Numbers 20 is an eventful chapter. Miriam dies in Kadesh and is buried there, but we read nothing of the Israelite reaction to this.
Then the Israelites complain about not having water and not having the food they like or anything to support their livestock. Moses and Aaron fall on their faces before the Lord and the glory of the Lord appears to them. I wonder: if we fell on our faces before the Lord more often, would his glory also appear to us?
The Lord tells Moses to take the staff (presumably Aaron’s budded staff from the Holy of Holies) and command the rock to yield water. Instead, Moses strikes the rock twice. Water does come out, perhaps because the Lord wants to meet the need of the people despite Moses’ disobedience. The Lord immediately tells Moses that he will not enter the promised land because “you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites”.
Next, Moses sends messengers to the King of Edom (the descendants of Esau) to ask permission to pass through his land. This scene is reminiscent of Jacob’s return to his homeland and meeting with Esau. However, like Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, the King of Edom says, “You shall not pass!” Israel is forced by the Edomite army to turn and go in another direction.
Then, at the end of Numbers 20, the Lord tells Moses and Aaron that Aaron is going to die. This is apparently a punishment for Moses striking the rock instead of speaking to it. It seems rather unjust for Aaron to be judged for Moses’ wrongdoing, but perhaps the reason for this is that Aaron allowed his staff to be used in the wrong way. Thus, following the Lord’s instructions, Moses takes Aaron and his son Eleazar up Mount Hor. Moses strips Aaron of his vestments, puts them on Eleazar, and Aaron dies on the mountain. Unlike Miriam, for whom apparently there was no mourning, the people mourn for Aaron thirty days.
In Numbers 21, the king of Arad fights against Israel and takes some of them captive. The Israelites promise to the Lord that they will completely destroy the towns of Arad if the Lord gives their enemy into their hands. The Lord hears Israel and they win the battle.
It is amazing how Israel can go from moments of great triumph like this, where the Lord delivers them, then in the next moment they are complaining to Moses again about lack of food and water. However, that is exactly what happens. The Lord sends poisonous serpents among the Israelites this time as a punishment. The people confess their sin to Moses. Then Moses, at the Lord’s instruction, fashions a bronze serpent on a pole and lifts it up for the people to look at. When they look to the bronze serpent they are healed of the snake bites.
Jesus quotes this story in John 3:14-15 and says, “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
In the rest of Numbers 21, the Israelites defeat two more kings and their armies with the Lord’s help: Sihon and Og.
Numbers 22-23 deal with yet another king who is afraid of the Israelites: Balak the Moabite. Seeing how Sihon and Og’s armies are defeated, Balak chooses a different course. He calls on Balaam (who is some sort of sorcerer, seer, or prophet) to curse the Israelites. It is most notable that Balaam calls upon the Lord, the same God whom the Israelites serve. This story reveals that there is one God for all people. God is not simply interested in the Israelites. He cares for everyone. The whole purpose of the calling of the Israelites through their forefather Abraham is that God is blessing them to be a blessing to the nations.
Balaam realizes that he cannot properly go beyond the command of the Lord and curse the Israelites. Thus, he repeatedly blesses the Israelites instead, much to the consternation of Balak. In the midst of this story, we have the humorous incident of Balaam’s ass speaking to the prophet.
When C. S. Lewis was about to give his first broadcast talk over BBC Radio to hundreds of thousands of people across Great Britain during World War II, he wrote to fellow broadcaster Sister Penelope. In that letter he said, “One must take comfort in remembering that God used an ass to convert the prophet: perhaps if we do our poor best we shall be allowed a stall near it in the celestial stable!”
Friedman has this interesting comment about the conversation between Balaam and his ass:
As usual, the text does not provide details about emotions, and so we do not know if Balaam’s answer is expressed with amazement at hearing his ass talk or if he is to be pictured as just answering matter-of-factly without yet realizing that something extraordinary is happening. This heightens the comic effect. Some people resist seeing humor in the Bible, as if being funny is contrary to the book’s dignity. Their error is not that they value the Bible too much but rather that they value humor too little. Humor is such an essential part of human life that the Bible would be strange and incomplete without it.
One more important thing should be said about Balaam. “Balaam, son of Beor, is described in a plaster inscription from Deir ‘Alla that was discovered in 1967. He is the earliest person mentioned in the Bible who is also mentioned in an archaeological source.” Here is a photo of the artifact with the inscription: