On the night of their exodus from Egypt, it is recorded that there were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children <Ex.12:37>. However, there were others that joined the exodus: “Many other people went up with them” <Ex.12:38 (NIV); cf 9:20>, and the belief is that these Egyptians caused much of the problems for Moses and Aaron. If that is the reason, it was not an excuse for the Israelites to join in their disbelief; and whether or not, there was a major rebellion at Kadesh-barnea that brought God’s judgment upon the people, the result was, all who were adults at that time would not enter the promised land, the whole assembly were destined to wander in the desert for forty more years <see Num.14:26-35>.
The greater part of their wanderings during the forty years, except for a few events, is not recorded; a full description of the encampments are listed for our reading in Numbers 33; and it is apparent that their wanderings took many circles that eventually brought them back to Kadesh (NIV Study Bible).
The beginning of their fortieth year is recorded: “In the first month the whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh.” <Num.20:1 (NIV)>, this can be verified by comparing the record: “They left Kadesh and camped at Mount Hor, on the border of Edom. At the Lord’s command Aaron the priest went up Mount Hor, where he died on the first day of the fifth month of the fortieth year after the Israelites came out of Egypt.” <Num.33:37-38 (NIV); cf 20:22-28>; and following this, other events are recorded for the rest of the 40th year, including the death and burial of Miriam the sister of Moses and Aaron <1 Chr.6:3>.
The new generation of Israelites are now faced with a similar problem that faced their parents when they began their wilderness journey; “Now there was no water for the community, and the people gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron. They quarreled with Moses and said, “If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the Lord! Why did you bring the Lord’s community into this desert, that we and our livestock should die here? Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!”” <Num.20:2-5 (NIV); cf Ex.17:1-3>. On the first occasion God instructed Moses to strike the rock with his staff, but here God’s instruction to Moses was for him to speak to the rock <Num.20:7-8>; instead, Moses struck the rock twice with his staff and water flowed from the rock <cf 1 Cor.10:3-4; Heb.10:12-14>; these scriptures compare to the O.T. references and teach that Christ, who is ‘The Rock’, suffered once and will never suffer God’s judgment again! In his action we see that Moses sinned against God to the extent that both himself and Aaron, who assisted him, were not permitted to enter the promised land; “But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.”” <Num.20:12 (NIV); 20:22-29>; the nature of Moses’ offence is not clear from the text but it is apparent from God’s statement that both Moses and Aaron failed to trust God that speaking to the rock was sufficient, and by Moses’ impulsive action in striking the rock twice, God’s holiness was not honoured in the presence of the people. For any servant of God in a leadership position, and faced with difficult decisions and severe criticism, extreme care is required that no harsh words or actions are expressed!
The new generation of Israelites now face their first challenge; “When the Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming along the road to Atharim, he attacked the Israelites and captured some of them.” <Num.21:1 (NIV)>; and the Israelites make their first request to God that these people would be delivered into their hands, if God would honour their request, they would totally destroy the people and the city of Arad. God honoured their request and “They completely destroyed them and their towns; so the place was named Hormah.” <Num.21:3 (NIV)>. Following this encounter, they travelled along the route to the Red Sea so as to bypass Edom, for the Edomites had refused to allow the Israelites to pass through their territory <see Num.20:20>, which caused the people to become impatient with Moses and with God for not allowing them to engage Edom in battle. This exhibited their self-confidence seeing that they had just defeated Arad, not acknowledging that it was God who had given them the victory; leading them to further sin against God by rejecting God’s provisions for them: “they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”” <Num.21:5 (NIV)>. This brought about God’s judgment upon His people by Him sending venomous snakes into their camp and many people died. Upon their confession of sin God told Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole and those that looked at the bronze snake would live <Num.21:9>.
Following this event, the Israelites now resume their journey towards Moab camping in various places along the route and finally arrive in the valley in Moab in the shadow of Mt. Pisgah, where they face another battle. Sihon, king of the Amorites refused Israel passage through his territory, there is a battle, and Sihon and the Amorites are defeated. Og, king of Bashan is also defeated by the Israelites, and they take possession of his territory.
There are three scriptural truths that are evident from these encounters. First, Jesus Christ “The Rock” <1 Cor.10:4> was (struck) as a sacrifice for our sins “once” by God and never will be struck again <Heb.10:10>. Christ sacrifice for sins was the end to the Aaronic priesthood and sacrificial system set up through Moses <see Heb.10:12-13; cf Rom.4:25-5:1>. Secondly, the bronze snake that Moses set up in the Israelite Camp represented the work of Christ in the redemption of the sin of all peoples <see Jn.3:14-15>. Finally, we should never reject the grace of God that He has offered to us in His salvation, for this is what the Israelites did when they rejected the heavenly manna that God had provided for them <Num.21:5; cf Jn.6:32-35, 48-51, 58>. We need to do what the Israelites did; “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord” <Num.21:7 (NIV)>; we need to acknowledge our sinfulness and seek God’s forgiveness: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense — Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” <1 Jn.1:8-2:2 (NIV)>.