Numbers 20 is a harsh chapter. It’s the story of why Moses and Aaron lose the privilege of taking the people into the Promised Land. It’s a hard story to understand, and at first reading it comes across as God being extremely unmerciful and overly judgmental on the two men who have been faithful to Him for almost 40 years. Moses, especially, gets a fate that’s hard to reconcile. In the end, however, the lesson of Numbers 20 is that nothing is more important than God’s glory, and nothing is more important than how that fact affects our actions and choices.
The story takes place probably less than a year before Israel enters the land of Canaan (38+ years after refusing to before). The reason we roughly know the time of this event is – spoiler alert – Aaron dies at the end of the chapter, and we know from Numbers 33:38 that he dies in the 40th year after Israel leaves Egypt. So that means that Moses and Aaron are about to realize the goal they’ve had for over four decades. They’ve survived the wilderness wanderings and waited out the death of the evil generation. They’re quite possibly two of four men in the whole nation over the age of 59. They’ve stayed faithful and are about to triumphantly lead the people into the Canaan. The worst of the journey is behind them – they will finally see the fruit of their faithfulness.
Before they do, however, there’s more drama with the people – and the script is familiar. They reach a place called the wilderness of Zin and stay at Kadesh – the place where their fathers refused to enter the land almost forty years ago (13:26). It is here that Miriam dies. That the text mentions her death shows how important she is to the nation and to Moses and Aaron (her brothers). Typically, a woman’s death would not be noted. It’s also interesting to consider what effect her death has on the emotional state of Moses and Aaron in the rest of the story (even though she’s had her differences with her younger brother – Numbers 12 – she was the one who watched over him as an infant in the river and who has been by his side since Egypt).
When they reach Kadesh the people start to complain about a lack of water. Even though these are the children of the unfaithful generation and not the people who complained so many times before, they take the same approach to their grumbling. They cry about the lack of water and wonder aloud why Moses brought them into the wilderness to die. They also – amazingly – say they wish they had perished before the Lord like their brothers – seemingly a reference to those God struck down for various evil actions (such as Korah and his followers – 16:1-3 – this doesn’t appear to be a reference to the generation that just died in the wilderness since they specifically refer to those who died before the Lord). They also wonder why Moses and Aaron brought them up from Egypt to this wretched place where there isn’t grain or figs or vines or pomegranates (ironically, all of these things are in the Promised Land where they’d be living if not for the rebellion of their parents). The fact that the oldest of them were only teenagers when they left Egypt doesn’t stop them from remembering how great it was.
Moses and Aaron do what they always do when faced with a crisis – they go to God in the tabernacle. They cry out to God for help and He tells them what to do. Note that He appears to them in the way He always does – in His glory.
Pay attention to His command to them. He tells them to take the rod (this could be Moses’ rod or it could be the rod that belonged to Aaron that God caused to bud to prove that Aaron was the chosen high priest after the Korah incident [17:1-11] – the fact that the text says Moses takes the rod from before the Lord may mean it’s Aaron’s special rod) and assemble the congregation and speak to the rock in front of all of them and cause water to come forth. He doesn’t specify what rock, but apparently Moses and Aaron know. He also doesn’t explain why they should take the rod since they’re only going to speak to the rock.
It’s notable that God doesn’t say anything about His wrath or about punishing the people. In past incidents where the people complained, God typically has said that He wants to destroy the whole nation and start over with Moses or with both Moses and Aaron. Here, however, He simply tells the two of them how to solve the problem. We have no idea why this is, but it may have some effect on Moses. Based on his later words to the congregation we know that he’s fed up with them. Perhaps since God didn’t react wrathfully, Moses decides to do it himself?
Moses and Aaron assemble the people before the rock as ordered. When they’re all gathered, Moses lets them know in no uncertain terms what he thinks of them – “Listen, now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” He then takes the rod and strikes the rock twice, and out of the rock comes enough water to take care of all the people along with their animals (which means it has to be a river – an incredible miracle – Ps 78:15-16). So everyone’s happy. The miracle worked, the people can stop complaining, and everyone can survive in the wilderness and not die of thirst. Total success.
Or maybe not. The miracle worked and the water came forth, but God isn’t happy. He says to Moses and Aaron, “Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” What?? The miracle worked, right? The crisis was averted and everyone’s drinking! What did they do wrong? And what did they do that was so wrong that they’re now not allowed to go into Canaan? God just effectively gave them the death penalty for being His instrument for an amazing miracle. And now they can’t go into Canaan? What they’ve been targeting for FOUR DECADES and is now only months away?? It all seems so sudden and so harsh and so hard to understand.
So let’s try to figure it out. The first thing to notice is obvious – they didn’t technically obey God’s command. He specifically said to speak to the rock, not strike it. But Moses took the rod – which he apparently was only supposed to hold – and struck the rock twice in anger. That’s easy to see. But is that enough to sentence him to die in the wilderness like the rebellious generation?
Let’s notice something else. How did Moses speak to the Israelites? He asked them, “…shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” Who did he say would bring forth the water? He made it sound like it was he and Aaron, didn’t he? He didn’t say God would do it; he said he and Aaron would. That gives us perhaps a little more insight into why God said they didn’t treat Him as holy in the sight of the congregation. They didn’t give credit to God – they took it for themselves.
Moses’ harsh words also tainted a merciful act. God didn’t mean to make the provision of water an act of judgment. He wanted to mercifully and miraculously provide for the people and cause them to celebrate His mercy and generosity. Instead they were treated to the spectacle of Moses’ anger and likely remember his words and actions much more than God’s provision. Speaking to the rock would have been an incredible illustration of God’s power – but striking it after angrily rebuking the people brought attention to Moses instead of God and to God’s wrath instead of His mercy. Indeed, its’ probably a sign of God’s mercy that the rock brought forth water even after Moses disobeyed.
There’s one more thing. Paul will later call the rock that provides the water for Israel a type of Christ (I Cor 10:4). He’ll say it’s a spiritual rock that provides spiritual water. Since this is the case, could it be that Moses did more than disobey a command and actually dishonored the symbol of the coming Messiah? It is important to remember that God told him to strike the rock under the same conditions at Sinai (Ex 17:5-6), so striking by itself isn’t the problem. But since in this case he struck it twice after being told not to, perhaps he actually took glory away from God AND dishonored the coming Savior. It’s hard to know if this is the case, but Paul’s words do give another meaning to the disobedience.
The bottom line, however, is that whether we fully understand it or not, the two leaders dishonored God before the congregation and didn’t believe Him, and for that they have to die in the wilderness. Ultimately they’re guilty of the same sin as the rebellious generation – they didn’t believe and they didn’t honor God. So they’re sentenced to the same fate – they won’t see the Promised Land.
We do know that Moses later asks God to reconsider (Deut 3:23-29). He pleads with God and asks if he in fact can go into the Promised Land. God angrily tells him ‘no’ and tells him not to bring it up again. The sentence is final. He dishonored God and there’s no appeal.
What’s so sad – beyond the fact that both men are so close to going into the land – is that if the people hadn’t rebelled, this wouldn’t have happened. Even more, if their parents hadn’t rebelled and refused to go into the land, this wouldn’t have happened. If the people would’ve gone into the land when they were supposed to, Moses would’ve led them and Aaron would have been Canaan’s first high priest. Instead they’ll die on the wrong side of the Jordan. All because of disobedience.
[This text, by the way, is a perfect example of the Bible’s understatement. This is one of the most notable events in the whole journey of Israel and it’s written with no real explanation and no reaction from the two men. Their whole world just imploded. In some respects, their whole reason for living just went away. And we hear nothing from them. The story continues in the next verse as if nothing important just happened.]
This is an interlude in the story about having to travel around Edom because the king of Edom won’t let them pass through. Edom, you might remember, is a nation made up of Esau’s descendants. They’re cousins to the people of Israel but the relationship has never been good.
Roughly four months after the events at Kadesh (if in fact the events of 1-13 take place in the 40th year out of Egypt – notice that verse 1 doesn’t include a year, it just says it’s the first month – we know from 33:38 that Aaron dies in the fifth month), Aaron goes to the top of Mount Hor and dies. Moses goes with him and takes Aaron’s oldest surviving son, Eleazar. Before Aaron dies, they take off his priestly vestments and put them on Eleazar, signifying that he will now be high priest in his father’s stead.
The scene is again harsh. God tells Moses to take Aaron up the mountain because it’s time for him to die since he can’t go into Canaan. Just like that, Aaron’s gone. In a four month period of time, Moses loses his sister and brother, and loses the privilege he’s focused on for a third of his life. Not a great way to end for Moses.
You could make an argument that Moses’ entire life has pointed toward him leading the people into Canaan. His miraculous survival as a baby in Egypt, his time in exile as a shepherd in Midian, his return to Egypt after the burning bush (God’s command at the burning bush – “So I have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey” – Ex 3:8) – all seemed to prepare him for this ultimate goal. He would be the one who would realize the promise to Abraham, the one who – as God Himself told him – would not just know God as God Almighty but as Yahweh, the covenant-keeping God (Ex 6:2-9). Almost everything he’s done in his life has targeted Canaan.
And yet, a few short months from reaching the goal, it’s gone, even though he’s been faithful the entire time. Forty years ago he had to be forced to leave Midian and come back to Egypt, but once installed as leader, he’s done everything God’s asked. He was faithful when Aaron made the golden calf. He was faithful when the people turned back at Kadesh. He was faithful when his authority was challenged by Korah, by Aaron and Miriam, by countless others. He’s been faithful throughout all the trials and all the rebellions – he never rebelled even when everyone else did.
Not only has he been faithful to God, he’s been faithful to the people in how he’s interceded for them time after time when God wanted to destroy them. On numerous occasions he’s appealed to God to let the nation live even as the nation treated him poorly and didn’t appreciate him. He’s been selfless and humble (Num 12:3) and faithful. For FORTY years.
And that still doesn’t give the whole picture, because we know that God has more than a God-to-prophet relationship with Moses. He speaks to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend (Ex 33:11). When Miriam and Aaron questioned Moses’ leadership, God said to them “If there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, shall make Myself known to him in a vision. I shall speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses, he is faithful in all My household; with him I speak mouth to mouth, even openly, and not in dark sayings, and he beholds the form of the Lord” (Numbers 12:6-8). Many years from now it will be Moses who appears on the mountain and talks with Jesus and Elijah during the transfiguration.
But with all that being true, it still doesn’t trump the glory and holiness of God. God sentences him to die in the wilderness even after a lifetime of faithfulness because God will not share His glory with any man. There is nothing more important than the glory of God. Not even the fate of the man with one of the closest walks with God in world history.
So what does that mean for us? What does that mean to our view of God and our view of sin? What does that mean to our view of the gospel – the single greatest manifestation of God’s glory? Doesn’t it mean that when we take our sin lightly, when we take our redemption lightly, when we take our time given to God lightly (something to consider is how our time given to prayer compares to the Mosaic Law’s requirements for sacrifices – the people weren’t allowed to give leftovers or what they could spare to God, and were punished severely when they tried), that we demean the glory of God? Don’t we effectively do what Moses and Aaron do in this text?
Something to consider in this context is what Peter says about how we should live in light of what we know about God: And if you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each man’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay upon earth; knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ – I Pet 1:17-19. Our view of God and of His work in our lives deeply affects how we live. When we take a light view of Him and His majesty and glory, our lives will count much more for how they honor us rather than Him.
What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.
(AW Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy; 1.)