The events recorded in the 20th chapter of the book of Numbers occurred at Kadesh and near it. First among them is the death of Miriam. She has survived the hardships of the desert and reached a great age. Her usefulness and vigor past, she is glad, no doubt, when the call comes. How is a life like this of Miriam to be reckoned? We have seen her as a young girl, eager and concerned, watching the cradle of Moses and aiding in his deliverance. She is spoken of as sharing in the mission of Moses and Aaron. When she led the song of triumph on the shores of the Red Sea, she is called a prophetess; and the ground upon which she and Aaron rebelled against Moses implies their possession of the prophetic gift. What proves her high consideration is the delay of the march until she was freed from her leprosy.
Miriam was a truly good woman as to the heart of her disposition. Her devotion, endurance and interest in her brother’s work—these were her virtues. Her happiness had been to sustain the faith of her people in God and in their leader. But as to her own faith, the maintenance of it was intermixed with sinful egotism, the expression of which was her rebuking Moses on the ground that she was his equal.
The second among the incidents that occurred at Kadesh was the murmurings of the people occasioned by a lack of water. The narrative reads, “And there was no water for the congregation and they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron.” When this murmuring occurred, whether it took place at the beginning or at the close of the period of their residence at Kadesh—a period of thirty-eight years duration—cannot be determined. It took place at the close, if the statement of the murmurers: “Would that we had died when our brethren died before the Lord” refers to the execution of the sentence imposed upon the old generation on account of its rebellion occasioned by the derogatory report of the ten spies. If the statement does refer to the to the execution of this sentence, it follows that the people of Israel found springs of water at Kadesh when they arrived at this place—springs that later dried up, so that the Lord had to perform a miracle that His people might continue to have water. If we have to do here with a murmuring of the later date, it is now the new generation that sins. The people not only complain but also accuse as did their fathers before them. They have the same fault to find with Moses and the Lord—a fault which they couch in an identical language. They say, “And why have ye brought up the congregation of the Lord into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there? And wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in unto this evil place? It is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink.” We must not minimize this trial. The sunshine is flaming, it may be imagined. The air of the heights is parched and a stifling heat fills the valleys. The cattle are gasping and the children cry for water and there is none. Apparently they are all doomed to die of thirst. The day for them at this juncture is evil; and in that day they stand not but falter. It is a hard speech to which they give utterances,—a speech that was meant for God’s ears as well as for the ears of Moses. Mindful of their present plight, they conclude that the Lord was now about to kill them through thirst and that with this purpose in mind He had brought them into the wilderness. They know better in their hearts—know that the destination is Canaan, and that there the tabernacle of God will be with them, even as it is with them now. So he had said. What are they then to make of God, should he now, as they say, be wanting to make an end of the nation. Their complaint springs from malice. Their present sufferings so vex them that they will to be ignorant of this that if in humbleness of spirit they persistently make known their request to God, their need will be filled. In giving expression to their chagrin, they go far. By implication they deny that the Lord had had anything at all to do with their leaving Egypt. It was Moses who had made them to come up out of Pharaoh’s ovens. Apparently they want to spare the Lord. The blame rests squarely upon Moses. Then, too, they refuse to consider that the reason they find themselves in the wilderness is that in their impious obstinacy that had preferred the wilderness above Canaan. But the climax of their wickedness is their lamenting the fact that they long ago had not perished with their brethren. Yet in condemning their unbelief, we must bear in mind that nothing is more terrible to endure, nothing better fitted to make even the best of God’s believing people severely critical of God, than to see their children in the extremity of want, which they are powerless to relieve. It is the grace of God triumphing in a man when he says, as the prophet of old said, “Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labor of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meet; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: yet will I rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.”
The murmurings of the congregation enrages Moses, so much so, that, as carried away by his feelings, he believes not the Lord to sanctify Him in the eyes of the children of Israel. So violent is his anger and to such a degree does it poison his soul, that, if the rod with which he smites the rock and the words of his lips could kill, he would have destroyed them all as in a moment. As he stands there, facing the congregation, who had followed him to the rock, he cannot get himself to relieving their want. In smiting the rock, he smites, in response to the dictates of his carnal rage, not the rock but the thirsting multitude.
In explaining Moses’ behavior, we must not imagine that he is aware of the extremity of the people, that he knows that there is no water. Spread over many square miles of a not altogether barren region, the tribes, it may be supposed, have been able through the years of their long residence at Kadesh as their headquarters, to provide themselves with water at least a part of the time. Gathered more closely now, because the time for them to press on to the promised land of their abode is at hand, they are in want. And the Lord, instead of immediately relieving their want, suffers them to thirst in order to humble them that also they, this new generation, might know that man “lives not by bread (and water) only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live.” But instead of humbling themselves under God’s mighty hand, instead of appealing to Moses with all respect to intercede for them before God humbly and in all reverence, they break in upon him with terrible reproaches. By promising to bring them to a good land, he had induced them to come up out of Egypt with the sinister purpose to lead them in “to an evil place,” that in this place they and their cattle might die. Heretofore he had been patient with such reproaches and had even met them with pity and soothing words; but now, hearing, he is seized with a fit of anger so violent that he feels that he could suffer them all to perish in their extremity. “Hear, ye rebels,” he screams, “must we fetch you water out of the rock?” It is indeed a tragedy; and the elements of it are the old age and weary spirit of Moses, the many cares and anxieties that burden his mind, and above all the unwillingness of the people to appreciate him, to be mindful of the love that he bares them and to remember his long and arduous service of them. Their ingratitude and amazing impudence is more than he in the long run can endure. For after all he is but mere man. Though the meekest of men, he is not meek enough. His patience can be and is finally exhausted. Thus, in his capacity of mediator of the Old Testament, he is but a mere shadow of Him—Christ Jesus—who, when “He was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to Him that judgeth righteously: Who his own self bare our sins in his own body upon the tree, that we being dead to sin, should live unto righteousness.”
This, then, is Moses’ fault. He is reviled and in turn he reviles again; and suffering, he threatens. Moses’ wrath springs largely from the flesh. Thus as to its essence it is not love of God but love of self. What vexes Moses is that the people do him evil. Hence at this moment he is hard, indisposed to forgive, without mercy. And he deems God too ready to pardon. The people, so he reasons on his way to the rock, do not deserve to be helped. In his present mood he is unwilling that the thirsting multitude shall drink. Yet the command of God is clear, “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.” So the Lord has spoken. Moses is perplexed. The people have again committed a great sin. Should not the Lord’s anger be kindled now and His fire be burning among them? Should He at least not suffer them to thirst until they had acknowledged their guilt? Moses will himself act God. Before he brings forth to them water, he will at least make them feel that they have offended. How he rails at them! He reproaches them as rebels and expresses contempt for the mutinous nation that really was not worth being helped. Is this acting the part of a shepherd ? Is this restoring in the spirit of meekness men overtaken by a fault? Moses’ conduct need not surprise. He is unspiritual, because he did not lay aside his carnal indignation at the people by the sight of the glory of the Lord. Yet he imagines that he represents God, while the fact is that he dishonors God.
Just what is Moses’ sin then? The Lord’s reproof suggests his offense. Moses did not believe God in a way to prove to the people of Israel that God is the Holy One. The bestowal of water should have revealed the glory of Jehovah in His unlimited power, mercy, compassion and grace. To His ill-deserving and condemnable people, the Lord would grant, of free grace and without reproach the miraculous water. Moses first reproaches the people as rebels. Thereupon he smites the rock, instead of simply speaking to it, with a temper that really wanted to strike the people. In this behavior there is reflected a carnal wrath, an unholy zeal, that obscures to the people the glory of God, His mercy and compassion. He thus failed to sanctify, glorify the Lord before the people. For this he and Aaron were forbidden entrance into the earthy Canaan.