Moses: Preparations for the Promised Land
It had been such a long time since the children of Israel left Egypt; memories of the plagues that led to that dramatic exodus had faded. Although the significance of Passover night was still a reality to them, most of the original participants of that event had died. Many years had passed since Israel’s escape from their Egyptian bondage, and they were still wandering in the wilderness. ln conjunction with God’s giving of the Law at Sinai to Moses, whom He had appointed as Israel’s leader, Aaron, Moses’ brother, was established in the office of high priest.
God had faithfully fed Israel over many years by providing manna to sustain them in the desert wilderness. As the Tabernacle now stood in their midst and time passed, it was business as usual while the Israelites continued their wandering journey. As the unbelieving generation died, the Lord set about tending to some unfinished business before His chosen people would be ready to claim the land He had promised and wonderfully prepared for them.
THE DEATH OF MIRIAM
In Numbers 20:1 we read the simple statement, “Then came the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, into the desert of Zin in the first month: and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there.”
This verse records the death of Moses’ sister who had so lovingly watched over and protected him while he was in the little ark prepared by Amram and Jochebed so many years before. This very simple statement regarding Miriam’s death excludes any reference to mourning, making it seem as though no one really cared. In contrast, when Moses’ brother Aaron died a short time later, the entire nation mourned for thirty days. Yet for Miriam it is simply recorded that she died and was buried.
Nowhere in the sacred writings is any direct explanation offered regarding Miriam’s death. However, Numbers chapter 12 presents a strong probable cause as it relates her collaboration with Aaron in slandering Moses for having married an Ethiopian woman.
The sin implicated in this passage goes far deeper than it appears on the surface. An underlying attitude of jealousy had developed to the extent that Miriam and Aaron rebelled against the God-given authority of their brother. In Numbers 12:1-16 we see reflected a subtle attack by Satan on Miriam through the flesh which prevented her from experiencing a life of victory.
Have you ever watched as a husband and wife struggle for financial independence during their middle and later working years? How they dream and make plans for enjoying their retirement, only to have it culminate in disillusionment as poor health or death robs them of those future hopes. Often we say, “How tragic!”
So it is with Miriam who died after years of longing and waiting to reach the land God had promised. She survived the many years of Egyptian bondage and wandering in the desert only to die before that promise became reality. She almost made it, but God was in the final phase of His preparations for Israel to move toward actual possession of the land. Miriam could not enter.
No Time Given
Although the only indication of the time of Miriam’s death is that it occurred “in the first month” (Num. 20:1), we can piece together a chronology of this section of the Book of Numbers to help determine the year. Comparing Numbers 20:22 with 33:36-39 and 20:3, it can be concluded that Miriam’s death probably occurred during the first month of the last year of Israel’s wilderness wanderings. God was in the final stages of a housecleaning operation preparatory to moving Israel from the wilderness into the Promised Land.
THE SIN OF MOSES
The Murmuring Multitude
The drought experienced in our own country this past summer evoked many complaints. Many tried rain dances, incantations and other means to save crops in the Midwest and the South. We have perhaps forgotten that we still are the most blessed nation on the earth.
While there were no crops to be concerned with in the wilderness, Moses was faced with the murmurings of the people against the monotonous diet of manna which God sent each morning. But once again there was no water for the people and their flocks: “And there was no water for the congregation and they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. And the people strove with Moses, and spoke, saying, Would God that we had died when our brethren died before the LORD!” (Num. 20:2-3). The complaining people envied their brethren who had died earlier in a plague (Num. 14:37). At least they had been delivered from the miseries of the desert.
The Leadership Attacked
The lack of water very quickly caused the multitude of Israel to gather in opposition to their leaders, Moses and Aaron. This type of hostile reaction was characteristic of at least three previous occasions in the context of this samebook (Num. 11:5; 14:2-4; 16:3, 12-14, 42). That the people felt their leaders had sinned against the Lord is evidenced by their calling Moses and Aaron into account. The congregation was blinded by the sin of rebellion against God and their lack of faith in Him who had so faithfully provided for them. They had only to look at their sandals and clothes, which seemed never to wear out, to be reminded of God’s faithfulness to provide and care for them for almost forty years.
The sins of Israel described here are not so strange to us in the twentieth century. How quickly we tend to forget God’s faithfulness when we experience some lack or serious illness strikes. Or what about when things go wrong in our church congregation? Do we find it easier to murmur and complain, blaming the pastor or other leaders, rather than examining ourselves to see if we might be harboring some sin that could be the cause of the problem?
Moses and Aaron Fell Before the Lord
“And Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and they fell upon their faces; and the glory of the LORD appeared unto them” (Num. 20:6). The immediate response demonstrated by Moses and Aaron was to present themselves prostrate before God. Having become somewhat accustomed to false accusations, they believed that whereas God had proved faithful to instruct and direct them on other occasions of the congregation’s strong opposition to their leadership, He would do so this time as well.
“Take the rod, and gather thou the assembly together, thou, and Aaron, thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth its water, and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock: so thou shalt give the congregation and their beasts drink” (Num. 20:8).
THE MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT IN THE WILDERNESS
Moses Took the Rod
As the question, “What rod?” arises, we recall that nearly forty years earlier the children of Israel encountered a similar water shortage. At Moses’ plea on that occasion, God told him, “take with thee of the elders of Israel; and thy rod” (Ex. 17:5). It is apparent that Moses took his own rod, smote the rock at Horeb, and water came forth to meet the needs of the people.
Now, a generation later and in a similar situation, Moses took the rod from before the Lord as had been commanded. At first thought it seems that once again it is Moses’ rod being mentioned, but because there is no record of his having ever put the rod “before the Lord,” we must assume this instance is referring to another rod. Numbers 17:I0 relates that God had commanded Moses to bring Aaron’s rod “before the testimony.” Therefore, most likely it is Aaron’s rod being spoken of in Numbers 20:9.
Moses Smote the Rock
Moses was not told to smite the rock, but rather he was instructed, “speak ye unto the rock before their eyes” (Num. 20:8). The command was clear. God directed Moses to use this unusually different rod which had budded, blossomed and produced almonds (Num. 17:8). It should have been apparent to Moses that the uniqueness of this rod would almost necessarily indicate a uniqueness in the act with which it was to be used.
He Smote the Rock (Num. 20:11)
It was never the Lord’s intention that Moses should smite the rock with his rod; that had already been done at Horeb. Rather, as an act of faith in God’s command, he was to speak to the rock. In this instance, it was the power of the Word that was to be demonstrated, not the force of a physical blow. Moses was asked to stand in unshakable certainty of faith that the power of the Word of God would force the rock to open and release a flow of water that would be sufficient to quench the thirst of the multitudes.
The rock can be seen as a picture of Christ himself. The physical rock had been smitten once, and water had come forth to supply the people’s greatest need. So Christ was smitten once at Calvary, and a special work was completed; that is, the quenching of mankind’s greatest spiritual need. Just as Moses should have implicitly believed God, so we should trust in His completed Word and work with implicit faith.
Moses’ Negative Response to the People’s Rebellion
At this point, Moses had probably experienced all he could humanly tolerate from the Israelites with their constant murmuring and complaining; he had even received a threat of stoning from them on a previous occasion. When he gathered the people before the rock as God commanded, he said, “Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?” (Num. 20:10). His anger and bitterness with the people were apparent, but his attitude was wrong in God’s sight because he had never been given the right to condemn Israel without God’s permission. He was merely God’s servant.
Although the people had murmured, complained and blamed Moses and Aaron for their desperate situation, God held Moses accountable for striking the rock. This sin of unbelief brought the judgment of God upon His servant.
“And the LORD spoke unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them” (Num. 20:12). Through one sin of unbelief, Moses lost the blessing. He would not be permitted to enter the Promised Land. He lost the right of leadership and would die having seen the land but never entering it. What a tragedy. One sin cost him so very much. His whole life of faith lost its final desire.
We, too, must be so very careful. One act, one sinful thought, and we could lose God’s blessing for our lives. It is a big price to pay for a fleeting moment of sinful pleasure.
THE DEATH OF AARON
Aaron, representing the last vestige of Egypt that had to be purged in God’s housecleaning operation, was also included in God’s decree set forth in Numbers 20:12. Further confirmation of Aaron’s fate is found in Numbers 20:24″. Aaron shall be gathered unto his people; for he shall not enter into the land which I have given unto the children of Israel, because ye rebelled against my word at the water of Meribah.” And so, as God was about to fulfill His Word by removing Aaron from the scene, preparations were nearly complete for Israel to move in and possess their new homeland.
The Priesthood’s Transition
Before God could remove Aaron, however, a smooth transition was necessary in the office of the priesthood. Under God’s direction, Moses took Aaron and his son Eleazar up to Mount Hor where the priestly garments were stripped from the father and placed upon the son (Num. 20:25-28). Three men went up to the mount, but only two returned; thus Aaron died on the top of the mount, and his son, Eleazar, descended with Moses as Israel’s second high priest. And when the Israelites heard of Aaron’s death, they mourned for thirty days (v. 29).
Now God could move the people. The wanderings were over. Soon they would cross the Jordan and be home. God was (and still is) meticulous in His details. There were no loose ends. Final preparations were made. All that remained was to work out the route of the journey and have Moses give his final messages prior to his death. Joshua would be appointed, and Moses would be given a glimpse of the land for which he had longed before he died. Wilderness living was nearly over. The land of promise would soon be their home.