Bible Commentary: Numbers 20

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Numbers 20

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The Rebellious Act of Moses and Aaron 

When the people arrive in Kadesh, decades have passed since the last chapter! Kadesh was the same location where Israel rebelled against entering the Promised Land. Back when the spies brought their evil report, God had told the Israelites they would be in the wilderness 40 years. These years have been long and bitter, with rebellion upon rebellion (compare Ezekiel 20:13-24). And now it is the 40th and final year of their wandering. Nearly all the people who were 20 years and older at the time of the exodus have died out. Miriam, at around the age of 130, dies as this final year begins (verse 1).

Sadly, those of the younger generation proved just as rebellious as their parents (Ezekiel 20:18-24). When they complained to Moses that they had no water, Moses and Aaron went to the tabernacle to ask God what to do. And God gave some straightforward instructions: Take the rod; gather the assembly; speak to the rock where the people can see. That shouldn't have been too hard to follow. But Moses had finally had it. He was, after all this time, completely fed up with the Israelites--“You rebels,” he called them (verse 10). And while this was understandable, his anger got the better of him.

After so many years of being browbeaten by the people, Moses and Aaron, perhaps in a momentary lapse, became puffed up. Moses didn't say, "God will give you water." No, he said, "Must we bring water for you out of this rock?" (verse 10). And he struck the rock instead of speaking to it, just as he had done nearly 40 years before (see Exodus 17:6). Only this time, God had not told him to strike it. Nevertheless, he even struck it twice. God labeled this a lack of faith, saying, "You did not believe Me, to hallow Me in the eyes of the children of Israel" (verse 12). Apparently, then, it wasn't that Moses and Aaron didn't believe water would come out by merely speaking, but they didn't believe God's earlier warnings about the seriousness of following His instructions exactly. Or, perhaps more accurately, they didn't believe that these warnings applied to them—as if their closeness to God gave them some leeway. However, as they should have known, just the opposite is true. Those in leadership positions are held to stricter accountability—to set the right example for everyone else. Moses and Aaron called the people rebels. Yet they rebelled against God's words themselves (verse 24; Romans 2:1). Neither would enter the Promised Land. Aaron died above their next encampment on Mount Hor at the age of 123 (verses 25-28; Numbers 33:38-39).

There is a vital lesson here for us. We are never too old to be tested. None of us are ever so perfect that we don't have lessons to learn. And no matter who we are or what position we have, we are not excused from obeying God—a fact the Israelites desperately needed to know.

Verses 14-21 of chapter 20 record Moses' attempt to negotiate peaceful passage through Edom's territory. He even offered to pay Edom for any of the land's resources they used in route. But Edom rebuffed Moses' offer. This is one of several acts of antagonism Edom shows toward the descendants of Jacob. Old grudges die hard, and sometimes they never do unless God intervenes.