I hope that you’ve been enjoying our sermon series called “The Wandering Church”. Over the years we’ve all heard many of the well-known stories that took place in the life of Moses and during the exodus. In this collection of messages, we’ve been streaming them all together in their proper chronological order. Connecting these separate events with one another in a sequence has given me a fuller, richer appreciation of the entire exodus journey. I trust that it has done the same for you.
Last week’s sermon was difficult to preach and probably hard to hear. The children of Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. During this time, Moses watched as literally millions of his followers died. God had decreed that everyone of them age 20 and above would die, except Joshua and Caleb, for their sinful decision at Kadesh-barnea. The people were rebellious, covetous, and desperate. They had lost their purpose, their strength, and their hope.
After roaming about in the desert for 4 decades, the children of God arrived again at Kadesh. By now, most of the older adults had died. Almost the entire population was now younger than 60 years of age. Those who had been children and teens before the wilderness wanderings began had grown into adulthood, and now had families of their own. Only a small number of the “old-timers” were still living. Three of these remaining elders were Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
Moses, Aaron, and Miriam were siblings. Miriam was present years earlier when the Egyptian princess found the baby Moses in a basket along the Nile River. Aaron had been chosen by God and served with Moses as the co-leader of the exodus. Although they had their occasional squabbles, these three were family and loved each other dearly. Though they were all prominent people, none of them were exempted from God’s judgment. They too would die before entering the Promised Land, just as most of the others of their generation had already done.
In this morning’s message, we will study about the death of both Miriam and Aaron. We will also be told of Moses’ upcoming fate. Once again, this is not a particularly cheerful or upbeat message. Still, I believe that there are important truths to be learned from this text.
I. MIRIAM DIES (Numbers 20:1-2)
The mention of Miriam’s death and burial is brief and without much detail. There is no indication that the congregation expressed a great outpouring of mourning or grief. Certainly they were deeply saddened by her passing, yet probably not overly surprised by it. Miriam was older than both Moses and Aaron. Bible scholars estimate that she was almost 126 years old when she died. They reason that she’d probably been sickly for some time, and so her death did not come as a shock to anyone. She died and was buried in Kadesh.
Jewish tradition links Miriam’s death with the sudden lack of water. Some translations of the original manuscripts read that “Miriam died there and was buried there, and the congregation was without water.” Their belief is that a well (called Miriam’s Well) supernaturally followed the children of Israel during the wilderness wanderings supplying them with ample water. God made this miraculous provision for the people because of the virtue and merit of Miriam. When she died, this traveling well dried up leaving the people without. While this is an interesting theory, there is no Biblical basis for it in my opinion..
II. MOSES DISOBEYS (Numbers 20:2-13)
Following the death of Miriam, Israel faced a water shortage. They came to Moses and Aaron to complain. As he’d done numerous times before, Moses turned to the LORD for help. God told Moses to “speak” to the rock at Meribah. When he did so, water would pour out from it for the people and their livestock to drink. So Moses gathered the congregation together, but rather than speaking to the rock as God had commanded he struck the rock twice with his rod. Water followed out as the LORD had promised, but Moses had disobeyed God’s clear instructions.
Immediately before striking the rock Moses said, “Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” This question seems to suggest that he was extremely frustrated with his followers. Perhaps his anger got the best of him, as it had on previous occasions, so he hit the rock in disgust. Notice that he did not ascribe the miracle to God either, but rather to himself and Aaron. For whatever reason, Moses disobeyed God.
In response to Moses’ brash behavior, the LORD told him that he would not be permitted to enter into the Promised Land either. To be honest, this has always story has always bothered me a little bit. Why would God restrict Moses, the very man He’d called to lead the exodus, from reaching his goal? Of course he had his faults and made some mistakes, but wasn’t the LORD being overly harsh? I mean, this is Moses we’re talking about. Considering all he’d done and put up with, surely he deserved to enter the Promised Land…
Aaron’s oldest sons were killed because they offered a profane sacrifice before the LORD. Fire and plague had killed many of the pilgrims because of their doubts and grumblings. The earth had opened and swallowed hundreds of rebels in the wilderness. Millions had died as a direct result of God’s punishment. Throughout other places in Scripture, we read about many people who were cursed or even killed by God. Though we may think that His actions are cruel and unfair, we are not in a position to judge. What would be unfair is if the LORD judged people differently by showing leniency toward some and not others. A fair judge is an impartial judge. That said, Moses faced the same level of scrutiny as anyone else. He was held to the same standard.
III. AARON DIES (Numbers 20:14-29)
The wilderness wanderings had finally ended, and now Moses intended to lead Israel northward to the region east of the Jordan River. The direct route would require them to pass through the land of Edom. Moses sent messengers to the king asking for permission to pass safely through his country. When the king refused, Moses had no choice but to go around. So the people journeyed from Kadesh and came to Mt. Hor.
Following the LORD’s command, Moses took Aaron and Eleazar with him up Mt. Hor. While on the mountain, Moses stripped Aaron of his priestly garments and placed them on Eleazar. This ceremony formally transferred the office of High Priest from Aaron to his son Eleazar. Once this had taken place, Scripture states that Aaron died on the mountain top. When Moses and Eleazar came back down the mountain the congregation was surprised and devastated by the news of Aaron’s passing. They mourned his death for 30 days.
Some critics cite Aaron’s death as a contradiction in the Bible. The book of Numbers twice states that he died atop Mt. Hor, but in Deuteronomy 10:6 we read that Aaron died at Moserah and was buried there. So which is it? The precise location of these two places is unknown, but Bible apologists explain that Mt. Hor lies in the region of Moserah. Therefore, both of these statements are true and there is no conflict whatsoever.
Within the span of only a few months, Moses lost both his brother and his sister. Their deaths must have affected him, just as they would anyone of us. Though he was still surrounded by many godly men such as Joshua, it must have been difficult to watch his siblings die.
When I think about this passage, it becomes clear that no one is exempt from God’s judgment. Even the great prophet Moses - a champion of the faith - was subject to it. God doesn’t measure people’s deeds on a balance scale. He doesn’t give us a pass if our good outweighs our bad. There is no favoritism on His part toward certain people or groups. We are all vile, wretched sinners before a holy God - even those who we naively suppose to be the most righteous. This is why we all need to receive the forgiveness and salvation that Jesus offers. It is our only hope.
God would be perfectly justified to judge anyone of us at any moment to any degree that He desired. Moses was not allowed to get away with his disobedience. What makes us think that we will?