Numbers 21 – On the Way to Canaan
A. The serpent in the wilderness.
1. (1-3) Defeat of the king of Arad the Canaanite.
The king of Arad, the Canaanite, who dwelt in the South, heard that Israel was coming on the road to Atharim, then he fought against Israel and took some of them prisoners. So Israel made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If You will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.” And the Lord listened to the voice of Israel and delivered up the Canaanites, and they utterly destroyed them and their cities. So the name of that place was called Hormah.
a. The king of Arad, the Canaanite, who dwelt in the South, heard that Israel was coming: As the new generation of Israel begin their approach to the Promised Land, the new generation encounters their first hostile army – Arad the Canaanite, in the South.
b. Then he fought against Israel and took some of them prisoners: After having some men lost to Arad, Israel vowed to God that they will utterly destroy the cities of Arad. That is, they would devote the cities of Arad unto God by completely destroying them. God then granted them victory (the Lord listened to the voice of Israel and delivered up the Canaanites).
i. It is strange idea to our way of thinking, but Israel at this time would show that property was completely given to God by destroying it – thus making it unusable to anyone else. It was an expensive and whole-hearted way to give things to the Lord. This was Israel’s way of saying, “we’re not fighting this battle for our own profit, but for the glory of God.”
c. So the name of that place was called Hormah: It was at Hormah that Israel was defeated in their ill-advised attempt to enter the Promised Land by force after rejecting it by faith. Now God has brought them back to the same place, and given them the victory. A real turning point for the nation!
2. (4-5) Israel, provoked by the difficult journey, speaks against God.
Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.”
a. To go around the land of Edom: They had to go far out of their way because the Edomites refused them passage (Numbers 20:14-21). In fact, to go around the Edomites, they had to turn back towards the wilderness and away from Canaan. This was obviously discouraging.
i. They had a reason to be discouraged but they had no excuse for their discouragement. They faced a real challenge and something that is no fun at all. Yet, they had no excuse for not trusting in God, and for not looking for His victory through it all.
b. The people spoke against God and against Moses: Sadly, the new generation sounded like the old. If they continued in the steps of their fathers, this new generation would be no better able to enter the Promised Land than the previous generation was.
i. In fact, they perhaps acted worse than their fathers here. In eight previous passages (Exodus 15:24, 16:2, 17:3; Numbers 12:1, 14:2, 16:3, 16:41 and 20:2), the children of Israel are described as speaking against Moses. In those situations, Moses knew (Exodus 16:7-8) and the Lord knew (Numbers 14:27) they were really speaking against God – but the people were not brazen enough to do it directly. Now they are brazen enough, because it says the people spoke against God and against Moses!
ii. This was a major problem: They were on the threshold of the Promised Land, closer to it than the previous generation of unbelief had been, and now they were beginning to act with the same unbelief – or worse! Something drastic had to be done.
3. (6) The Lord sends fiery serpents.
So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died.
a. The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people: How were the serpents fiery? Some think they were a red color, like the color of fire. Others believe their bite caused an intense burning sensation, so they were called fiery serpents.
b. The Lord sent fiery serpents: These came from God, to get the nation’s attention at this critical place in their journey to the Promised Land. If they kept going in the direction they showed in the previous verses, they would never enter in.
c. Many of the people of Israel died: These victims were mostly those of the older generation of unbelief, and this was God’s final way of fulfilling His promise that they would perish in the wilderness, and not enter the Promised Land.
4. (7-9) Deliverance through looking at the bronze serpent.
Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord that He take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.
a. We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you: If this new generation was capable of deeper sin (such as openly complaining against the Lord in Numbers 21:5), they also have hearts softer and quicker to repent – they quickly humble themselves before the Lord and Moses.
i. They ask Moses to pray for them; they know their answer lies only in the saving work of God. They are not trusting in luck or medical expertise, but only in God.
b. Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live: God commanded Moses to make a serpent (and Moses makes it out of bronze), to set it on pole, so that those who looked upon it could be saved – and they were.
i. This was an unusual direction from God and miracle resulting. There is no immediate logical connection between merely looking at a serpent on a pole and living; or refusing to look and dying. But God commanded that such a “foolish” thing be used to bring salvation to Israel.
c. Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole: Jesus refered to this remarkable event in John 3:14-15: And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. Jesus clearly said there is a similarity between what Moses did here, and what Jesus did on the cross.
i. But how can a serpent have a similarity to Jesus? Serpents are often used as pictures of evil in the Bible (Genesis 3:1-5; Revelation 12:9). However, bronze is a metal associated with judgment in the Bible, because bronze must be made by passing through the “fires” of judgment.
ii. So, a bronze serpent does speak of evil; but evil having been judged – just as Jesus, who knew no sin, became sin for us on the cross, and our sin was judged in Jesus. A bronze serpent is a picture of evil judged and dealt with.
iii. We would have wanted to diminish our sense of sin, and put the image of a man up on the pole; a man, we might say, is some good and some bad. But a serpent we can more easily see the badness of!
iv. In addition, if the serpent lay horizontally on the vertical pole, it is easy to see how this was a visual representation of the cross as well. However, many traditions show the serpent being wrapped around the pole, and this is the source for the ancient figure of healing and medicine – a serpent, wrapped around a pole.
d. If a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived: The people were saved not by doing anything, but by simply looking to the bronze serpent. They had to trust that something as seemingly foolish as looking at serpent on a pole was enough to save them. Surely, some perished because they thought it too foolish to do that.
i. As it says in Isaiah 45:22: Look to Me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. We might be willing to do a hundred things to earn our salvation, but God commands us to only trust in Him – to look to Him.
ii. Charles Spurgeon gave his life to Jesus Christ after hearing a message on Isaiah 45:22, and hearing that text applied to this account of Moses lifting the serpent in the wilderness, and the people looking and living. Spurgeon was so impressed by this picture of the gospel and salvation in the Book of Numbers that he chose an engraving of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness as a logo for his publications.
iii. When Israel was complaining against the Lord and against Moses, they were not looking to the Lord they way they should. They were looking at themselves, they were looking at the hard circumstances – but they were not looking to the Lord. What will it take to get you to look to the Lord?
e. So Moses made a bronze serpent: God command Moses to make an image of a serpent, even though such images were seemingly forbidden in Exodus 20:4. Actually, Exodus 20:4 forbids the making of idols, and this was no idol – it was a symbol, sanctioned by God, that they could look to in faith and be saved.
i. Sadly, even this God-ordained symbol was made into an idol. In the reforms of King Hezekiah, he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made; for until those days the children of Israel burned incense to it, and called it Nehushtan (2 Kings 18:4). Fallen man can take any good and glorious thing from God and find an idolatrous use for it.
B. On the way to the Promised Land.
1. (10-20) The journey into Moab.
Now the children of Israel moved on and camped in Oboth. And they journeyed from Oboth and camped at Ije Abarim, in the wilderness which is east of Moab, toward the sunrise. From there they moved and camped in the Valley of Zered. From there they moved and camped on the other side of the Arnon, which is in the wilderness that extends from the border of the Amorites; for the Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites. Therefore it is said in the Book of the Wars of the Lord: “Waheb in Suphah, the brooks of the Arnon, and the slope of the brooks that reaches to the dwelling of Ar, and lies on the border of Moab.” From there they went to Beer, which is the well where the Lord said to Moses, “Gather the people together, and I will give them water.” Then Israel sang this song: “Spring up, O well! All of you sing to it; the well the leaders sank, dug by the nation’s nobles, by the lawgiver, with their staves.” And from the wilderness they went to Mattanah, from Mattanah to Nahaliel, from Nahaliel to Bamoth, and from Bamoth, in the valley that is in the country of Moab, to the top of Pisgah which looks down on the wasteland.
a. Now the children of Israel moved on and camped: Besides the names of the places Israel passes through on their way towards the Promised Land, brief passages of poetry are also recorded, giving the sense of elation they must have felt.
b. The Book of the Wars of the Lord: Some have used mentions of books like this in the Bible as an argument that the Bible is an incomplete book, and must be supplemented – by something like the book of Mormon. But the mere mention of a book by the Bible doesn’t mean that the book belongs in our Bibles. We would love to see and read such ancient literature lost to history; but anything in such books inspired and important is recorded for us in passages like Numbers 21:14-15.
i. In fact, Paul quoted from a pagan poet in Acts 17:28. It certainly doesn’t mean that everything that pagan poet wrote was inspired by God, or that our Bibles are incomplete without the full text of what that pagan poet wrote.
2. (21-23) The challenge of the Amorites.
Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, saying, “Let me pass through your land. We will not turn aside into fields or vineyards; we will not drink water from wells. We will go by the King’s Highway until we have passed through your territory.” But Sihon would not allow Israel to pass through his territory. So Sihon gathered all his people together and went out against Israel in the wilderness, and he came to Jahaz and fought against Israel.
a. Sihon would not allow Israel to pass through his territory: As was the case with the Edomites, the Amorites would not let Israel pass through their land – even though the Israelites promised it would be of no expense or trouble to the Amorites.
b. So Sihon gathered all his people together and went out against Israel: While Edom passively refused, the Amorites actively attacked Israel and king Sihon led the battle.
i. This incident is even more interesting when we consider Deuteronomy 2:30 – But Sihon king of Heshbon would not let us pass through, for the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that He might deliver him into your hand. God hardened the heart of Sihon, so he would provoke the battle, so he would lose, so Israel could gain his land.
ii. It was not unrighteous of God to harden the heart of Sihon because Sihon was not originally favorable towards Israel, and God did not make him be hardened when he really wanted otherwise. But that wasn’t how it happened; in hardening Sihon, the Lord gave him over to the evil his heart desired.
3. (24-32) King Sihon and the Amorites defeated by Israel.
Then Israel defeated him with the edge of the sword, and took possession of his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, as far as the people of Ammon; for the border of the people of Ammon was fortified. So Israel took all these cities, and Israel dwelt in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon and in all its villages. For Heshbon was the city of Sihon king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab, and had taken all his land from his hand as far as the Arnon. Therefore those who speak in proverbs say: “Come to Heshbon, let it be built; let the city of Sihon be repaired. For fire went out from Heshbon, a flame from the city of Sihon; it consumed Ar of Moab, the lords of the heights of the Arnon. Woe to you, Moab! You have perished, O people of Chemosh! He has given his sons as fugitives, and his daughters into captivity, to Sihon king of the Amorites. But we have shot at them; Heshbon has perished as far as Dibon. Then we laid waste as far as Nophah, which reaches to Medeba.” Thus Israel dwelt in the land of the Amorites. Then Moses sent to spy out Jazer; and they took its villages and drove out the Amorites who were there.
a. Then Israel defeated him with the edge of the sword, and took possession of his land: We now better understand God’s favor and mercy to Israel. Before they face the hardened warriors of Canaan, God gave them smaller foes and smaller battles to fight. We see how foolish the unbelief of the previous generation was.
b. Thus Israel dwelt in the land of the Amorites: The land of the Amorites later becomes the possession of Israel; the tribe of Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh receive this land.
c. Fire went out from Heshbon . . . woe to you Moab: The passages of poetry are meant to show what a mighty people the Amorites were, and in contrast, how glorious Israel’s victory over them was.
4. (33-35) The defeat of king Og and the land of Bashan.
And they turned and went up by the way to Bashan. So Og king of Bashan went out against them, he and all his people, to battle at Edrei. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Do not fear him, for I have delivered him into your hand, with all his people and his land; and you shall do to him as you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who dwelt at Heshbon.” So they defeated him, his sons, and all his people, until there was no survivor left him; and they took possession of his land.
a. Og king of Bashan went out against them: This was another battle that Israel did not provoke. Yet, Israel was more than up to the challenge, and sees God win a glorious victory.
b. And they took possession of his land: This land also becomes part of Israel, and a portion of the inheritance of the trans-jordan tribes.
i. The new generation of the children of Israel are making wonderful progress to the Promised Land, and experiencing victory after victory. Yet their challenges are not over, as the subsequent chapters will show.
© 2006 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission