Numbers 20:1
Then came the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, into the desert of Zin in the first month: and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there.
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(1) Then came . . . —It would be better to translate thus: And (or, Now) the children of Israel came (or, had come) . . ., inasmuch as the interval of time between the events related in the preceding chapters and in this chapter is unknown.

In the first month.—It has been commonly supposed that the reference is to the first month of the fortieth year, when the Israelites are thought to have arrived for the second time at Kadesh. Some, however, are of opinion that the journey is the same as that which is mentioned in Numbers 12:16, and in Deuteronomy 1:19; and that the arrival at Kadesh was on the first month of the third year, i.e., the year which followed the departure from Sinai, which departure took place on the twentieth day of the second month, in the second year after the exodus.

And the people abode in Kadesh.—It is evident that the sojourn in Kadesh was a protracted one, whether Kadesh did, or did not serve as the head-quarters of the people from the second or third year of the exodus until that in which they entered into the land of Canaan. See Deuteronomy 1:46, where Moses describes the length of the sojourn in Kadesh by the words “many days,” the same words which he employs in Numbers 20:15 to denote the length of the sojourn in the land of Egypt. It cannot, however, be inferred from the simple use of the word which is here rendered abode that the sojourn at Kadesh at the beginning of the fortieth year was of long duration (see Judges 11:17, where the same word is used). Hence no legitimate conclusion can be drawn from the use of this word respecting the reference of the verse to an arrival at Kadesh at the beginning of the third or of the fortieth year after the exodus. (See 20:14, and Note).



Numbers 20:1 - Numbers 20:13

Kadesh had witnessed the final trial and failure of the generation that came out of Egypt; now we see the first trial and failure of the new generation, thirty-seven years after, on the same spot. Deep silence shrouds the history of these dreary years; but, probably, the congregation was broken up, and small parties roamed over the country, without purpose or hope, while Moses and a few of the leaders kept by the tabernacle. There is a certain emphasis in the phrase of the first verse of this chapter, ‘the children of Israel, even the whole congregation,’ which suggests that this was the first reassembling of the scattered units since the last act of the ‘whole congregation.’ ‘The first month’ was, then, the first of the fortieth year, and the gathering was either in obedience to the summons of Moses, who knew that the fixed time had now come, or was the result of common knowledge of the fact. In any case, we have here the first act of a new epoch, and the question to be tried is whether the new men are any better than the old. It is this which gives importance to the event, and explains the bitterness of Moses at finding the old spirit living in the children. It was his trial as well as theirs. He resumed the functions which had substantially been in abeyance for a generation, and by his conduct showed that he had become unfit for the new form which the leadership must take with the invasion of Canaan.

I. We note the old murmurings on the lips of the new generation. The lament of a later prophet fits these hereditary grumblers,-’In vain have I smitten your children; they received no correction.’ The place where they reassembled might have taught them the sin of unbelief; their parents’ graves should have enforced the lesson. But the long years of wandering, and two millions of deaths, had been useless. The weather-beaten but sturdy strength of the four old men, the only survivors, might have preached the wisdom of trust in the God in whose ‘favour is life.’ But the people ‘had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.’ The old cuckoo-cry, which had become so monotonous from their fathers, is repeated, with differences, not in their favour. They do not, indeed, murmur directly against God, because they regard Moses and Aaron as responsible. ‘Why,’ say they, ‘have ye brought up the congregation of the Lord?’ They seem to use that name with a touch of pride in their relation to God, while destitute of any real obedience, and so they show the first traces of the later spirit of the nation. They have acquired cattle while living in the oases of the wilderness, and they are anxious about them. They acknowledge the continuity of national life in their question, ‘Wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt?’ though most of them had been born in the wilderness. The fear that moved their fathers to unbelief was more reasonable and less contemptible than this murmuring, which ignores God all but utterly, and is ready to throw up everything at the first taste of privation.

It is a signal instance of the solemn law by which the fathers’ sins are inherited by the children who prove themselves heirs to their ancestors by repeating their deeds. It is fashionable now to deny original sin, and equally fashionable to affirm ‘heredity,’ which is the same thing, put into scientific language. There is such a thing as national character persistent through generations, each unit of which adds something to the force of the tendencies which he receives and transmits, but which never are so omnipotent as to destroy individual guilt, however they may lighten it.

Note, too, the awful power of resistance to God’s educating possessed by our wills. The whole purpose of these men’s lives, thus far, had been to fit them for being God’s instruments, and for the reception of His blessing. The desert was His school for body and mind, where muscles and wills were to be braced, and solitude and expectation might be nurses of lofty thoughts, and in the silence God’s voice might sound. What better preparation of a hardy race of God-trusting heroes could there have been, and what came of it all? Failure all but complete! The instrument tempered with so much care has its edge turned at the first stroke. The old sore breaks out at the old spot. Man’s will has an awful power to thwart God’s training; and of all the sad mysteries of this sad mysterious world, this is the saddest and most mysterious, and is the root of all other sadness and mystery,-that a man can set his pin-point of a will against that great Will which gives him all his power, and when God beckons can say, ‘I will not,’ and can render His most sedulous discipline ineffectual.

Note, too, that trivial things are large enough to hide plain duties and bright possibilities. These men knew that they had come to Kadesh for the final assault, which was to recompense all their hardships. Their desert training should have made them less resourceless and desperate when water failed; but the hopes of conquest and the duty of trust cannot hold their own against present material inconvenience. They even seem to make bitter mockery of the promises, when they complain that Kadesh is ‘no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates,’ which were the fruits brought by the spies,-as if they had said, ‘So this stretch of waterless sand is the fertile land you talked of, is it? This is all that we have got by reassembling here.’ Do we not often feel that the drought of Kadesh is more real than the grapes of Eshcol? Are we not sometimes tempted to bitter comparisons of the fair promises with the gloomy realities? Does our courage never flag, nor our faith falter, nor swirling clouds of doubt hide the inheritance from our weary and tear-filled eyes? He that is without sin may cast the first stone at these men; but whoever knows his own weak heart will confess that, if he had been among that thirsty crowd, he would, most likely, have made one of the murmurers.

II. Note God’s repetition of His old gift to the new generation. Moses makes no attempt to argue with the people, but casts himself in entreaty before the door of the Tabernacle, as if crushed and helpless in face of this heart-breaking proof of the persistent obstinacy of the old faults. God’s answer recalls the former miracle at Rephidim {Exodus 17:1 - - Exodus 17:7} in the early days of the march, when the same cries had come from lips now silent, and the rock, smitten at God’s command by the rod which had parted the sea, yielded water. The only differences are that here Moses is bid to speak, not to smite; and that the miracle is to be done before all the congregation, instead of before the elders only. Both variations seem to have the common purpose of enhancing the wonder, and confirming the authority of Moses, to a generation to whom the old deliverances were only hearsay, and many of whom were in contact with the leader for the first time. The fact that we have here the beginning of a new epoch, and a new set of people, goes far to explain the resemblance of the two incidents, without the need of supposing, with many critics, that they are but different versions of one ‘legend.’ The repetition of scarcity of water is not wonderful; the recurrence of the murmurings is the sad proof of the unchanged temper of the people, and the repetition of the miracle is the merciful witness of the patience of God. His charity ‘is not easily provoked, is not soon angry,’ but stoops to renew gifts which had been so little appreciated that the remembrance of them failed to cure distrust. Unbelief is obstinate, but His loving purpose is more persistent still. Rephidim should have made the murmuring at Kadesh impossible; but, if it does not, then He will renew the mercy, though it had been once wasted, and will so shape the second gift that it shall recall the first, if haply both may effect what one had failed to do. When need is repeated, the supply is forthcoming, even when it is demanded by sullen and forgetful distrust. We can wear out men’s patience, but God’s is inexhaustible. The same long-suffering Hand that poured water from the rock for two generations of distrustful murmurers still lavishes its misused gifts on us, to win us to late repentance, ‘and upbraideth not’ for our slowness to learn the lessons of His mercies.

III. Note the breaking down at last of the long-tried leader’s patience. It is in striking contrast with the patience of God. Psalm 106:32 - Psalm 106:33, describes the sin of Moses as twofold; namely, anger and speaking ‘unadvisedly.’ His harsh words, so unlike his pleadings on the former occasion of rebellion at Kadesh, have a worse thing than an outburst of temper in them. ‘Must we fetch you water out of the rock?’ arrogates to himself the power of working miracles. He forgets that he was as much an instrument, and as little a force, as his own rod. His angry scolding betrays wounded personal importance, and annoyance at rebellion against his own authority, rather than grief at the people’s distrust of God, and also a distinct clouding over of his own consciousness of dependence for all his power on God, and an impure mingling of thoughts of self. The same turbid blending of anger and self-regard impelled his arm to the passionately repeated strokes, which, in his heat, he substituted for the quiet words that he was bidden to speak. The Palestinian Tar gum says very significantly, that at the first stroke the rock dropped blood, thereby indicating the tragic sinfulness of the angry blow. How unworthy a representative of the long-suffering God was this angry man! ‘The servant of the Lord must not strive,’ nor give the water with which he is entrusted, with contempt or anger in his heart. That gift requires meek compassion in its stewards.

But the failure of Moses’ patience was only too natural. The whole incident has to be studied as the first of a new era, in which both leader and led were on their trial. During the thirty-seven years of waiting, Moses had had but little exercise of that part of his functions, and little experience of the people’s temper. He must have looked forward anxiously to the result of the desert hardening; he must have felt more remote from and above the children than he did to their parents, his contemporaries who had come with him from Egypt, and so his disappointment must have been proportionately keen, when the first difficulty that rose revealed the old spirit in undiminished force. For forty years he had been patient, and ready to swallow mortifications and ignore rebellion against himself, and to offer himself for his people; but now, when men whom he had seen in their swaddling-clothes showed the same stiff-necked distrust as had killed their fathers, the breaking-point of his patience was reached. That burst of anger is a grave symptom of lessened love for the sinful murmurers; and lessened love always means lessened power to guide and help. The people are not changed, but Moses is. He has no longer the invincible patience, the utter self-oblivion, the readiness for self-sacrifice, which had borne him up of old, and so he fails. We may learn from his failure that the prime requisite for doing God’s work is love, which cannot be moved to anger nor stirred to self-assertion, but meets and conquers murmuring and rebellion by patient holding forth of God’s gift, and is, in some faint degree, an echo of His endless long-suffering. He who would serve men must, sleeping or waking, carry them in his heart, and pity their sin. They who would represent God to men, and win men for God, must be ‘imitators of God . . .and walk in love.’ If the bearer of the water of life offers it with ‘Hear, ye rebels,’ it will flow untasted.

IV. Note the sentence on the leader, and the sad memorial name. Moses is blamed for not believing nor sanctifying God. His self-assertion in his unadvised speech came from unbelief, or forgetfulness of his dependence. He who claims power to himself, denies it to God. Moses put himself between God and the people, not to show but to hide God; and, instead of exalting God’s holiness before them by declaring Him to be the giver, he intercepted the thanks and diverted them to himself. But was his momentary failure not far too severely punished? To answer that question, we must recur to the thought of the importance of this event as beginning a new chapter, and as a test for both Moses and Israel. His failure was a comparatively small matter in itself; and if the sentence is regarded merely as the punishment of a sin, it appears sternly disproportionate to the offence. Were eighty years of faithful service not sufficient to procure the condonation of one moment’s impatience? Is not that harsh treatment? But a tiny blade above-ground may indicate the presence of a poisonous root, needing drastic measures for its extirpation; and the sentence was not only punishment for sin, but kind, though punitive, relief from an office for which Moses had no longer, in full measure, his old qualifications. The subsequent history does not show any withdrawal of God’s favour from him, and certainly it would be no very sore sorrow to be freed from the heavy load, carried so long. There is disapprobation, no doubt, in the sentence; but it treats the conduct of Moses rather as a symptom of lessened fitness for his heavy responsibility than as sin; and there is as much kindness as condemnation in saying to the wearied veteran, who has stood at his post so long and has taken up arms once more, ‘You have done enough. You are not what you were. Other hands must hold the leader’s staff. Enter into rest.’

Note that Moses was condemned for doing what Jesus always did, asserting his power to work miracles. What was unbelief and a sinful obtrusion of himself in God’s place when the great lawgiver did it, was right and endorsed by God when the Carpenter of Nazareth did it. Why the difference? A greater than Moses is here, when He says to us, ‘What will ye that I should do unto you?’

The name of Meribah-Kadesh is given to suggest the parallel and difference with the other miraculous flow of water. The two incidents are thus brought into connection, and yet individualised. ‘Meribah,’ which means ‘strife,’ brands the murmuring as sinful antagonism to God: ‘Kadesh,’ which means ‘holy,’ brings both the miracle and the sentence under the common category of acts by which God manifested His holiness to the new generation; and so the double name is a reminder of sin that they may be humble, and of mingled mercy and judgment that they may ‘trust and obey.’

Numbers 20:1. Then — To wit, after many stations and long journeys here omitted, but particularly described, chap. 33., and occupying the space of thirty-eight years, during which time the Lord was executing judgment upon the rebels, whose carcasses were sentenced to fall in the wilderness. The desert of Zin — A place near the land of Edom, distinct and distant from that Sin, mentioned Exodus 16:1. The first month — Of the fortieth year, as is evident, because the next station to this was in mount Hor, where Aaron died, which was in the fifth month of the fortieth year, Numbers 33:38. If it should appear strange to us that Moses should pass in silence the transactions of these eight and thirty years that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, and give us only the history of the two first years of their peregrinations, we must remember, as Le Clerc justly observes, “that he writes, not so much in the character of an historian as in that of a legislator, whose intention it was to deliver down to posterity all those laws which he had received from God; and that system of laws being completed in the two first years after their leaving Egypt, and no new law being delivered during these eight and thirty years, it did not fall in with his design to insert the history of those years in the Pentateuch.” Miriam died — Four months before Aaron, and but a few more before Moses.

20:1-13 After thirty-eight years' tedious abode in the wilderness, the armies of Israel advanced towards Canaan again. There was no water for the congregation. We live in a wanting world, and wherever we are, must expect to meet with something to put us out. It is a great mercy to have plenty of water, a mercy which, if we found the want of, we should more own the worth of. Hereupon they murmured against Moses and Aaron. They spake the same absurd and brutish language their fathers had done. It made their crime the worse, that they had smarted so long for the discontent and distrusts of their fathers, yet they venture in the same steps. Moses must again, in God's name, command water out of a rock for them; God is as able as ever to supply his people with what is needful for them. But Moses and Aaron acted wrong. They took much of the glory of this work of wonder to themselves; Must we fetch water? As if it were done by some power or worthiness of their own. They were to speak to the rock, but they smote it. Therefore it is charged upon them, that they did not sanctify God, that is, they did not give to him alone that glory of this miracle which was due unto his name. And being provoked by the people, Moses spake unadvisedly with his lips. The same pride of man would still usurp the office of the appointed Mediator; and become to ourselves wisdom, righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption. Such a state of sinful independence, such a rebellion of the soul against its Saviour, the voice of God condemns in every page of the gospel.Numbers 20 and Numbers 21 narrate the journey of the people from Kadesh round Mount Seir to the heights of Pisgah, near the Jordan, and the various incidents connected with that journey (compare Numbers 33:37-41). This formed the third and last stage of the progress of Israel from Sinai to Canaan, and took place in the fortieth year of the Exodus.

The incidents are apparently not narrated in a strictly chronological order (see Numbers 21:1). The leading purpose of Numbers 20 seems to be to narrate the loss by the people of their original leaders before their entrance into the land of promise.

Even the whole congregation - This emphatic expression (compare Numbers 13:26; Numbers 14:1) points to a re-assembling of the people for the purpose of at last resuming the advance to the promised land. During the past 38 years the "congregation" had been bracken up. No doubt round the tabernacle there had continued an organised camp consisting of the Levites and others, which had been moved from time to time up and down the country (compare Numbers 33:18-36). But the mass of the people had been scattered over the face of the wilderness of Paran, and led a nomadic life as best suited the pasturage of the cattle; trafficking in provisions with surrounding tribes (compare Deuteronomy 2:26-29; Psalm 74:14); and availing themselves of the resources of a district which were in ancient times vastly greater than they now are.

These natural resources were supplemented, where needful, by miraculous aid. The whole guidance of Israel through the wilderness is constantly referred to God's special and immediately superintending care (Deuteronomy 8:4 following; Deuteronomy 29:5; Nehemiah 9:21; Isaiah 63:11-14; Amos 2:10, etc.).

Yet though God's extraordinary bounty was vouchsafed to them, it is probable that this period was, among the perishing generation at all events, one of great religious declension, or even apostasy. To it must no doubt be referred such passages as Ezekiel 20:15 ff; Amos 5:25 following; Hosea 9:10.

Into the desert of Zin - The northeastern part of the wilderness of Paran (or, now definitely fixed by Palmer as the southeastern corner of the desert of Et-Tih, between Akabah and the head of Wady Garaiyeh.) The place of encampment was no doubt adjacent to the spring of Kadesh.

In the first month - i. e. of the fortieth year of the Exodus.


Nu 20:1-29. The Death of Miriam.

1. Then came the children of Israel … into the desert of Zin in the first month—that is, of the fortieth year (compare Nu 20:22, 23, with Nu 33:38). In this history only the principal and most important incidents are recorded, those confined chiefly to the first or second and the last years of the journeyings in the wilderness, thence called Et-Tih. Between Nu 19:22 and Nu 20:1 there is a long and undescribed interval of thirty-seven years.

the people abode in Kadesh—supposed to be what is now known as Ain-el-Weibeh, three springs surrounded by palms. (See on [80]Nu 13:26). It was their second arrival after an interval of thirty-eight years (De 2:14). The old generation had nearly all died, and the new one encamped in it with the view of entering the promised land, not, however, as formerly on the south, but by crossing the Edomite region on the east.

Miriam died there—four months before Aaron [Nu 33:38].The people journey in the wilderness of Zin; they murmur against Moses for want of water, Numbers 20:2-5. God commandeth Moses to speak to the rock, that it might yield water, Numbers 20:7,8. Moses striking the rock twice, Numbers 20:9-11, displeaseth God, Numbers 20:12. Moses desiring passage through Edom, Numbers 20:14-17, is denied, Numbers 20:18-21. Aaron by God’s command delivering up his office to Eleazar his son, dieth, Numbers 20:21-28. All the congregation bemoan him, Numbers 20:29.

Then, to wit, after many other stations and long journeys here omitted. but particularly described Num 33.

The desert of Zin; a place near the land of Edom, distinct and distant from that,

Sin, Exodus 16:1.

In the first month, to wit, of the fortieth year, as is evident, because the next station to this was in Mount Hor, where Aaron died, Numbers 20:22,23, &c., who died in the fifth month of the fortieth year, Numbers 33:38. Moses doth not give us an exact journal of all their occurrences in the wilderness, but only of those which were most remarkable, and especially of those which happened in the first and second, and in the fortieth year.

Kadesh; whether the same place called Kadesh-barnea, where they were long since, Numbers 13:26, and to which they now return after thirty-eight years’ tedious travels and wanderings in the desert, Deu 2:14, or another place more southerly, it is not material. Miriam died four months before Aaron, and but a few more before Moses.

Then came the children of Israel, even the whole congregation,.... Not immediately after the transaction of the above things, recorded in the preceding chapters; as the sending of the spies into the land of Canaan, and their report of it; the business of Korah, and the giving of several laws respecting the priesthood, and the purification of the people; but thirty eight years after: nor was this the congregation that came out of Egypt; their carcasses, by this time, had fallen in the wilderness, as had been threatened, excepting some few, so that this was a new generation: what passed during this time we have very little account of, excepting their journeyings from place to place, in Numbers 33:1, by which it appears, there were eighteen stations between the place they encamped at when the spies were sent, and this they now came to; and that the place from whence they came hither was Ezion Geber; from hence they journeyed:

and came unto the desert of Zin; which is different from the wilderness of Sin, Exodus 16:1 as appears by their names, which are different, and by the stations of the Israelites, Numbers 33:11, hither they came

in the first month; the month of Nisan, on the tenth day of it, according to the Targum of Jonathan, which was the first month of the fortieth year of their coming out of Egypt, so Aben Ezra; with which agrees the Jewish chronologer (u), which says, this was the fortieth year, and the beginning of the month Nisan:

and the people abode in Kadesh: which is by some thought to be different from Kadeshbarnea, from whence the spies were sent, and lay to the south of the land of Canaan, whereas this was upon the borders of Edom; but Doctor Lightfoot (w) shows them to be the same: it is supposed to be eight hours north or northnorth-west of Mount Sinai, which may be computed to be about twenty miles (x); here the Israelites abode about four months, see Numbers 33:38 the above Jewish chronologer says three months, wrongly:

and Miriam died there, and was buried there; the Jews say (y) she died there the tenth day of the month Nisan, which was ten days after the Israelites came to this place; though, according to the Targum of Jonathan, it was the same day they came thither: Patricides, an Arabian writer, says (z) she died on the seventh day of Nisan, aged one hundred and twenty seven; no mention is made of the people mourning for her as for Aaron, Numbers 20:29 and for Moses, Deuteronomy 34:8 perhaps because of their distress for want of water, as follows.

(u) Seder Olam Rabba, c. 9. p. 25. (w) Chorograph. Cent. in Matt. c. 7. p. 8, 9. (x) Pococke's Travels, p. 157. (y) Shalshalet Hakabala, fol. 7. 2. Schulchan Aruch, par. 1. c. 580. sect. 2.((z) Apud Hottinger. Smegma Oriental. l. 1. c. 8. p. 457.

Then came the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, into the desert of Zin in the first {a} month: and the people abode in Kadesh; and {b} Miriam died there, and was buried there.

(a) This was forty years after their departure from Egypt.

(b) Moses and Aaron's sister.

1. and Miriam died there] At what period this took place is not stated. The event has no connexion with the following narrative.

THE LAST MARCH: FROM KADESH TO HOR (verses 1-29). Verse 1. - Then came the children of Israel, even the whole congregation. The latter words are emphatic here and in verse 22, and seem intended to mark the period of reassembly after the dispersion of nearly thirty eight years. Probably a portion of the tribes had visited Kadesh many times during those years, and perhaps it had never been wholly abandoned. Into the desert of Zin, i.e., if the western site be maintained for Kadesh, the Wady Murreh. See the note on Kadesh. In the first month. In the month Abib (Nisan), the vernal month, when there was "much grass" (cf. John 6:10) in places at other seasons desert, and when traveling was most easy. From comparison of Numbers 14:33; Numbers 33:38 and the sequence of the narrative, it appears to have, been the first month of the fortieth, and last year of wandering, Then it was that they reassembled in the same neighbourhood from whence they had dispersed so long before (see the note before chapter 15). And the people abode (יֵשֵׁב Septuagint, κατέμεινεν) in Kadesh. From the date given in Numbers 33:38 it would seem that they remained three or four months in Kadesh on this occasion. This delay may have been occasioned partly by the ingraining for Miriam (cf. verse 29), and partly by the necessity of awaiting answers from Edom and from Moab (see on verse 14). And Miriam died there, and was buried. Nothing could be more brief and formal than this mention of the death of one who had played a considerable part in Israel, and had perhaps wished to play a more considerable part. It can scarcely, however, be doubted that her death in the unlovely wilderness was a punishment like the death of her brothers. There is no reason whatever to suppose that she had any part in the rebellion of Kadesh, or that the sentence of death there pronounced included her; she was indeed at this time advanced in years, rut that would not in itself account for the fact that she died in exile; it is, no doubt, to the arrogance and rebellion recorded in chapter 12 that we must look for the true explanation of her untimely end. Numbers 20:1Assembling of the Congregation at Kadesh. - In the first month the children of Israel came into the desert of Zin, i.e., in the fortieth year of their wanderings, at the commencement of which "the whole congregation" assembled together once more in the very same place where the sentence had been passed thirty-seven years and a half before, that they should remain in the desert for forty years, until the rebellious generation had died out. The year is not mentioned in Numbers 20:1, but, according to Numbers 14:32., it can only be the year with which the forty years of the sentence that they should die out in the wilderness came to an end, that is to say, the fortieth year of their wandering. This is put beyond all doubt by what follows. For the whole congregation proceeds from Kadesh in the desert of Zin to Mount Hor, where Aaron died, and that, according to Numbers 33:38, in the fifth month of the fortieth year after the exodus from Egypt. Miriam died during the time that the people were staying (ישׁב) in Kadesh, and there she was buried.
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