Lesson 9: Chapters 19:1-22:1
The Rite of the Red Heifer,
Water from the Rock, and the Conquest of the Transjordan

Heavenly Father,
Your eternal plan for man's redemption is revealed in the history of the Old Covenant people of God.  It is a plan revealed in the prescribed ritual of the red heifer, a sacrifice that prefigured the Passion of Your beloved Son and in the miraculous water that gushed forth from the rock that prefigured the gift of the Holy Spirit in Christian baptism, the living water welling up from Christ crucified and resurrected as its source.  Guide us in our study of these signs of Your mercy and grace, beloved Lord, and help us to more deeply appreciate the Passion, death, and resurrection of Your Son and Your gift of the Spirit of life who guides us on our journey to salvation.  We pray in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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Now [Moses] declares that the ashes of the victims (which ought to be taken as a great mystery) are "the sprinkled ashes of a red heifer," which (as the apostle also bears witness) sanctified "those who have been defiled, so that [their] flesh is made clean."  He also understands that the sacrament of the Lord's passion, which saves us by purifying us forever, is prefigures in these ashes.  Thus the burning of a red heifer designates the actual time and event of Christ's passion, and the burnt ashes which were kept for the cleansing of those who were unclean suggest the mystery of the same passion which has already been completed, by which we are daily purged from our sins.    
The Venerable Bede, On the Tabernacle 2.11

The number of deaths within the camp as a result of the rebellion in Chapter 17 is the cause for new legislation.  There must be a remedy for those who have become ritually defiled by death-the greatest affront to God's plan for an immortal mankind living in communion with his creator.  The remedy is the sacrifice of the ritually perfect red heifer.  The sacrifice of the red heifer, totally consumed in death outside the camp of God, prefigured the Passion of the Christ who was totally consumed in death on the altar of the Cross outside the gates of Jerusalem.  The chapter is divided into three sections:

  1. Instructions for the sacrifice of the red heifer (verses 1-10).
  2. The Law concerning contamination by a corpse (verses 11-16).
  3. The ritual of purification when contaminated by a corpse (verses 17-22).

Numbers 19:1-10 Instructions for the Sacrifice of the Red Heifer
1 Yahweh spoke to Moses and Aaron and said: 2 'This is a decree of the Law which Yahweh has prescribed.  Tell the Israelites, they are to bring you a red heifer without fault or blemish that has never borne the yoke.  3 You will give it to the priest Eleazar.  It will then be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence.  4 The priest Eleazar will then take some of the victim's blood on his finger, and sprinkle this blood seven times towards the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.  5 The heifer will then be burnt while he looks on; its hide flesh, blood and offal will be burnt.  6 The priest will then take some cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet material and throw them on the fire where the heifer is burning.  7 He will then wash his clothes and bathe himself; after which he will go back to the camp, though he will remain unclean until evening.  8 The man who has burnt the heifer will wash his clothes and bathe himself and will remain unclean until evening.  9 The man who gathers up the ashes of the heifer must be ritually clean; he will deposit them outside the camp, in a clean place.  They will be kept for ritual use of the Israelite community for making water for purification; it is a sacrifice for sin.  10 The man who has gathered up the ashes of the heifer will wash his clothes and remain unclean until evening.  For the Israelites as for the resident alien, this will be a perpetual decree.'

Instructions for the sacrifice of the red heifer are found in the Talmud in Mishnah: Sotah 9:5; Mishnah: Parah 1:1-12:11. According to the Mishnah, in Jesus' time the sacrifice of the red heifer took place on the Mount of Olives, east of the city of Jerusalem (Mishnah: Parah 3:7f). It was from the Mount of Olives that Jesus ascended into heaven, and it is from the Mount of Olives that He will return (Acts 1:9-12; Zech 14:4)

The instructions in Chapter 19 are full of symbolism and typology.  A key Hebrew word is the word of "red", 'dm ('adom with vowels), which is also the word for "humanity" (Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative, page 395).  It is also significant that the two central features of the ritual are the "ashes" of the heifer (verses 9-10) and the "water for purification" (verse 9) over which the ashes are to be sprinkled.  But in verse 17 they are not called "ashes" (epher) but "dust" (aphar). (1)  The use of the specific term "dust" provides a link to the Fall of man in Genesis and the judgment that in death man will return to the dust from which he was created (see Gen 2:7, 3:14, 19). 

It is also significant that in verse 17 the water over which the "dust" is sprinkled is called "living water"-the Hebrew word chay, "alive", is used figuratively for water that is flowing. (2)   It is the "living water" that makes the unclean ashes pure and renders the person contaminated by death purified and restored to a holy state to return to the covenant family.  The "living water" in the red heifer ritual is a reminder of the "living water" Jesus spoke of to the woman of Samaria, the "living water" that will become "a spring of water, welling up for eternal life" (Jn 4:14).  In the contrast between the "dust" of the dead red heifer and the "living water" that symbolically restores the life of the covenant member we have the two key terms of the narrative of the Fall in Genesis 3:19 and 24.  The ashes represent the return to dust that characterizes humanity's fall and death that is ultimate defilement of God's good Creation.  The "living water", however, does not look back to the past but is a promise of restoration that will be fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah.

Question: What kind of sacrifice was the red heifer? See verses 9 and 17.
Answer: It is a sacrifice for sin.

The sin sacrifice for a high priest or the community was a bull calf and a he-goat for a leader of the community.  The sin sacrifice for an individual covenant member had to be a she-goat or a ewe from the flock (Lev 4:27-35). This is a special case of sin sacrifice in that the animal is from the herd, but the animal is still a female.  The preservation of the ashes of the dead animal mixed with water will become the remedy for defilement by death so that the unclean covenant member, contaminated by sin in the form of death, can be restored to the community.  All through the procedure great emphasis is laid on death and its connection to sin.  Death, a result of man's sin in his fall from grace, is repugnant to God.  It means separation. 

Question: What is the threefold separation of death?
Answer: Death as separation:

  1. Physical death is the separation of the soul from the body
  2. Spiritual death is the separation of the soul from God
  3. Everlasting death is the separation of the soul and body from God for eternity.

Question: Why is it that Aaron, the High Priest, does not perform the ritual?
Answer: The High Priest must avoid becoming contaminated by anything unclean.  He cannot even prepare his own parents for burial.  Since this sacrifice is performed outside the Sanctuary, the sanctity of the Sanctuary altar does not protect the priest from defilement.

Question: How many people are required to perform the ritual of sacrifice?  How are they affected by the ritual of sacrifice?
Answer: Three men: the officiating priest and two ritually clean laymen.  All three become ritually unclean and must be purified by water and remain outside the camp until sundown when the next day begins.

Question: How is this sacrifice for sin totally unlike the other classifications of sin sacrifices?
Answer: It does not take place at the sacrificial altar.  The animal is sacrificed outside the camp and every part of the animal is consumed in the fire, including its hide.  Its blood is sprinkled seven times toward the entrance of the Sanctuary.

The other items used in the ritual: the hyssop, scarlet/crimson cord and cedar wood are the same items used in the purification of a leper (Lev 14:4, 6, 49, 51-52).

Question: Why are the animal's ashes kept outside the camp?  Why are the men who performed the ritual kept outside the camp until sundown?
Answer: The ashes are unclean and cannot enter the camp.  The men who performed the ritual have become ritually unclean in association with the sacrifice and must have a one day separation.  They cannot be purified fully until they have washed and the next day has begun at sundown.

Summary of the selection of the animal and the sacrificial ritual:

Numbers 19:11-16 The Law Concerning Ritual Contamination by a Corpse

'Anyone who touches the corpse of anyone whatever will be unclean for seven days.  Such a person must be purified with these waters on the third and seventh day and will then be clean; otherwise he will not be clean.  Anyone who touches the corpse of anyone who has died and is not purified, defiles Yahweh's Dwelling; such a person will be outlawed from Israel, since the water for purification has not been sprinkled over him; he is unclean, and his uncleanness remains in him.  This is the law when someone who dies in a tent.  Anyone who goes into the tent, or anyone who is already in it, will be unclean for seven days, and every open vessel with no cover over it will also be unclean.  Anyone in the open country who touches a murder victim, a corpse, human bones or a grave will be unclean for seven days.'

Question: For how long is a person contaminated by death unclean?  What does the ritual for restoration require?
Answer: A contaminated person is unclean for seven days and must receive the purifying waters on the third and seventh days.

Not only was death alien to God's good plan for creation, it is opposed to the blessings God has planned for His covenant people which is why covenant members were not to linger over the body of the dead, even to remain in a tent with a deal body-a corpse is unclean-it is the ultimate expression of the corruption of sin and contaminates humans who come in contact with it.

Question: Under what conditions does a person become contaminated by death?

  1. Anyone who touches a corpse.
  2. Anyone who is in close contact with a corpse (in the same tent).
  3. Anyone who touches a murder victim.
  4. Anyone who touches human bones or a grave.

Numbers 19:17-22 The Ritual of Purification
17 'For someone thus unclean, some of the ashes [dust] of the victim burnt as a sacrifice for sin will be taken and spring water [living water] must be poured over them, in a vessel.  Someone who is ritually clean will then take some hyssop and dip it in the water.  He will then sprinkle the tent, all the vessels and the people who were there, and similarly anyone who has touched human bones, a murder victim, a corpse or a grave.  The clean one will sprinkle the unclean one on the third and the seventh day, and on the seventh day he will have purified him.  The latter will then wash his clothes and bathe himself in water, and in the evening he will be clean.  If anyone unclean fails to purify himself in this way, he will be outlawed from the community, for he would defile Yahweh's sanctuary.  The water for purification has not been sprinkled over him; he is unclean.   This will be a perpetual decree for them.  The person who sprinkles the water for purification will wash his clothes, and anyone who touches the water for purification will be unclean until evening.  Anything that an unclean person touches will be unclean, and anyone who touches it will be unclean until evening.'

The change in the description of the remains of the red heifer from "ashes" to "dust" in verse 17 is significant.  The word "dust" is a reminder of the Fall of man and God's judgment that sin has corrupted man's physical immortality and he was destined to return to the dust from which he was created. 

Question: Who is to perform the ritual of purification?
Answer: A ritually clean layman.

Question: What is the significance of the double sprinkling of the dust of the red heifer and the living water?
Answer: In order to be fully restored, the individual must receive a double cleansing before the final restoration.  Full restoration is a two-step process.

The usual form of ritual cleansing and restoration to the community was with water, but death was a defilement that required a deeper cleansing.  Without the cleansing waters with the sprinkled ashes of the red heifer that remove the stain of death and restored the life of the defiled person, he was outlawed from the covenant community.

Question: How does the red heifer, in this unique cleansing from contamination by death, become a type of Christ?  See Heb 9:13-14.  What is the symbolic link to Christian baptism and the Christian's hope of a double resurrection?
Answer:  Jesus Christ cleanses all humanity from the defilement of sin.  By dying He purified us from all that death implies and involves in separation from God.  The waters of Christian baptism cleanse the believer of the stain of original sin.  The baptized believer dies to sin and is resurrected to new life in Christ Jesus.  This is the "first resurrection." The first resurrection in Christian baptism makes possible the promise of a future second resurrection that is the resurrection of the body-when man is returned to the state in which he was created with an immortal soul and an immortal body.

St. Paul wrote: The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkled on those who have incurred defilement, may restore their bodily purity.  How much more will the blood of Christ, who offered himself, blameless as he was, to God through the eternal Spirit, purify our conscience from dead actions so that we can worship the living God (Heb 9:13-14).

The Typology of Jesus Christ and the Red Heifer
The red heifer was sacrificed outside the camp. Jesus was sacrificed on the altar of the Cross outside the walls of Jerusalem.
The animal had to be unblemished and never to have been under the command of man (never yoked). Jesus was without sin and His authority came from God.
The animal's red color suggests blood. Jesus was covered with blood from His scourging.
Wood and hyssop were part of the sacrifice. Jesus was sacrificed on a wooden Cross and a Roman soldier used hyssop to give Jesus a last drink of wine.
The animal was to be totally consumed in the sacrifice. Jesus' life was totally consumed on the altar of the Cross.
The remains of the animal were to be kept outside the camp. Jesus was buried outside the walls of Jerusalem, the camp of God.
The sin sacrifice was meant to remove the defilement of death. Jesus' sacrifice freed mankind from the defilement of sin and death.
The sacrificial remains of the red heifer mixed with living water purified the individual, freed him/her from the contamination of death that caused separation from God and restored him/her to the community family. Jesus' sacrificial death and the waters of Christian baptism purify the believer, freed him/her from sin and its consequence of spiritual death that separated him/her from God and restored him/her to life in the family of God.
The three day and seven day purification ritual was a two step process before the individual was fully restored. The Christian will experience a double resurrection: the first in dying with Christ and being raised to new life in the Sacrament of baptism, and the second bodily resurrection at the end of time when the complete person, body and soul, will be fully restored to God.
Michal E. Hunt © 2010

Then as now, sin defiles that which is holy and separation purifies.  St. Paul advised the Christians at Corinth about separation from sin: The Temple of God cannot compromise with false gods, and that is what we are-the temple of the living God.  We have God's word for it: I shall fix my home among them and live among them; I will be their God and they will be my people.  Get away from them, purify yourselves, says the Lord.  Do not touch anything unclean, and then I shall welcome youI shall be a father to you and you will be sons and daughters to me, says the almighty Lord (2 Cor 6:16-18; underlined parts are quotes from Lev 26:11-12, Ex 37:27 and Is 52:11).

Chapter 20: The Death of Miriam and Water from the Rock

The prophetess Miriam, Aaron's sister, took up a tambourine, and all the women followed her with tambourines, dancing, while Miriam took up from them the refrain: Sing to Yahweh, for he has covered himself in glory, horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
And so we crossed the Wadi Zered.  From Kadesh-Barnea to the crossing of the Wadi Zered our wanderings had taken thirty-eight years; as a result of which, the entire generation of those of age to bear arms had been eliminated, as Yahweh had sworn to them.  Yahweh's hand had been against them, to eliminate them completely from the camp. 
Deuteronomy 2:13-15

It took thirty-eight years for the old generation of the Exodus to die; the years are counted from God's judgment against the Exodus generation at Kadesh-Barnea.  This part of the narrative begins in the first month of the fortieth year from leaving Egypt.

The chronological sequence of major events in Chapters 19:1-22:1:

  1. The ritual of purification with the ashes of a red heifer.
  2. Miriam dies at Kadesh and the miracle of the water from the rock.
  3. The Edomite king refuses to give the Israelites right of way through Edom.
  4. Aaron dies at Mt. Hor and the Canaanites attack the Israelites.
  5. The Israelites turn south toward the Gulf of Aqaba to avoid Edom.
  6. The incident of the fiery serpents and the healing serpent standard.
  7. The Israelites travel by stages to Transjordan.
  8. The Israelites defeat the Amorites.
  9. The Israelites defeat King Og of Bashan at the Battle of Edrei.
  10. The Israelites encamp on the Plains of Moab opposite Jericho.

It is the first time since the Israelites left Mt. Sinai on the 20th day of the second month in the second year after leaving Egypt that we are given a time marker (Num 10:11).  The events recorded in Chapter 20 took place in the first month of Abib in what is the 40th year after leaving Egypt.  The death of Miriam is recorded briefly in verse one.  It is the only time she is mentioned since she disgraced herself when she challenged her brother's authority in Chapter 12. 

Miriam's death seems to have unsettled the people; it is an unsettling that results in another incident of the people's complaints, God's action, and the naming of the site as a memorial of the event.  The incident takes place at a site identified as Kadesh (Num 20:1, 22) that will be renamed Meribah-Kadesh.  Scholars both ancient and modern have suggested there were two different sites named "Kadesh", using the arguments:

  1. The Kadesh in Numbers 20 is said to be in the desert of Zin (Num 20:1) and not Paran as was the Kadesh where they camped to reconnoiter Canaan (Num 12:16).
  2. The Kadesh in Chapters 13-14 had enough water to satisfy the Israelites and their animals for forty days, but there was no water at the Kadesh in Numbers Chapter 20.

The location of the site is uncertain and scholars are divided on whether or not this Kadesh is the oasis at Kadesh in Chapters 13-14 since it is identified as being near the desert of Zin instead of the desert of Paran.  However, the Israelites traveled through the desert of Paran (Num 10:12; 12:16) before camping at Kadesh where the twelve men sent on the mission to explore Canaan and "went up and reconnoitered the country from the desert of Zin to Rehob, the Pass of Hamath" (Num 13:21).  From the Biblical description, Kadesh appears to be located on the edge of two wilderness areas-Paran to the south and Zin to the east. 

The other argument for a separate site is that in Chapter 20 the people complained that there was no water (Num 20:2) and Kadesh-Barnea is a large oasis with two springs.  Perhaps the people were expecting to find water as they had on previous visits over the past thirty-eight years and were shocked to discover that for some reason the two springs that watered the Kadesh oasis were not flowing.  The next event after the miracle of the water from the rock at Kadesh will be the messengers Moses sent to the King of Edom to request permission to pass through Edomite territory (Num 20:14).  Using the information in Scripture about the two desert wastelands of Paran and Zin, most scholars locate the desert of Paran to the south of Kadesh-Barnea and Zin to the east on the border of Edomite territory (Num 20:16). (3)  There is really no solid evidence to suggest there were two sites named Kadesh in the narratives for Numbers 13-14 and 20. 

Bible scholar John Sailhamer points out that the incident recorded in Chapter 20 presents and interesting pattern, linking the events to the first miracle of water from the rock in Exodus Chapter 17.  Both events took place in the wilderness.  The first event took place on the wilderness journey from Egypt to Mt. Sinai and the second miracle took place on the wilderness journey after the events at Mt. Sinai on the way to Kadesh.  Both miracles occurred after two significant events concerning the manna and the quail and the prophecy of the forty years in the wilderness and both events are separated by the covenant formation at Mt. Sinai:

Wilderness journey Theophany


at Sinai

Ex 19-40
Wilderness journey
Journey to
Mt Sinai = Manna

Ex 16:4-34
40 years

Ex 16:35
Water from the rock

Ex 17:1-7
away from Mt Sinai =

Num 11:4-34
40 years

Num 14:21-22
Water from the rock

 Num 20:1-12

Inspired by a chart from The Pentateuch as Narrative, page 277

The Miracle of Water from the Rock

On you they called when they were thirsty, and from the rocky cliff water was given them, from hard stone a remedy for their thirst.
Wisdom 11:4

I want you to be quite certain, brothers that our ancestors all had the cloud over them and all passed through the sea.  In the cloud and in the sea they were all baptized into Moses; all ate the same spiritual food and all drank the same spiritual drink, since they drank from the spiritual rock which followed them, and that rock was Christ.
1 Corinthians 10:1-4

We were baptized into one body in a single Spirit, Jews as well as Greeks, slaves as well as free men, and we were all given the same Spirit to drink. 
1 Corinthians 12:13

Please read the account of the first water from the rock miracle in Exodus 17:1-7
1 The whole community of Israelites left the desert of Sin, travelling by stages as Yahweh ordered.  They pitched camp at Rephidim where there was no water for the people to drink.  2 The people took issue with Moses for this and said, 'Give us water to drink.'  Moses replied, 'Why take issue with me?  Why do you put Yahweh to the test?'  3 But, tormented by thirst, the people complained to Moses.  'Why did you bring us out of Egypt,' they said, 'only to make us, our children and our livestock, die of thirst?'  4 Moses appealed to Yahweh for help.  'How am I to deal with this people?' he said.  'Any moment now they will stone me!'  5 Yahweh then said to Moses, 'Go on ahead of the people, taking some of the elders of Israel with you; in your hand take the staff with which you struck the River, and go. 6  I shall be waiting for you there on the rock (at Horeb).  Strike the rock, and water will come out for the people to drink.'  This was what Moses did, with the elders of Israel looking on.  7 He gave the place the names Massah and Meribah because of the Israelites' contentiousness and because they put Yahweh to the test by saying, 'Is Yahweh with us, or not?' (emphasis added)

Question: Where was Moses instructed to go to find water?
Answer: He was instructed to meet Yahweh at Horeb, the location of Mt. Sinai.

Question: When Moses arrived, where was Yahweh?
Answer: Yahweh told Moses He would be waiting "on the rock".

Question: How was Moses to obtain water as God commanded him?
Answer: He was commanded to "strike the rock" upon which God waited and water would come out for all the people and their animals.

Question: Where there any witnesses to the miracle?
Answer: Yes, the elders of Israel.

Numbers 20:1-13 Miriam's death and the Dissatisfaction within the Community
1 The Israelites, the whole community, arrived in the first month at the desert of Zin.  The people settled at Kadesh.  There Miriam died and was buried.  2 There was no water for the community, so they banded together against Moses and Aaron.  3 The people laid the blame on Moses.  'We could rather have died' they said, 'as our brothers died before Yahweh!  4 Why have you brought Yahweh's community into this desert, for us and our livestock to die here?  5 Why did you lead us out of Egypt, only to bring us to this wretched place?  It is a place unfit for sowing, it has no figs, no vines, no pomegranates, and there is not even water to drink!'  6 Leaving the assembly, Moses and Aaron went to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. They threw themselves on their faces, and the glory of Yahweh appeared to them.  7 Yahweh then spoke to Moses and said, 'Take the branch and call the community together, you and your brother Aaron.  Then, in full view of them order this rock to release its water.  You will release the water from the rock for them and provide drink for the community and their livestock.'  9 Moses took up the branch from before Yahweh, as he had directed him.  10 Moses and Aaron then called the assembly together in front of the rock.  He then said to them, 'Listen now, you rebels. Shall we make water gush from this rock for you?'  11 Moses then raised his hand and struck the rock twice with the branch; water gushed out in abundance, and the community and their livestock drank.  12 Yahweh then said to Moses and Aaron, 'Because you did not believe that I could assert my holiness before the Israelites' eyes, you will not lead this assembly into the country which I am giving them.'

Moses handled the rebellion of the Levites led by Korah with confidence, but as in that episode, he became very angry with the people: At the waters of Meribah they so angered Yahweh that Moses suffered on their account, for they had embittered his spirit, and he spoke without due thought (Ps 106:32-33).  Moses not only became embittered, he failed to obey Yahweh's command.  One cannot understand the full impact of this event on salvation history, however, without comparing it with the first event when God provided water from the rock in Exodus Chapter 17.

Question: Compare the two accounts.  What are the similarities and the differences?

Exodus 17:1-7 Numbers 20:2-11
The event took place at Horeb/Mt. Sinai (vs. 6a). The event took place at Kadesh in the desert of Zin (vs. 1).
The people complained that there was no water (vs. 1-2). The people complained that there was no water (vs. 2).
They blamed Moses (vs. 2b-3). They blamed Moses (vs. 3-5).
Moses appealed to God (vs. 4). Moses and Aaron appealed to God (vs. 6)
God told Moses to take some elders and to go on ahead to Horeb/Mt. Sinai, taking the staff he used to part the waters of the Red Sea (vs. 5). God told Moses to take his staff and to call the community together with Aaron (vs. 7-8a).
With the elders looking on, God told Moses to take his staff and to strike the rock upon which God waited and water would come out for the people to drink (vs. 6a). In view of the community, God told Moses to take the staff and to call upon the rock to release its water for the people to drink (vs. 8b).
Moses did as God told him; water came out (vs. 6b) Moses took his staff and he struck the rock twice; water came gushing out (vs. 10-11)
  Moses and Aaron were rebuked by God for their disbelief (vs. 12)
Moses named the place Messah [trial] and Meribah [contention] (vs. 7) The site came to be known as the Waters of Meribah (vs. 13)
Michal E. Hunt © 2010

Question: What is the most significant difference between the commands God gave Moses in the two events?
Answer: In the first event Moses was commanded to strike the rock upon which God waited and in the second event Moses was commanded to speak to the rock.

It is significant that "Rock" is a divine title.  For example, for God the Father:

It was a title St. Paul used for God the Son:

It was a title Yahweh shared with his covenant representative Abraham:

And it was a title Jesus shared with His covenant representative Simon-Peter:

Abraham was the "rock" of the Old Covenant, the physical father of the Church of the Sinai Covenant, and Peter was the "rock" of the New Covenant, the spiritual father of the universal New Covenant Church of Jesus Christ.

Both Moses and Aaron denied entry into the Promised Land. Moses blamed the Israelites (see Dt 1:34-40; 3:23-28; 4:21-22).  Moses and Aaron were both part of the condemned Exodus generation-only Caleb and Joshua were exempted from the death sentence for the Exodus generation at Kadesh in Numbers chapter 14.  Some conclude that Moses and Aaron were forbidden entrance into the Promised Land because Moses claimed that he and Aaron had caused water to come from the rock (Num 20:10), but God told Moses in verse 8: "You will release the water from the rock for them."   Scripture records that Moses and Aaron were not to enter the Promised Land because they both did not believe and disobeyed God's order at "the Waters of Meribah" (Num 20:12 and 24).  Despite the death sentence at Kadesh in Numbers 14, Moses and Aaron's actions in the second water from the rock miracle was enough to keep that death sentence in place, as God will tell Moses in Num 20:24, 27:12-14 and Dt 32:48-52.

Question: What didn't Moses and Aaron believe (Num 20:12) and why was Moses' action in striking the rock so serious? 
Answer: Like all the other Israelites of their generation, Moses and Aaron were already under a death sentence.  When God pronounced that none of the Exodus generation would ever see the Promised Land, He only exempted Joshua and Caleb from the judgment, but verse 24 clearly states that the action of striking the rock at Meribah was in itself enough to deny them the privilege.  It is clear that their failure to believe is linked to Moses' action of striking the rock twice when he was told that only "speaking" to the rock would yield the water.  Moses' and Aaron's disbelief has to be that they did not believe only speaking to the rock could yield the water, and their action in striking the rock as before must have had greater significance than the narrative revealed.

Question: In the first water from the rock miracle in Exodus 17:5-6 what were God's instructions to Moses?
Answer: Moses was told to strike the rock with his staff to receive water.

Question: How did St. Paul identify the "rock" in 1 Corinthians 10:1-4?
Answer: The rock is Christ, and the rock that is Christ followed the Israelites on their wilderness journey.

Question: If Moses was to receive the gift of life giving water by striking Christ the first time, why was he only to speak to Christ the second time to receive the miracle?  What did Jesus tell the Samaritan woman in John 4:5-14?  What is the spiritual gift that Jesus spoke of to the Samaritan woman using water imagery?  See CCC 694, 728, 1137, 1999, 2557, 2560, 2561, 2652; and Jn 19:34.
Answer: He was speaking of the gift of God the Holy Spirit-the "spring of water, welling up for eternal life."  In His sacrificial death Jesus was "struck" on the altar of the Cross, and from His dead body on the Cross flowed blood and water-the life giving waters of baptism and the Eucharist (Jn 19:34).  From the time of His resurrection three days later, the way we have access to drink from the life giving eternal "waters" that flow from God the Holy Spirit is when Jesus' priestly representative calls upon Jesus Christ in the words of consecration in the sacrifice of the Mass, and our gifts of bread and wine are transformed by God the Holy Spirit to become what we need for our spiritual journey through the wilderness of this earthly existence.

The water from the rock is a "type" of Christ.

The Typology of Jesus and Water from the Rock

... they drank from the spiritual rock which followed them, and that rock was Christ

1 Cor 10:4

The first command: the rock is to be struck to yield its gift of water

Ex 17:6

The second command: the rock is to be called and it will yield its gift of water

Num 20:8

Jesus is struck down as a sacrifice for sin on the Cross-blood and water flowed from His side

Jn 19:34

1 Jn 5:6-8

The priest calls to Christ in the words of consecration-Christ's life flows from the gift of the Eucharist

1 Cor 11:23-27

Michal E. Hunt © 2010


Numbers 20:14-21 Edom Refuses to Allow the Israelites Passage
14 Moses sent messengers from Kadesh: 'To the king of Edom.  Your brother Israel says this: You are aware of the great hardships we have encountered.  15 Our ancestors went down to Egypt and there we stayed for a long time.  But the Egyptians treated us badly, as they had our ancestors.  16 When we appealed to Yahweh, he heard our cry and, sending an angel, brought us out of Egypt, and here we are, now, at Kadesh, a town on the borders of your territory.  17 We ask permission to pass through your country. We shall not go through the fields or vineyards; we shall not drink the water from the wells; we shall keep to the king's highway without turning to the right or left until we have passed through your territory.'  18 To which, Edom replied, 'You will not pass through my country; if you do, I shall oppose you by force of arms.'  19 To which the Israelites replied, 'We shall keep to the high road; if I and my flocks drink any of your water, I am willing to pay for it.  All I am asking is to pass through on foot.' 20 Edom replied: 'You shall not pass,' and Edom opposed them in great numbers and great force.  21 At Edom's refusal to grant Israel passage through his territory, Israel turned away.

Question: Why did Moses address the Edomites as "brothers/kinsmen"?  See Gen 25:20-26; 36:9.
Answer: The Israelites are the descendants of Jacob/Israel whose brother was Esau, the ancestor of the Edomites.

The King's Highway [derek hammelek] was a major ancient roadway traveled by caravans.  It led from the delta of Egypt via Elath (Dt 2:8) to Damascus and then north into Asia Minor and Mesopotamia.  It intersected the other major trade route, the "Way of the Sea" [Via Maris in Latin] that led from the Egyptian delta and extended along the Mediterranean coast with a major branch of the trade route also ending at Damascus.  The King's Highway will be mentioned again in Numbers 21:22.  A branch of the King's Highway extended from Elath into Arabia. 

The people complain

Num 14:1-4

Israel's lack of faith

Num 14:11

Israel denied entrance into Canaan

Num 14:40-45

The people complain

Num 20:2-5

Moses' lack of faith

Num 20:12

Israel denied entrance into Edom

Num 20:14-21

Adapted from a chart in The Pentateuch as Narrative, page 400

The Israelites were commanded to treat the Edomites as kinsmen and that they were not to possess any land belonging to them.  It was for this reason that they did not invade Edom and went south around Mt. Seir on their way to the Plains of Moab to the east.  However, after traveling for several days, Yahweh instructed them to take the road through the Arabah, passing through the territory of the Edomites without provoking them and to play them in money for what food they ate and water they drank (Dt 2:1-8).

The Death of Aaron

They left Kadesh and encamped at Mount Hor, on the borders of the land of Edom. The priest Aaron went up Mount Hor on Yahweh’s orders and died there in the fortieth year of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, in the fifth month, on the first day of the month. Aaron was a hundred and twenty-three years old when he died on Mount Hor.
Numbers 33:37-39

Numbers 20:22-29 Aaron's Last Act of Obedience
22They set out from Kadesh, and the Israelites, the whole community, came to Mount Hor. 23Yahweh spoke to Moses and Aaron at Mount Hor, on the frontier of Edom, and said, 24 "Aaron is to be gathered to his people; he will not enter the country which I have given to the Israelites, since you both disobeyed my order at the Waters of Meribah. 25Take Aaron and his son Eleazar and bring them up Mount Hor. 26Then take Aaron's robes off him and dress his son Eleazar in them. Aaron will then be gathered to his people; that is where he will die." 27Moses did as Yahweh ordered. With the whole community watching, they went up Mount Hor. 28Moses took Aaron’s robes off him and dressed his son Eleazar in them, and there Aaron died, on the mountain-top. Moses and Eleazar then came back down the mountain. 29The whole community saw that Aaron had died, and for thirty days the whole House of Israel mourned for Aaron.

The exact location of Mt. Hor is uncertain, but from the Biblical description it appears to be a mountain on the border of Edom (Num 20:22-29, 21:4; 33:37; Dt 32:50). On the first day of the fifth month, in the fortieth year of the Exodus, Aaron’s death on Mt. Hor was his last act of obedience as Yahweh’s first High Priest of the Sinai Covenant; he was a hundred and twenty-three years old (Num 33:38-39). If it was the fifth month of the liturgical calendar, the month of Aaron’s death was on the first of Ab (July/August), but if it was the fifth month of the civil year, the month was Sebat (January/February; see the chart on the Hebrew Calendar). It is more likely that the reference is to the liturgical calendar since the Israelites conquer the peoples of the Transjordan, and then they will spend about five months encamped on the plains of Moab across from Jericho. When they cross into Canaan to begin the conquest they will celebrate the Passover on the west side of the Jordan on the 14th of Abib, in the early spring of the year.

Question: For how many days did the people mourn Aaron's death?
Answer: They mourned for thirty days.

Question: Who succeeded Aaron as Israel's new High Priest?
Answer: Aaron's eldest surviving son, Eleazar, succeeded him as the next High Priest.

A thirty-day period of mourning will also be observed when Moses dies (Dt 34:8). In both events, God provided a bridge for continuing leadership: when Aaron was about to die he was succeeded by his son Eleazar and when Moses was about to die he was succeeded by his spiritual son, Joshua (Num 27:12-13, 18-23; Dt 31:7-8; 34:9).

Numbers 20:14-21:3 records seven events; however, they are not related in chronological order. The order of events should be as follows:

  1. From Kadesh Moses sent messengers ahead to the King of Edom to request permission to pass through Edomite territory (Ex 20:14-18).
  2. Israel departed from Kadesh (20:22a).
  3. The Israelites arrived at Mt. Hor on the border with Edom (20:22).
  4. Aaron died on Mt. Hor and Eleazar became the High Priest (20:23-29)
  5. The Israelites were attacked by the Canaanite forces of King Arad; they defeated the Canaanites (21:1-3).
  6. The Israelites spoke to the Edomites, making a second request to pass through Edom and were denied (20:19-21).
  7. The Israelites departed from Mt. Hor to go around Edom by way of the Gulf of Aqaba (20:21b, 21:4)


Chapter 21: The Journey of the New Generation to Transjordan

So we passed beyond those relatives of ours, the children of Esau who live in Seir, by the road through Arabah, Elath and Ezion-Geber; the,, changing direction, we took the road towards the Plains of Moab.
Dt 2:8

And so we are not to put the Lord to the test; some of them put him to the test, and they were killed by snakes.  Never complain; some of them complained, and they were killed by the Destroyer.  Now all these thing happened to them by way of example, and they were described in writing to be a lesson for us, to whom it has fallen to live in the last days of the ages.
1 Corinthians 10:9-11

In this fortieth year out of Egypt, the new generation of Israelites warriors take center stage in the Transjordan campaigns after the people arrive at Nahal-Zered (Num 21:12).

Numbers 21:1-3 The Canaanite Attack and Defeat
1 The king of Arad, the Canaanite living in the Negeb, learned that Israel was coming by way of Atharim.  He attacked Israel and took some prisoners.  2 Israel then made this vow to Yahweh, 'If you deliver this people into my power, I shall curse their towns with destruction [under the ban of herem].'  3 Yahweh heard Israel's words and delivered the Canaanites into their power, and they destroyed them in accordance with their curse.  Hence the place was given the name Hormah [curse/destruction]. 

The Negeb was Canaanite territory located north of Kadesh. (4)  The Canaanite army of king Arad followed the Israelites from Kadesh by way of Atharim (ha'atarim) and ambushed them at Mt. Hor.  The name of the route, preceded by the definite article "the" has not been positively identified.

Question: In their petition to God to give them victory, what did the Israelites collectively pledge to God?
Answer: They pledged not to take any booty in their victory but to give over everything to God.

For the vow to be effective, it had to be taken by every soldier (JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 172).  This was an act of self-denial."   To declare herem is to declare totally consecration to the Lord.  Herem literally means "to curse with unconditional destruction for religious motives."  Usually after a battle the victorious soldiers divided the spoils.  To dedicate all the booty to God was an act of selflessness, recognizing that they did not win the victory without God's intervention.  After their victory, the Israelites gave the place-name Hormah. It is a word connected to the Hebrew root herem.  This action identifies religious motives for the conquest rather than political motives.

The Sign of the Bronze Serpent
Even when the fearful rage of wild animals overtook them and they were perishing from the bites of withering snakes, your retribution did not continue to the end. Affliction struck them briefly, by way of warning, and they had a saving token to remind them of the commandment of your Law, for whoever turned to it was saved, not by what he looked at, but by you, the Savior of all (Wis 16:5-7).

Numbers 21:4-9 The Complaints of the New Generation and God's Judgment

4 They left Mount Hor by the road to the Sea of Suph, to skirt round Edom.  On the way the people lost patience.  4 They spoke against God and against Moses, Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in the desert?  For there is neither food [bread] nor water here; we are sick of this meager diet. 6 At this, God sent fiery serpents among the people; their bite brought death to many in Israel.  7 The people came and said to Moses, 'We have sinned by speaking against Yahweh and against you.  Intercede for us with Yahweh to save us from these serpents.'  Moses interceded for the people, 8 and Yahweh replied, 'Make a fiery serpent and raise it as a standard.  Anyone who is bitten and looks at it will survive.'  9 Moses then made a serpent out of bronze and raised it as a standard, and anyone who was bitten by a serpent and looked at the bronze serpent survived. [..] = literal translation (The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English, page 408).

Israelites turned away from the border with Edom and took the road that led to the Gulf of Aqaba. 

The people began to complain about their hardships and spoke against God and Moses-accusing God and His covenant mediator of conspiring to lead them to die in the desert by not providing food and water for them. 

Numbers 21:4  They spoke against God and against Moses, Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in the desert?  For there is neither food [bread] nor water here; we are sick of this meager diet. They were in effect accusing God of being like the subtle serpent in the Garden of Eden whose lies lured Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit that brought death to mankind.  As their parents had sinned thirty-eight years ago with the same complaints (Num 11:4-6), their complaints contradicted them.

As their punishment for such a great sin, God allowed poisonous serpents whose bite burnt like fire to afflict the people to call them to repentance before dissatisfaction led to full-scale revolt. (5)

Question: How was the new generation of Israelites' response to Yahweh's redemptive judgment different from their father's generation?
Answer: They immediately acknowledge their sin, repented their sin, and asked for divine intervention.

Question: What was God's response to the people's repentance and Moses' petition?
Answer: He provided a means of salvation if they had the faith to look up to the sign Moses provided and to believe they were healed.

They had to look to an image of their judgment which was also an image of the accusation they made against God.  The image of the bronze serpent came to be called the Nehushtan, nehoset = bronze and nahash = serpent (see John 3:14, Wis 16:5-7, and 2 Kng 18:4).

Question: Isn't this image in violation of the commandment in Exodus 20:4-5?
Answer: God commanded that the covenant people must not worship any graven images, but He did not prohibit images that He commanded be made or images that symbolized the promise of salvation, like the cherubim over the Mercy-Seat of the Ark of the Covenant or the bronze image of the snake in this event, or the two great winged cherubim statues whose wings spanned the walls of the Holy of Holies in Solomon's Jerusalem Temple-none of which were worshipped: Nevertheless, already in the Old Testament, God ordained or permitted the making of images that pointed symbolically toward salvation by the incarnate Word: so it was with the bronze serpent, the ark of the covenant, and the cherubim (CCC 2130).

Question: Was it the bronze serpent that had the power to heal?  Read Wisdom 16:5-7.

 Answer: No, the bronze image of the serpent had no power in itself.  The healing power came from God if the people had the faith to look up and believe that God could heal them.  The inspired writer of Wisdom saw this event as a sign for the people to recall the Law which commanded the people to be obedient to God and to have faith and trust that God had the power to protect them as He had promised. 

Question: What became of the image of the bronze serpent?  See 2 Kng 18:1-4, also see Ex 20:4-5a; Lev 19:4; Dt 4:15-20; 5:8; 27:15.
Answer: During the time of the divided kingdom, the people began to worship the relic of the image of the bronze serpent in violation of the Law.  As part of his religious reforms, King Hezekiah destroyed the image.  

In the Gospel of St. John, Jesus referred to the bronze serpent as a sign of the universal salvation promised by God, and He linked His own crucifixion to this event when speaking to Nicodemus in John 3:10-17 and to the people in John 8:27-30.  Jesus said

Scholar John Sailhamer observed an interesting link between the sign of snakes and leprosy and the challenge to Moses' authority in Exodus and Numbers:

Moses challenged and vindicated


Wilderness journey



Moses challenged and vindicated



Exodus 4:3



Exodus 4:6



Numbers 12:10



Numbers 21:6

adapted from J. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative, page 387

That Moses' authority is from God is vindicated by both signs in three different challenges to Moses' leadership.  The first challenge was by the Egyptian Pharaoh, the second was by Miriam and Aaron, and in this episode by the people of the new Israelite generation.

Numbers 21:10-20 The Israelites Traveled by Stages to the East Side of the Jordan River (Transjordan)

10 The Israelites set out and camped at Oboth.  11 Then they left Oboth and camped at Iye-Abarim, in the desert on the eastern border of Moab.  12 They set out from there and camped in the gorge of the Zered.  13 They set out from there and camped on the other side of the Arnon.  This gorge in the desert begins in the territory of the Amorites.  For the Arnon is the frontier of Moab, between the Moabites and the Amorites.  14 That is why it says in the Book of the Wars of Yahweh:' 15 ... Waheb near Suphah and the gorges of the Arnon and the slope of the ravine running down to the site of Ar and over against the frontier of Moab.'  16 And from there they went to Beer [well], that being the well in connection with which Yahweh had said to Moses, 'Call the people together and I will give them water.'  17 Then it was that Israel sang this song:

Spring up, well!
Sing out for the well,
sunk by the princes,
18 dug by the people's leaders
With the scepter, with their staves!

 –and from the desert to Mattanah [gift], 19 and from Mattanah to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to Bamoth, 20 and from Bamoth to the valley that opens into the county of Moab, towards the heights of Pisgah overlooking the desert.

This section records a summary of the Israelite's encampments on their march through the Transjordan.  It is recorded in more detail in Numbers 33:41-49.  The battle with the Amorites clearly took place prior to Israel's arrival at the Jordan River Valley, so chronologically Numbers 21:21-35 precedes 21:10-20.  According to the text, this section is from a poetic work called the Book of the Wars of Yahweh (verses 14-15). Included in this section is a "well song" they sang when they reached Beer (literally "well").

Numbers 21:11 Then they left Oboth and camped at Iye-Abarim, in the desert on the eastern border of Moab.  It appears from the narrative that the Israelites set out from Mt. Hor, by-passed much of Edomite territory, and then crossed the tip of Edom to encamp in the wilderness boarding on Moab to the east.  Oboth cannot be identified. Iye-Abarim means "Iyyim of the Abarim", or "across [the mountains]", probably indicating the grandeur of the mountain range on the eastern horizon when standing on the other side of the Jordan River (see 27:12; 33:45); it is a mountain range that traverses the length of Moab. 

Numbers 21:12-15 They set out from there and camped in the gorge of the Zered.  13 They set out from there and camped on the other side of the Arnon.  This gorge in the desert begins in the territory of the Amorites.  For the Arnon is the frontier of Moab, between the Moabites and the Amorites.  14 That is why it says in the Book of the Wars of Yahweh:' 15 ... Waheb near Suphah and the gorges of the Arnon and the slope of the ravine running down to the site of Ar and over against the frontier of Moab.'

The gorge of the Zered is a wadi-a ravine through which a stream flows.  Most wadis are dry except during the rainy season, but the Wadi Zered, identified with the Wadi el-Hesa, a wadi 35 miles long and whose waters flow into the southeastern end of the Dead Sea, contains a perennial stream. The Arnon is a substantial perennial stream flowing about midway into the eastern end of the Dead Sea through the Wadi el-Mujib, a very large ravine that formed the boundary between Moab and King Sihon's Amorite kingdom.  Deuteronomy maintains that Israel entered its Promised Land when it crossed the Arnon, therefore any conquered territory beyond the Arnon belonged to Israel (Dt 2:24).

The Book of the Wars of Yahweh was a separate book that apparently contained anthologies of the early epic songs describing Israel's battles-this is a fragment of a song from that lost work. (6)

Numbers 21:17 Then it was that Israel sang this song: The song that follows begins with the same words that introduced the "Song of the Sea" in Exodus 15:1 except, unlike the "Song of the Sea", this song curiously mentions neither Yahweh nor Moses.  The rabbis explain the absence of both names by the fact that it was water that prevented Moses from crossing over into the Promised Land and Yahweh, because it was His judgment on His faithful servant that forbid him this blessing, chose not to be mentioned without His servant (JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 177).  The song recounts the last of the journey to the encampment on the Plains of Moab. (7)  Pisgah is either a mountain, a mountain range, or a district of Moab.  In Numbers 23:14, King Balak of Moab will take his prophet-for-hire, Balaam, to the summit of the Pisgah to rain curses down upon the Israelite camp. 

Numbers 21:21-35 The Conquest of the Transjordan
21 Israel sent messengers to say to Sihon king of the Amorites, 22 'I wish to pass through your country.  We shall not stray into the fields or vineyards; we shall not drink the water from the wells; we shall keep to the king's highway until we have passed through your territory.'  23 But Sihon would not give Israel leave to pass through his country.  He assembled all his people, marched into the desert to meet Israel, and reached Jahaz, where he gave battle to Israel.  24 Israel defeated him by force of arms and conquered his country from the Arnon to the Jabbok, as far as the Ammonites, for Jazer marked the Ammonite frontier.  25 Israel took all these towns.  Israel occupied all the Amorite towns, Heshbon and all its dependencies, 26 Heshbon being the capital of Sihon king of the Amorites, who made war on the first king of Moab and captured his territory as far as Arnon.  27 Hence the poets say:

Come to Heshbon!
Let the city of Sihon
be rebuilt on firm foundations!
28 For fire has burst from Heshbon,
a flame from the city of Sihon,
devouring Ar of Moab,
engulfing the heights of the Arnon.
29 Oh, unhappy Moab!
People of Chemosh, you are lost!
He has resigned his sons as fugitives,'
and his daughters as prisoners
to Sihon king of the Amorites.
30 Their posterity has been destroyed
from Heshbon all the way to Dibon,
and we have lit a fire
all the way from Nophah to Medeba.

31 Thus Israel occupied the Amorites' territory.  32 Moses then sent men to reconnoiter Jazer, and Israel took it and its dependencies, evicting the Amorites who lived there.  33 They then turned and marched on Bashan.  Og king of Bashan and all his people marched to meet them and give battle at Edrei.  34 Yahweh said to Moses, 'Do not be afraid of him, for I have put him, all his people and his country at your mercy.  Treat him as you treated Sihon king of the Amorites, who lived in Heshbon.'  35 So they pressed their attack against him, his sons and all his people until there was no one left alive.  And they took possession of his country. 

Moving north along the eastern edge of Moab, the Israelites sought peaceful passage through the Amorite kingdom of Sihon, promising to stick to the King's Highway. Heshbon (verses 25-26) was the Amorite capital and a station on the King's Highway as were Dibon, Medeba, Rabbath Ammon, Shawe-Kiryathaim, Ramoth Gilead and Ashtaroth-Karnaim.  The King's Highway was the major route for the perfume and spice trade coming out of southern Arabia through Teima.  In Transjordan, this route runs north and south just east of the major desert wadis, some of which are named in this passage-the Yarmuk, the Jabbok, the Arnon, and the Zered.  At Damascus the trade route turned northeast and continued to Tadmor/Palmyra and then to the Euphrates River, while another branch continued northward to Qatna, Hamath, and Aleppo.  At Damascus, caravans coming from Mesopotamia could switch off the King's Highway and continue south to Gaza and Egypt via the other great trade route called the Way of the Sea or as it was known in Roman times, the Via Maris (Levine, Numbers, vol. I, page 492). (6) 

Numbers 21:24 Israel defeated him by force of arms and conquered his country from the Arnon to the Jabbok, as far as the Ammonites, for Jazer marked the Ammonite frontier. The Amorite king did not believe the Israelites' intentions were peaceful and attacked the Israelites in the wilderness at Jahaz.  Jahaz (Yahas in Hebrew) is located in east-central Moab.  It is mentioned in several passages in Scripture (Dt 2:32; Jud 11:20; Is 15:4; Jer 48:21, 34) as Moabite territory.  The Israelites were victorious and occupied Amorite territory from the river Arnon to the river Jabbok as far as Ammonite territory.

Question: Who were the Ammonites?  See Gen 19:30-38.
Answer: They were the descendants of Abraham's nephew by Lot's incestuous union with his younger daughter.

The Jabbok is one of the main eastern tributaries of the Jordan River.  The Jabbok River and its valley is on the east side of the Jordan and was the northern border of King Sihon's territory (Num 21:23-24; Josh 12:2). The river's source is near Rabbath-Ammon and flows in a wide curve to the northeast, turning west as it enters the Jordan near Adam where it drops from 2,700 feet (820 m) above sea level to 1,000 feet (306 m) below sea level in its course from the mountains to the Jordan River Valley.  As it nears the Jordan the Jabbok flows through the broad, fertile plain of Succoth.  Jacob/Israel followed the course of this river on his way from Haran in Mesopotamia into Canaan (Gen 32:22-23).

Bishop Eusebius and St. Jerome mention a place called Azer or Jazer which was c. 10 miles (16 km) west of Rabbah of the Ammonites.  It is also mentioned in the Mesha Stele (Levine, Numbers, vol. II, page 100; JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 183).

Question: Why was it that conquering the region of the Jabbok River must have had great historical significance for the Israelites?  See Gen 32:23-33.
Answer:  It was in the Jabbok valley that Jacob wrestled with God's messenger and received the name "Israel" (Gen 32:23-33).

Numbers 21:28  Heshbon being the capital of Sihon king of the Amorites, who made war on the first king of Moab and captured his territory as far as Arnon.  This passage in verses 27-30 recalls a past historical event.  Originally Moab occupied all the territory on the east side of the Jordan River north of the Arnon stream (verse 26).  However, the territory between the Arnon and the Jabbok River Valley, a distance extending for fifty miles (80 kilometers) to the north, was disputed territory.  King Sihon of the Amorites invaded Moab and conquered this region.  The poem in verses 27-30 is the Amorite victory song.

Question: Who were the Amorites and the Moabites? See Gen 15:16; 19:31-37; Num 13:29, 21:12, 33 Dt 1:7, 27.
Answer: The Moabites were the descendants of Abraham's nephew from Lot's incestuous union with his elder daughter.  The different Amorites rulers controlled various areas from the hill country of Canaan to the Transjordan.  Scripture suggests they were the most numerous of the inhabitants of Canaan.

Numbers 21:30   Their posterity has been destroyed from Heshbon all the way to Dibon ... The Arnon flows through the Wadi el-Mujib, a large ravine that widens out south of Dibon where it is 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) wide and 1,650 feet (500 meters) below the tops of the nearby cliffs (JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 176). The Arnon formed the boundary between Moab and the Amorite kingdom (as indicated in verses 13 and 26).

Numbers 21:33-35 They then turned and marched on Bashan.  Og king of Bashan and all his people marched to meet them and give battle at Edrei.  34 Yahweh said to Moses, 'Do not be afraid of him, for I have put him, all his people and his country at your mercy.  Treat him as you treated Sihon king of the Amorites, who lived in Heshbon.'  35 So they pressed their attack against him, his sons and all his people until there was no one left alive.  And they took possession of his country. 

Verses 33-34 are repeated in Deuteronomy 3:1-2, except for the change from the first to the third person.  These passages confirm that all of the Transjordan was conquered by the Israelites in two successive battles. Bashan is the fertile area of the Transjordan north of Gilead.  It includes the area bounded by Mt. Hermon to the north, Jebel Druze to the east, the hills east of the Sea of Galilee to the west, and extended to about 6 miles (9.6 km) south of the Yarmuk River.  Edrei, the site of the battle, is identified with modern Der'a, located near the Yarmuk and the desert at the southeastern border of Og's kingdom.  The Israelites must have marched unopposed from the Jabbok River to the Yarmuk River (JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 184; Levine, Numbers vol. II, page 109).

King Og of Bashan was an Amorite.  He and his people are what the reconnaissance team reported seeing in Numbers 13:32-33 as men of enormous size (Amos 2:9), which is probably why Yahweh prepared His holy warriors by having Moses tell them not to be afraid and their victory was assured. 

Question: How is Og of Bashan described in Scripture?  How big was his bed?  What other foe of Israel was probably a descendant from the same people? See Dt 3:11; 2 Sam 21:16-22.
Answer: He is described in Scripture as the last of the giant Rephaim.   In Deuteronomy 3:11, Og's bed is described as being 9 cubits long and 4 cubits wide, which would be approximately 13 feet by 8 feet. David's enemy Goliath was also a giant man.

Question: How was the battle at Edrei different from the battle with King Sihon?

  1. No peace emissaries were sent out.
  2. The battle with King Og was at God's command.
  3. God told the Israelites to "treat him as your treated Sihon ..." meaning to put Og's people under the ban of herem.  The ban of destruction for King Sihon's army was a pledge made by the Israelite soldiers.

Numbers 22:1  The Israelites then set out and pitched their camp in the Plains of Moab, beyond the Jordan opposite Jericho.

The Israelites have arrived at their destination to begin their preparation for the conquest of Canaan! 

Question for group discussion:

Compare Jesus Christ, the "Rock" and the live-giving waters that flowed from the rock at Mt. Sinai and Kadesh with the gift of Christ in the Eucharist?  How is it that Jesus becomes present upon the altar through the spoken words of His priestly representative?  Are there those who, like Moses and Aaron fail to believe that a substance that gives life can come from the bread and wine only through the spoken word?



  1. See Sailhamer, page 395; The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English, page 404.  The Hebrew word aphar, "dust" is also found in Gen 2:7; 3:14, 19.  In Gen 18:27 see the use of both words, "dust" aphar, and ashes, epher: Abraham spoke up and said, 'It is presumptuous of me to speak to the Lord, I who am dust and ashes ... The Hebrew word for "living" as in the "living water", chay, is from the prime root chayah, "to live", literally or figuratively.  It can be used figuratively as an adjective for water that is fresh running.  In Jesus' exchange with the Samaritan woman, the Greek word Jesus' used for water had the same double meaning.  This confused the woman since well water is not "living/running" water but still water (Jn 4:10-11).


  1. The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English, page 404; Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative, page 395.  Chay, "alive" is from the prime root chayah, "to live."  As an adjective the word means "alive", "living" and can be used literally or figuratively (The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, 311-13).


  1. The Biblical place-name qades (Kadesh) is probably derived from the Hebrew rood qds, referring to "holiness" or "separateness" (The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. IV, "Kadesh", page 1).  The place-name is also found in Num 13:26 and Dt 1:19.  In Josh 15:23 it is spelled slightly differently.  In addition to the ancient oasis at Kadesh-Barnea, there is also a Kadesh-on-the-Orontes in Syria, the site of a famous battle between the armies of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II and King Muwatallis of the Hittites in 1285 BC.  Some scholars, both ancient and modern, identify the Kadesh were Miriam died with the ancient site of Petra.  In Aramaic the name Kadesh is translated as Rekem, the same name used for Petra.  Petra, the traditional site of Aaron's tomb, was an ancient source for water along the ancient trade route known as "The Kings Highway" as early as the second millennium BC.  In the book of Numbers, Petra is first mentioned in Chapter 31, when the Israelites move north into the territory of the kings of Transjordan and slay the king of Rekem/Petra. (Bruce Feiler, Walking the Bible, pages 377 and 379). However, Petra was in Edomite territory so it seems unlikely that Moses would send a request to the Edomite king to pass through his territory if the Israelites were already encamped there.  If the Israelites were already encamped at Petra, the Edomites would have attacked.  Petra also has a much greater water supply than the two springs that water Kadesh.
  1. In Hebrew, a Canaanite dialect, Negeb means "arid land" or "south".  It is the expanse of wilderness land that spreads across southern Palestine and the northeast portion of the Sinai Peninsula.  It was home to the Amalekites (Num 13:29) and other Canaanite groups of semi-nomadic peoples (Num 21:1; 33:42).  The book of 1 Samuel also records such groups as the Geshurites, Girzites, Jerahmeelites, Kenites, and Cherethites inhabiting the Negeb (1 Sam 27:8-10; 30:14).  The ancient road known as "the Way of Shur" ran through the region, and was the route followed by the caravans traveling through the Negeb to Egypt. The word "Shur" is the Hebrew word for "wall" and is the name of the wilderness region in northern Sinai between southern Canaan and Egypt (Gen 16:7; 20:1; 25:18; Ex 15:22; 1 Sam 15:7; 27:8).
  1. The Rabbis in Targum Onkelos describe the snakes as "burning", referring to their poisonous bite.  The Rabbis in Targum Neofiti provide this interpretation: "The divine voice came forth from the earth ... the serpent was cursed from the beginning and I said to it: Dust shall be your food (see Gen 3:14) ... Let the serpent which does not murmur concerning its food come and rule over the people which has murmured concerning their food" (The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 174).
  1. The Book of Jashar (Josh 10:13; 2 Sam 1:18) also contained an anthology of war songs and was also lost.
  1. This appears to be the same route the four Mesopotamian kings took in their invasion of Canaan in Gen Chapter 14 but from the opposite direction (from north to south).  The four kings came down to route of the King's Highway to the region of the Dead Sea and then moved farther south to El Paran/Elath.  Gen 14:4-8 mentions Ashtaroth-Karnaim, Ham and Shawe-Kiryathaim-all towns and stopping off stations along that route.  Dibon has been identified with modern Dhiban, 3 miles (5 km) north of the Arnon River and Medeba is identified with modern Madaba, 15 miles (24 km) southeast of the mouth of the Jordan River. 
  1. According to the Talmud, this song was sung in the Jerusalem Temple every third Sabbath afternoon and the "Song of the Sea" (Ex 15:1-21) was sung on the other two Sabbath afternoons (JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 177).

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2010 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.

Catechism references:

Num 19

CCC 694, 728, 1137, 1999, 2557, 2560, 2561, 2652

Num 21:4-9

CCC 2130

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2010 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.