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The Bitterness of Death: Numbers 20

According to Benjamin Franklin, there were only two certain things in life: death and taxes. While Numbers opens and closes with a census, which is about taxes, Numbers 20 is about death.

In the opening verse, Miriam, sister of Moses, dies. She had survived the Exodus and gone through the entire period of wandering in the Wilderness. Now, as the people are lining up for the final march to the Jordan River, Miriam passes away. The dearth of information is stunning here. She gets one sentence about her death and burial, and then we go on.

We go on to find the people of Israel grumbling. Let’s keep in mind that this is the generation that has been raised in the wilderness because of the preceding generation’s unfaithfulness! Yet they grumble because there is no water where they are.

This is the first part of the bitterness of death: Moses and Aaron, leaders of the people, are not granted space to grieve. The needs of the people outweigh their need for time and a little space. And this is not unlike what faces many grieving people today.

Consider this reality: a loved one dies, and your company policies give you a few days off work. Yet what happens? The world keeps going. You take a day or two to be with family, attend a funeral, and the whole time you have to wonder what’s happening at work. No, you’re not being replaced, but you are being bypassed.

No time is given for you to grieve, because the world moves on. You have to keep up, just as Moses and Aaron have to in this chapter.

The people grumble about Egypt, a land they hardly even knew, and long to return to it. This is not unusual: how many people pine for days gone by without knowing what went by in them? I think of my contemporaries who long for the days of the Puritans without thinking much about starvation—or about what would happen to them if they were counted as dissenters in those days.

The people, though, want water. Since they want water, Moses takes this up with YHWH, who commands that Moses speak to the rock in the area, that it would bring forth water. Moses, for the first time we can see in Scripture, disobeys God’s direct command. Instead of speaking, he strikes the rock.

Much theological discussion has taken place about just exactly why it was wrong for Moses to strike the rock. Was it because the rock was struck twice? Was it this or that?

While the nerd-side of me loves this stuff, it’s really a nonsensical question. Let’s rephrase it to see why: “What made Moses’ disobedience to a direct, divine command from the Almighty, so bad?” Do we really need to answer that question or is it not clear in itself? Seems clear to me.

The chapter ends with the death of Aaron. Moses now stands alone at the head of Israel. His generation is gone, and he remains. He remains with the pending judgment that he also will not enter Canaan.

Do we wonder why these are the waters of Meribah? The place of contention? It’s terrible. Death and disobedience, strife and sadness echo through these verses. These are the costs of sin, even if there is no one sin to nail down.

What, then, should we do?

Perhaps we should first and foremost learn to slow down and be aware of the needs of people around us. This alone might make a world of difference for the people in our lives. Stop, and grieve. Allow some space for the needs of others.

Second, be careful about pining for days gone by. There were great old times, but is the whole thing worth going back to?

Finally, recognize this: the future is coming. Eleazar succeeds Aaron (Numbers 20:25). A time is coming when another must take on whatever you do. That can be a time of bitterness or excitement.

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