Numbers 20-21

Good morning! Today in Numbers 20-21 we continue to see narratives of Hebrew disobedience and divine judgment, only this time they impact the destiny of Moses and Aaron. We also see the beginning of Hebrew conquests.

Numbers 20 opens with a parenthetical reference to Miriam’s death, which foreshadows the death of all these three top leaders in the wilderness. Again we see the familiar cycle of complaint by the people, Moses’ response and God’s provision. What is new here is that Moses follows God’s instructions imperfectly—he taps the rock with his staff, rather than commanding it to give water by voice. God explains that this is a sign of failure to trust divine providence, and consequently both Aaron and Moses are also prohibited from crossing into Canaan. Though Moses has been chummy with God before, this story shows that not even he is above exact obedience to divine law. “The waters of Meribah” are occasionally referenced later in the Bible as a shorthand reminder of God’s provision in wilderness times.

The people of Edom are descendants of Esau, but they refuse to grant passage to their distant kin, the descendants of Jacob. The King’s Highway referenced here and in the next chapter was probably a shared road in Palestine (a region of constant trade), but evidently Edom and the Amorites in the next chapter have some say in who passes along their stretches of the highway. Edom’s inhospitable treatment of Israel sets the stage for (or reflects) centuries of infighting between Edom and Israel. The chapter finishes by describing Aaron’s death, before which he passes on the high-priestly vestments to his son Eleazar. When Eleazar and Moses come down the mountain where this happened, the transition to a new High Priest is clear to everyone.

Chapter 21 begins by describing the first open conflict with Canaan, and is the first time we see practiced a theology of the “total ban”. The Hebrew bargain is that if God delivers the enemy into their hands, Israel will totally destroy the Canaanite towns. Later development of this theology identifies the spoils of war as a temptation to trust in other gods or in one’s own power, hence the need to obliterate any remnant of the former people. This will be the practice for many chapters and books to come, with terrible consequences for innocent bystanders, children, animals and even property. I’m glad that this is not the only theology regarding “outsiders”, and it stands in tension with other parts of the Bible that point to the positive contributions of foreigners among the Hebrew people.

The journey around inhospitable Edom takes longer and the people grow impatient with Moses’ leadership (here we go again, right?). This time God’s punishment takes the form of venomous snakes, and the remedy is a bronze serpent placed on a pole and held up for all to see. Those who look upon it are cured. Interestingly, ancient Greeks had a symbol of snakes (or ribbons) around a pole, which is still used to symbolize medical professions today. Could this narrative have been a way to connect that symbol with Hebrew history as well? Jesus also has this story in mind when he tells Nicodemus in John 3:14-15 that the lifting up of Christ will lead to salvation, suggesting there that Christ is the serpent!

Most Bibles will show textual irregularity with the final sections regarding Moab and the Amorites. This reflects the belief of biblical scholars that the priestly narrative breaks off to include portions of an earlier work—poetry about Israel’s battles before entering Canaan—which has never been found separate from here. In the rest of the chapter we read of Israelite victories over the Amorites (who were defeated rather than avoided when they reacted the same way as Edom) and King Og of Bashan. Happy reading!

Read Numbers 20-21.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. Tomorrow’s passage is Numbers 22-24. Thanks for reading!

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