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(MT versing)
Death of Miriam Moses' Error at Kadesh Departure from Kadesh Events at Kadesh The Waters of Meribah
20:1-7 20:1-11 20:1 20:1 20:1
20:2-8 20:2-6 20:2-5
The Water of Meribah 20:7-9
20:9-13 20:9-13 20:9-11
20:10-11 The Punishment of Moses and Aaron
20:12-13 20:12 20:12
20:13 20:13
Passage Through Edom Refused The King of Edom Refuses to Let Israel Pass Edom Refuses Right of Way
20:14-17 20:14-21 20:14-17 20:14-17 20:14-21
20:18-21 20:18-21 20:18
Death of Aaron Death of Aaron The Death of Aaron
20:22 20:22-29 20:22-29 20:22-29 20:22-26
Death of Aaron

READING CYCLE THREE (see "Bible Interpretation Seminar")


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects. Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

  1. First paragraph
  2. Second paragraph
  3. Etc.


1Then the sons of Israel, the whole congregation, came to the wilderness of Zin in the first month; and the people stayed at Kadesh. Now Miriam died there and was buried there. 2There was no water for the congregation, and they assembled themselves against Moses and Aaron. 3The people thus contended with Moses and spoke, saying, "If only we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! 4Why then have you brought the Lord's assembly into this wilderness, for us and our beasts to die here? 5Why have you made us come up from Egypt, to bring us in to this wretched place? It is not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, nor is there water to drink." 6Then Moses and Aaron came in from the presence of the assembly to the doorway of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. Then the glory of the Lord appeared to them; 7and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,

20:1 "the wilderness of Zin" See SPECIAL TOPIC: WILDERNESSES OF THE EXODUS.

▣ "the first month" See SPECIAL TOPIC: ANE CALENDARS.

From Num. 33:38 we learn that this was in the fourth year (i.e., at the end of YHWH's judgment on the unbelieving generation, i.e., the spies' negative report, Numbers 13).

▣ "Now Miriam died there and was buried there" It is hard to interpret something based on silence, but this is such a long account. There is no mention of her being mourned, as there is Aaron in Num. 20:29.

This is a sad chapter.

  1. Miriam dies (no explanation or grief mentioned), Num. 20:1
  2. Moses is condemned to death before the conquest, Num. 20:12
  3. Aaron dies on Mt. Hor, Num. 20:22-29

20:2 YHWH tested His people's trust in Him by no natural water sources here and in Exod. 17:1-7 (notice Num. 20:13).

20:3-5 Notice the complaints of the people against Moses, and by implication, YHWH.

  1. Num. 20:3b ‒ claiming they wish they had died in YHWH's earlier judgment
  2. Num. 20:4 ‒ claiming the lack of water would cause their death as well as all their animals
  3. Num. 20:5a ‒ questioning the exodus from Egypt
  4. Num. 20:5b ‒ YHWH's promise of a future filled with abundance was not true

20:6 "the tent of meeting" This is one of

  1. several terms for the Tabernacle
  2. possibly a separate tent outside of the camp where Moses met YHWH

▣ "the glory of the Lord appeared" This glory was the physical manifestation of the shekinah cloud of glory, which denoted YHWH's presence. It first appears in Exod. 16:7,10.

It could denote YHWH's

  1. provision ‒ here
  2. judgment ‒ Num. 16:19

8"Take the rod; and you and your brother Aaron assemble the congregation and speak to the rock before their eyes, that it may yield its water. You shall thus bring forth water for them out of the rock and let the congregation and their beasts drink."

20:8 "Take the rod" This shepherd's rod or walking staff was a symbol of the power of YHWH in the hand of Moses (cf. Exod. 4:2, 17, 20; 17:5, 6).

YHWH will choose to act through Moses (i.e., human instrumentality, cf. Exod. 3:8-10).

This may have been Aaron's rod. See full note at Num. 20:9.

▣ "speak to the rock" There are two IMPERATIVES in this verse and this may be a third.

  1. take ‒ BDB 542, KB 534, Qal
  2. assemble ‒ BDB 874, KB 1078, Hiphil
  3. speak ‒ BDB 180, KB 210, Piel PERFECT

Notice the supernatural element of "speaking" to a rock. Also note it is YHWH's power through His chosen leader in full public view of all!

9So Moses took the rod from before the Lord, just as He had commanded him; 10and Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly before the rock. And he said to them, "Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock? " 11Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation and their beasts drank. 12But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, "Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them." 13Those were the waters of Meribah, because the sons of Israel contended with the Lord, and He proved Himself holy among them.

20:9 The phrase "from before the Lord" may imply that the rod used was Aaron's rod which had earlier budded and fruited (cf. Numbers 17). This rod was placed back in the tent of meeting (Num. 17:10). This rod of Aaron is also mentioned as being related "to the rebels" in Num. 17:10 (BDB 598).

For a good brief discussion of the Hebrew term (BDB 641), which can mean "staff," "rod," "scepter," "stick," or "tribe" see NIDOTTE, vol. 2, pp. 924-925.

20:10-11 Moses is so angry at these grumbling, unfaithful Israelites that he

  1. disobeys YHWH's order in public view
  2. claims that he and Aaron produced the water
    1. listen now ‒ BDB 1033, KB 1570, Qal IMPERATIVE
    2. you rebels ‒ BDB 598, KB 632, Qal ACTIVE PARTICIPLE; the basic root means "to be stubborn" or "to be rebellious"
      (1) of a son ‒ Deut. 28:18,20
      (2) of Moses ‒ here; Num. 27:14
      (3) of Israel ‒ 1 Sam. 12:15; Ps. 78:8; 105:28
      (4) of Jerusalem ‒ Jer. 4:17; 5:23; Lam. 1:18, 20; Zeph. 3:1
    3. Moses struck the rock in anger, Num. 20:11; YHWH reacts to this public disobedience in 20:12

20:11" YHWH demonstrates His power often in connection to water. See SPECIAL TOPIC: WATERS.

20:12 This is such a sad verse. But it does powerfully show that YHWH is not a respecter of persons. As Aaron's and Moses' sins (and also Miriam, v. 1) had acted against YHWH's will, not one of them was allowed to enter the Promised Land (i.e., Canaan, cf. Deut. 1:37; 3:26-27).

20:13 "the waters of Meribah" A place name and similar water crisis is mentioned early in the wilderness wandering period (cf. Exodus 17). But, the context implies this account refers to Moses striking the rock here in chapter 20. So does it refer to

  1. the Exodus 17 account (cf. Ps. 95:8)
  2. this account

Possibly the symbolic name Meribah (i.e., contention) is not a place name, as in Exodus 17, but a reference to the conflict between YHWH and Moses here.

14From Kadesh Moses then sent messengers to the king of Edom: "Thus your brother Israel has said, 'You know all the hardship that has befallen us; 15that our fathers went down to Egypt, and we stayed in Egypt a long time, and the Egyptians treated us and our fathers badly. 16But when we cried out to the Lord, He heard our voice and sent an angel and brought us out from Egypt; now behold, we are at Kadesh, a town on the edge of your territory. 17Please let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or through vineyard; we will not even drink water from a well. We will go along the king's highway, not turning to the right or left, until we pass through your territory.'"

20:14 "From Kadesh" This forms the geographical section of the book of Numbers where the people of God move from Kadesh-Barnea, the southern oasis in the wilderness of Zin, to the borders of the Promised Land in the plains of Moab.

The movement of Israel during the wilderness wandering period is uncertain. They were at Kadesh in Num. 13:26 (cf. Num. 32:8) when they sent out the spies. But here in Num. 20:14, arriving at Kadesh (cf. Num. 33:36-37) marks the last geographical section of the book. It appears Israel moved in a circle and came to several locations (i.e., oases) a number of times during this 38 year judgment period. This seeming meandering is the source of Korah's rebellion and the rebellion in Num. 20:3-5.

It is also possible that there was more than one "Kadesh" (i.e., Gordon Wenham, Tyndale OT Commentaries, vol. 4, p. 152).

▣ "to the king of Edom" Edom was one of Israel's relatives through Esau (cf. Gen. 27:30 and Genesis 36). Israel was commanded to be kind to them in Deut. 23:7. It is interesting to see the tension between these two groups of relatives as documented throughout the OT (cf. Jdgs. 11:16ff; 1 Sam. 14:42-48; 2 Sam. 8:14; 1 Kgs. 11:14, 25; 2 Chr. 20:10-30; Isa. 34:5ff; 63:1ff; Jer. 49:7ff; Lam. 4:21-22; Ezek. 26:12ff; 35:13ff; Amos 1:6-9, 11-12). See SPECIAL TOPIC: EDOM AND ISRAEL.

20:16 "He heard our voice and sent an angel" This angel is usually referred to as "the angel of the Lord" (cf. Exod. 13:21-22; 14:19; 23:20; 32:34; 33:2). He represents YHWH. I believe it may be the pre-Incarnate Messiah.

The word "angel" in both Hebrew (BDB 521) and Greek can also mean "messenger" and, if that is true, this could refer to God's human instrumentality, Moses (cf. Exodus 3-6). See SPECIAL TOPIC: THE ANGEL OF THE LORD.

▣ "we are at Kadesh, a town on the edge of your territory" By looking at a map of the Sinai peninsula, it is obvious that Kadesh-Barnea is not on the border of Edom unless we have inaccurately drawn the borders of Edom. Some have assumed that Edom covered much more territory to the west or that this is not Kadesh-Barnea, but another Kadesh located closer to the traditional boundaries of Edom.

20:17, 19 This is apparently a letter written in the form of its day, giving four reasons to allow the Israelites to pass through the land of the Edomites.

  1. we will not pass through your fields
  2. we will not pass through your vineyards
  3. we will not even drink water from a well
  4. we will stay on the king's highway

However, Edom was fearful of this large group of people and would not let them pass. The king's highway refers to a large, developed road on this east side of the Jordan from Damascus, Syria, down to the Gulf of Aqaba on the Arabian peninsula (cf. Num. 20:19, 21, 22).

It is not certain why this major highway of the trans-Joradn area is called "the king's highway.

  1. an anachronism related to David or Solomon
  2. to the Assyrian King, Tiglath-pileser III's military campaign in this area (AB, p. 492)
  3. possibly as ancient as Genesis 14, named after the four kings who Abraham defeated (Roland deVaux, Ancient Israel, p. 22); the road was well known very early (i.e., 3000-2000 B.C.)
  4. an idiom for the royal protection of a major north-south caravan route, by being under all the kings along the route; they would want
    1. the taxation
    2. the caravan's merchandise

18Edom, however, said to him, "You shall not pass through us, or I will come out with the sword against you." 19Again, the sons of Israel said to him, "We will go up by the highway, and if I and my livestock do drink any of your water, then I will pay its price. Let me only pass through on my feet, nothing else." 20But he said, "You shall not pass through." And Edom came out against him with a heavy force and with a strong hand. 21Thus Edom refused to allow Israel to pass through his territory; so Israel turned away from him.

20:21 "Thus Edom refused to allow Israel to pass through his territory; so Israel turned away from him" Although it would have been easy to overwhelm them militarily, especially with the power of God on their side, because God had commanded them not to do that, they simply turned away from a confrontation with their relatives (cf. Deut. 2:1-8 for a parallel of this account).

22Now when they set out from Kadesh, the sons of Israel, the whole congregation, came to Mount Hor.

20:22 "Mount Hor" This will be the site of Aaron's death. Its exact location is uncertain. When one compares Num. 33:31 with Deut. 10:6, it seems that the death of Aaron is placed in two different geographical locations. Because of our uncertainty as to the location of many of these geographical sites, it is best to withhold judgment until more information from archeology is known (i.e., Num. 20:16,23). They may be the same site (Jewish Study Bible, p. 324). Hard Sayings of the Bible, p. 166, says that "Moseroth" may be the name for the larger area which included Mt. Hor.

23Then the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron at Mount Hor by the border of the land of Edom, saying, 24"Aaron will be gathered to his people; for he shall not enter the land which I have given to the sons of Israel, because you rebelled against My command at the waters of Meribah. 25Take Aaron and his son Eleazar and bring them up to Mount Hor; 26and strip Aaron of his garments and put them on his son Eleazar. So Aaron will be gathered to his people, and will die there." 27So Moses did just as the Lord had commanded, and they went up to Mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation. 28After Moses had stripped Aaron of his garments and put them on his son Eleazar, Aaron died there on the mountain top. Then Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain. 29When all the congregation saw that Aaron had died, all the house of Israel wept for Aaron thirty days.

20:24 "Aaron will be gathered to his people" This implies that after death there is some kind of family fellowship even in the grave (cf. Gen. 25:8,17; 35:29; 49:33; Num. 31:22). The ancient view of Sheol was a conscious existence but with less enthusiasm and energy than an earthly existence. The afterlife is one of several theological issues that developed over the time of the OT to NT. We call this "progressive revelation." See SPECIAL TOPIC: WHERE ARE THE DEAD?.

20:25-26 YHWH gives three commands to Moses.

  1. take Aaron and Eleazar ‒ BDB 542, KB 534, Qal IMPERATIVE
  2. bring them up to Mt. Hor ‒ BDB 748, KB 828, Hiphil IMPERATIVE
  3. strip Aaron of his garments ‒ BDB 832, KB 980, Hiphil IMPERATIVE
  4. put them on his son ‒ BDB 527, KB 519, Hiphil PERFECT with waw, which is used
    1. as another IMPERATIVE
    2. in a JUSSIVE sense


20:27 "So Moses did just as the Lord commanded" This is opposite of Num. 20:10. Obedience is crucial. It applies to all, in all things. This is not a democracy but a theocracy!

20:29 "thirty days" The normal time of mourning was seven days. But because of Moses' and Aaron's crucial, initial leadership, both were mourned thirty days.


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought-provoking, not definitive.

  1. Why could this chapter be called "the death of original leaders"?
  2. List the reasons why the people grumbled.
  3. Whose "rod" was used in Num. 20:8, 9?
  4. How did Moses sin?
  5. Is this account at the very same geographical location as Exodus 17?
  6. Who is "the angel of the Lord"?
  7. Where did the "King's Highway" get its name?
  8. Was the putting on of Aaron's priestly garments the ordination of Eleazar?
  9. Where is Mt. Hor? How is it related to "Moseroth"?

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