Lesson 65: Numbers 20–21
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“Lesson 65: Numbers 20–21,” Old Testament Seminary Teacher Manual (2014)

“Lesson 65,” Old Testament Seminary Teacher Manual

Lesson 65

Numbers 20–21


After almost 40 years since leaving Egypt, the Israelites rebelled against Moses and Aaron because of a lack of water. The Lord directed Moses to bring forth water out of a rock. The children of Israel rebelled again when they were not allowed to pass through the land of Edom on their way to the promised land and instead had to travel a great distance to go around it. In response to their rebellion, the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people. He then instructed Moses to set a brass serpent upon a pole and promised that those who looked upon it would be healed.

Suggestions for Teaching

Numbers 20:1–13

Moses smites a rock and brings forth water to quench Israel’s thirst

Invite two students to read the following scenarios aloud to the class. Ask the class to listen and ponder how they might respond in each situation.

  1. While preparing a talk for sacrament meeting, you receive impressions about what you should say. After you give the talk, a member of your ward approaches you and says, “Thank you so much for what you said today. You are an amazing speaker, and your words were exactly what I needed to hear. I am so grateful for you.”

  2. A friend who accepted the gospel because of your example says, “You changed my life. Because of you, I am happy and have direction and peace in my life.”

  • Besides thanking these individuals for their kindness, what are some possible ways you could respond to their praise?

Point out to students that in both scenarios their actions brought blessings to another person. Encourage them to ponder how they could respond in a way that could bring additional blessings to that person. Invite students to look for doctrines and principles as they study Numbers 20 that can help them bless others’ lives in circumstances like these.

Summarize Numbers 20:1–3 by explaining that after nearly 40 years since leaving Egypt, the Israelites camped in the desert of Zin. While there, Miriam died and the Israelites once again rebelled against Moses and Aaron.

Invite a student to read Numbers 20:4–5 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for why the Israelites rebelled. Invite them to report what they find.

Invite several students to take turns reading aloud from Numbers 20:6–11. As they read, ask two other students to portray Moses in these verses. Invite one student to act out what the Lord instructed Moses to do in verse 8, and ask the other to act out what Moses actually did in verses 9–11.

  • In what ways were Moses’s actions different from the Lord’s instructions?

  • What phrase in verse 10 shows that Moses and Aaron took credit for providing water for the Israelites?

Invite a student to read Numbers 20:12 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for the Lord’s response after Moses smote the rock.

  • What did the Lord say to Moses and Aaron? (Help students understand that the phrase “to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel” meant that the Lord wanted the children of Israel to know that it was He, not Moses and Aaron, who provided the water for them.)

  • What did the Lord say the consequence would be for Moses’s and Aaron’s actions?

  • Why do you think the Israelites needed to understand that it was God who provided the water?

Invite students to write in their class notebooks or scripture study journals a truth they learned from this account. Ask a few students to share with the class the truth they identified. (Students’ responses may vary, but they should identify the following truth: The Lord desires that we help others see His power and influence in their lives.)

  • Why is it important to direct others’ attention to the Lord’s power instead of to ourselves?

  • In addition to the two scenarios we discussed earlier, what are situations in which we might be able to help others focus on the Lord’s power and goodness instead of on ourselves?

Encourage students to look for how Moses directed the Israelites’ attention to the Lord and His power as they study the rest of Numbers 20 and 21.

Numbers 20:14–29

Israel is not allowed to pass through Edom, and Eleazar is made high priest when Aaron dies

Summarize Numbers 20:14–29 by explaining that Moses sent messengers to ask the king of Edom if the Israelites could pass through his kingdom on their way to Canaan. The king of Edom refused to let the Israelites pass through his land, and he sent an army to ensure that they did not.

Invite students to read verses 28–29 silently to discover who died at this point in their journey and who was called to take his place.

  • Who died at this time?

  • Who became the high priest in Aaron’s place?

Numbers 21

Moses raises a brass serpent on a pole to heal those bitten by poisonous serpents


For a dramatic effect, quickly pull a toy snake from a bag, or display a picture of a poisonous snake.

  • What would you do if you were bitten by a poisonous snake?

  • What are possible cures for poisonous snakebites?

Before class, put a picture of Jesus Christ into a box and label the box Snakebite Kit. Show students the box and tell them that inside it there is a cure for snakebites. Explain that as they study Numbers 21, they will learn how the cure for snakebites relates to us spiritually.

Explain that because the Israelites were not allowed to travel through the land of Edom, their journey was more difficult. Invite a student to read Numbers 21:4–5 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for how the Israelites felt and responded because of the difficulty of the way they had to travel.

  • How did the children of Israel respond to the difficulty of journeying around the land of Edom?

Invite a student to read Numbers 21:6 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for what happened because the children of Israel spoke against Moses and the Lord. Direct students to verse 6, footnote a, to help them understand that the word fiery means poisonous.

Invite a student to read Numbers 21:7–9 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for what the children of Israel did after they had been bitten.

  • Whom did the Israelites first turn to for help?

  • What did the Lord tell Moses to do to help the people who had been bitten?

  • What did the people need to do to be healed?

Write the following on the board: Poisonous serpents = sin and its consequences.

  • How do you think sin is similar to being bitten by a poisonous snake?

  • What could the venom of sin do to us if we do not get help?

Ask students to guess what is in your snakebite kit. Open the box and show the picture of Jesus Christ.

Moses and the brass serpent

Display the picture Moses and the Brass Serpent (Gospel Art Book [2009], no. 16; see also

  • Whom and what was the serpent on the pole meant to point the people to? (The Savior’s suffering and His Atonement.)

  • According to verses 8–9, what did the children of Israel need to do to be healed?

  • Based on this account, what must we do to be healed from the poisonous effects of sin? (Students’ responses may vary, but make sure they identify the following principle: If we look to Christ, He will heal us of our sins, pains, and sicknesses. Write this principle on the board.)

To help students understand this principle, discuss the following question:

  • What are some ways we can look to Jesus Christ so that we can be healed of our sins, pains, and sicknesses?

Write the following scripture references on the board: John 3:14–15; Alma 33:19–22; Helaman 8:14–15. Explain that these scripture passages help us better understand the account of the brazen serpent in Numbers 21:1–9. Consider inviting students to write these cross-references in their scriptures near these verses.

Divide the class into three groups. Assign each group to read one of the scripture passages on the board, looking for what it teaches about the account of the brazen serpent. After sufficient time, invite one student from each group to teach the class what they learned. Then discuss the following questions:

  • Why do you think some people refused to look at the brazen serpent? Why do you think others chose to look?

  • What is required for us to look to the Savior to be healed of our sins, pains, and sicknesses?

Invite a student from each group to share his or her feelings about Jesus Christ’s power to heal us of our sins, pains, and sicknesses.

To help students understand one way we can apply this principle and look to Christ for healing of our sins, pains, and sicknesses, invite them to look again at the picture of Moses and the brass serpent.

  • What did Moses do to help the children of Israel to be healed?

  • How does the pole with the brazen serpent relate to the principle on the board?

Invite a student read aloud the following statement by President Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles:

Packer, Boyd K.

“Jesus Christ has prescribed a very clear method for us to repent and find healing in our lives. The cure for most mistakes can be found by seeking forgiveness through personal prayer. However, there are certain spiritual illnesses, particularly those dealing with violations of the moral law, which absolutely require the assistance and treatment of a qualified spiritual physician. …

“If you … wish to return to full spiritual health, see your bishop. He holds the keys and can help you along the pathway of repentance” (“The Key to Spiritual Protection,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2013, 28).

  • Why is it sometimes necessary to get the help of a bishop or branch president as we look to Christ for healing of our sins, pains, and sicknesses?

Invite students to consider what they need to do in order to look to Christ and be healed from the venom of sin. Encourage them to make a commitment to look to the Savior so they can be healed from the effects of sin.

Summarize Numbers 21:10–35 by explaining that after the children of Israel were healed by looking to Christ, they defeated the Amorites and the people of Bashan who fought against them. Testify that if we will look to Christ as the children of Israel did, we will be given the strength to overcome sin and face the challenges before us.

Commentary and Background Information

Numbers 20:12. Consequence for Moses and Aaron

“Did Moses really sin against the Lord? … Was this one error enough to cancel out years of great faith, obedience, and devotion?

“At least two other Old Testament passages indicate that Moses did sin in striking the rock at Meribah (see Numbers 27:12–14; Deuteronomy 32:51–52). Other passages, however, help to clarify the matter. Deuteronomy 3:26 and 4:21 indicate that the Lord told Moses that the reason he could not enter the promised land was that the Lord was angry with him “for your sakes” (emphasis added). This statement could imply that there were reasons other than the error of Moses for the prohibition. Two other facts strengthen this supposition. First, both Moses and the higher priesthood were taken from Israel because of the people’s unworthiness, not Moses’ (see D&C 84:23–25). Second, Moses was translated when his mortal ministry was finished (see Alma 45:19). In other words, Moses was privileged to enter a land of promise far greater than the land of Canaan. He had finished his calling in mortality, and a new leader was to take Israel into the promised land. And, Moses was translated—hardly a punishment for sinning against God” (Old Testament Student Manual: Genesis–2 Samuel, 3rd ed. [Church Educational System manual, 2003], 208).

Nevertheless, by punishing Moses, the Lord powerfully taught the children of Israel that obedience was required to enter the promised land—even (perhaps especially) if one happened to be the prophet.

Numbers 20:12. Mistakes made by members and Church leaders

President Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the First Presidency taught:

“There have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.

“I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes. …

“It is unfortunate that some have stumbled because of mistakes made by men. But in spite of this, the eternal truth of the restored gospel found in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not tarnished, diminished, or destroyed” (“Come, Join with Us,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2013, 22).

Even though the Church is led by imperfect people who can make mistakes, the Lord’s prophet will never lead us astray. President Wilford Woodruff explained:

“The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God” (Official Declaration 1, “Excerpts from Three Addresses by President Wilford Woodruff Regarding the Manifesto”).