Numbers 20
Pulpit Commentary
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.
THE LAST MARCH: FROM KADESH TO HOR (verses 1-29). Verse 1. - Then came the children of Israel, even the whole congregation. The latter words are emphatic here and in verse 22, and seem intended to mark the period of reassembly after the dispersion of nearly thirty eight years. Probably a portion of the tribes had visited Kadesh many times during those years, and perhaps it had never been wholly abandoned. Into the desert of Zin, i.e., if the western site be maintained for Kadesh, the Wady Murreh. See the note on Kadesh. In the first month. In the month Abib (Nisan), the vernal month, when there was "much grass" (cf. John 6:10) in places at other seasons desert, and when traveling was most easy. From comparison of Numbers 14:33; Numbers 33:38 and the sequence of the narrative, it appears to have, been the first month of the fortieth, and last year of wandering, Then it was that they reassembled in the same neighbourhood from whence they had dispersed so long before (see the note before chapter 15). And the people abode (יֵשֵׁב Septuagint, κατέμεινεν) in Kadesh. From the date given in Numbers 33:38 it would seem that they remained three or four months in Kadesh on this occasion. This delay may have been occasioned partly by the ingraining for Miriam (cf. verse 29), and partly by the necessity of awaiting answers from Edom and from Moab (see on verse 14). And Miriam died there, and was buried. Nothing could be more brief and formal than this mention of the death of one who had played a considerable part in Israel, and had perhaps wished to play a more considerable part. It can scarcely, however, be doubted that her death in the unlovely wilderness was a punishment like the death of her brothers. There is no reason whatever to suppose that she had any part in the rebellion of Kadesh, or that the sentence of death there pronounced included her; she was indeed at this time advanced in years, rut that would not in itself account for the fact that she died in exile; it is, no doubt, to the arrogance and rebellion recorded in chapter 12 that we must look for the true explanation of her untimely end.
And there was no water for the congregation: and they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron.
Verse 2. - There was no water. There was a large natural spring at Kadesh, and during the time of their previous sojourn there no complaint of this sort seems to have arisen. At this time, however, the bulk of the encampment may have lain in a different direction (cf. verse 1 with chapter Numbers 13:26), or the supply may have failed kern temporary causes. In either case a total absence of water need not be imagined, but only an insufficient supply.
And the people chode with Moses, and spake, saying, Would God that we had died when our brethren died before the LORD!
Verse 3. - And the people abode with Moses. As their fathers had done in similar circumstances, as recorded in Exodus 17. Would God that we had died. See on Numbers 14:2. When our brethren died before the Lord. This is difficult, because the visitations of God at Kibroth-hattaavah (Numbers 11:34) and at Kadesh (Numbers 14:37) had overtaken not their brethren, but their fathers, some thirty-eight years before. On the other hand, the daily mortality which had carried off their brethren is clearly excluded by the phrase, "before the Lord." It may he that the rebellion of Korah happened towards the end of the period of wandering, and that the reference is to the plague which followed it; or it may be that the formula of complaint had become stereotyped, as those of children often do, and was employed from time to time without variation and without definite reference. The latter supposition is strongly supported by the character of the words which follow.
And why have ye brought up the congregation of the LORD into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there?
Verse 4. - Why have ye brought up the congregation of the Lord into this wilderness? These words are almost exactly repeated from Exodus 17:3. They, and those which follow, are no doubt out of place if considered as expressing the feelings of the great bulk of the people, who had no knowledge of Egypt, and had grown up in the wilderness. But on such occasions it is always the few who put words into the months of the many, and the ringleaders in this gainsaying would naturally be the survivors of the elder generation, whose dis. position was exactly the same as ever, and who had always shown a remarkable want of originality in their complaints.
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.
Verse 5. - No place of seed. Septuagint, τόπος οῦ οὐ σπείρεται. A place where there is no sowing, and therefore no harvest.
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.
Verse 6. - They fell upon their faces. See note on chapter Numbers 14:5.
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.
Verse 8. - Take the rod. The ῤάβδος, or staff of office, with which Moses and Aaron had worked wonders before Pharaoh (Exodus 7:9 sq.), and with which Moses had smitten the rock in Rephidim (Exodus 17:6). This rod had not been mentioned, nor perhaps used, since then; but we might certainly have supposed that the instrument of so many miracles would be reverently laid up in the tabernacle "before the Lord," and, this we find from the next verse to have been the case. Gather thou the assembly together, i.e., by their representatives. Speak ye unto the rock before their eyes. The word used for the rock in this narrative is הַסֶּלַע instead of הַצּוּר, as in Exodus 17. It does not seem that any certain distinction of meaning can be drawn between the words, which are obviously interchanged in Judges 6:20, 21, and are both translated πέτρα by the Septuagint; but the careful use of different terms in the two narratives serves to distinguish them, just as the use of κοφίνους and σπυρίδας by St. Mark (Mark 6:43; Mark 8:8, 19, 20) helps to distinguish the two miracles of feeding the multitude.
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?
Verse 10. - Hear now, ye rebels. הַמֹּרִים. Septuagint, οἱ ἀπειθεῖς. The verb is used in a similar sense of Moses and Aaron themselves in verse 24. It has been suggested that this was the word really used by our Lord in Matthew 5:22, and translated μωρός. This, however, is extremely precarious, and is indeed to accuse the Evangelist of a blunder, for there is no real correspondence between the words. Must we fetch you water. Septuagint, μὴ ἐξάξομεν ὑμῖν ὕδωρ. And this is no doubt the sense. It has been rendered by some "Can we fetch you water," on the supposition that Moses really doubted the possibility of such a miracle, but this seems to be an entire mistake (see next note).
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.
Verse 12. - Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel. It is very important, and at the same time very difficult, to understand what the precise sin of Moses and Aaron was upon this occasion. That it was very serious is manifest from the punishment which is entailed. Aaron, indeed, does not appear in the narrative, save in his usual subordinate position as associated with his brother by the Divine mandate. It has been said that he might have checked the unadvised words of Moses, but that is wholly beside the mark. Aaron had obviously no control whatever over his far more able and energetic brother, and therefore could have no responsibility in that respect. We can only suppose that he inwardly assented to the language and conduct with which he was outwardly associated, and therefore shared the guilt. A less degree of sin was (so to speak) necessary in his cause, because he had on former occasions so greatly dishonoured his office; and the anger of God against the sin of his ministers, although laid to sleep, is ever ready to awake upon the recurrence of a similar provocation. We may therefore dismiss him, and consider only the case of Moses. It is impossible to suppose that Moses actually doubted the power of God to supply the present need, for he held in his hand the very rod with which he had struck the rock in Rephidim, nor is there anything in his words or acts upon this occasion to imply any such disbelief. The language of Numbers 11:21, 22 may be cited on the other side, but that was spoken in passion, and spoken to God, and cannot be held as expressing an actual failure of faith. Nor do subsequent references point to unbelief as having been the sin of Moses (cf. Numbers 27:14; Deuteronomy 32:51; Psalm 106:33). Rather, they point to disobedience and indiscretion; to such disloyal conduct and language as produced a bad impression upon the people, and did not place the Divine character before them in its true light. We must understand, therefore, that the want of belief with which Moses stood charged was not a want of faith in the power of God, but a want of obedience to the will of God, bearing in mind that the two faults of disbelief and disobedience are but two sides of one inward fact, and are perpetually confounded in the language of Scripture (compare the use of ἀπειθεῖν in the New Testament). What then was the disobedience of Moses? Here, again, the more obvious answer is insufficient. It is true that Moses struck the rock twice instead of (or perhaps in addition to) speaking to it; but God had bid him take the rod, and he might naturally think he was meant to use it as before; moreover, the people could not have known anything of the exact terms of the command, and would have thought no more of his striking the rock at Kadesh than at Rephidim; but it was the fact of the bad impression made upon the people which was the ground of the Divine rebuke. We come back, therefore, to the simple conclusion expressed by the Psalmist (Psalm 106:32, 33), that Moses lost his temper, and in the irritation of the moment spoke and acted in such a way and in such a spirit as to dishonour his Master and to impair the good effect of the Divine beneficence. It is quite likely that the repeated striking of the rock was one sign of the anger to which Moses gave way, but we could hardly have attached any serious character to the act if it had stood alone. It is in the words of Moses, words in which he associated Aaron with himself, that we must find the explanation of the displeasure he incurred. That he called the people "rebels" was unseemly, not because it was untrue, or because it was an uncalled-for term of reproach, but because he himself was at that very moment a rebel, and disloyal in heart to his Master (cf. verse 24). That he should say, "Must we fetch you water out of this rock?" showed how completely he was carried away. It is true that God had said to him, "Thou shalt bring forth to them water," and, "Thou shalt give the congregation... drink" (compare this with Exodus 17:6), and it is probable that his own words were more or less consciously dictated by this remembrance; but he knew very well that the Divine mandate afforded him no real justification; that he and Aaron were the merest instruments in the hand of God; that it was peculiarly necessary to keep this fact before the minds of the people; nevertheless, his vexation and anger betrayed him into putting himself - a mere man, and a man too in a very bad temper - into the place of God before the eyes of the whole congregation. Moses had fallen at least once before (see on Numbers 11:11-15) into a similar error, one so natural to an angry mind; but this was the first time that he had made his error public, and thereby dishonoured the Master whom it was his special duty to uphold and glorify. This was the sin, and if the punishment seem disproportionate, it must be remembered that the heinousness of a sin depends quite as much on the position of the sinner as upon its intrinsic enormity. Ye shall not bring this congregation into the land. That they should die in the wilderness was implied in this sentence, but was not strictly a part of the sentence itself. Moses, indeed, although he did not enter the land of promise in its narrower sense, yet he died within the inheritance of Israel. Since they had behaved unworthily of their high office as leaders of the people, therefore that office should be taken from them before the glorious end.
This is the water of Meribah; because the children of Israel strove with the LORD, and he was sanctified in them.
Verse 13. - This is the water of Meribah, or "water of strife." Septuagint, ὕδωρ ἀντιλογίας. The word "Meribah" appears, however, to form part of a proper name in Deuteronomy 32:51. A similar use of the word is recorded in Exodus 17:7. That the same name was more or less definitely attached to these two scenes is only another way of saying that there was a strong similarity between the two sets of associations. At the same time the differences are so marked in the narratives that they leave very distinct impressions upon the mind. And he was sanctified in them, i.e., he revealed there his holiness and power, and put to silence their evil murmurings against him. He was sanctified in them all the more abundantly because Moses and Aaron failed to sanctify him in the eyes of the people; but what they failed to do he brought to pass without their agency.
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:
Verse 14. - And Moses sent messengers from Kadesh unto the king of Edom. On the kings of Edom see on Genesis 36:31. It would seem probable from Exodus 15:15 that the government was at that time (forty years before the present date) still in the hands of "dukes," and that the change had but recently taken place. It is stated in Judges 11:17 that Moses sent messengers at this time with a like request to the king of Moab. We are not indeed obliged to suppose that Jephthah, living 300 years after, stated the facts correctly; but there is no particular reason to doubt it in this case. That no mention of it is made here would be sufficiently explained by the fact that the refusal of Edom made the answer of Moab of no practical moment. That Moses asked a passage through the territory of Edom implies that he had renounced the idea of invading Canaan from the south. This was not on account of any insuperable difficulties presented by the character of the country or of its inhabitants, for such did not exist; nor on account of any supposed presence of Egyptian troops in the south of Palestine: but simply on account of the fact that Israel had deliberately refused to take the straight road into their land, and were therefore condemned to follow a long and circuitous route ere they reached it on an altogether different side. The dangers and difficulties of the road they actually traversed were, humanly speaking, far greater than any they would have encountered in any other direction; but this was part of their necessary discipline. Thy brother Israel. This phrase recalled the history of Esau and Jacob, and of the brotherly kindness which the former had shown to the latter at a time when he had him in his power (Genesis 33). Thou knowest all the travel that hath befallen us. Moses assumed that Edom would take a fraternal interest in the fortunes of Israel. The parallel was singularly close between the position of Jacob when he met with Esau, and the present position of Israel; we may well suppose that Moses intended to make this felt without directly asserting it.
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:
Verse 16. - And sent an angel. It is probable, that Moses purposely used an expression which might be understood in various senses, because he could not explain to the king of Edom the true relation of the Lord to his people. At the same time it was in the deepest sense true (cf. Exodus 14:19; Exodus 32:34), because it was the uncreated angel of the covenant, which was from God, and yet was God (cf. Genesis 32:30; Joshua 5:15; Joshua 6:2; Acts 7:35), who was the real captain of the Lord's host. In Kadesh, a city in the uttermost of thy border. See note on Kadesh. It is clear that Kadesh itself was outside the territory of the king of Edom, although it lay close to the frontier.
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.
Verse 17. - Let us pass, I pray thee, through thy country. Moses desired to march through Seir eastwards and northeastwards, so as to reach the country beyond Jordan. If the northern portion of the wilderness of Paran was at this time held by the king of Edom, it would be through this region that Israel would first seek to make their way from Kadesh to the Arabah; thence the broad and easy pass of the Wady Ghuweir would lead them through Mount Seir (properly so called) to the plains of Moab. Through the fields, or through the vineyards. These words attest the change for the worse in the condition of these regions. Even in the Wady Ghuweir, although springs and pasturage are abundant, fields and vineyards hardly exist. Neither will we drink, i.e., as appears from verse 19, without obtaining leave and making payment. By the king's highway. דֶּרֶך הַמֶּלֶך. The state road used for military purposes.
And Edom said unto him, Thou shalt not pass by me, lest I come out against thee with the sword.
Verse 18. - And Edom said... Thou shalt not pass by me. This was the first of a series of hostile acts, prompted by vindictive jealousy, which brought down the wrath of God upon Edom (compare the prophecy of Obadiah). See, however, on Deuteronomy 2:29.
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.
Verse 19. - And the children of Israel said, i.e., probably, the messengers sent by Moses. By the highway. בַּמְסִלָּה. The Septuagint translates παρὰ τὸ ὄρος, but no doubt the word means a "high road" in the original sense of a raised causeway (cf. Isaiah 57:14). Such a road is still called Derb es Sultan - Emperor-road. I will only, without doing anything else, go through on my feet. Rather, "It is nothing;" (רַק אֵין־דָּבָר. Septuagint, ἀλλὰ τὸ πρᾶγμα οὐδέν ἐστι) "I will go through on my feet." They meant, "We do not ask for anything of value, only leave to pass through."
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.
Verse 22. - And the children of Israel, even the whole congregation (see note on verse 1), journeyed from Kadesh, and came unto Mount Her. If the narrative follows the order of time, we must suppose that the Edomites at once blocked the passes near to Kadesh, and thus compelled the Israelites to journey southwards for some distance until they were clear of the Azazimat; they would then turn eastwards again and make their way across the plateau of Paran to the Arabah at a point opposite Mount Hen It is supposed by many, although it finds no support in the narrative itself, that the armed resistance offered by Edom is out of chronological order in verse 20, and only occurred in fact when the Israelites had reached the neighbourhood of Mount Her, and were preparing to ascend the Wady Ghuweir. On the name of Mount Her (הֹר הָהָר) see on Numbers 34:7, 8. There can be no doubt that tradition is right in identifying it with the Jebel Harun (mount of Aaron), a lofty and precipitous mountain rising between the Arabah and the site of Petra. On one of its two summits the tomb of Aaron is still shown, and although this is itself worthless as evidence, yet the character and position of the mountain are altogether in agreement with the legend.
And the LORD spake unto Moses and Aaron in mount Hor, by the coast of the land of Edom, saying,
Verse 23. - By the coast of the land of Edom. Mount Her was on the eastern side of the Arabah, which at this point certainly formed the frontier of Edom; but it was no doubt untenanted, owing to its bare and precipitous character, and therefore was not reckoned as the property of Edom. We may suppose that at this time the encampment stretched along the Arabah in front of the mountain (see on Numbers 33:30; Deuteronomy 10:6).
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.
Verse 24. - Aaron shall be gathered unto his people. On this expression see at Genesis 25:8.
Take Aaron and Eleazar his son, and bring them up unto mount Hor:
Verse 25. - Bring them up unto Mount Hor. It can scarcely be doubted that the object of this command was to produce a deeper effect upon the people. The whole multitude would be able to see the high priest, whose form had been so familiar to them as long as they could remember anything, slowly ascending the bare sides of the mountain; and they knew that he went up to die. The whole multitude would be able to see another and a younger man descending by the same path in the same priestly robes, and they knew that Aaron was dead, and that Eleazar was high priest in his room. Death is often most striking when least expected, but there are occasions (and this was one) when it gains in effect by being invested in a certain simple ceremonial.
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.
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.
Verse 28. - Moses stripped Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son. This was done in token that the office was transferred; it was done out of sight, and far above, in token that the priesthood was perpetual, although the priest was mortal. Aaron died there. In this case, as in that of Miriam (verse 1), and of Moses himself (Deuteronomy 34:5), no details are given. God drew as it were a veil over a departure hence which could but be very sad, because it was in a special sense the wages of sin. We may perhaps conclude that Aaron died alone, and was buried, as Moses was, by God; otherwise Moses and Eleazar would have been unclean under the law of Numbers 19:11 (cf. also Leviticus 21:11).
And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they mourned for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel.
Verse 29. - They mourned for Aaron thirty days. The Egyptians prolonged their mourning for seventy days (Genesis 1:3), but thirty days seems to have been the longest period allowed among the Israelites (cf. Deuteronomy 34:8).

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