Commentary on Numbers 20:1-13

Notes (NET Translation)

1 Then the entire community of Israel entered the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh. Miriam died and was buried there.

The Israelites are in the northeast Sinai. The year of Miriam’s death is not given. According to Num 33:36-38, the death of Aaron, which is narrated in Num 20:22-29, occurred in the 40th year.

Miriam’s death and burial is reported with simple reverence. She was a leader among the Israelites, a prophetess and songstress (Exod 15:20–21), sister of the divinely chosen high priest and prophetic leader of the nation, who demonstrated her compassionate character soon after Moses was born (Exod 2:4–9). Miriam was gone, the only woman whose death has been remembered from that generation. The love Moses had for Miriam was demonstrated when she was struck with a leprous skin disease after she challenged Moses’ authority (Num 12:1–13). Appalled by what he saw affecting his beloved sister, he dramatically cried out for the Lord to heal her. Then in honor of Miriam, the nation delayed its march for the required period of seven days for her purification before it continued on its divinely led journey from Hazeroth to the Paran Wilderness. What effect Miriam’s death had on Moses’ rebellion in the verses that follow one can only speculate. I would suggest that these events are juxtapositioned purposefully in the text, and were thus at least a contributing factor to the prophet’s demise. The death of Moses’ dear sister Miriam may have caused the prophet to enter a period of depression or even despair, which might have led him to respond so negatively in the following account.1

2 And there was no water for the community, and so they gathered themselves together against Moses and Aaron.

This account is similar to the account in Ex 17:1-7: both involve a complaint against Moses about a lack of water and being taken out of Egypt, in both Moses uses a rod to bring water out of a rock, and both occur at Meribah. But there are differences too: whereas Exodus illustrates God’s care for the people this passage illustrates that the rebellion of the Israelites has come to include even its leaders, in Exodus only Moses is an actor while in Numbers both Moses and Aaron are actors, and (arguably) in Exodus Moses is to strike the rock while in Numbers he is to speak to it.

3 The people contended with Moses, saying, “If only we had died when our brothers died before the LORD! 4 Why have you brought up the LORD’s community into this wilderness? So that we and our cattle should die here? 5 Why have you brought us up from Egypt only to bring us to this dreadful place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; nor is there any water to drink!”

The brothers who died before the Lord (v 3) are those who died in earlier rebellions. The Israelites again tread on dangerous ground by calling the place where God had led them a “dreadful place” (v 5). Ironically, the fruits listed in v 5 are the same as those brought back by the scouts earlier (13:23).

6 So Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the entrance to the tent of meeting. They then threw themselves down with their faces to the ground, and the glory of the LORD appeared to them.

7 Then the LORD spoke to Moses: 8 “Take the staff and assemble the community, you and Aaron your brother, and then speak to the rock before their eyes. It will pour forth its water, and you will bring water out of the rock for them, and so you will give the community and their beasts water to drink.”

R. E. Friedman suggests that Moses takes Aaron’s staff:

Why does he need the staff if he is only supposed to speak to the rock?! Some might say that God is testing Moses. But the reason for taking the staff is already given in the story of Aaron’s blossoming staff. Moses is told there to “put back Aaron’s staff in front of the Testimony . . . for a sign to rebels” (Num 17:10). The text now says Moses “took the staff from in front of YHWH” (20:9). This expression would normally be expected to mean that he took a staff that was located at the ark in the Tent of Meeting, “in front of YHWH.” William Propp has pointed out that this connects back to the staff of Aaron that miraculously blossomed and was placed before the ark in the preceding episode. As quoted above, its purpose, explicitly, was to be “a sign to rebels.” That is why Moses is supposed to carry it in his hand in the people’s sight while dealing with their rebellion. As he holds it, his first words to the people are in fact “Listen, rebels” (20:10).2

Yet the staff is called his staff in v 11, which might imply it was Moses’s staff. But it could merely mean he was in possession of the staff. The “you” is plural, meaning both Moses and Aaron are to speak. Moses was (arguably) supposed to only speak to the rock (v 8) but he ends up striking it (v 11).

9 So Moses took the staff from before the LORD, just as he commanded him.

Moses begins by exactly following the Lord’s commands. After this point he deviates from it.

10 Then Moses and Aaron gathered the community together in front of the rock, and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring water out of this rock for you?”

Some think Moses speaks to the rebels instead of the rock while others think he speaks to the rebels and the rock. He asks if we, not God, must bring water out of the rock. This may be a sign of arrogance and pride.

Gray (Gray–ICC 144, in a note to Num 13:26) cites a naturalist and explorer named Clay Trumbull who describes a huge cliff formation at Ayn Qudeis, with a deep well cutting down through it. Now although Kadesh Barnea is no longer identified with ʾAin Qudeis (which nevertheless expresses the name Qādēš) but with ʾAin Qudeirat, the two sites are actually not far from each other.3

11 Then Moses raised his hand, and struck the rock twice with his staff. And water came out abundantly. So the community drank, and their beasts drank too.

Moses strikes the rock not once but twice, perhaps out of anger. The miracle occurs even though Moses does not follow God’s commands exactly.

12 Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust me enough to show me as holy before the Israelites, therefore you will not bring this community into the land I have given them.”

The exact details of the sin by Moses and Aaron is hotly debated, but v 12 identifies a lack of trust in God and not showing God’s holy character as the sin (Num 27:14; Deut 32:51). Verse 24 says Moses and Aaron rebelled against God’s word. Let’s explore a number of more detailed explanations of Moses and Aaron’s sin while keeping in mind that they are not mutually exclusive.

  1. Moses and Aaron show a lack of trust in the Lord’s instructions by (a) addressing the people (v 10) instead of the rock (v 8) and (b) striking the rock (v 11) instead of speaking to the rock (v 8). Trust is demonstrated through obedience (Ps 119:66). The opposite of trust is rebellion or disobedience (Num 14:11; 20:24; Deut 9:23; 2 Kgs 17:14). It was noted above, however, that some scholars think Moses addresses both the people and the rock. Since Moses was told to strike the rock in Ex 17:5-7, some scholars think it is implied that he should strike the rock this time around when he is told to bring his staff (v 8). Plus, since the Israelites were not aware of the order to speak to the rock, the striking of the rock would not have failed to show God as holy before the Israelites.
  2. Moses’s angry attitude towards the Israelites (v 10) in some way violates the holiness of God. Ps 106:33 describes his words as “rash”. But anger alone does not show a lack of trust (v 12) or obedience (v 24). Moses is angry elsewhere without incurring punishment (e.g., Num 31:14).
  3. Moses asks the Israelites if we, not God, must bring water out of the rock (v 10). By striking the rock (v 11) instead of speaking to it (v 8), he further suggests to the Israelites that he, not God, produces the waters. “True, YHWH had said to him in his instructions, ‘So you shall bring water out,’ but Moses’ saying it to the people before hitting the rock still makes those words appear to mean something quite different from their meaning in the original instructions. By word and act Moses is thus appropriating to himself an act of God. In doing this he is undoing the message that God and Moses himself have been conveying to the people up to this point. The people have continuously directed their attention to Moses instead of to God. In this story, as in the others so far, they say to Moses and Aaron, ‘Why have you brought YHWH’s community to this wilderness . . . ? Why did you bring us up from Egypt?’ Until this episode Moses has repeatedly told the people, ‘It is not from my own heart’ and ‘You are congregating against YHWH,’ but now his words and actions confirm the people’s own perception.”4 Jacob Milgrom reminds us that pagan religions, such as that found in ancient Egypt, allowed for the possibility that a magician could make an incantation and perform a miracle by himself. The modern reader does not consider magic a real possiblity and so may miss the seriousness of Moses’s sin.
  4. God is often likened to a rock (e.g., Pss 18:2; 31:3; 42:9). Paul says “they were all drinking from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ” (1 Cor 10:4). If the rock is a symbol of God’s presence then striking the rock is an act of sacrilege. In this way, Moses did not show God as holy. God shows himself holy (v 13) by punishing Moses and Aaron.

13 These are the waters of Meribah, because the Israelites contended with the LORD, and his holiness was maintained among them.

These waters were already named in Ex 17:7. Theye are called the Waters of Meribah Kadesh in Num 27:14 and Deut 32:51. God’s holiness was maintained because his judgment against Moses and Aaron showed he was the one truly in control of events. “This last phrase he showed himself holy (wayyiqqādēš) is evidently a play on the word Kadesh (qādēš, ‘holy person’ or ‘holy place’), in the vicinity of which this episode took place.”5

The circles of holiness within the camp, so carefully organized in Numbers 1-10, have slowly been undone. The people of the twelve tribes in the outer circle of the camp rebelled in chaps. 13-14. The Levites who surround the tent of meeting in the midst of the camp rebelled in chaps. 16-17. Now even the leaders closest to God, at the center of the camp, the priest Aaron and the leader Moses, rebel in Numbers 20. The fate of the whole generation of Israelites who first came out of Egypt is now sealed. Except for Joshua and Caleb (14:30), none of them, not even Moses, will set foot in Canaan. The holy camp of Israel will have to be reorganized with a new generation of Israelites (chap. 26).6

Bibliography

Ashley, Timothy R. The Book of Numbers. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Cole, R. Dennis. Numbers. Kindle Edition. The New American Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.

Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah. First Edition. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperOne, 2001.

Levine, Baruch A. Numbers 1-20. The Anchor Yale Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Mays, James L., ed. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary. Revised Edition. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.

Milgrom, Jacob. Numbers. The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

Wenham, Gordon J. Numbers. Kindle Edition. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP Academic, 2015.


  1. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 9547-9556 
  2. Friedman 2001, 494 
  3. Levine 2008, 489 
  4. Friedman 2001, 495 
  5. Wenham 2015, Kindle Locations 2657 
  6. Mays 2000, 179 
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