From Slaves to Soldiers

Chapter 20

Matthew Henry’s commentary says that chapter 20 begins the history of Israel’s fortieth – and last year of wandering in the wilderness.[1]

Biblical geographers place the Wilderness of Zin between Beersheba and Kadesh-Barnea just north of the Wilderness of Paran. The topography of this region is rugged and forbidding. A land of “bare land-scapes, bold colors and fiery bright light[2],” a land “that is hostile to humans”[3] whose entire surface is irregular, “running up here and down there into intolerable hills and all seamed with stony torrent beds.[4]”  Geologically, this rugged moonscape is generally layered with softer limestone[5] rising above harder lime-stone and between the Arabah and the Mediterranean Sea.[6] Those who cross this barren wilderness will find it to be nearly waterless[7] with only meager vegetation presenting itself after a rain shower.[8]

The above information recorded by John A. Back[9]is the geological atmosphere that the nation of Israel moved into in the first month of the year. Miriam died and was buried there. The condition of the country where Israel camped depressed the people of Yahweh. Israel overestimated the risk of a short supply of water and underestimated Yahweh’s resources for coping. Their emotional systems signaled that things were not working the way they ought to. They literally couldn’t think straight. They ruminated repeatedly about the difficulties and disappointments they encountered until that’s all they could focus on. They would have had to put their collective hand in the hand of their God, Yahweh, and walk and talk with him daily so they would know that he could and would take care of their needs.

However, Israel had made a choice not to have a personal relationship with their God when he gave them the Ten Commandments at the foot of the mountain 42 years earlier,[10] so when their emotional signals alerted them to impending doom they repeated the behavior of earlier years. They focused on the “good old days” when they lived as slaves in Egypt where the grass was naturally greener; or the glory they gave to their parents who had died in the wilderness because of their rebellion against their God, Yahweh. They got together and accused Moses of leading them into the wilderness to die in a place that didn’t have any of the wonderful things they had been told about – grain, figs, grapevines, or pomegranates—and now there was not even any water!

Moses and Aaron knew what to do. They went to Yahweh and threw themselves down before him. He told Moses to take his staff and the two of them should gather the community together and he was to speak to the rock in front of the community and it would give them and their cattle water.

John A. Beck says, “The reader is led to anticipate that the resolution to this conflict will come from a rock (fls). The unique choice of vocabulary invites more careful attention. This particular word for rock is used seven times in the Torah. Five of those seven times occur within this story and all seven seem to have an association with the region we are studying[11]. The writer could have used the more generic word for rock (fls) that is used eighty-eight times in the Torah or the word (rvc) that is used sixteen times in the Torah. The former would call no special attention to itself: The latter seems to be associated with the harder rock of Sinai or Moab (Exodus 17; 33:21-22; Num 23:9; and Deut 8:15). Given this, the choice of fls is not serendipitous but strategic. Furthermore, this unique choice of vocabulary also helps distinguish this story from the story told in Exodus 17. In Numbers 20, Moses is to speak to the fls in order to provide water for the people. In Exodus 17, Moses is to strike a rvc in order to provide water for the people.”[12]

Moses was to take the staff, gather the people, and speak to the rock. Instead he assembled the people, spoke to the people, and struck the rock with his staff. The chosen people of Israel didn’t see the full power and might of Yahweh. The word fls (limestone) used here shows us how Yahweh why it was important to speak to the rock and not strike it. Gravity forced rainwater coursing through the soft upper passages of limestone would dissolve and transport components of its soft chalk down through the upper strata. The mixture of water and chalk would settle through the upper layers of limestone until it reached a less porous layer. Sometimes the water would then flow sideways and exit the rock face. As the water flowed from the rock, it would evaporate and leave behind crystals. After the right time and conditions, a mineral cap would form and seal off the flow of water. The water would continue to collect behind the cap. Pleasure would increase waiting a blow from a shrewd water seeker who knew how to read the rock. The water seeker would give the rock a sharp blow, the plug would break, and water would flow from the rock. When Moses was told to strike the rock earlier he struck impermeable granite. Given the properties of this rock, no amount of sustained striking could ever hope to produce water. Therefore, Yahweh instructed Moses to strike the rock and produce a miracle giving glory to Yahweh. By speaking to the limestone rock instead of striking it Moses would have been bring glory to Yahweh.[13]Israel would have known that it was not something flesh and blood could do without the power of Yahweh.

Moses and Aaron may have thought[14] that Yahweh was telling Moses to do something that the people could have done themselves if they hadn’t been so argumentative and lazy because he said, “Listen, rebels! Do we have to bring water out of this rock for you?” Then he raised his arm and slammed it against the rock.[15]

Yahweh brought the brothers up short. He told them that because they hadn’t trusted him and treated him with holy reverence before his chosen people; neither of them was going into the Promised Land.

The narrator called the water in that place the waters of Meribah (bickering) because the people quarreled with Yahweh and he made his holiness known to them.

Ambassadors took a message to the king of Edom from Moses reminding them that they were close relatives since Israel’s ancestor, Jacob, and Edom’s ancestor, Esau, were brothers. Edom would have known that Israel had been recently liberated from their slavery in Egypt. Moses’ message told them that when they called out to Yahweh for help he heard them and rescued them. Moses told them that they were at Kadesh, right on the border of Edom’s land and asked for permission to cut across Edom. His message assured the king that Israel wouldn’t trespass through their fields or orchards – they wouldn’t even drink water from their wells. They would not veer from the main road until they had crossed the border of Edom and were on the other side.

The king of Edom refused to let Israel cross their land and no amount of pleading and promises would move him. He sent his men out to block the way with weapons ready to kill anyone who dared set foot on the land of Edom.

The Pulpit Commentary says Israel had deliberately refused to take the straight road into their land. Therefore, they had to follow a long and circuitous route on a different side to reach the country beyond Jordan. The dangers and difficulties of the road they actually crossed were far greater than any they would have encountered in any other direction; but this was part of their necessary discipline.[16]

Israel left Kadesh and traveled to Mount Hor. They were compelled to journey southwards for some distance until they were clear of the Azazimat[17]; where they would have turned eastwards again and made their way across the plateau of Paran to the Arabah at a point opposite Mount Hor.[18]

Yahweh told Moses to take Aaron to Mount Hor at the border of Edom. Since he wouldn’t be going into the Promised Land it was time for him to be gathered to his ancestors. He didn’t say it was time for Aaron to die because death means separation and he wouldn’t be separated from his God or his ancestors. Yahweh told Moses to take Aaron and his son Eleazar up to Mount Hor where all of Israel would be able to see them go. Moses was to remove Aaron’s clothes and put them on Eleazar Then he said Aaron would die[19] because he would be separated from the nation of Israel that would be going into the Land of Promise without him.

The congregation watched as Moses took his brother and nephew up the mountain and later descended with Eleazar wearing the garments of the High Priest.

Yahweh’s chosen people mourned the death of Aaron for thirty days.

Aaron’s death, as described in the Haggadah, was peaceful. Accompanied by Moses, and Eleazar, Aaron went to the summit of Mount Hor, where the rock suddenly opened before him and a beautiful cave lit by a lamp presented itself to his view. Moses and Aaron entered the cave after he took off his clothes and put them on Eleazar. There was a bed prepared surrounded by angels. At Moses’ bidding Aaron lay on the bed and his soul departed as if by a kiss from God. The cave closed behind Moses as he left; and he went down the hill with Eleazar, with garments rent, and crying. When the Israelites cried in bewilderment, “Where is Aaron?” they saw angels carrying Aaron’s bier through the air.[20]


Summary of chapter 20

This chapter gives an account of, the death of Miriam, the fetching of water out of the rock, the negotiation with the Edomites, the death of Aaron, instalment of Eleazar. The distress Israel was in, for want of water and their discontent and murmuring. Yahweh’s pity and power engaged for supplied them with water out of the rock. Moses and Aaron demonstrated their weakness. Israel’s request and the repulse the Edomites gave them. Finally, this chapter recorded Aaron’s death on Mount Hor, and the mourning for him.[21]

Miriam was a prophetess in her own right[22] – the first woman described that way in scripture. Miriam waited among the bulrushes while Moses’ ark was in the river, watching over him to make sure he was all right[23]. When the Pharaoh’s daughter drew Moses out of the water, Miriam arranged for their mother, Yocheved, to nurse Moses and raise him until he was weaned.[24] Miriam led the women of Israel in a song and dance of celebration after the Pharaoh’s men were drowned in the sea.[25]

Aaron was born in 2365, three years before Moses, before the Pharaoh’s edict requiring the death of male Hebrew children. He was the ancestor of all koheins, the founder of the priesthood, and the first Kohein Gadol (High Priest). Aaron and his descendants tended the altar and offered sacrifices. Aaron’s role, unlike Moses’, was inherited; his sons continued the priesthood after him. Aaron’s most notable personal quality is that he was a peacemaker. His love of peace is proverbial; Rabbi Hillel said, “Be disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and drawing them near the Torah.”[26]


Prayer: Lord, the ancient Israelites “came to a fork in the road”. They probably didn’t appreciate that they had a choice to make when they realized that there wasn’t going to be water for their families and animals. They could have tried to find enough water themselves. They could have tried their hand at striking the limestone and hoping it resulted in a gush of water. On the other hand, they could have complained, grumbled, and blamed Moses and Aaron for their troubles. Either way their trouble was that they didn’t have their collective hand in yours as they walked with you; therefore, they couldn’t follow you down the right way to get water. When you told Moses to speak to that rock it was the one rock that would gush with enough water to keep that large nation and its animals alive. Moses could have been familiar with the rocks and where to strike to get water, but without your intervention there still wouldn’t have been enough water. Lord, help me to keep my hand in yours and walk with you, where you lead – even when it doesn’t make sense to follow that fork instead of another one that looks better. Help me to remember that you are the light at the end of the tunnel and follow close to your side.



Things to think about

  1. Why do you think Yahweh told Moses to get his staff and take it with him when he spoke to the rock?
  2. Do you think Israel could have found enough water for their use if they had run around striking all the rocks around them?
  3. Do you think Moses had a reason to be angry with the chosen people?
  4. What do you think about the story Jewish tradition tells about the death of Aaron? What do you think is the important thing about the account in this book about his death?
  5. Do you think the fact that Eleazar came down the mountain clothed in the garments of the High Priest avoided another uprising about the priesthood?
  6. Why did Israel detour around Edom?
  7. What is the difference between the rock that Moses struck at Rephidim and the one he struck in the Wilderness of Zin?


[2] Glueck, Rivers in the Desert, 15

[3] Beitzel, The Moody Bible Atlas, 37

[4] C. Leonard Woolley and T E. Lawrence, The Wilderness of Zin (London: Jonathan Cape,

1936), 70

[5] Efraim Orni and Elisha Efras, Geography of Israel (3d ed.; Jerusalem: The Jewish Publication

[6] Yohanan Aharoni, The Land of the Bible: A Historical Geography (Philadelphia:

Westminster; 1967), 31; Nelson Glueck, Rivers in the Desert: A History of the Negev (New

York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1959), 34; Levine, .Numbers.. 487; and Milgrom, Numbers,

[7] George Turner, Historical Geography of the Holy Land (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1973), 292

[8] George Smith, The Historical Geography of the Holy Land (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 280.

[9]  John A. Beck is Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Concordia University Wisconsin.

[10] Exodus 20

[11] Num 24:21 associates the Kenites with this word for rock. The Kenites are said to live in the Negev (Judg 1:16 and 1 Sam 27:10). The use in Dent 32:13 may well be an allusion to the events of Numbers 20.


[13] IBID

[14] It is easy for the human listener to read their own thoughts into what they are being told.

[15] Psalm 106:32, 33

[16] The Pulpit Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright © 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2010 by BibleSoft, inc., Used by permission

[17]  A desolate geological fissure extending from the south end of the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba.

[18] The Pulpit Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright © 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2010 by BibleSoft, inc., Used by permission

[19] Deuteronomy 10:6



[22] Exodus 15:20

[23] Exodus 2:4

[24] Exodus 2:7-9

[25] Exodus 15:20, 21



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