After such a long time without much narration, Numbers 20 is something of a glut.

It opens as the Israelites are arriving in the Desert of Zin, staying in Kadesh. You may remember the Israelite arrival in Kadesh from such passages as Numbers 13:26. It’s possible that it takes them 40 years to get through the wilderness because they’re going in circles. Another possibility is that this section is intended as a summary, temporally placing the events to follow.

At some point around this time, Miriam dies and is buried – all in a single sentence. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s rather significant that her death is recorded at all, given that she is a woman. Between this, her song in Exodus 15:20-21, and her statement in Numbers 12:1-2 that God also talks to her, it suggests to me that she may have been a fairly important folk character at some point before all these stories were put together in the configuration that we use today.

Water from the stone

The people, ever whiny, are now complaining that they are all dying of thirst. Can you believe it? As if mortals even need to drink, pshaw…

Moses' Canteen, by ReverendFun

Moses’ Canteen, by ReverendFun

They bring it up to Moses, and they ask him why he would even bother bringing them out of Egypt if he’s just going to have them – and their livestock – die of thirst. They also, as a side note, ask why they should have ever been brought into a place with “no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates” (v.5), which may be specific, but I can understand the general spirit of the complaint.

Moses and Aaron head into the tent of meeting for a quick consult with God, who tells them to “take the staff” (v.8) and gather all the people together. They are then to speak to a particular rock, and it will start gushing water.

By the phrasing, I got the impression that Moses is to use Aaron’s blooming rod from Numbers 17.

So Moses takes the staff. He and Aaron do as instructed right up until they are before the rock, at which point Moses strikes the rock twice with his staff, instead of just trying to chat with it. The spring that he creates is called Meribah, which, according to my Study Bible, apparently means “contention.”

God gets pissed, saying:

Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them. (v.12)

Which is interesting because this story implies that God decides in this moment not to allow Moses to enter Canaan. However, back in Numbers 14, he made a sweeping statement that none who had come out of Egypt as adults should live to see Canaan, naming only Caleb and Joshua as the exceptions. So while this story clearly implies that Moses is excluded from entering the promised land because he failed to follow God’s instructions, it seems that his fate had already been decided anyway.

It seems, also, that there is some debate as to just what, exactly, was Moses’ crime. My immediate impression was that it was Moses’ failure to follow God’s instructions, but there’s also a little issue of the words he uses when smacking the rock. He says to the gathered people:

Hear now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock? (v.10)

Not only does it sound rather like he’s rubbing it in everyone’s faces, he’s also saying “we,” as in, he’s including himself as an active agent in the miracle. His crime could well be hubris.

Water From The Rock, wall painting in a Roman Catacomb, 4th century AD

Water From The Rock, wall painting in a Roman Catacomb, 4th century AD

In The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, J.R. Porter addresses the issue thusly:

Moses and Aaron both died outside the Promised Land of Canaan. This was an undeniable fact of Israelite tradition, but it was felt that some explanation was needed as to why these two great figures had not shared in the fulfillment of God’s promise to the people. […] In Numbers 20, Moses and Aaron repeat the miraculous provision of water from the rock at Meribah (Kadesh), after which God tells them: “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them” (Num. 20.12). The reason for this is unclear. Perhaps Moses and Aaron were guilty of presumption by not giving God credit for the miracle (Num. 20.10). It may be that the story is deliberately vague about the offense so that Moses and Aaron are not incriminated too greatly. In any case, much care is taken to preserve the brothers’ reputation. (p.60)

It’s interesting to note that the “drawing water from stone” story seems to be a repeat of Exodus 17:1-7. Only, in that story, God did tell Moses to strike the stone with his staff. The ensuing spring was given two names – Massah and Meribah, clearly amalgamating the origin stories of two separate sites (whereas this chapter excludes the former).

The rest of Exodus 17 is about a battle against the Amalekites, lead by Joshua. Both narratives seem to be out of place in that portion of the story.

Edom’s refusal

Moving on, Moses sends messengers to the king of Edom asking for passage through their territory. Their offer is presented as being very reasonable, perhaps to accentuate the unfairness of the Edomite refusal. Perhaps representing the same animosity that we saw in the Jacob and Esau narrative beginning in Genesis 25.

Anyways, the Edomites refuse, forcing the Israelites to find an alternative route.

Aaron’s death

Coming out of Kadesh, they get to Mount Hor. While there, God tells Moses and Aaron that Aaron is about to die, so they should head up the mountain along with Aaron’s son, Eleazar. Once at the top, Aaron should remove his priestly vestments and put them on Eleazer – passing the baton, as it were.

Having learned their lesson at Melbah, they follow God’s instructions properly. The Israelites mourn Aaron for 30 days.