1 And the people of Israel, the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh. And Miriam died there and was buried there.
2 Now there was no water for the congregation. And they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. 3 And the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! 4 Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? 5 And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink.” 6 Then Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. And the glory of the Lord appeared to them, 7 and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 8 “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” 9 And Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he commanded him.
10 Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” 11 And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. 12 And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” 13 These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the Lord, and through them he showed himself holy. – Numbers 20:1-13 ESV
Nearly 40 years have passed since the Israelites first arrived at the border of the land of Canaan but refused to obey God’s command and take possession of it. Due to their rebellion, they had spent the last four decades wandering through the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan until that generation died off. God was not going to allow them a second chance to take possession of their inheritance. That privilege would be passed to their sons and daughters.
Ever since the Israelites had been delivered from their captivity in Egypt, they had shown a propensity for complaining and, ultimately, rebellion. They had a habit of viewing everything from a negative perspective. And this problem went all the way to the top.
This chapter opens up with the death of Miriam, the elder sister of Moses and Aaron. And what is significant about the timing of her death is its location. She takes her last breath on earth in a place called Kadesh.
This had been a regular camping point for the people of God during their days in the wilderness. They had been here before, years earlier, and had proven their penchant for rebellion and refusal to obey God’s commands.
“You also made the Lord angry at Taberah, Massah, and Kibroth-hattaavah. And at Kadesh-barnea the Lord sent you out with this command: ‘Go up and take over the land I have given you.’ But you rebelled against the command of the Lord your God and refused to put your trust in him or obey him. Yes, you have been rebelling against the Lord as long as I have known you.” – Deuteronomy 9:22-24 NLT
Kadesh was located near the southern borders of Canaan and it came to represent a kind of stop sign in the lives of the nation of Israel. It was as if this spot was as far as they could force themselves to go in their quest to occupy the land that God had given them. And it would be in Kadesh that Miriam’s life would come to an end. She would never set foot in the land of promise. And all because she had chosen to question God’s will by attempting to wrest leadership from the hands of her own brother. This less-than-flattering scene from Miriam’s life is recorded in Numbers 12. She and Aaron joined forces to demand equal billing when it came to leading the nation.
They said, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t he spoken through us, too?” – Numbers 12:2 NLT
There weren’t content in their roles and desired to share the leadership responsibilities with their brother. But God did not agree.
“Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and he departed. – Numbers 12:8-9 ESV
For her part in the attempted coup, Miriam was struck with leprosy. But Moses interceded for his sister and begged God to heal her, which He did. But while Miriam was spared the pain and social ostracization that comes with leprosy, she would be denied entry into the land of Canaan. She paid dearly for her rebellion.
And the story of her death is followed by yet another example of rebellion on the part of the people. The people found themselves in Kadesh once again and, more specifically, at a place called Meribah. That name had a special significance to the people of Israel – for both good and bad reasons. It was at Meribah that God had performed a miraculous sign by providing them with water out of a rock.
All the way back in Exodus 17, we have recorded this first encounter with “the rock.” On that occasion, they had been fairly early on in their wilderness experience. When they came to the wilderness of Sin, they discovered that there was no water for them to drink. So the people did what they were prone to do – they complained. And Moses did what he was prone to do – take the matter to God.
God instructed him to take his rod and strike a particular rock. When he did, water gushed from the rock. In the book of Corinthians, Paul tells us something significant about this rock.
…and all of them drank the same miraculous water. For they all drank from the miraculous rock that traveled with them, and that rock was Christ. – 1 Corinthians 10:4 NLT
Now there was a legend that the rabbis taught that said the rock actually traveled with the people of Israel. There is no Scriptural basis for this theory, but in Numbers 20, the “rock” makes an appearance once again. Whether it was the very same rock or just another rock through which God provided for the peoples’ needs, Paul’s point is that the rock symbolized Christ. It was He who had been with the Israelites all the time they were in the wilderness, providing life-sustaining water for them. In fact, when God told Moses to strike the rock back in Exodus 17, that word means to “strike, beat, scourge, ravage, slay, or wound.” It’s the same word used when God “smote” the firstborn of Egypt. It paints a picture of the scourging and beating of Christ at His trials and crucifixion. Jesus would become the source of living water. During His encounter with the Samaritan woman Jesus told her, “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who I am, you would ask me, and I would give you living water” (John 4:10 NLT). Just a few chapters later in the book of John, Jesus tells the crowds, “If you are thirsty, come to me! If you believe in me, come and drink! For the Scriptures declare that rivers of living water will flow out from within” (John 7:37-38 NLT).
In chapter 20 of the book of Numbers, we have not a retelling of the story of Meribah, but another Meribah. This is one of those “deja-vu-all-over-again” type of experiences. Meribah means ” argument” or “strife.” And the names stems from the actions of the people of God because they argued or quarreled with God both times. The second time, God instructed Moses to take his rod again, but this time He specifically tells Moses to SPEAK to the rock – not strike it. Back in Exodus 17, His instructions were to strike the rock. But now Moses was simply to speak to it.
But in his anger with the people, Moses disobeys God and strikes the rock twice. His actions produce the desired result, but in disobeying God, Moses incurred His wrath. Think about it. If what Paul says in 1 Corinthians is true – that the rock is a representation of Christ, then Moses is taking out his anger on Christ. The first time Moses struck the rock, it was a representation of the death that Christ must suffer in order that we might have life. But from that point forward, Christ’s life-sustaining power was available for the asking. There was no need to “beat” it out of Him. He had provided before and He would provide again. All Moses needed to do was ask. But instead He struck the rock in anger. And this action would prevent Moses from entering the promised land. Like his sister, Miriam, Moses would die in the wilderness, having been denied entrance into the very land he had strived so long to enjoy. And Aaron would suffer a similar fate.
This is a tough passage. It seems as if Moses and Aaron got too severe a punishment from the hand of God. But in his commentary on the Old Testament, Matthew Henry sheds some helpful light on this passage.
“First, They did not punctually observe their orders, but in some things varied from their commission; God bade them speak to the rock, and they spoke to the people, and smote the rock, which at this time they were not ordered to do, but they thought speaking would not do. When, in distrust of the power of the word, we have recourse to the secular power in matters of pure conscience, we do, as Moses here, smite the rock to which we should only speak, Secondly, They assumed too much of the glory of this work of wonder to themselves: Must we fetch water? as if it were done by some power or worthiness of theirs. Therefore it is charged upon them (v. 12) that they did not sanctify God, that is, they did not give him that glory of this miracle which was due unto his name. Thirdly, Unbelief was the great transgression (v. 12): You believed me not; nay, it is called rebelling against God’s commandment, ch. 27:14. The command was to bring water out of the rock, but they rebelled against this command, by distrusting it, and doubting whether it would take effect or no. They speak doubtfully: Must we fetch water? And probably they did in some other ways discover an uncertainty in their own minds whether water would come or no for such a rebellious generation as this was. And perhaps they the rather questioned it, though God had promised it, because the glory of the Lord did not appear before them upon this rock, as it had done upon the rock in Rephidim, Ex. 17:6. They would not take God’s word without a sign.” – Matthew Henry, “Numbers,” Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible
Disobedience, unbelief, and seeking glory for themselves. That was their sin. And it is the sin of many of us today. We disobey God because we do not believe God. And when we do obey, we do it in order to get the glory for ourselves. But God would have none of it from Moses and Aaron, and He will have none of it from us. He will provide, but He will have us obey. He will provide, but He will get the glory. He will provide, but He will expect us to believe. To trust Him. God is holy and demands that we treat Him as such.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.