Numbers 20 is a sad chapter. We were introduced to Miriam back in the book of Exodus, at the time of the birth of Moses. We have seen several incidents in her life, and now at the beginning of the chapter, she dies. Then, at the end of the chapter, we have the death of Aaron. We have just seen God defending him in his priesthood. But because of the judgment pronounced on both Moses and Aaron, neither one will enter the promised land.
When we study this chapter, we should really study it in conjunction with Psalm 90, the only psalm in the Bible that was composed by Moses. It begins with a reflection on the grandeur and eternity of God and contrasts that with the weakness and mortality of man. It traces that mortality to his sin, and then it ends with a great appeal for the grace of God to bless us in this life and also to establish the work of our hands after we are gone. In my judgment, Moses must have composed that psalm after the events of Numbers 20, reflecting on the meaning of what we find in this chapter.
This chapter is the beginning of the last of three travel sections that we have in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. The first of those travel sections, described in Exodus 13-19, is when the people left Egypt and traveled as far as Sinai. The second of the travel sections, recorded in Numbers 10-11, is from Sinai to Kadesh, when they were going to enter the promised land. The final travel section, in Numbers 20-21, shows their journey from Kadesh to Transjordan, which is on the very border of the promised land, across the Jordan River from Jericho.
This final travel section is different from the first two. These first two begin on a high note and then they end in discouragement and defeat. When the people leave Egypt, they’re singing songs with voices of triumph. But that ends with the people complaining about the lack of bread and water. And then in the second one, when they left Sinai they went out accompanied by the presence and power of God, thinking that at last they’re on the way to Canaan. But that section ends with the people preferring the report of the ten unbelieving spies. Then when God says they can’t go into the land, they decide to do it on their own and they are defeated in a great battle. However, this third one is just the opposite. It begins sadly with the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, but then up from there. We see this pattern of God’s people getting into sin and doing many terrible things in this life, but the pattern of God’s dealing with his people is one of perseverance. So even though we have these two false starts, in the end God really does bring the people into the promised land, and with great victory and great rejoicing.
The death of Miriam is reported very briefly in just six words, at least in the English text. It must have been a terrible loss for Moses. Miriam was his older sister. It’s true she wasn’t perfect. There was a time when she and Aaron grew jealous of Moses because of his unique position, and spoke against Moses. God judged her for that, even as He was merciful. But she must have had a kind of proprietary interest in Moses from the very beginning. When Moses was born and his mother had to put him in the little ark and stick him out in the bulrushes, it was Miriam who was standing there on the hill to watch what would become of him. She must have shared something of the faith of her mother and was expecting God to deliver the child. When Pharaoh’s daughter sent her servant to pull that little ark in and she found the baby there, Miriam, with real strength and power of imagination, went down and asked if Pharaoh’s daughter would like her to find a wet nurse to take care of the baby for her. And when Pharaoh’s daughter said yes, she very cleverly went and got Moses’ mother. By and large Miriam was really a great support to Moses.
Moses is almost 120 years old now, and he has had his sister and brother to talk to throughout all these long years, even as many of the people who had come out of Egypt had died along the way. He must have thought back to those days so many years before when they were in Egypt with their mother and their father, and of the godly counsel they received in the home, and how God had preserved them and blessed them and guided them.