Numbers 20
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Five events at the close of the forty years wanderings

Numbers 20:1 a, arrival at the wilderness of Zin (P ); Numbers 20:1 b, the death of Miriam (E ); Numbers 20:2-13, the striking of the rock at Meribah (P ); Numbers 20:14-21, permission to pass through Edom refused (J E ); Numbers 20:22-29, the death of Aaron (P ).

It is clear that the chapter deals with events at the close of the wanderings and not earlier, for (1) Moses could not have asked permission to pass straight through Edom in order to enter Canaan until the period of wandering commanded by God was over; (2) Aaron’s death at Mt Hor occurred, according to Numbers 33:38, in the 40th year after the Exodus, the wilderness of Zin being the previous stopping-place (Numbers 33:36). But this chapter is the sequel of ch. 14, the intervening chs. 15–19 being miscellaneous priestly material assigned to no definite time or place. In ch. 14 it is related that the people were condemned to wander 40 years, and failed in an immediate attempt to enter Canaan from the south. The history, therefore, from the beginning till near the end of the 40 years is a blank in the book of Numbers. It is not even clear in what locality these years were spent. When the spies were sent out (Numbers 13:26) the people were at Kadesh (J E ) = Wilderness of Paran (P ). In Numbers 14:25 (J E ) they were commanded to go ‘into the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea.’ Whether they went for a long or a short time is not stated. In Numbers 20:1 we read that they ‘came into the wilderness of Zin’ (P ), and ‘the people abode in Kadesh’ (J E ). The 40 years were thus spent either in a short stay in the wilderness in the direction of the Red Sea, followed by a long stay at Kadesh, or a long stay in the former followed by a short stay in the latter. But the traditions as to the wanderings were indefinite; and a widely different account is found in Dt., where it is stated that after the defeat at Hormah Israel stayed at Kadesh ‘many days’ (Deuteronomy 1:46), then they turned back ‘into the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea,’ and ‘compassed Mt Seir [Edom] many days’ (Deuteronomy 2:1). It is not clear from these passages what length of time the ‘many days’ at Kadesh represents. But Deuteronomy 2:14 states explicitly that 38 years had been spent in journeying from Kadesh to the borders of Moab, nothing being said of any return to Kadesh during that time.

Thus, to sum up, in Num. the 40 years either precede or correspond to the stay at Kadesh mentioned in Numbers 20:1, while in Dt. they were spent, after the departure from Kadesh, in moving round the south and east of Edom to Moab. The punishment of the 40 years wandering is referred to in Acts 7:36; Acts 13:18, and the death of the people in the wilderness in 1 Corinthians 10:5, Judges 5.

Then came the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, into the desert of Zin in the first month: and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there.
1. and Miriam died there] At what period this took place is not stated. The event has no connexion with the following narrative.

And there was no water for the congregation: and they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron.
2–13. The striking of the rock at Meribah. Many characteristics of language indicate that this is mainly the work of P . In Exodus 17:1-7 there is another account (E ) of the striking of the rock, the place being similarly named Meribah. It is probable that these are two traditions of the same event. In E it is placed at Horeb, early in the journeyings; here it is placed at their close. This two-fold striking of the rock appears to have influenced S. Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 10:4. See on Numbers 21:18.

And the people chode with Moses, and spake, saying, Would God that we had died when our brethren died before the LORD!
3. And the people strove] The root of the verb (rîbh) is also that of the word Merîbhâh (‘the place of strife’), the name of the place being thus explained by means of a play on words; cf. Numbers 20:13.

when our brethren died before Jehovah] in the revolt of Korah (ch. 16).

And why have ye brought up the congregation of the LORD into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there?
And wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in unto this evil place? it is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink.
And Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and they fell upon their faces: and the glory of the LORD appeared unto them.
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
Take the rod, and gather thou the assembly together, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock: so thou shalt give the congregation and their beasts drink.
8. Take the staff] Moses here receives no directions as to what he is to do with the staff: perhaps some clauses which originally contained them have been lost. ‘The staff’ is spoken of as a definite well-known object. In E Moses is represented as using a staff given him by God (Exodus 4:17; Exodus 4:20); but in P the staff is always Aaron’s (Exodus 7:9; Exodus 7:12; Exodus 7:19-20 &c.). In Numbers 20:11 (below), according to the Heb. text, Moses struck the rock with ‘his rod’; but LXX. has ‘the rod.’ במטהו is probably a late scribal error for במטה.

the rock] There is at Kadesh (the modern ‘Ain-el-Ḳadîs) a ‘large single mass, or a small hill, of solid rock’ described by Trumbull (Kadesh-Barnea, 272–4), who established the identity of the place.

And Moses took the rod from before the LORD, as he commanded him.
And Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation together before the rock, and he said unto them, Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?
10, 11. As in Numbers 20:8, part of the narrative seems to have been lost. The sin which Moses and Aaron committed is not clearly defined. In Numbers 20:10 they appear to shew anger; and that is alluded to in Psalm 106:32 f. In Numbers 20:11 Moses is said to have struck the rock twice. He may have been commanded to strike only once, or to raise the staff (cf. Exodus 8:5) and speak to the rock without striking. Whatever his sin was, the action of Moses and Aaron in these verses hardly corresponds to the expression ‘rebelled against my word’ in Numbers 20:24 (cf. Numbers 27:14), and still less to unbelief (Numbers 20:12). The obscurity is increased by Deuteronomy 1:37 (cf. Numbers 3:26, Numbers 4:21), where we read that Moses was forbidden to enter Canaan on account of the people’s sin at the return of the spies, which occurred (like the present incident) at Kadesh, but 37 years earlier.

And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also.
And the LORD spake unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.
12. Had Moses and Aaron shewn a true faith they would have been the means of exhibiting God’s holiness before the eyes of the people. By their unbelief they detracted from it.

This is the water of Meribah; because the children of Israel strove with the LORD, and he was sanctified in them.
13. he was sanctified in them] The verb is from the same root as that of Kadesh (‘sacred’), and there is perhaps an intentional play on the name. The expression means ‘he proved, or vindicated, himself as holy,’ in spite of the sin of Moses and Aaron.

in them] Either in the waters, i.e. by his miracle in giving water, or, better, in the hearts of the people; cf. Ezekiel 28:25.

And Moses sent messengers from Kadesh unto the king of Edom, Thus saith thy brother Israel, Thou knowest all the travail that hath befallen us:
14. thy brother Israel] Edom was a Semitic tribe, closely connected with Israel by blood. In Genesis 25:21-26 Esau (= Edom) and Jacob (= Israel) are represented as twin brothers.

the travail] lit. ‘the weariness’; the hardships of the long weary journey.

14–21. Permission to pass through Edom refused.

The Edomites occupied territory to the south of the Dead Sea, westward as far as Kadesh (Numbers 20:16) and southward as far as the eastern arm of the Red Sea (Numbers 21:4). The Israelites having failed long before to enter Canaan from the south, did not attempt it again (see, however, n. on Numbers 21:1-3), but proposed to enter it from the east. And if they could pass straight through Edom, their route would be greatly shortened. Edom’s refusal forced them to work round the south of the hostile country, and then northwards along its eastern border.

How our fathers went down into Egypt, and we have dwelt in Egypt a long time; and the Egyptians vexed us, and our fathers:
And when we cried unto the LORD, he heard our voice, and sent an angel, and hath brought us forth out of Egypt: and, behold, we are in Kadesh, a city in the uttermost of thy border:
Let us pass, I pray thee, through thy country: we will not pass through the fields, or through the vineyards, neither will we drink of the water of the wells: we will go by the king's high way, we will not turn to the right hand nor to the left, until we have passed thy borders.
17. the king’s way] A main trade-route through the country. In modern Palestine such a route is known by the name of darb es-sulṭân or ‘Sultan’s way.’

And Edom said unto him, Thou shalt not pass by me, lest I come out against thee with the sword.
And the children of Israel said unto him, We will go by the high way: and if I and my cattle drink of thy water, then I will pay for it: I will only, without doing any thing else, go through on my feet.
19. without doing anything else] lit. ‘it is not a matter’; i.e. it is not a matter that can cause you any injury or annoyance; it is a mere nothing that we ask.

And he said, Thou shalt not go through. And Edom came out against him with much people, and with a strong hand.
Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his border: wherefore Israel turned away from him.
And the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, journeyed from Kadesh, and came unto mount Hor.
22. mount Hor] The site is unknown: but it is stated to be ‘by the border of the land of Edom’ (Numbers 20:23), and ‘on the edge’ of it (Numbers 33:37). In spite of this, tradition (found as early as Josephus and repeated by Jerome and Eusebius) places it near Petra; and this view is represented in the modern Jebel Nebi Hârûn, a mountain near Petra. But Petra lay some distance within the Edomite border, which stretched westward of the Arabah. Jebel Madurah, a mountain N.E. of Kadesh and a short distance south of the Dead Sea, suits the data in the text and is the best conjecture which has yet been made (Trumbull, Kadesh-Barnea, 127–139). If, however, the Israelites moved north-east from Kadesh, they did not move south-east towards the Red Sea (Numbers 21:4). See on Numbers 21:10-11.

In Deuteronomy 10:6 Aaron is related to have died not at Mt Hor but at Môsçrâh (Numbers 33:30 f. Môsçrôth), of which nothing is known. It may perhaps have been situated in the neighbourhood of Mt Hor.

22–29. The death of Aaron.

And the LORD spake unto Moses and Aaron in mount Hor, by the coast of the land of Edom, saying,
Aaron shall be gathered unto his people: for he shall not enter into the land which I have given unto the children of Israel, because ye rebelled against my word at the water of Meribah.
Take Aaron and Eleazar his son, and bring them up unto mount Hor:
And strip Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son: and Aaron shall be gathered unto his people, and shall die there.
26. his garments] the official high-priest’s vestments, with which Eleazar was robed, in token of his succession to the office; cf. Deuteronomy 10:6.

And Moses did as the LORD commanded: and they went up into mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation.
And Moses stripped Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son; and Aaron died there in the top of the mount: and Moses and Eleazar came down from the mount.
And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they mourned for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel.
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