Numbers 20: Lessons For Living by Faith in the Wilderness

Moses disobeyed God and lost the chance to enter the Promised Land1

Introduction: After a 37-year gap, the story of the Jews’ journey in the wilderness resumed. These were the wasted years. There were no acts of faith or obedience that were worth recording. The resumption of the story also showed that the Jews had learned little about walking by faith. Miriam dies without any personal redemptive change. The people continued to complain. Moses disobeyed God, and he was barred from the Promised Land. The chapter concludes with the Jews mourning the death of Aaron. From the Jews’ mistakes, God reveals lessons for you to live while on your journey through the wilderness of life. These include: (1) serving God, (2) trusting Him, (3) leaving your life of the flesh behind, (4) growing spiritually from your trial, (5) seeking His mercy and grace, (6) letting Him guide you, and (7) faith.

1. Serve God During Your Time in The Wilderness of Life. Nu. 20:1.

  • The death of Miriam. After wandering in the wilderness for almost four decades, Miriam’s death is recorded without further comment: “1 Then the sons of Israel, the whole congregation, came to the wilderness of Zin in the first month; and the people stayed at Kadesh. Now Miriam died there and was buried there.” (Nu. 20:1). Although most of her life was filled with great acts of faith, there was nothing memorable about her time wandering in the wilderness. These were wasted years for both her and the Jews.

  • The missing years. In the first month of their 40th year after leaving Egypt, the Jews traveled through the wilderness of zin to a camp called “Kadesh” (Nu. 20:1). This place should have seemed familiar. They Jews had just spent 37 years and six months walking in a circle. Thirty seven years earlier, the Jews rebelled against God at Kadesh believing that they would die if they entered the Promised Land (Nu. 14:1-4). For the majority of the wilderness years, the Bible says nothing about the Jews’ journey. There was nothing redeeming for God to record. If you live as a carnal Christian, you will have your place in heaven. But nothing will be written about your time when you get to heaven. Your years will also be wasted. In spending an eternity in heaven, do you want your scrap book from your life on Earth to be filled with acts of faith, charity, and love towards others? Or, do you want it to be empty?

  • The missed opportunity to serve God. At Kadesh, Miriam died (Nu. 20:1). Rabbis note that her passing was observed with no warmth or memorial. The Bible says nothing about how or why she died. She was once credited for helping to return a cursed baby Moses to his mother (Ex. 2:4-9). Eighty years later, after God crushed Pharaoh’s army, Miriam was called a “prophetess” as she sang His praise (Ex. 15:20). Yet, like Satan, Miriam’s honor caused her to covet power. This in turn caused her to slander Moses for marrying a black woman from Cush (Sudan) (Nu. 12:1). The penalty under the Law for her coveting his power was death (Jam. 1:14-15; Heb. 10:28). God could have struck her dead for her sins. He instead gave her leprosy for seven days (Nu. 12:10-15). He also allowed her to live another 37 years. She was saved for her faith. She was written in God’s book as a Saint upon her death (Micah 6:4). But nothing is written about her life during her 37 years of grace. Like the Jews, she had squandered the grace she was given. Many people are the most on fire for God when saved. Did you once passionately sing His praises like Miriam? Like Miriam, have your passions cooled after being rebuked? How much is being written in your book about your service to Him?

2. Trust God to Provide and Be Your Rock in the Desert. Nu. 20:2-13; Ex. 15:22-27.

  • The continued complaints of the people in the wilderness. When the Jews were last at Kadesh, they refused to enter the Promised Land, and they plotted their return to Egypt: “2 There was no water for the congregation, and they assembled against Moses and Aaron. 3 Then the people argued with Moses and spoke, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished before the LORD! 4 Why then have you brought the LORD’S assembly into this wilderness, for us and our livestock to die here? 5 Why did you make us come up from Egypt, to bring us into this wretched place? It is not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, nor is there water to drink!”’ (Nu. 20:1-5). The Jews had learned nothing from God. They committed the same sins that led to their discipline.

  • Moses’ disobedience at the waters of Meribah. Moses had previously complained to God about His people. But this time, Moses lost control and disobeyed God as well: ‘“6 Then Moses and Aaron came in from the presence of the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. And the glory of the LORD appeared to them; 7 then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,” 8Take the staff; and you and your brother Aaron assemble the congregation and speak to the rock before their eyes, that it shall yield its water. So you shall bring water for them out of the rock, and have the congregation and their livestock drink.”’ 9 So Moses took the staff from before the LORD, just as He had commanded him; 10 and Moses and Aaron summoned the assembly in front of the rock. And he said to them, ‘Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring water for you out of this rock?’ 11 Then Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; and water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank. 12 But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Since you did not trust in Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, for that reason you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.’ 13Those were called the waters of Meribah, because the sons of Israel argued with the LORD, and He proved Himself holy among them.” (Nu. 20:6-13). For their disobedience, Moses and Aaron now both shared in the Jews’ fate.

Moses disobeys God at Meribah2

  • Where God guides, He provides. For their entire 40 years in the wilderness, God provided for the Jews. He freed them from Egyptian bondage (Ex. 7:6-11:10). He crushed the Egyptian army (Ex. 13:7-15:21). He also transformed the waters of Marah to provide drinking water (Ex. 15:22-27). He then provided both manna and quail after they grumbled about their food (Ex. 16:1-8). He provided the “rabble” (half breeds) meat when they grew tired of His manna (Nu. 11:4-6, 32-33). He was also guiding them by a visible pillar of light both by day and by night (Ex. 13:21-22; 14:19). He even protected their feet from swelling (Dt. 8:4). When the Jews arrived at Kadesh, did they have any reason to doubt that God would provide for them?

  • The rock symbolized God’s provision for the Jews. Because the water flowed from the rock, the rock symbolized His provision for the Jews in the wilderness. “He opened the rock and water flowed out; it ran in the dry places like a river.” (Ps. 106:41). “They did not thirst when He led them through the deserts. He made the water flow out of the rock for them; He split the rock and the water gushed forth.” (Is. 48:21). “. . . from the rock I would satisfy you.” (Ps. 81:16). Where did the water come from the rest of the time that the Jews were in the wilderness? Some believe that God provided the water through natural wells. Yet, according to one Jewish tradition, the water came from a rock that God dragged through the wilderness (Moshe Weissman, the Midrash Says, Shemot, vol 2, (Brooklyn NY, Benai Yakov p. 157). Paul likewise explained: “ and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ.” (1 Cor. 10:3-4).

  • God provides for all our needs. God cares for us in the wilderness (Hos. 13:5). Jesus is our manna (Jo. 6:35). We also do not need to worry about our provision (Matt. 6:31-34). If we complain about our provision, how much trust do we have in God?

  • Jesus is also the Rock of our salvation. The Jews also understood the Rock to symbolize salvation: “O come, let us sing for joy to the Lord, let us shout joyfully to the rock of our salvation.” (Ps. 95:1). “For I proclaim the name of the Lord; ascribe greatness to our God! The Rock! His work is perfect, for all His ways are just; a God of faithfulness and without injustice.” (Dt. 32:3-4). “Trust in the Lord forever, for we have an everlasting Rock.” (Is. 26:4). You will never thirst when you drink His water (Jo. 4:14; 6:36; 7:37-38). Are you looking for God to take care of your immediate needs or your eternal ones?

  • The foreshadow of Jesus’ death and resurrection. According to Jewish tradition, Miriam died on the 10th day of Nissan. This was the day that the Passover Lamb was selected, and the day that Jesus entered Jerusalem. Miriam represented the prophetic part of Moses’ ministry. With her death, the water of life stopped flowing. Moses would have mourned Miriam for seven days. That many days without water would have caused the Jews to fear for themselves and their animals. If Moses struck the rock on the seventh day, this would have been the same day that Jesus rose from the tomb. He then poured out abundant life.

3. Leave Your Old Flesh Behind in the Wilderness

  • Don’t look back at your old life. God renamed Kadesh as “Meribah,” (Nu. 20:13) which means to “quarrel,” because the Jews quarreled with God and failed to trust Him. Four times, the Jews longed for their life in Egypt. First, only after a month in the desert, the Jews moaned that their old life was so much easier in Egypt. They believed that they “sat by the pots of meat” and that they “ate bread to the full.” (Ex. 16:3). Second, just after leaving Mount Horeb, they longed for fish, melons, cucumbers, leeks, onions, and garlic in Egypt (Nu. 11:5). Third, at the edge of the Promised Land, they decided to select a leader to take them back to Egypt (Nu. 14:4). Finally, 37 and a half years later, they again longed for Egypt while at Kadesh (Nu. 20:5). All the good things in life come from heaven (Jam. 1:17). Thus, we are also told that we sin when we complain (Jam. 4:9). If you long for your old life, are you fit for Jesus’ kingdom? (Lk. 9:62).

  • Complaining is a problem of distorted perception. Satan wanted the Jews to forget their bondage, the whippings, and the toil that they experienced under the hot sun in Egypt. He wanted them to instead cling to his counterfeit pleasures. Then Satan made the Jews forget the misery that the Jews suffered in Egypt. They were slaves. They had no power. They had no protection. Their first born boys were killed (Ex. 1:22). Their lives in bondage were also bitter and hard (Ex. 1:14). When you indulge your flesh, the enemy will tempt you with your old life. Sin may be pleasurable for a season (Heb. 11:25), but it does not make you happy in the long-run. When a drug or alcohol addict has a craving, they do not typically remember the bad things that come along with their addiction. People frequently believe that Christians must give up the fun of life. Could you explain from your own life why what God promises is so much better than the counterfeit pleasures that Satan offers?

  • Complaining is a result of failure to submit to God. We do not have the right to know the answer to why every bad thing happens. As mere clay, we do not have the right to question the Potter (Is. 45:9). Our ways and thoughts are beneath His ways and thoughts (Is. 55:8).

4. Grow from Your Trials in the Wilderness.

  • God tests us. God could have made it rain at Kadesh/Meribah. Or, He could have provided spring water as the people arrived. Instead, He tested the Jews (Dt. 8:15-16; Ps. 81:7; Jer. 17:10; Ps. 11:5). Can you think of any reasons why a just and loving God would test the Jews with water? By petitioning Moses, who were they trusting? If their journey was carefree, how much would they depend upon God? Has God led you into a place where you are forced to live off less? If so, He is trying to show you something.

  • God wants to show you the hidden sins in your heart. God warns that there are lessons for us to learn from the Jews’ failure at Meribah: “Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, … When your fathers tested Me, they tried Me, though they had seen My world, for forty years I loathed that generation . . .” (Ps. 95:8-9). God was trying to show the Jews the evil in their hearts by testing them in the wilderness (Jer. 17:9). He, however, reveals the Jews also “tested” Him. (Jer. 17:9). You also test Him when you make demands of Him. If you were never tested, would you know if you were on track spiritually? How strong would your walk be if you never faced challenges and never had to depend upon Him?

  • God wants you to learn patience. God could have given the Jews a life of comfort and a quick trip to the Promised Land. Yet, if He gave them everything that they asked for, they would never learn patience (Ps. 106:14). Most likely, He has not immediately answered all of your prayers. Has your patience grown as you have matured in the Lord?

  • God wants you to meditate on His provision in your life. David wrote that he mediated on “all Your work and muse on Your deeds.” (Ps. 77:10-12). God had at this point provided manna and water for almost 40 years (Ex. 16:13). If Jews had meditated on all that He had done for them, they would not have likely complained about their water at Kadesh/Meribah. If you are lacking in faith, have you meditated on all that He has done in your life? When was the last time you created a list of all the things that He has accomplished in your life?

  • God wants you to learn to be grateful. At the time of this festival on Sukkot, the Jews build small booths to live in for a week. They celebrated God’s provision during their time in the wilderness (Ex. 25:8; 29:44-45; Dt. 16:13-15). Paul warns to do all things “without grumbling or disputing.” (Phil. 2:14). In “everything”, you are to “give thanks” (1 Thess. 5:18). Do you give thanks for everything, even your food and water?

  • Turn your trials into growth opportunities. God wants us to treat every trial with joy (Jam. 1:2). For those who persevere under trial, He promises them a blessing (Jam. 1:12). How have you grown from your trials? Do you believe in the desert that all things are working together for good because you love God and are called according to His purpose? (Rom. 8:28). How have you used your experiences in the wilderness to help others?

  • Being a disciple of Christ includes trials. Jesus tells us that His yoke is easy (Matt. 11:30). Yet, we see that Abraham, Moses, the Jews, Jesus, Paul, and all of the prophets endured hardships. How can Jesus’ statement be true when we see what these people endured? You may experience hardships, but He will give you peace of mind when you encounter them.

  • God shows you His mercy and grace when you suffer. God provided every time the Jews complained about their food or water (Dt. 9:6-8). He did so even though they did not deserve His gifts. Are you thankful for the grace He gives you for your underserved gifts?

5. The Need for God’s Mercy and Grace Under the Law. Nu. 20:12-13.

  • Moses as the Law giver was judged by his own standards. According to Jesus: “in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.” (Matt. 7:2). Moses gave the Law, and he symbolized it. He was the most humble man on the planet (Nu. 12:3). Yet, even the most humble man is still human. For forty years, the Jews provoked him. At the time the Jews complained at Kadesh/Meribah, he was still in his seven days of grieving the loss of his sister (Nu. 20:1). The Jews’ complaints provoked him to anger (Ps. 106:32). Out of wrath, he grumbled that the Jews were “rebels” (Nu. 20:10). Yet, he had just rebelled against God’s instructions to speak to the rock. Moreover, he previously warned the Jews that they had sinned against God with their grumbling (Ex. 16:8). By his grumbling and his accusations, he was guilty of breaking the standards that he set. Do you judge others? Are you ready to be judged by the same standard? (Matt. 7:1).

  • No one can be saved under the Law. Moses later pleaded with God to change the punishment, but God would not do so (Dt. 3:25-26). The punishment was harsh, but it served a purpose. Because he gave and symbolized the Law, people had the right to expect that he would live by his standards. Ultimately, he was not able to avoid breaking the Law. He was a sinner like all of us. None are righteous enough under the Law to be saved (Ro. 3:23). If Moses broke just one law, he was guilty of breaking all of them (Jam 2:10).

  • Moses could not act in faith while he responded in anger. Moses’ name means to “draw out.” He was drawn out of the water at birth. God later meant for him to draw the water out of the rock. He told Moses to “speak to the rock” to cause it to pour forth water (Nu. 20:8). The power to create from speech was a power that only God possessed (Gen. 1:1). Yet, Moses failed to draw out the water with the power God gave him. After Moses called the Jews “rebels,” he said: “shall we bring forth water from this rock?” (Nu. 20:10). Then, instead of speaking to the rock, he struck it with his rod. He further did so not once but twice (Nu. 20:11). After God provided for the Jews, He rebuked Moses for failing to believe Him (Nu. 20:12). Moses was not giving God credit for this miracle. From this example, God also reveals that you cannot act in faith when you are angry. If you are angered by others, are you trusting that God is in control?

  • Jesus only needed to die once. If Moses had been commanded to strike the rock, he should have done so only once. Christ was the rock, and he was stricken once for us. He did not need to die twice. Are you trying to earn your right to salvation by being a good person?

  • Moses failed to sanctify the Lord. God said that Moses did not “treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel.” (Nu. 20:12; 27:14). It is one thing to curse or grumble in private. Yet, if we do these things in front of others, what kind of message do we send about what it means to be a Christian? Are you one of the Church hypocrites that people complain about?

  • The acts of the flesh cannot please God. When you are born again, your old self and your old desires should pass away (Ro. 6:6). Yet, there are times when your old self will reappear (Eph. 4:22; Col. 3:9). Christ said that “the flesh profits nothing.” (Jo. 6:63). Here, Moses acted out of anger. God cannot accept your works when they are done out of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-21). Moses was a poor witness for God when he acted out of anger. If you yell, quarrel with others, or complain, what kind of a witness are you?

  • God is faithful to provide, even when His leaders fail. Even though Moses failed to follow His directions, God still poured forth abundant water from the rock (Nu. 20:11). Even if our leaders fail us, God will never leave us or forsake us (Heb. 13:5-6).

6. The Way that Seems Right to Man Leads to Death. Nu. 20:14-22.

  • The King of Edom refused to let the Jews pass. The stories of God’s miraculous miracles were well known to the peoples who lived in and around the Promised Land. Thus, the King of Edom feared that the Jews would conquer him if they entered his kingdom: “14 From Kadesh Moses then sent messengers to the king of Edom to say, ‘This is what your brother Israel has said: ‘You know all the hardship that has overtaken us; 15 that our fathers went down to Egypt, and we stayed in Egypt a long time, and the Egyptians treated us and our fathers badly. 16 But when we cried out to the LORD, He heard our voice and sent an angel, and brought us out from Egypt; now behold, we are at Kadesh, a town on the edge of your territory. 17 Please let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or vineyard; we will not even drink water from a well. We will go along the king’s road, not turning to the right or left, until we pass through your territory.’” 18Edom, however, said to him, ‘You shall not pass through us, or I will come out with the sword against you.’ 19 Again, the sons of Israel said to him, ‘We will go up by the road, and if I and my livestock do drink any of your water, then I will pay its price. Let me only pass through on my feet, nothing more.’ 20 But he said, ‘You shall not pass through.’ And Edom came out against him with a heavy force and a strong hand. 21 So Edom refused to allow Israel to pass through his territory; then Israel turned away from him. 22 Now when they set out from Kadesh, the sons of Israel, the whole congregation, came to Mount Hor.” (Nu. 20:14-22). The Jews now again had to trust God to guide them.

  • The Holy Spirit may not guide you when you are in sin. Until this point, God guided the Jews by a visible pillar of light (Ex. 13:21-22; 14:19). Now, they were left to guess which route to take. Moses once asked his first wife Zipporah’s brother, Hobab, to advise him on his travels (Nu. 10:29-32). Similarly, he let his father-in-law Jethro advise him on delegating authority (Ex. 18:17-27). But he had neither God nor wise counsel to guide him. Going around Edom would add 100 miles to their trip. So Moses wrote to the Moabite king for permission to cross his land. The pillar of guidance disappeared because of their sin (1 Ch. 5:20; Prov. 15:29). Even though the Holy Spirit will not leave you, your prayers can be hindered when you sin (1 Pet. 3:7; Is. 59:2; 35:8). The lesson is to continue to turn to Him when the path is uncertain.

  • The road to destruction is a highway, the path to salvation is narrow. Without God to lead them, Moses at first thought that he should travel through Moab along a well-traveled route called the “king’s highway.” (Nu. 20:17). This route from Acaba to Amman still exists today in Jordan. Moses wrote to the Moab king to announce that his intentions were friendly. He reminded the Moabites that the nations were related through Abraham. He also reminded the Moabite king of the Jews’ 400 years of suffering in Egypt (Nu. 20:14-18). Moses expected a friendly reception from a related nation. Traveling the “king’s highway” was the route that seemed the quickest and the safest. The Jews were surprised by the Moabite king’s threats of war against the Jews. Moses realized that God had not called them to go down this path and fight their kin. He did not want to make the “sin of presumption” that some Jews made in trying to force their way into the Promised Land when God had told them not to enter. The Amalekites and the Canaanites killed those Jews (Nu. 14:39-45). Solomon warned: “There is a way that seems right to a man. But it ends in the way of death.” (Prov. 14:12; 16:25). Jesus also warned: “. . . the way is broad that leads to destruction . . . the way is narrow that leads to life.” (Matt. 7:13-14). Are you traveling down the broad “king’s highway”? Or, are you traveling down the narrow path of the “King of Kings”? If you are looking to follow the people around you, which path are you taking?

  • Don’t fight unless God leads you to do so. The Jews had no reason to think that these related people would threaten to go to war with them merely because the Jews wanted to cross their territory. If the Jews were being led by their pride or their flesh, they might have felt tempted to fight their way through. But God had not told them to attack. Without clear direction from God, believers should never attack others or fight with others.

  • Let God avenge those who wrong you. Later, God condemned Edom “because he pursued his brother with the sword.” (Amos 1:11). Thus, God promised that it would be “cut off.” (Obed. 1:10-12). Are you letting God avenge the wrongs against you? (Ro. 12:19).

7. Without Faith You Can’t Leave the Wilderness. Nu. 20:23-29.

  • The death of Aaron. Because he had disobeyed God, Aaron died before reaching the Promised Land: 23 Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron at Mount Hor by the border of the land of Edom, saying, 24 ‘Aaron will be gathered to his people; for he shall not enter the land which I have given to the sons of Israel, because you rebelled against My command at the waters of Meribah. 25 Take Aaron and his son Eleazar, and bring them up to Mount Hor. 26 Then strip Aaron of his garments and put them on his son Eleazar. So Aaron will be gathered to his people and will die there.’ 27 So Moses did just as the LORD had commanded, and they went up to Mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation. 28 And after Moses stripped Aaron of his garments and put them on his son Eleazar, Aaron died there on the mountain top. Then Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain. 29 When all the congregation saw that Aaron had died, the whole house of Israel wept for Aaron for thirty days.” (Nu. 20:23-29). Neither Moses nor Aaron could make it to the Promised Land based upon their merits. The same is true with any believer today. It is by faith alone in Jesus that we can enter into heaven.

The death of Aaron3

  • If Moses Symbolized the Law, Aaron symbolized faith. By Jewish tradition, Aaron died four months after Miriam. He was 123 years old. He and Moses were the last two remaining people to die from the old generation before the Jews could enter the Promised Land. Aaron’s death was a punishment for when he “rebelled against [God’s] command at the waters of Meribah.” (Nu. 20:24). He also did not seek the Lord’s guidance as high priest on whether to travel through Edom. Yet, Aaron died a noble death. The people mourned him for 30 days, just as they later would for Moses (Nu. 20:29; Dt. 34:8). If Moses symbolized the Law as the lawgiver, Aaron symbolized faith because he was the high priest. We also cannot enter the Promised Land without faith (Heb. 3:19).

  • A priest is held to a higher standard. Moses most likely deserved to be taken before Aaron, Although both had anger toward the Jews, Moses was the one who spoke. Yet, Aaron was the high priest who was to be beyond reproach. From this example, we see that priests are held to a higher standard than civil leaders. We are God’s holy priesthood (1 Pet. 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:6). Thus, you are held to a higher example. Are you living as an example to others? Or, are you talking and acting like non-believers? Are you going to all the same places and watching the same shows? Are you filling your mind with trash and your body with drugs or alcohol?

  • Only the greater High Priest can lead us into the Promised Land. Aaron lacked the faith to bring the people into the Promised Land: “The former priests, on the other hand, existed in greater numbers because they were prevented by death from continuing.” (Heb. 7:23). Jesus is the one true High Priest with the faith to lead us to the Promised Land (Heb. 7:24).

  • Leave behind your self-righteous acts. In addition to provision, clothing in the Bible can also symbolize a person’s habits, acts, endeavors, or righteousness (Isa. 64:6). They can also symbolize the honor a person held during his or her life. Moses put the robes of honor on Aaron (Lev. 8:7-9). Before his death, Moses stripped Aaron of his robes of righteousness (Nu. 20:28). Aaron, like us, entered life naked. Like us, he left life the same way. Yet, if you arrive at the wedding to the King of King’s without your new clothes, you will be thrown out of heaven (Rev. 3:17; 16:5). If you overcome the world through faith in Him, He will clothe you in fine garments that you need in heaven (Rev. 19:8).