A view towards Bishopsteignton in mist. As the mist clears, everything becomes clearer

Numbers 20-21

Moses disobeys God: banned from Promised Land.
Complaints - snakebites - bronze snake on pole.
Journey to Jericho.

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(We are skipping chapters 18 and 19. This study seems quite long, but there will be several long narrative readings without comment.)

Numbers 20:1-29

God had told the Israelites that because of their disobedience, they were condemned to spend forty years wandering in the desert. We now enter the last couple of years:

1 In the first month the whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried.

There is no suggestion that Miriam’s death was a further punishment (Remember Numbers 12:1-10?) and she was probably around 125 years old.

(It is guessed that she was two to four years older than Aaron, who was three years older than Moses (Exodus 7:7); Moses died at the end of the 40 year wanderings aged 120.)

2 Now there was no water for the community, and the people gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron. 3 They quarrelled with Moses and said, ‘If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the Lord! 4 Why did you bring the Lord’s community into this wilderness, that we and our livestock should die here? 5 Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no corn or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!’

Isn’t it amazing what ridiculous arguments people come out with when they are having a good old moan!

Can you remember what they said after ‘our brothers fell dead before the Lord’ (v3) (Numbers 17:12-13)

Whose decision was it not to enter the Promised Land (v5) when God told them to? (Numbers 14:1-2, 36)

What was the real complaint?

‘there is no water to drink!’ (verse 5) But Moses and Aaron knew the solution – take the problem to the Lord:

6 Moses and Aaron went from the assembly to the entrance to the tent of meeting and fell face down, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. 7 The Lord said to Moses, 8 ‘Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so that they and their livestock can drink.’

9 So Moses took the staff from the Lord’s presence, just as he commanded him.

The Lord’s command was very specific: ‘Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water’.

What was different to the instructions when they were at Horeb some years before?

(Exodus 17:6) ‘I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.’

10 He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, ‘Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?’ 11 Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.

12 But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust in me enough to honour me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.’

13 These were the waters of Meribah, where the Israelites quarrelled with the Lord and where he was proved holy among them.

That seems a very harsh punishment.

What had Moses (and Aaron done wrong?

It seems that Moses had assumed the role of God, and an angry God at that. Look again at the words and actions of Moses: ‘Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?’ 11 Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff.’

God had intended to supply water for the people by way of a miracle, again bringing honour to his Holy Name.

Moses had taken that from God and had impatiently and angrily provided the water himself. God didn’t object to Moses being angry, or even taking the initiative. It was ‘Because you did not trust in me enough to honour me as holy in the sight of the Israelites’.

As God’s mouthpiece he had dishonoured God.

Why was Aaron also included in that?

Aaron had been appointed as Moses’ mouthpiece – we can only presume he fully agreed with what Moses did.

14 Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom, saying:

‘This is what your brother Israel says: you know about all the hardships that have come on us. 15 Our ancestors went down into Egypt, and we lived there many years. The Egyptians ill-treated us and our ancestors, 16 but when we cried out to the Lord, he heard our cry and sent an angel and brought us out of Egypt.

‘Now we are here at Kadesh, a town on the edge of your territory. 17 Please let us pass through your country. We will not go through any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the King’s Highway and not turn to the right or to the left until we have passed through your territory.’

Why did Moses claim that Israel was their brother (v14)?

Where was Kadesh(-Barnea)?

Edom means Red and is derived from Esau. The Edomites has settled in a large area between the southern end of the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red sea. Kadesh was a town on the western borders of Edom, but on a trade route north towards Canaan.

Now it seems that Moses intended to move up the east side of the Dead Sea, and the Jordan river. But the Edomites were obviously concerned that a nation of over a million people would be regarded as a plague of locusts who might strip their land bare!

18 But Edom answered:

‘You may not pass through here; if you try, we will march out and attack you with the sword.’

19 The Israelites replied:

‘We will go along the main road, and if we or our livestock drink any of your water, we will pay for it. We only want to pass through on foot – nothing else.’

20 Again they answered:

‘You may not pass through.’

Then Edom came out against them with a large and powerful army. 21 Since Edom refused to let them go through their territory, Israel turned away from them.

Something has subtly changed – can anyone see what it was?

Look back at Numbers 14:14, and Numbers 13:1 and compare them with verse 14 here.

The pillar of fire is not mentioned again – from now on the Israelites must start to fend for themselves.

The wanderings have ceased. Now they are specifically headed North; but the Lord is actually still in control.

22 The whole Israelite community set out from Kadesh and came to Mount Hor. 23 At Mount Hor, near the border of Edom, the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 24 ‘Aaron will be gathered to his people. He will not enter the land I give the Israelites, because both of you rebelled against my command at the waters of Meribah.

25 Call Aaron and his son Eleazar and take them up Mount Hor. 26 Remove Aaron’s garments and put them on his son Eleazar, for Aaron will be gathered to his people; he will die there.’

27 Moses did as the Lord commanded: they went up Mount Hor in the sight of the whole community. 28 Moses removed Aaron’s garments and put them on his son Eleazar. And Aaron died there on top of the mountain. Then Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain, 29 and when the whole community learned that Aaron had died, all the Israelites mourned for him thirty days.

The matter-of-fact way that this is recorded seems so strange to us, but remember Exodus 33:11 where we read:

‘The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.’

And Moses and Aaron had learned unquestioning obedience over the last almost 40 years!

Exodus route map 2
Exodus route map 2

Map of possible route from Kadesh to the crossing point of the River Jordan.

1) Kadesh-Barnea: Base camp before the journey began (Numbers 20:14).

2) Mt Hor: (Numbers 20:22, 21:4).

3) Zered valley: (Numbers 21:12).

4) Arnon River: (Numbers 21:13).

5) Mount Pisgah: (Numbers 21:19-20).

6) Heshbon: (Numbers 21:26).

7) Edrei: (Numbers 21:33).

8) Opposite Jericho: (Numbers 22:1).

It seems that because the Edomites would not allow the Israelites to travel through their land, Moses now headed north (2).

Numbers 21

1 When the Canaanite king of Arad, (just west of the southern end of the Dead Sea) who lived in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming along the road to Atharim, he attacked the Israelites and captured some of them. 2 Then Israel made this vow to the Lord: ‘If you will deliver these people into our hands, we will totally destroy their cities.’

3 The Lord listened to Israel’s plea and gave the Canaanites over to them. They completely destroyed them and their towns; so the place was named Hormah.

The word translated 'completely destroyed' - means 'to devote to destruction', and hence to destroy utterly. It is thought that the actual destruction took place later (See Joshua 12:14; Judges 1:17.)

For now the attack was enough to deter Moses from venturing any further north so they again turned back, with the intention of skirting round Edom and going up the east side of the Dead Sea.

4 They travelled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go round Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5 they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!’

Where have we heard that before?

Far too often! (e.g. Numbers 14:2, 20:4, 21:5)

6 Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, ‘We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people.

8 The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.

Salvation comes from the Lord, but it is not automatic. Everyone has to make a personal decision. Here they had to look at the bronze snake in acknowledgement that it was God alone who would heal them.

The ‘snake on a pole’ was adopted by the Greeks, then Romans as a symbol of healing, and is still used today.

From here the Israelites continued to skirt round the northwest of Edom. The land just to the east of the Arabah Valley and Dead sea was mountainous with steep cliffs and deep ravines, but the Moabites were more friendly.

Few of the names that follow can now be tied to existing places, but the Zered and Arnon rivers can be identified, both to the East of the dead sea.

I guess that the ravine of the Zered river created the opportunity for the Israelites to move inland in order to continue their move north on flatter land.

10 The Israelites moved on and camped at Oboth. 11 Then they set out from Oboth and camped in Iye Abarim, in the wilderness that faces Moab towards the sunrise. 12 From there they moved on and camped in the Zered Valley. 13 They set out from there and camped alongside the Arnon, which is in the wilderness extending into Amorite territory. The Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites. 14 That is why the Book of the Wars of the Lord says:

‘. . . Zahab in Suphah and the ravines, the Arnon 15 and the slopes of the ravines that lead to the settlement of Ar and lie along the border of Moab.’

16 From there they continued on to Beer, the well where the Lord said to Moses, ‘Gather the people together and I will give them water.’

17 Then Israel sang this song:

‘Spring up, O well! Sing about it,

18 about the well that the princes dug,

that the nobles of the people sank –

the nobles with sceptres and staffs.’

Then they went from the wilderness to Mattanah, 19 from Mattanah to Nahaliel, from Nahaliel to Bamoth, 20 and from Bamoth to the valley in Moab where the top of Pisgah overlooks the wasteland.

Before we move on we just need to differentiate between the Amorites, Ammonites Arameans etc..

The Israelites have been travelling unhindeed through the land of Moab. Moab was the son of Lot's eldest daughter (Genesis 19:36-38).

The Ammonites were also descendants of Lot (Genesis 19:36-38) and appear to be a nomadic people who currently occupied land to the north of the Arnon River (from the king of Moab – see v26.).

The Amorites were Canaanites, originating from the area around Babylon.(Genesis 10:16) They were described as ‘a powerful people of great stature "like the height of the cedars"’ (Amos 2:9) occupying the high land to the east and west of the Jordan and Dead Sea.

The Arameans also originated from Mesopotamis, from an area north of Babylon. Like many other 'coutries' it consisted of a loose grouping of City-states, each with their own independent King: such as Og, king of Bashan(see v33)

21 Israel sent messengers to say to Sihon king of the Amorites:

22 ‘Let us pass through your country. We will not turn aside into any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the King’s Highway until we have passed through your territory.’

23 But Sihon would not let Israel pass through his territory. He mustered his entire army and marched out into the wilderness against Israel. When he reached Jahaz, he fought with Israel.

24 Israel, however, put him to the sword and took over his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, but only as far as the Ammonites, because their border was fortified. 25 Israel captured all the cities of the Amorites and occupied them, including Heshbon and all its surrounding settlements.

26 Heshbon was the city of Sihon king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab and had taken from him all his land as far as the Arnon.

Israel now for the first time had the opportunity to experience living in towns and cities, and enjoying the ‘spoils of war’ (see v31).

27 That is why the poets say:

‘Come to Heshbon and let it be rebuilt;

let Sihon’s city be restored.

28 ‘Fire went out from Heshbon,

a blaze from the city of Sihon.

It consumed Ar of Moab,

the citizens of Arnon’s heights.

29 Woe to you, Moab!

You are destroyed, people of Chemosh!

He has given up his sons as fugitives

and his daughters as captives

to Sihon king of the Amorites.

30 ‘But we have overthrown them;

Heshbon’s dominion has been destroyed all the way to Dibon.

We have demolished them as far as Nophah,

which extends to Medeba.’

31 So Israel settled in the land of the Amorites.

32 After Moses had sent spies to Jazer, the Israelites captured its surrounding settlements and drove out the Amorites who were there.

Israel now needed to consolidate their position before the conquest of Canaan began. This would mean subduing any other war-like neighbours that might subvert their efforts.

33 Then they turned and went up along the road towards Bashan, and Og king of Bashan and his whole army marched out to meet them in battle at Edrei.

34 The Lord said to Moses, ‘Do not be afraid of him, for I have delivered him into your hands, along with his whole army and his land. Do to him what you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon.’

35 So they struck him down, together with his sons and his whole army, leaving them no survivors. And they took possession of his land.

They were now only 30 to 40 miles east of Jericho.

Numbers 16 Numbers 22 NIV Copyright