Notes on Numbers 20

Blaine Robison, M.A.

Published 4 July 2020


Scripture Text: The Scripture text of this commentary is prepared by Blaine Robison based on the Westminster Leningrad Codex found at The essentially literal translation seeks to reflect the Hebraic character of the author and writing. Other Bible versions may be quoted. Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions.

Sources: Bibliographic data for works cited may be found at the end of the chapter commentary. Works without page numbers are cited ad loc. Important Jewish sources include the following:

LXX: The abbreviation "LXX" ("70") stands for the Septuagint, the Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, which was in use among Jews by the mid-2nd century B.C. Online.

Josephus: Citations for Josephus, the first century Jewish historian (Yosef ben Matityahu), are from The Works of Flavius Josephus (c. 75–99 A.D.) trans. William Whiston (1737). Online.

MT: The Masoretic Text is the authoritative Hebrew text of the Tanakh for Rabbinic Judaism. Work on developing a uniform Hebrew Bible began in the 2nd century under Rabbi Akiva, but completed by Jewish scholars known as the Masoretes between the 7th and 10th centuries A.D. The oldest extant manuscripts date from around the 9th century. Online.

Talmud: Unless otherwise indicated references to the Talmud are from the Soncino Babylonian Talmud (1948); available online at The Jerusalem Talmud, identified with "TJ," may be found here. Click here for Talmud abbreviations.

Targums: The targums are early Aramaic translations of the Hebrew text with commentary: Targum Jerusalem (1st c. AD), Targum Neofiti (1st c. AD), Targum Onkelos (c. 35–120 AD) and Targum Jonathan (2nd c. AD). See an index of Targum texts here.

Special Terms: In order to emphasize the Hebraic nature of Scripture I use the terms ADONAI (for 'LORD' when quoting a Tanakh source), Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Yeshua (Jesus) and Messiah (Christ).

Syntax: Unless otherwise noted the meaning of Hebrew words is from The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (1981), abbreviated as "BDB" and the meaning of Greek words is from F.W. Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (2009). Parsing information for Hebrew verbs is taken from John Joseph Owens, Analytical Key to the Old Testament (1989). An explanation of Hebrew verbs and grammatical construction can be found at

Parashah Hukat: B'Midbar (Numbers) 19:1–22:1.


This chapter begins the history of the fortieth year of the Israelites journeying into the wilderness of Zin (Num 33:38). The people camped at Kadesh. Few events are recorded of the Israelites from the beginning of their second year until this time, which brought them to the borders of Canaan. (See the review of the journeys in the forty years in Chapter 33.) In this chapter is, The death of Miriam in the first month, verse 1; complaint and provision of water out of the rock at Kadesh, verses 2-13; the conflict with the Edomites, verses 14-21 and the death of Aaron and the installment of Eleazar, verses 22-29, which occurred in the fifth month of the fortieth year (Num 33:28).

Verse Notes

1: The people of Israel had journeyed into the wilderness of Zin in the first month of the fortieth year and camped at Kadesh (cf. Num 33:26). Henry Trumball, who traveled to the Middle East in 1881 to visit Biblical sites, established the location of Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried. We can assume that Moses mourned thirty days as he did for Aaron (Num 20:29). Rashi says that the ones condemned to die in the wilderness (Num 14:28-29) had already died.

2: There was no water in this area. Many of the congregation held a public protest against Moses and Aaron.

3-5: The people make their complaint. The land of Kadesh was not suitable for growing crops and there was no water. Why bring us here?

6: Moses and Aaron went to the tent of meeting to appeal to ADONAI.

7: ADONAI spoke to Moses.

8: Moses and Aaron were instructed to take the rod (Heb. matteh, "staff or rod") and speak to the rock and water would come forth sufficient for the nation and their animals. The word for rock here is Heb. sela, (SH-5553), normally used of a cliff or crag (BDB 700). The noun occurs 56 times in the Tanakh and usually refers to a physical location. The noun is also used figuratively of ADONAI as a personal rock (2Sam 22:2; Ps 18:2; 31:3; 40:2; 42:9; 71:3).

Trumball said in his book that at Kadesh (the modern 'Ayn el-Qadayrat) is a "large single mass, or a small hill, of solid rock, a spur of the mountain to the north of it rising immediately above it" (214). Rashi says, "From here we learn that the Holy One, blessed is He, has regard for the property of Israel."

The word used for rock in Exodus 17:6 in which Moses was instructed to strike the rock with his rod is different (Heb. tsur, SH-6697). The term tsur may mean a rocky wall, cliff, block of stone or boulder and fig. of ADONAI (Deut 32:4, 15, 18, 20, 31; 1Sam 2:2, 2Sam 22:3, 32, 47; Ps 18:2, 31, 46; 19:14; 28:1; 61:2; Isa 26:4; 30:29) (BDB 849). The Exodus 17 narrative is of the people at Rephidim complaining about a lack of water. The incident is also mentioned in Psalm 95:7-11 and Nehemiah 9:15.

Both Hebrew terms for "rock" are translated with Grk. petra (SG-4073) in the Septuagint. Petra refers to a large mass of rock and is used for a rock, ledge, cliff, cave, stony ground. HELPS says that petra (a feminine noun) denotes "a mass of connected rock," which is distinct from Pétros, which is "a detached stone or boulder." Pétra is a "solid or native rock, rising up through the earth," a huge mass of rock (a boulder), such as a projecting cliff.

The careful use of different Hebrew terms in the two narratives serves to distinguish them (PC). Paul asserts that the rock in the wilderness represented the presence of Yeshua supplying the Israelites with water when they needed it (1Cor 10:4).

9: Moses obeyed and took the rod from "before ADONAI," that is, from the mishkan (tabernacle). Jamieson assumes that there was one wonder-working rod by which so many miracles had been performed, variously called "the rod of God" (Ex 4:20), "the staff of Moses" (Ex 4:2; Num 20:11) or "the rod of Aaron" (Ex 7:12), which had been put in the mishkan when it blossomed (Num 17:8-11). However, it is more likely that Moses and Aaron had separate rods or staffs and the rod Moses took from the mishkan was his own that he had used many times to produce miracles (so Barnes, Gill).

10: Moses and Aaron gathered the people and Moses expressed anger toward them, calling them hamorim (rebellious), and then taunted them, "must we bring water out of this rock for you," meaning "you don't really deserve water." This incident is recalled in Psalm 106:32-33, "And they angered Him by the waters of strife, and it went ill with Moses on account of them. 33 because they rebelled against his spirit so that he spoke rashly with his lips" (BR).

11: All the previous miracles performed by Moses had involved physical action, often using the rod. Instead of speaking to the rock Moses struck the rock twice with the rod. And, ADONAI supplied water. The Targum says at the first striking blood came from the rock and so when the rock was struck the second time water came forth.

12 But ADONAI said to Moses and Aaron, "Because you did not trust me to treat Me as holy in the eyes of the sons of Israel, therefore you will not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them." Regarding Moses' lack of faith Rashi says,

"Scripture reveals that if it were not for this sin alone, they would have entered the Land, so that it should not be said of them, 'The sin of Moses and Aaron was like the sin of the generation of the desert against whom it was decreed that they should not enter [the Land].' But was not the question asked by Moses, 'If sheep and cattle were slaughtered for them…” (Num 11:22) more grievous [sin] than this? However, there Moses said it in private, so Scripture spares him and refrains from punishing him. Here, on the other hand, it was said in the presence of all Israel, so Scripture does not spare him because of the sanctification of the Name.

In the present situation God pronounced a judgment on Moses for disobeying clear instruction and hitting the rock instead of speaking to it. God attributed the severity of His punishment to the fact that Moses did not treat the Holy One as holy in the presence of the people. In other words, God had commanded Moses in the hearing of the assembly and Moses didn't show respect to the one who was in authority over him.

From a human point of view we can understand the frustration of Moses who had to put up with repeated anarchy by people he had led out of Egyptian bondage. This was the fourteenth time that people acted against Moses and tested ADONAI. (For the complete list of the incidents in which Israel tested God, see my comment on Hebrews 3:9.) Moses was fed up with rebellion in the ranks and so he struck the rock twice with the rod instead of speaking to it. But, God has a simple standard. If you deliberately disobey Him, He will punish you.

13 Those were the waters of Merivah, because the sons of Israel contended with ADONAI, and He showed Himself holy among them."

The phrase "waters of Merivah" recalls the grumbling of Israel at Rephidim because of a lack of water (Ex 17:1-4). Moses renamed the location Meribah (SH-4808), which means strife or contention. Thus, Moses likened Kadesh to Rephidim.

The DSS adds this note following verse 13, "And Moses said, 'Lord Yahweh, you have begun to show your servant your greatness and your strong hand; for what god is there in heaven or on earth who can act according to your works, and according to your mighty deeds? Please let me cross over and see that good land that is beyond the Jordan, those good mountains, and Lebanon.' But Yahweh said to Moses, 'Enough. Speak to me no more about this matter. Go up to the top of Pisgah and lift up your eyes to the west and to the north and to the south  and to the east, and see it with your eyes, for you shall not cross over this Jordan.'" (4Q27 Numbers).

Works Cited

BDB: The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Oxford University Press, 1907. Reprinted by Associated Publishers and Authors, Inc., 1981.

Barnes: Albert Barnes (1798-1870), Notes on the Whole Bible (1834). Baker Book House, 1949. Online.

Gill: John Gill (1697-1771), Exposition of the Entire Bible. Online.

HELPS: Gleason L. Archer and Gary Hill, eds., The Discovery Bible New Testament: HELPS Word Studies. Moody Press, 1987, 2011. (Online at

Jamieson: Robert Jamieson, Numbers, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible by Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset and David Brown (1871). Online.

PC: H. D. M. Spence & Joseph S. Exell, eds. (1849–1910), Numbers, The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 2. Hendrickson Pub., 1985. Online.

Rashi: Rabbi Shlomo Iitzhaki (1040-1105), Commentary on the Tanakh. Online.

Trumball: Henry Clay Trumball (1830-1903), Kadesh-Barnea. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1884. Online.

Copyright © 2020 by Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.