Explore the Bible
with W. Wayne VanHorn
Sunday, December 15
The Timing (Num.20:1-5). After a passing notice of the death and burial of Miriam, Moses’ and Aaron’s older sister, the text focuses on the people’s complaint of no water in the Wilderness of Zin. This area is a desert region located just south of the Promised Land. The people complained about having no water at the very time Moses and Aaron were dealing with their grief.
The harshness of the people’s complaints is seen in words like, “they assembled against Moses and Aaron” (v.2), and “the people quarreled with Moses” (v.3). They expressed a longing that they had died with others who had died along the way (v.3b). They also asked Moses why he had brought them into the wilderness to die (v.4). Often in times of stress, people forget the hardships of the past. Their thirst for water erased their memory of the taskmasters’ whips that once striped their backs with welts and blood. Moses had not brought them out into the wilderness to die, but rather to flee Egyptian bondage and to have a blessed life under God’s covenant.
The people complained that the Wilderness of Zin was not a place of grains or figs or vines or pomegranates, nor was there water to drink (v.5). In their impatience they judged their present circumstances by the very things they would find once they entered the Promised Land. Their bitter attitude reflected a lack of faith in the God, who had met all of their previous needs. This incident pushed Moses to the point of exasperation.
The Directions (Num. 20:6-8). Moses and Aaron left the hostile assembly and went into the doorway of the tent of meeting. The tent of meeting was where Moses met God and communed with Him in prayer. There, the glory of the Lord appeared to them (v.6). There, God instructed Moses to take his rod and, together with Aaron, to assemble the people.
God’s instructions were specific and different from the first time the people needed water (see Exod. 17:1-6). The first time, God told Moses to strike the rock. Moses obeyed. The water flowed. The people drank. The second time (Num. 20:8), the Lord instructed Moses to speak to the rock. Why not strike it again as before? Why speak to the rock this time? Was it possible the people would think Moses’ rod had some special power and in so thinking, they would misdirect the glory due to the Lord?
God’s instructions came with a promise that when Moses spoke to the rock, the people and cattle would have plenty to drink. Moses understood the instructions, but he was wearied with the people’s constant complaining.
The Frustration (Num. 20:9-11). Moses took the rod as God had commanded him (v.9). He and Aaron assembled the people, again as God had commanded (v.10). However, Moses vented his anger against the people, referring to them as rebels (NASB) and by asking, “Shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” The implication is that he and Aaron would provide the water to the very people who had complained against them.
In this brief moment of physical need, emotional exasperation, and vengeful anger, Moses failed. Instead of speaking to the rock as instructed by the Lord, Moses struck the rock, not once, but twice. The Lord, always faithful, provided water for the people and their cattle. Water came forth abundantly; every thirst was quenched.
The Fallout (Num. 20:12-13). The Lord took immediate action to deal with Moses’ and Aaron’s failure to speak to the rock. Had they spoken to the rock, the people would have realized the rod was no magic stick. They would have known that God could perform miracles just by giving the word.
God’s charge against Moses and Aaron was two-fold. First, they had not “believed” Him. The Hebrew word gives us our word, “amen.” Second, they failed to treat God as holy in the sight of the people. The verb, “to treat as holy,” is qadash in Hebrew, meaning “to set apart,” or “to sanctify.”
Their sentence was costly. Moses and Aaron were prohibited from leading the people into the land that God had given. The punishment seems harsh, but God consistently holds His spiritual leaders to a higher standard (see James 3:1). Centuries later, the psalmist would write how the people provoked God to wrath at the waters of Meribah, “so it went hard with Moses on their account” (Ps. 106:32).
VanHorn is dean of Christian Studies at Mississippi College, Clinton.