Chapter twenty seems to skip most of Israel’s wandering years. Although some commentators believe that Israel came to Kadesh only once and stayed near there (based on Deuteronomy 1:46), it seems clear that this “first month” is a return to Kadesh in “the fortieth year after the Israelites had come out of the land of Egypt” (compare Numbers 20:1, 22-29 with Numbers 33:36-38). Essentially, nearly thirty-eight years of Israel’s history is ignored as they simply lived and died in the wilderness, waiting for the entire first generation to pass away before they could enter the land.
One wonders how much grumbling and complaining took place during those nearly four decades of nomadic life, since the second generation parroted the first generation’s mantra – “Why have you brought us up from Egypt only to bring us to this dreadful place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; nor is there any water to drink!” (Numbers 20:1-5) After God’s continued provision all that time, they still did not trust him. Once again, Moses and Aaron approached God for help in dealing with the people, and once again God chose to provide miraculously (Numbers 20:6-11). He told Moses to speak to a rock, and enough water would come out to supply everyone. However, Moses, in his anger, struck the rock with his staff twice (similar to Exodus 17:1-7) and the water flowed. Because of his attitude and disobedience to God’s command, God promised that Moses would not enter Canaan (Numbers 20:12-13).
Unable to enter from Kadesh because of the enemy tribes there, Israel walked around the south side of the Dead Sea toward the eastern side of the Jordan River. Certainly, Moses thought, their relatives from Esau’s side of the family (the Edomites) would allow them safe passage (Numbers 20:14-21). Unfortunately, he was wrong. Edom threatened war against Israel if they even crossed their borders, so they continued on a different route. Just about four months after Miriam’s death, Moses lost his brother, Aaron, as well (Numbers 20:22-29). God had him appoint Aaron’s son, Eleazar, in his place, then Aaron died and Israel mourned him for a month.