ministering according to God's heart.
ii. God would deal with Moses, but the people needed water - and so it was provided. Moses might have come away thinking he did right, and the people probably thought so as well - because what Moses did seemed to work. But what works is not the best measure of what is right before God.
5. (20:12-13) God's rebuke and correction of Moses.
Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, "Because you did not believe Me, to hallow Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them." This was the water of Meribah, because the children of Israel contended with the LORD, and He was hallowed among them.
a. Because you did not believe Me: Moses' sinful attitude and action was rooted in unbelief. He didn't really believe God when the LORD told him to speak to the rock and not to strike it.
b. To hallow Me in the eyes of the children of Israel: What Moses did was an unholy thing. He made God look no different than an angry man or one of the temperamental pagan gods. He did not reflect the heart and character of God before the people.
c. Therefore you shall not bring this congregation into the land: God's correction of Moses was hard; he would not lead Israel into the Promised Land. That which he dreamed of and felt called to even as a child in the palaces of Egypt - to deliver God's people - would not be completed. Another person would finish the job.
i. This was only painful because of Moses' faithful heart; an unfaithful man is not pained at the idea that he cannot complete what God had called him to.
ii. We might have thought, Israel might have thought, and Moses might have thought he was exempt from the decree that all the generation that was of age when the Exodus began would perish in the wilderness - after all, Moses was Moses! But Moses, great a leader as he was, was still a man subject to God and God's law.
d. You shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them: This may seem an excessively harsh punishment for Moses. It seems that with only one slip-up, he now had to die short of the Promised Land. But Moses was being judged by a stricter standard because of his leadership position with the nation, and because he had a uniquely close relationship with God.
i. It is right for teachers and leaders to be judged by a stricter standard (James 3:1); though it is unrighteous to hold teachers and leaders to a perfect standard. It is true the people's conduct was worse than Moses', but it is irrelevant.
ii. Worst of all, Moses defaced a beautiful picture of Jesus' redemptive work through the rock which provided water in the wilderness. The New Testament makes it clear this water-providing, life-giving rock was a picture of Jesus (1 Corinthians 10:4). Jesus, being struck once, provided life for all who would drink of Him (John 7:37). But it was unnecessary - and unrighteous - that Jesus would be struck again, much less again twice, because the Son of God needed only to suffer once (Hebrews 10:10-12). Jesus can now be come to with words of faith (Romans 10:8-10), as Moses should have only used words of faith to bring life-giving water to the nation of Israel. Moses "ruined" this picture of the work of Jesus God intended.
e. And He was hallowed among them: At the end of it all, God was seen as holy among the children of Israel. Moses did not hallow God in this incident, but God hallowed Himself through the correction of Moses. God will get His glory, God will be hallowed - but will it come through our obedience or our correction?
Commentary on Numbers 20:1-13
1 Then the entire community of Israel entered the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh. Miriam died and was buried there.
The Israelites are in the northeast Sinai. The year of Miriam's death is not given. According to Num 33:36-38, the death of Aaron, which is narrated in Num 20:22-29, occurred in the 40th year.
Miriam's death and burial is reported with simple reverence. She was a leader among the Israelites, a prophetess and songstress (Exod 15:20-21), sister of the divinely chosen high priest and prophetic leader of the nation, who demonstrated her compassionate character soon after Moses was born (Exod 2:4-9). Miriam was gone, the only woman whose death has been remembered from that generation. The love Moses had for Miriam was demonstrated when she was struck with a leprous skin disease after she challenged Moses' authority (Num 12:1-13). Appalled by what he saw affecting his beloved sister, he dramatically cried out for the Lord to heal her. Then in honor of Miriam, the nation delayed its march for the required period of seven days for her purification before it continued on its divinely led journey from Hazeroth to the Paran Wilderness. What effect Miriam's death had on Moses' rebellion in the verses that follow one can only speculate. I would suggest that these events are juxtapositioned purposefully in the text, and were thus at least a contributing factor to the prophet's demise. The death of Moses' dear sister Miriam may have caused the prophet to enter a period of depression or even despair, which might have led him to respond so negatively in the following account.1
2 And there was no water for the community, and so they gathered themselves together against Moses and Aaron.
This account is similar to the account in Ex 17:1-7: both involve a complaint against Moses about a lack of water and being taken out of Egypt, in both Moses uses a rod to bring water out of a rock, and both occur at Meribah. But there are differences too: whereas Exodus illustrates God's care for the people this passage illustrates that the rebellion of the Israelites has come to include even its leaders, in Exodus only Moses is an actor while in Numbers both Moses and Aaron are actors, and (arguably) in Exodus Moses is to strike the rock while in Numbers he is to speak to it.
3 The people contended with Moses, saying, "If only we had died when our brothers died before the LORD! 4 Why have you brought up the LORD's community into this wilderness? So that we and our cattle should die here? 5 Why have you brought us up from Egypt only to bring us to this dreadful place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; nor is there any water to drink!"
The brothers who died before the Lord (v 3) are those who died in earlier rebellions. The Israelites again tread on dangerous ground by calling the place where God had led them a "dreadful place" (v 5). Ironically, the fruits listed in v 5 are the same as those brought back by the scouts earlier (13:23).
6 So Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the entrance to the tent of meeting. They then threw themselves down with their faces to the ground, and the glory of the LORD appeared to them.
7 Then the LORD spoke to Moses: 8 "Take the staff and assemble the community, you and Aaron your brother, and then speak to the rock before their eyes. It will pour forth its water, and you will bring water out of the rock for them, and so you will give the community and their beasts water to drink."
R. E. Friedman suggests that Moses takes Aaron's staff:
Why does he need the staff if he is only supposed to speak to the rock?! Some might say that God is testing Moses. But the reason for taking the staff is already given in the story of Aaron's blossoming staff. Moses is told there to "put back Aaron's staff in front of the Testimony . . . for a sign to rebels" (Num 17:10). The text now says Moses "took the staff from in front of YHWH" (20:9). This expression would normally be expected to mean that he took a staff that was located at the ark in the Tent of Meeting, "in front of YHWH." William Propp has pointed out that this connects back to the staff of Aaron that miraculously blossomed and was placed before the ark in the preceding episode. As quoted above, its purpose, explicitly, was to be "a sign to rebels." That is why Moses is supposed to carry it in his hand in the people's sight while dealing with their rebellion. As he holds it, his first words to the people are in fact "Listen, rebels" (20:10).2
Yet the staff is called his staff in v 11, which might imply it was Moses's staff. But it could merely mean he was in possession of the staff. The "you" is plural, meaning both Moses and Aaron are to speak. Moses was (arguably) supposed to only speak to the rock (v 8) but he ends up striking it (v 11).
9 So Moses took the staff from before the LORD, just as he commanded him.
Moses begins by exactly following the Lord's commands. After this point he deviates from it.
10 Then Moses and Aaron gathered the community together in front of the rock, and he said to them, "Listen, you rebels, must we bring water out of this rock for you?"
Some think Moses speaks to the rebels instead of the rock while others think he speaks to the rebels and the rock. He asks if we, not God, must bring water out of the rock. This may be a sign of arrogance and pride.
Gray (Gray-ICC 144, in a note to Num 13:26) cites a naturalist and explorer named Clay Trumbull who describes a huge cliff formation at Ayn Qudeis, with a deep well cutting down through it. Now although Kadesh Barnea is no longer identified with ʾAin Qudeis (which nevertheless expresses the name Qādēš) but with ʾAin Qudeirat, the two sites are actually not far from each other.3
11 Then Moses raised his hand, and struck the rock twice with his staff. And water came out abundantly. So the community drank, and their beasts drank too.
Moses strikes the rock not once but twice, perhaps out of anger. The miracle occurs even though Moses does not follow God's commands exactly.
12 Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, "Because you did not trust me enough to show me as holy before the Israelites, therefore you will not bring this community into the land I have given them."
The exact details of the sin by Moses and Aaron is hotly debated, but v 12 identifies a lack of trust in God and not showing God's holy character as the sin (Num 27:14; Deut 32:51). Verse 24 says Moses and Aaron rebelled against God's word. Let's explore a number of more detailed explanations of Moses and Aaron's sin while keeping in mind that they are not mutually exclusive.
1. Moses and Aaron show a lack of trust in the Lord's instructions by (a) addressing the people (v 10) instead of the rock (v 8) and (b) striking the rock (v 11) instead of speaking to the rock (v 8). Trust is demonstrated through obedience (Ps 119:66). The opposite of trust is rebellion or disobedience (Num 14:11; 20:24; Deut 9:23; 2 Kgs 17:14). It was noted above, however, that some scholars think Moses addresses both the people and the rock. Since Moses was told to strike the rock in Ex 17:5-7, some scholars think it is implied that he should strike the rock this time around when he is told to bring his staff (v 8). Plus, since the Israelites were not aware of the order to speak to the rock, the striking of the rock would not have failed to show God as holy before the Israelites.
2. Moses's angry attitude towards the Israelites (v 10) in some way violates the holiness of God. Ps 106:33 describes his words as "rash". But anger alone does not show a lack of trust (v 12) or obedience (v 24). Moses is angry elsewhere without incurring punishment (e.g., Num 31:14).
3. Moses asks the Israelites if we, not God, must bring water out of the rock (v 10). By striking the rock (v 11) instead of speaking to it (v 8), he further suggests to the Israelites that he, not God, produces the waters. "True, YHWH had said to him in his instructions, 'So you shall bring water out,' but Moses' saying it to the people before hitting the rock still makes those words appear to mean something quite different from their meaning in the original instructions. By word and act Moses is thus appropriating to himself an act of God. In doing this he is undoing the message that God and Moses himself have been conveying to the people up to this point. The people have continuously directed their attention to Moses instead of to God. In this story, as in the others so far, they say to Moses and Aaron, 'Why have you brought YHWH's community to this wilderness . . . ? Why did you bring us up from Egypt?' Until this episode Moses has repeatedly told the people, 'It is not from my own heart' and 'You are congregating against YHWH,' but now his words and actions confirm the people's own perception."4 Jacob Milgrom reminds us that pagan religions, such as that found in ancient Egypt, allowed for the possibility that a magician could make an incantation and perform a miracle by himself. The modern reader does not consider magic a real possiblity and so may miss the seriousness of Moses's sin.
4. God is often likened to a rock (e.g., Ps. 18:2; 31:3; 42:9). Paul says "they were all drinking from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ" (1 Cor 10:4). If the rock is a symbol of God's presence then striking the rock is an act of sacrilege. In this way, Moses did not show God as holy. God shows himself holy (v 13) by punishing Moses and Aaron.
13 These are the waters of Meribah, because the Israelites contended with the LORD, and his holiness was maintained among them.
These waters were already named in Ex 17:7. They are called the Waters of Meribah Kadesh in Num 27:14 and Deut 32:51. God's holiness was maintained because his judgment against Moses and Aaron showed he was the one truly in control of events. "This last phrase he showed himself holy (wayyiqqādēš) is evidently a play on the word Kadesh (qādēš, 'holy person' or 'holy place'), in the vicinity of which this episode took place."5
The circles of holiness within the camp, so carefully organized in Numbers 1-10, have slowly been undone. The people of the twelve tribes in the outer circle of the camp rebelled in chaps. 13-14. The Levites who surround the tent of meeting in the midst of the camp rebelled in chaps. 16-17. Now even the leaders closest to God, at the center of the camp, the priest Aaron and the leader Moses, rebel in Numbers 20. The fate of the whole generation of Israelites who first came out of Egypt is now sealed. Except for Joshua and Caleb (14:30), none of them, not even Moses, will set foot in Canaan. The holy camp of Israel will have to be reorganized with a new generation of Israelites (chap. 26).6
Num. 20:1-13 Extras
The narrative skips over the next 37 years of wandering in the wilderness to the beginning of the last year before the Israelites would enter the Promised Land. This is where chapter 20 picks up the story. In verse 1, we learn that after wandering for almost 38 years, the Israelites have returned to Kadesh, the region south of the Promised Land where the older generation had refused to enter. The author notes that Miriam, the older sister of Moses and Aaron, dies after their arrival. Miriam's death is notable because she is not only the most important woman in Israel at that time, but she symbolizes the older generation that was dying off before the younger generation could take possession of Canaan.
In verses 2-5, the younger generation repeats the rebellious pattern established by their parents. They complain that Moses and Aaron have brought them out of Egypt to die, and that there is no water or food for them to eat.
God instructs Moses to take the staff of Aaron out of the tabernacle, assemble the leadership of Israel, and speak to a particular rock. Out of the rock water will flow so that the people of Israel and their livestock can drink.
Moses grabs the staff, gathers the assembly of Israel in front of the rock, and then disobeys God's command. Instead of speaking to the rock so that God could cause water to flow out of it, Moses loses his temper, reprimands the assembly, and then strikes the rock twice with his staff. Because of Moses and Aaron's actions at the rock, God bans both of them from entering the Promised Land, just like the rest of the older generation. Only Joshua and Caleb, from that generation, would now see the Promised Land.
Why did God punish Moses and Aaron for what happened at the rock? Moses and Aaron had been frustrated with the people of Israel before, but this time was different. R. Dennis Cole explains what might have been going on:
This time the fullness of [Moses'] frustration was manifest before God and the whole assembled congregation. Moses did not simply call the people rebels, a mere statement of truth (though perhaps out of anger), but he took the Lord's instructions and used them as a means to justify his self-interest and self-pity. The Lord had said that Moses and Aaron would be the agents for the delivery of the water from the rock, but then the prophet's self-centered attitude erupted as he usurped the words of God for his own glorification, saying, 'Shall we bring forth from this rock for you water?' Such presumption would have the general effect, notes Budd, that 'they have prevented the full power and might of Yahweh from becoming evident to the people, and have thus robbed him of the fear and reverence due to him.'
Moses struck the rock not once but twice as he vented his anger and frustration over this ever-rebellious lot. As in previous circumstances of this kind, the rock was a symbol of God's mercy and benevolence, so striking the rock was in a sense a striking out against God. Moses had damaged severely the intimate personal relationship he had with God. His actions were detrimental to the maintaining of a reverence for God and his mercy in Israel. The trusted servant had fallen into the same trap as the many rebellious people he had complained about to God. Harrison calls Moses' actions 'an unpardonable act of insubordination.'
Not only did Moses and Aaron disrespect God in front of Israel, they tried to claim that it was through their striking the rock that water would flow. They had acted like pagan magicians performing an incantation instead of acting as the representatives of the one true God of the universe.
God himself tells Moses and Aaron why they were being punished. "Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them." Moses and Aaron did not trust God. They lacked faith, and thus they were punished in the same way that the unbelieving older generation was punished: they would not enter the Promised Land.