Numbers 20 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Numbers 20
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
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) Then came . . . —It would be better to translate thus: And (or, Now) the children of Israel came (or, had come) . . ., inasmuch as the interval of time between the events related in the preceding chapters and in this chapter is unknown.

In the first month.—It has been commonly supposed that the reference is to the first month of the fortieth year, when the Israelites are thought to have arrived for the second time at Kadesh. Some, however, are of opinion that the journey is the same as that which is mentioned in Numbers 12:16, and in Deuteronomy 1:19; and that the arrival at Kadesh was on the first month of the third year, i.e., the year which followed the departure from Sinai, which departure took place on the twentieth day of the second month, in the second year after the exodus.

And the people abode in Kadesh.—It is evident that the sojourn in Kadesh was a protracted one, whether Kadesh did, or did not serve as the head-quarters of the people from the second or third year of the exodus until that in which they entered into the land of Canaan. See Deuteronomy 1:46, where Moses describes the length of the sojourn in Kadesh by the words “many days,” the same words which he employs in Numbers 20:15 to denote the length of the sojourn in the land of Egypt. It cannot, however, be inferred from the simple use of the word which is here rendered abode that the sojourn at Kadesh at the beginning of the fortieth year was of long duration (see Judges 11:17, where the same word is used). Hence no legitimate conclusion can be drawn from the use of this word respecting the reference of the verse to an arrival at Kadesh at the beginning of the third or of the fortieth year after the exodus. (See 20:14, and Note).

And there was no water for the congregation: and they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron.
(2) And there was no water . . . —Kadesh may have comprised a considerable portion of the wilderness of Zin, and there may have been a supply of water in some parts of the district and a scarcity in others; or the supply may have proved insufficient for the wants of so great a multitude; or the miraculous supply which was given at Rephidim may have continued, with more or less frequent intermissions, up to the time to which this statement refers, and may have been suddenly withdrawn at this time in order to try the faith of the Israelites.

And the people chode with Moses, and spake, saying, Would God that we had died when our brethren died before the LORD!
(3) Would God that we had died . . . —The reference seems to be to the plague which broke out after the insurrection of Korah. The language of the murmurers is very similar to that which is recorded in Numbers 16:14, and the word gava (die, or expire), which is twice used in this verse, and which occurs in Numbers 16:26; Numbers 16:28, in connection with the history of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, is found only in one other place throughout the last four books of the Pentateuch—viz., Numbers 20:29. The probability that that plague was of comparatively recent occurrence, and not separated from the present murmuring by a period of nearly forty years, has been inferred from the use of the word brethren in this verse. The generation which was contemporary with those who perished in the plague which followed the rebellion of Korah is supposed by some to have been almost extinct at the time to which the events recorded in this chapter are commonly referred, and the word fathers, it is alleged, would, in that case, have been more applicable to those who perished than brethren. It may be observed, further, that the inquiry, “Wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt?” is more natural when regarded as the language of the generation which had come up out of Egypt as adults, and who looked back to the exodus as to a recent event, than when regarded as that of a generation of which a large number had been born in the wilderness, and the rest had left Egypt nearly forty years previously. These considerations, however, do not appear to be entitled to much weight. The older portion of the congregation, who would naturally be the spokesmen, would speak of those who perished in the insurrection of Korah as their brethren, whether the event itself was of recent occurrence or not; and the words which are rendered “Why have ye brought up, &c.?” may, with equal propriety, be rendered “Why did ye bring up, &c.?”(Comp. Numbers 20:16 and Note).

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 rod.—It has been supposed by some, from the fact that the rod is represented as being taken “from before the Lord” (Numbers 20:9), that the reference is to the rod of Aaron which was kept “before the testimony” (Numbers 17:10). On the other hand, the natural presumption that the rod was the same as that with which some of the previous miracles in Egypt and those at the Red Sea and at Rephidim had been wrought is confirmed by the facts that the name of Aaron is not mentioned in this verse until after the mention of the rod, and that Moses is said, in Numbers 20:11, to have smitten the rock “with his rod.”

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) Must we fetch you water out of this rock?—In the case of the former miracle at Rephidim the rock is spoken of only under the Hebrew word zur (Exodus 17:6). Throughout the present narration the rock is invariably spoken of under the word sela. In Psalm 78:15-16, where reference appears to be made to both miracles, both words are used.

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) And the Lord spake unto Moses and Aaron.—We read in Psalm 106:33 that the Israelites “provoked (literally, made to rebel) his spirit, so that he spake unadvisedly with his lips.” Whatever was the nature of the sin thus committed, it is clear that Aaron was a participator in it with Moses. Some have thought that the sin of Moses consisted in addressing the people as rebels (or as rebellious ones); but this is the charge repeatedly brought against them in the book of Deuteronomy (see Numbers 1:26; Numbers 1:43; Numbers 9:23; Numbers 31:27), under circumstances in which it is impossible to suppose that Moses committed the same sin. It has also been thought that the sin of Moses and Aaron consisted in arrogating to themselves the honour which was due only to God. “Must we fetch you water?” but the personal pronoun does not occur in the Hebrew, as it might, and probably would, have occurred, if intended to be emphatic. The more probable explanation appears to be that, notwithstanding the miraculous supply of water which had begun at Rephidim, and which had been subsequently continued, Moses and Aaron distrusted the word and power (Numbers 20:12) of God, and that they yielded to the impulse of impatience and anger, as betrayed both by the language which they used and by the double smiting of the rock, to which Moses had been commanded only to speak. To what degree Aaron was concerned in these sins can be inferred only from the facts that he, as well as Moses, was charged with the sin of unbelief, and that the punishment of exclusion from the land of Canaan was inflicted upon both.

(12) Therefore ye shall not bring this congregation . . . —In Numbers 14:30 Caleb and Joshua are mentioned as the only exceptions to the general sentence of exclusion pronounced against the generation which had come out of Egypt, and which consisted of those who were above twenty years of age. It does not appear, however, from that passage whether the sentence pronounced against Moses and Aaron had, or had not, been delivered at that time, inasmuch as they were the speakers on that occasion, and they belonged to the tribe of Levi, which was not included in the numbering to which reference is made in Numbers 20:29.

This is the water of Meribah; because the children of Israel strove with the LORD, and he was sanctified in them.
(13) This is the water of Meribah.—i.e., of strife. (See Exodus 17:7, and Note; also Numbers 27:14, where the words “in Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin,” are added to distinguish the latter from the earlier miracle.) In Deuteronomy 32:51 the waters are spoken of as those of “Meribah of Kadesh.”

And he was sanctified in them.—The reference in the words in them seems to be either to the word waters, which is plural in Hebrew, or, more probably, to the children of Israel, amongst whom Moses and Aaron were included. It has been supposed that the place derived its name of Kadesh (or, more fully, Kadesh-Barnea, Numbers 32:8) from the cognate verb, which is rendered sanctify in this and the preceding verse. It was in Kadesh that the sentence of exclusion had been pronounced upon the people generally (Numbers 14:22-23), and upon Moses and Aaron in particular, and it was thus that the Lord sanctified Himself in dealing with the transgressors. If the place derived its name, Kadesh, from these circumstances, it must have been called by that name proleptically in Genesis 14:7—a supposition which is entirely consistent with the manner in which the place is mentioned in that verse (“Enmishpat, which is Kadesh.”)

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) And Moses sent messengers from Kadesh . . . —The date of the occurrence related in this and the following verses is not stated. It might be inferred frem Judges 11:16-17 that the message to the Kings of Edom and Moab was sent soon after the exodus, and that it was in consequence of their refusal that the sojourn in Kadesh was prolonged: “And (or, So) Israel abode in Kadesh” (Judges 11:17). The account, however, is too summary to admit of any certain inference in regard to time. No difficulty is involved in the fact that Edom is represented in Genesis 36 as being governed by dukes, or chiefs (alluphim), whilst in this place we read of a king. It is possible that the form of government may have been changed, or, as in the case of the rulers of Midian, the same persons who in one place are described as kings may, in another place, be described as dukes, duces, or leaders. Comp. Numbers 31:8, where the five rulers of Midian are described as kings, with Joshua 13:21, where the same persons are described as princes or chiefs.

Thus saith thy brother Israel.—The Edomites, as the descendants of Esau, who received the name of Edom (Genesis 25:30), were closely connected with the descendants of Jacob.

How our fathers went down into Egypt, and we have dwelt in Egypt a long time; and the Egyptians vexed us, and our fathers:
(15) Vexed us.—Better, dealt ill with.

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:
(16) And sent an angel.—See Exodus 3:2; Exodus 14:19.

And hath brought us forth.—Better, And brought us forth.

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) We will go by the king’s highway.—It is supposed that this military road led through the broad Wady el Ghuweir, which is celebrated for its excellent pasture and its numerous springs. (See Keil in loc.)

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) I will only, without doing anything else . . . —Literally, Onlyit is nothinglet me pass through on my feet.

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) And the children of Israel . . . —Better, And they journeyed from Kadesh; and the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, came unto Mount Hor. The insertion of the words “the whole congregation,” as in Numbers 20:1, probably denotes that the people were broken up and dispersed during a considerable portion of their wilderness life, and that it was only on particular occasions that they were gathered together.

And came unto Mount Hor.—It cannot be inferred from this statement that Mount Hor, near Petra, the modern Hârûn (see Stanley’s “Sinai and Palestine,” p. 86), was only one day’s journey from Kadesh. It is evident from Numbers 10:33 that the places of encampment may have been distant from each other several days’ journey. The name Hor is thought by some to be another form of the Hebrew har, a mountain. The same name is given in Numbers 34:7 to a mountain which is supposed by some to be a branch of Lebanon. (See Note in loc.)

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.
(24) Shall be gathered unto his people.—This expression does not refer to the place of sepulture. (See Genesis 25:8. and Note.)

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) And strip Aaron of his garments.—Thus the same hands which had invested Aaron with the sacred garments were employed in divesting him of them, and, in both cases, in obedience to the express command of God. The removal of the priestly robes from Aaron may be regarded as typical of the future disannulling of his priesthood when a priest after the order of Melchizedek should arise. “The succession of the priesthood,” says Dean Stanley (who refers to Ewald’s Geschichte, 5:13), “was made through that singular usage, preserved even to the latest days of the Jewish hierarchy, by the transference of the vestments and drapery of the dead High Priest to the living successor.” (Lectures on Jewish History, 1:182.)

And Moses did as the LORD commanded: and they went up into mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation.
(27) And they went up into Mount Hor . . . —Some would render to the summit of the mountain, and regard these words as equivalent to those which occur in the following verse, “the top of the mount;” but the same words occur in the fourth verse of the following chapter, where they cannot be thus understood.

In the sight of all the congregation.—The place where the people encamped is called Moseroth in Numbers 33:30, and Mosera in Deuteronomy 10:6.

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.
(28) And Aaron died there in the top of the mount.—The date of Aaron’s death, as we learn from Numbers 33:38, was the first day of the fifth month, in the fortieth year after the exodus, and his age a hundred and twenty-three years (Numbers 33:39), which accords with the statement contained in Exodus 7:7, that “Moses was fourscore years old, and Aaron fourscore and three years old, when they spake unto Pharaoh.” The difference in the circumstances of the death of the two brothers is remarkable. Both Moses and Aaron were excluded from the land of promise by reason of transgression. Both died upon the top of a mountain. But whilst Moses died in solitary grandeur, and the place of his burial was unknown, Aaron ascended the mount “in the sight of all the people,” and died in the presence of Moses and Eleazar. The death of Aaron was an indication of the imperfection of the Levitical priesthood. “They truly were many priests, because they were not suffered to continue by reason of death; but this man because he continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood” (Hebrews 7:23-24).

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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