Moses’ Error – Numbers 20

Read the Passage: Numbers 20

Wrath of Moses (20:1–13)

As we’ve previously discussed, while the book of Numbers covers roughly 38 years of time, the majority of this text focuses on just two years: the second year of Israel’s wilderness wanderings (chs. 1–19) and the final year of their travels (chs. 20–36). This means that there is roughly a 37-year gap between Num. 19:22 and 20:1. As Numbers 20 begins, the people are at Kadesh, which was in the northeastern part of the Sinai Peninsula. Note that Kadesh is where Israel had camped when they had refused to enter the Promised Land (cf. Num. 13:26). Thus, Moses is communicating that Israel’s 38 years of wilderness wandering was futile, as they ended up exactly where they began. Num. 20:1 reports that while at Kadesh, Miriam died and was buried. Miriam’s death was symbolic of the passing away of the first generation on account of their lack of faith in God and their refusal to enter Canaan.

The books of Exodus and Numbers record many instances of Israel complaining during their time of wilderness wandering (cf. Exod. 5:20–21; 14:10–12; 15:22–24; 16:1–4, 19–20, 27–30; 17:1–4; 32:28; Num. 11:1–3; 16:3, 41; 21:5). As was the case in Exod. 17:1–4, so at Num. 20:2–6 the people complained about their lack of water, even wishing that they had died in Korah’s rebellion (cf. Num. 16:41–50) or that they had never left Egypt. Such griping moved Moses and Aaron to intercede for the people at the tabernacle. In response, God commanded Moses to gather the people and “speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will yield water” (Num. 20:8). Note that while God did command Moses to “take the rod” (Num. 20:8), God did not instruct Moses to strike the rock, as He had done earlier at Exod. 17:6. Paul later teaches the rock in view here was symbolic of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 10:4).

Num. 20:10–13 is an important passage, as it explains why Moses was not privileged to lead the people into the Promised Land. In this passage we read that Moses gathered the people, as he had been instructed to do. Yet, in his own anger Moses called the people “rebels” and wrathfully asked, “Must we bring water for you out of this rock?” (Num. 20:10). Next, Moses struck the rock, which is not what he had been directed to do; yet, God graciously provided water for the people. This led God to confront Moses, as He declared that Moses would not be allowed to lead Israel into the land of Canaan. On the surface, Moses’ error might seem trivial, and the judgment of God might appear harsh. Yet, observe God’s stated rationale, “You did not believe Me” (Num. 20:12). Moses’ actions, then, were an outward symptom of an inward lack of both faith and a holy reverence for God.

Travels of Israel (20:14–21)

In light of Miriam’s recent passing, and the seeming triviality of his error, we might be tempted to minimize Moses’ sin of striking the rock. Yet, given that the rock was symbolic of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 10:4), it becomes clear that Moses was self-focused (cf. Num. 20:10), and that he did not trust in God (cf. Num. 20:12), Moses’ actions were tantamount to “crucify[ing] again . . . the Son of God, and put[ting] Him to an open shame” (Heb. 6:6). Notwithstanding the judgment of God, Moses continued to lead Israel toward the Promised Land. Moses intended to bring Israel east of the land of Canaan, as he asked permission to travel through the country of Edom. However, Num. 20:14–21 reports that the king of Edom refused Israel passage though his country. Given Edom’s relation to Israel, and God’s earlier promises to Esau (cf. Deut. 2:2–6), Israel was forbidden from fighting and “turned away from Edom” (Num. 20:21).

Death of Aaron (20:22–29)

Whereas Num. 20:1 reports the death of Miriam, Num. 20:22–29 records the passing away of Aaron. At Num. 20:22, Israel was encamped around Mount Hor—a peak likely northeast of Kadesh, but west of Edom. While here, God announced that Aaron would die because of his participation with Moses in the sin of striking the rock at Num. 20:10–11. In his mercy, God took steps to transition the office of high priest from Aaron to his son Eleazar. In order to display God’s justice and to ensure a smooth transition, the transfer of office and the imminent death of Aaron took place “in the sight of all the congregation” (Num. 20:27). Following the transfer of the office of high priest “all the house of Israel mourned for Aaron thirty days” (Num. 20:29). This is curious given that no mourning period was recorded for Miriam. Observe that at his later passing, Moses would be mourned for thirty days too (cf. Deut. 34:8).

Application Questions:

  1. Does forgiveness of sin always imply reinstatement of trust in the sinner? Does forgiveness of sin always entail the removal of the consequences of sin?
  2. In what ways ought believers to differ from unbelievers regarding how we grapple with and process the death of a loved one?
  3. Why did God instruct Moses to strike the rock at Exod. 17:6, but only to speak to the rock at Num. 20:8? Why was Moses instructed to bring his rod with him?
  4. Does God’s judgment of Moses’ error seem to be too harsh (cf. Num. 27:14)? What factors may have led Moses to sin as he did in striking the rock?
  5. What was the relationship between Israel and Edom? Why did Israel refuse to engage the Edomites in battle when denied passage through their country?