The lessons we learn from the Israelites journey from Egypt to the Promised Land are countless, God nurtured and trained them to become His people just as He disciples and disciplines us to become more like Him every day. Numbers 20 finds the Israelites back at Kadesh, at the edge of the Promised Land with all its guaranteed goodness forty years after the Israelites stumbled in their faith and after that entire generation that rebelled against God has died. They are poised to accomplish what their fathers failed to do, but the tension continues, will they obey God or fall into the same fears and lack of faith?
The fate of the Israelites as a people unfolds in this chapter, but also the fate of their leaders Moses, Aaron and Miriam. First Miriam dies, the young girl who was brave enough to approach Pharaoh’s daughter to save Moses from death in the Nile, then later conspired to usurp his leadership and was quickly punished then healed by the LORD. She is laid to rest, not in the Promised Land but in the Wilderness just outside.
Once again the Israelites are tempted with the same persistent sin; God has provided for them for forty years in the desert, but when they don’t have what they want they mount a rebellion against Moses and LORD once more. They complain about the lack water, grain, figs and pomegranates, they are focused on their longings and not their provisions and blessings. Isn’t this just like us? We are surrounded with blessings beyond imagination, we have so much stuff our garages are overflowing yet we continue to want what is just beyond our reach rather than being content with the things that God has graciously provided in abundance.
Again Moses and Aaron plead with the LORD, both for God’s patience with this ungrateful people and for water. God gives Moses clear specific instructions gather the community in front of the rock and speak to the rock and it will pour forth water for the beasts and people. Moses in his anger disobeyed the LORD note the words and actions: ‘“Listen, you rebels, must we bring water out of this rock for you?” Then Moses raised his hand, and struck the rock twice with his staff. And water came out abundantly. So the community drank, and their beasts drank too.’ First, Moses appropriates God’s glory when he says, “must we bring water out”, it was not Moses and Aaron doing the work but the LORD and additionally Moses struck the rock twice, as if his actions did the work not God. I am always amazed that God allowed the water to pour forth and reminded of the many times that God is faithful even when I am un-faithful.
God’s merciful answer was swift; Moses and Aaron will not enter into the Promised Land. “Because you did not trust me enough to show me as holy before the Israelites, therefore you will not bring this community into the land I have given them.” This is lasting example to us, even leaders who have been faithful in many things suffer the consequences of their sin, and we all sin; “No test or temptation that comes your way is beyond the course of what others have had to face. All you need to remember is that God will never let you down; he’ll never let you be pushed past your limit; he’ll always be there to help you come through it”.
Now the Israelites move towards the Promised Land God through the kingdom of Edom. The Edomites are the descendants of Esau, Israel’s twin brother, therefore Moses asks as a relative to allow them to pass through their land. But the King of Edom refuses, and threatens to come out and attack them; so Moses takes the Israelites the long way around to avoid conflict with their brothers. It is in the mountains of Edom that Aaron dies, and the role of the High Priest is passed on by God’s command to his son Eleazar.
While they are mourning Aaron’s death, the Canaanite king of Arad comes out to attack the Israelites. Remember when they were last here, the Israelites decided to go into the Promised Land without the Ark and the LORD leading them, they were attacked and defeated. This time they go with the LORD, they make a vow to God and they completely destroy the Canaanite cities. Pumped up by their success they quickly fall into their old patterns, the once again complain against Moses and the LORD, they are tired of the desert route and Moses’ leadership. God punishment is quick, he send poisonous snakes among the people and many people died. Note that Numbers 20:7 makes clear that the people repented, this is new, they are learning slowly, so Moses intercedes again and the LORD instructs Moses to “Make a poisonous snake and set it on a pole. When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he will live.” Jesus points to this occasion saying, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
The Israelites travel up the eastern side of the Jordan River in the wilderness, they send a message to the King of the Amorites asking to pass through peacefully but they came out and attacked the Israelites. Israel defeated all who came out against them and they took possession of the land and settled people, then turned toward Bashan which they defeated as well. The Israelites traveled to the plains of Moab across from Jericho, where King Balak and his people are fearful of the Israelites success. So King Balak sends for a pagan prophet named Balaam to offer sacrifices and curse the Israelites. Once again it is a battle of the pagan gods against the LORD of Heaven and God will use pagans and animals to accomplish his purposes. Balak offers a great reward for Balaam to curse the Israelites, but God reveals himself to Balaam and causes him to bless Israel instead of cursing. This clearly shows that no one can curse someone whom God has blessed. However, Balak does not give up easily; he repeatedly implores Balaam to come curse the Israelites. Finally God allows Balaam to go to Balak along the road where an angel of the LORD stands in his way with sword in hand ready to kill Balaam, but Balaam’s donkey sees the angel and attempts to flee, which only get her beaten repeatedly until finally God opens the donkey’s mouth and she speaks to Balaam complaining about the ill treatment. Then the LORD opens Balaam’s eyes and he sees the angel who says he would have killed him except that the donkey saved you three times – Balaam admits his evil and is instructed to only speak the words that the angel gives him to Balak.
Three times from three different locations Balak and Balaam offer up sacrifices and Balaam only blesses the Israelites instead of cursing. Balak finally pleads in anger, “Neither curse them at all nor bless them at all!” At the final location for purposes of curses, Balaam lifts up his eyes and sees Israel camped tribe by tribe and the Spirit of God came upon him; he delivers a blessing, “How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, and your dwelling places, O Israel!” Then Balaam prophesizes all the nations that Israel will conquer: Moab and the sons of Sheth, Edom, Seir, Amalek, the Kenites, Asshur and Eber all will perish forever.
God is fulfilling His promise made to Abram, “Then I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so that you will exemplify divine blessing. I will bless those who bless you, but the one who treats you lightly I must curse, and all the families of the earth will bless one another by your name.” Genesis 12:2-3