Numbers 16 records the rebellion of Korah, the 250 leaders of the people, and others against Moses and Aaron. They were complaining against the leadership of Moses who supposedly had brought the people into the wilderness to die. They were complaining that Moses had assumed leadership on himself and had gone too far with his leadership. In Numbers 17 God desires to put an end to this complaining.
A Sign To End Complaining (Numbers 17)
The Lord tells Moses to gather staffs from all the chiefs of each tribe and write each man’s name on his staff. Write Aaron’s name on the staff for Levi and put all the staffs in the tabernacle, in the Holy of Holies (17:4). The man’s staff that God chooses will sprout. Notice in verse 5 that the point of this exercise is that God is going to make grumblings against Moses stop. So Moses does exactly what the Lord said. On the next day Moses gathered the staffs from the tabernacle and Aaron’s staff had sprouted, put forth buds, produced blossoms, and bore ripe almonds. God does a miracle to make a statement to the people of Israel about Moses and Aaron. Aaron’s staff was to be put in front of the tabernacle “as a sign for the rebels, that you may make an end of their grumblings against me, lest they die” (17:10). Fear strikes the people declaring words that Isaiah would say later when in a vision he sees God’s throne: “Behold, we perish, we are undone, we are all undone! Everyone who comes near, who comes near to the tabernacle of the Lord, shall die. Are we all to perish?” (17:12-13). Exactly! This is what God told the people before: no one can come near the Lord. The Levites were to be a protective ring separating the people from the presence of the Lord. No one can come near the tabernacle or they will die. Understand the holiness of God and the authority of Moses who is able to not only go near the tabernacle, but enter the tabernacle and speak with God.
Priesthood and Purity (Numbers 18-19)
In Numbers 18 the Lord reminds the people that the priests and Levites were a blessing to the people and look upon them in that way. Aaron and the priests are pictured as carrying the sins of the sanctuary, priesthood, and people (18:1). They, along with the Levites, were to guard the tabernacle to protect the people from God’s wrath. In verse 6 the Levites are described as a gift given by the Lord to do service in the tabernacle. In verse 7 God says that the priesthood was given by him as a gift also. The priesthood was God’s gift because the people needed a priesthood for atonement and needed the Levites to protect them from God’s wrath.
Understanding that the Levites and the priests are a gift and blessing from the Lord, we see in Numbers 19 that they work so that the people can be clean before the Lord. The instruction is given for the people of Israel to bring to the priests a red heifer without defect or blemish. The animal was taken outside of the camp and slaughtered by Eleazar the priest (19:2-3). The blood was sprinkled on the tabernacle seven times and the heifer was burned as a burnt offering. The ashes of the heifer would be used in the water for the impurity of the congregation of the people of Israel (19:9). The rest of this chapter describes the various impurities that by washing with this water with the ashes of this heifer would cleanse the people (19:12,17-19,21). In fact, notice carefully that the person who does not cleanse himself with this water mixed with the ashes of the red heifer will not be clean, defiles the tabernacle, and is cut off from Israel “because the water for impurity was not thrown on him” (19:13). “He shall be unclean. His uncleanness is still on him” (19:13; cf. 19:20). If you were not washed with this water then your uncleanness remained on you.
Water From The Rock (Numbers 20)
But the beginning of Numbers 20 brings us back to reality. This generation must fall in the wilderness for their disobedience. Miriam dies and was buried at Kadesh. Kadesh is the staging ground for going into the promised land (13:26). Kadesh is the place where Moses sent in the spies the first time so that the land could be investigated and they could receive the land God was going to give them. I believe the indication should be that most, if not all, of the prior generation has passed away. The time of the forty year wandering has come to a close and the new generation is preparing for taking the land. The death of Miriam and Aaron in this chapter sets the mood that we have come to the end of this time of punishment. Also, stating that it is the first month in verse 1 indicates that we are in the first month of the 40th year (cf. 33:38). This is an ominous place because it is the place that reminds Israel of their failure.
But notice what happens next. There was no water for the people and they assembled themselves against Moses and against Aaron. In fact, they quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! Why have you brought the assembly of the LORD into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink.” (Numbers 20:4–5 ESV)
In forty years, the people have learned nothing. The rod of Aaron before the tabernacle has not stopped the complaining against Moses and Aaron. The people turn against Moses and Aaron again. They call this an evil place. They say they should have died with Korah and the 250 leaders. The glory of the Lord appears to Moses and the Lord instructs Moses and Aaron to tell the rock to bring water from the rock to give drink to the congregation. So Moses did as the Lord instructed and gathered the assembly before the rock. But look at what happens next in verse 10.
Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. (Numbers 20:10–11 ESV)
Notice what the Lord says in verses 12-13.
And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the LORD, and through them he showed himself holy. (Numbers 20:12–13 ESV)
It is shocking, isn’t it? Who has not read this scene and wondered how it could be possible that Moses and Aaron would be excluded from the promised land? We are particularly struck that Moses, who has endured so much so faithfully for God and for the people would be excluded from the promised land by this mistake. What should we make of this scene? What are we supposed to learn from Moses and his failure? To help us understand, let us consider what the inspired psalmist says about the event.
They angered the LORD at the Waters of Meribah, and Moses suffered because of them; for they embittered his spirit, and he spoke rashly with his lips. (Psalm 106:32–33 CSB)
Notice that the sin that is identified that Moses spoke rashly with his lips because they embittered his spirit, or angered him. So let us look again at what Moses said. “Shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” When Moses brought water out of the rock in Exodus, he said nothing (Exodus 17). Moses simply did what he was told. What is so bad about what Moses said? Moses and Aaron ascribe these miraculous powers to themselves. Moses’ words are shocking because he put himself before the Lord. It is the first time we have seen him do something like this. God answer to Moses in verse 12 confirms that this is the problem. God said that Moses and Aaron “did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel.” Moses did not trust the Lord enough to honor him in the sight of the people.
Now let us consider some themes from the book of Numbers. When the people do what the Lord said, they are blessed and all goes well. However, when the people rebel, then judgment falls upon them. Numbers taught us the difference between unintentional sins and sinning defiantly. The only sins that cannot be atoned for are sins that are made with the fist against the Lord. The motive behind the sin makes a difference, as we considered in Hebrews 10:26. What we must accept is that this is not a mere accident. But at this moment, in anger because of the people complaining against him yet again, he takes glory to himself, a glory that should only belong to the Lord. Moses has done what must never be done: to take glory away from the Lord and put it on ourselves. This has actually been a critical theme in this book as well. This journey is not about me but is about God. Every time the people complain, Moses says that you are not complaining against us but against God, for who are we! We are nothing. God is everything. It is all about God. But at this moment, here at Meribah at Kadesh, Moses made it about himself and not about God.
Do you know what we see in Moses? Moses needs an intercessor just as much as the congregation of Israel. Moses needs a savior just as much as everyone else. Not even Moses is righteous enough to enter the promised land on his own power and strength. He is weak just like the rest of us. No one can make it on their own. Moses needs a high priest to make atonement for him just as much as everyone else. There is no one is who righteous, no not one. Not even Moses deserves to enter the promised land.
So what is the message of these four chapters in Numbers and what do they mean for our lives as we journey in the wilderness to the promised land? In Numbers 17 we saw the Lord confirm to the people yet again his holiness. No one can come near him. He is a holy God. God has given priests and Levites as a gift so that their sins could be forgiven, as seen in Numbers 18-19. Each person brought a red heifer and it was burnt up to the Lord. Its ashes were put in water so that the people could be cleansed. This cleansing is so important because no one is righteous, not even Moses. All will perish on this journey if we are left to our own strength and our own works. These chapters paint for us our need and what God has done for us. Turn to Hebrews 9:13-14.
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebrews 9:11–14 ESV)
The sprinkling of the water that was mixed with the ashes of the heifer purified the people of Israel of their uncleanness. We have the blood of Christ who offered himself without blemish to God to purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. The blood of Jesus is supposed to cause a cleansing in us. But it is not a cleansing of the flesh of outward defilements. Those were pictures of the cleansing that was going to be available in Christ. With Christ, his blood is supposed to cause an inner cleansing of us. Our consciences are to be purified. The inner person is supposed to be cleansing in Christ’s blood. Their outward cleansing was symbolized by the water mixed with the ashes. Those who did not submit to the cleansing by water were cut off from the nation. In the same way, our inner cleansing is symbolized by the waters of baptism. It is not that baptism is an external work that saves. Rather, baptism is depicting the cleansing that is happening on the inside, which is exactly what Paul teaches in Romans 6:1-4 and Peter teaches in 1 Peter 3:21-22. As Paul uses in Colossians 2:11-13 that this washing represents the sins being taken away from us. Our defilements are cleansed. We need a perfect new Moses that Jesus is that one. Not even Moses could accomplish the task of bringing the people all the way home, as righteous as he was. But Jesus did. Jesus finished the task and is able to bring us all the way home. Moses failed in showing God’s glory to the people. Jesus perfectly displayed God’s glory to the world (John 1:14-18). Jesus never took glory on himself but did all that he did so that the Father would be glorified. God was glorified through Jesus and Jesus never detracted from the Father’s glory (John 12:28; 13:31; 17:4). His glory came from the Father and not from people (John 8:54).
Finally, the cleansing of our conscience means that we do just as Jesus did: not taking glory to ourselves and therefore failing on our journey, but glorifying the Lord in all we do. We must never steal God’s glory and place it on ourselves. This journey is not about us. None of this is about us for it is all about God. We are simply pieces in God’s glorious plan for the world to acknowledge the glory of God. We exist for the praise of God’s glory. Listen to the wilderness language in Ephesians 1.
In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:13–14 ESV)
We are on a journey to acquire possession of our inheritance as we have heard the word of truth and believed in him. Our journey and our receiving the inheritance is all for the purpose of God to receive praise for his glory. God gets the glory. We will fall in the wilderness if we take his glory and place it on ourselves. God has given us all we need, giving to us as a gift a great high priest who intercedes for us in our weaknesses. But do not sin defiantly against the Lord by taking glory to us rather than always giving God his glory.