We begin our reading today on the heels of Korah’s rebellion and challenge to Moses and Aaron’s authority and their role over the people of Israel. Chapter 17 continues that theme. God will prove who He has called to what vocation within the people of God. And in verse 8 God proves that Aaron has been called – he has not assumed any role for himself (like Korah wanted to do). The staff is to be a reminder not that Aaron is the one chosen, but that God is the holy Chooser (v. 10). The chapter ends with a recognition by the people of the need for a mediatorial ministry between themselves and God (v. 12).
Chapter 18 carries over that idea. The priests and Levites have the responsibility of ministering in the Tabernacle, but only the priests may approach God (18:3). We see in verse 6 that though the Levites minister to Aaron and his sons, they are really ministering to the Lord – the gift to them is really a gift to Him. So it is with any service for the people of God. Service unto each other is service rendered unto God. But note that those who have the privilege of approaching God in this special way also have a responsibility for the whole of what happens in His presence (v. 1).
The remainder if the chapter explains how the priests and Levites should make a living from their service to God. The priests will get a part of the offerings to God. The tithes of the congregation will be for the Levites, who will also tithe to the priests. But note that this is all they will get. There is no inheritance in the land for the tribe of Levi, because their rewards is not land or even the contributions they will receive. It is God (v. 20).
Chapter 19 begins with instructions for the purification of those who are unclean. Verses 1-10 detail the offering for sin and the other elements that will be burned together, the ashes of which will be used to make the “water for impurity” (19:9). This is what those who become unclean will ceremonially wash with in the ceremonial purification. This will be, once again, for all who worship God (v. 10). And note that this is a perpetual statute. This points forward to our need for a sacrifice and washing with water for our impurity, which we we received in Christ and His Holy Spirit. The remainder of the chapter gives instructions for using the water for impurity in the case of uncleanness for contact with a dead body. Remember, death represents sin, and it is completely contrary to God’s holiness. Verse 20 states that anyone without this cleanness – of the sacrifice and the water – is cut off from God (v. 20).
Chapter 20 begins with a very unceremonious announcement of Miriam’s death. What is important to realize is that we are now just about at the end of the wilderness wanderings. The taking of the land is about to commence. Miriam’s death was a natural death and signals that the entire generation had just about passed away (see Num 14:20-35 and Jude 5).
Numbers 20:2-13 record a familiar scenario: the Israelites are running out of water, they complain against Moses (but really God – vv. 3-5), Moses intercedes on their behalf (v.6), and God provides what they need (v.8). And we have seen water come from the rock before (see Ex 17:1-7). Remember, the Rock was Christ (see 1 Cor 10:4). Only instead of striking the Rock as instructed the last time, Moses is told to “tell the rock” to produce the water (v. 8). This symbolizes how Christ was struck, once for all, to provide life for His people, but now does not need to be struck again to provide that life. Now, He is the Mediator between us and God, and we pray through Him for what we need God to provide.
And this explains the sin of Moses (v. 12). He lacked faith. He should have, based on what God has already done (providing through the striking of the Rock) believed that God would do what He said He would yet do (provide through the asking of the Rock to bring forth water). God is absolutely holy, and He cannot lie (Heb 6:18).
Verses 14-21 records Israel’s request to Edom (his brother, remember!) to pass through their country. They are refused passage (v. 21). This will not bee forgotten by God, and we will see that Edom pays for their treatment of Israel. The chapter closes with the account of Aaron’s death. Aaron (like Moses – v. 12) would perish because of his unbelief in the incident with the Rock (v. 24). The High Priesthood is passed onto his son, Eleazar, and Aaron dies (v. 28).
The miraculous proof of God’s calling to the priestly vocation, the responsibilities of the priests that handle the holy things and approach God, the rules for purification, and incident with the Rock are all stark reminders to Israel, now marching toward the Promised Land, of God’s holiness and their need for perfect obedience.