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 Canaan, they met with their first hostile army led Arad, the Canaanite.
i. The description of the king of Arad presents a challenge with geography and chronology. The site recognized as Tel Arad is west of Dead Sea, about half-way between Beer Sheva and the Dead Sea, and about 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of Hebron. This is much further north than we would expect Israel to be, putting them in the southern part of Canaan. We would not expect Israel to be in this part of Canaan until well into the book of Joshua. Also, the archeological evidence from Tel Arad is from an earlier period.
ii. The most likely explanation is that the king of Arad was, at this time, the leader of a nomadic group that roamed the area south of Tel Arad (who dwelt in the South). When he fought against Israel he traveled still further south, to where Israel camped.
b. Then he fought against Israel and took some of them prisoners: After having lost some men to Arad, Israel vowed to God that they would utterly destroy the cities of Arad. That is, they would devote the cities of Arad unto God by destroying them completely. God then granted them victory (the LORD listened to the voice of Israel and delivered up the Canaanites).
i. Israel made a vow to the LORD: “They did not depend upon their own prowess in war. God had enabled them to rout the Amalekites, and to defeat many other adversaries; but when this new foe appeared, they did not rely upon their own swords, or spears, or bows, but they went at once to the Lord, and spread their case before him. In humble, earnest prayer, they sought his aid.” (Spurgeon)
ii. This was the beginning of Israel’s wars of conquest and judgment against the Canaanites. Most of these battles are found in the book of Joshua. These were not only battles to take the land that God promised to Israel, but they were also part of a unique war of judgment against the Canaanites. They were a particularly sinful and depraved people, whom God literally gave hundreds of years to repent. Just was God sometimes used other nations to bring judgment against His people, in this period the LORD used His people to bring judgment against the Canaanites.
iii. Because this was a war of judgment, they were to receive no spoil from the battles – nothing at all. They were to utterly destroy everything. There were a few reasons for this, but one of the most important was that God did not want His people to profit, to gain, to be enriched by a war of judgment. Such wars are the holy expression of God’s sorrow at the necessity of judgment, and He did not want His people to gain or to be happy at it. Therefore, Israel was strictly commanded that when they conquered a Canaanite city, none of the spoil could go to them. It didn’t go to the tabernacle, to the priests, or to Moses. It was all to be destroyed, dedicated to God alone by making no use of it for anyone else.
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 (Numbers 14:45). God brought them back to the same place and gave them the victory.
i. “The victory over the Canaanites of Arad provided the new generation a foretaste of great things to come when they would enter the Promised Land under the power of God and the leadership of Joshua.” (Cole)
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). To go around the Edomites, they had to turn back towards the wilderness and away from Canaan. No wonder the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way.
i. This was a discouraging situation, but it was also an opportunity to trust God. The same God who just gave them victory at Hormah and provided all their needs would also guide them through this setback.
b. The people spoke against God and against Moses: Israel’s new generation sounded like the old generation that died in the wilderness. If they continued in the steps of their fathers, the new generation would be no more able to conquer Canaan than the previous generation was.
i. One might say that in these early challenges the new generation acted worse than their fathers. 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 were 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 shameless enough to do it directly. Now they were bold enough, because the people spoke against God and against Moses.
ii. This was a major problem. They were on the threshold of Canaan, closer to it than the previous generation of unbelief had been, and now they started to act with the same unbelief – or worse.
iii. “When the grumbling humor is on us we complain of anything and everything, as did these Israelites: they complained of God, they complained of Moses; they complained of the manna. They would have been ready to complain of Aaron; but, fortunately for him, he had been dead a month or so, and so they poured the more gall upon Moses. To men in this state nothing is right: nothing can be right.” (Spurgeon)
c. Our soul loathes this worthless bread: Like the generation of their fathers, this generation despised God’s provision of manna, calling it worthless bread. Their complaining against the “bread of heaven” (Psalm 78:23-24) was the sin of ingratitude against the God who miraculously sustained them in the wilderness.
i. “When a person’s heart is intent on rebellion and beset by discontent, even the best of gifts from the Lord can lose their savor; nothing will fully satisfy until the heart is made right.” (Cole)
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: Some think these serpents were fiery in the sense that they were a red, like the color of fire. Others believe their bite caused an intense burning, so they were called fiery serpents.
i. There was a connection between their despising of manna (Numbers 21:5) and these fiery, poisonous snakes.
· They despised the bread from heaven; God gave them serpents from the earth.
· They despised God’s blessings; God gave them burning poison.
· They despised the life God sustained for them; God gave them death.
ii. “Several species of snakes have been posited as the possible identity of these fiery serpents. T. E. Lawrence described his encounters with horned vipers, puff-adders, cobras, and black snakes in eastern Jordan. The ‘carpet viper’ (Echis carinatus or Echis coleratus) is a highly poisonous viper known from Africa and the Middle East and thus is a likely candidate.” (Cole)
b. The LORD sent fiery serpents: These came from God, to get the nation’s attention at this critical place in their journey to Canaan. If they continued in the unbelief of the previous verses, they would never take the land.
c. Many of the people of Israel died: Probably, these victims were mostly those of the older generation of unbelief. This was God’s final way of fulfilling His promise that they would perish in the wilderness, and not enter His 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 the new generation was capable of deeper sin (such as quickly and openly complaining against the LORD in Numbers 21:5), they also had hearts softer and quicker to repent. Here, they quickly humbled themselves before the LORD and Moses, confessing their sin in a worthy way.
i. “Their quick recognition of its source and purpose, and their swift repentance, are to be put to their credit. It is well for us when we interpret for ourselves God’s judgments, and need no Moses to urge us to humble ourselves before Him.” (Maclaren)
b. Pray to the LORD for us: In their humility, they asked Moses to pray for them. This was an expression of trust in Moses and in the LORD.
c. 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 made a bronze serpent), to set it on pole, so that those who looked upon it could be saved – and they were.
i. Even among miracles, this was unusual. There was 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 an unusual thing – even a foolish thing – be used to bring salvation to Israel.
d. Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole: Jesus referred 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. The serpent is often used in the Bible to represent evil (Genesis 3:1-5, Revelation 12:9). However, in the Bible bronze is associated with judgment because it is made with fire. In a sense, bronze receives the fire of judgment as it is made.
ii. So, a bronze serpent speaks of evil; but evil having been judged. 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. “Men dying in sin are saved by the dead body of a man suspended on the cross. Just as physical contact was impossible between those bitten by snakes and the copper snake, so sinners are unable to touch the life-giving body of Christ. Yet in both situations the sufferers must appropriate God’s healing power themselves: by looking at the copper snake or ‘believing in the Son of man’ (John 3:15).” (Wenham)
iv. If the serpent lay horizontally on the vertical pole, this would also be a visual representation of the cross. However, many traditions show the serpent being wrapped around the pole. This concept is the source for the ancient figure of healing and medicine – a serpent wrapped around a pole.
v. “The pole resembled the cross upon which Christ was lift up for our salvation; and looking up to it designed our believing in Christ.” (Poole)
e. 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 that seemed to be as foolish as looking at a serpent on a pole was enough to save them. It is likely that some in Israel perished because they thought it was too simple, too foolish to simply look and live.
i. When the new generation of Israel complained and doubted earlier in this chapter, they were not looking to the LORD. They looked to themselves, to their difficult circumstances, to the challenges ahead – but not to their God. Here, God put them in a situation where they had to look to Him.
ii. If God had willed it, the healing effect of the serpent might have come through contact – if one rubbed the serpent, they would be healed. It might have come through priest. It might have come with a ceremony or a ritual. But God chose none of those; all one had to do was look and live.
iii. If any life still remained in the poisoned person, they could look and live. Some who had been just bitten looked and lived; some who were almost dead looked and lived. There was no case too difficult so that someone who looked would not live.
iv. The saving power represented by the serpent could not be exhausted. There was no limit to the number of those who could look and live.
v. This idea is later found 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.
vi. “They that looked upon their sores, and not upon the sign, died for it; as those that looked on the sign, though but with one eye, though with but a squint eye, or but with half an eye, they were healed presently. So they that fix their eyes upon their sins only, and not upon their Saviour, despair and die; but those that look to Christ, being faithful in weakness, though weak in faith, are sure to be saved.” (Trapp)
vii. The great preacher of Victorian England, Charles Spurgeon, gave his life to Jesus Christ after hearing a message on Isaiah 45:22, and hearing that text connected to this account of Moses lifting the serpent in the wilderness, with 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.
viii. Spurgeon showed by his own example that we don’t just look to Jesus at the beginning of our life in Jesus; we continue to look to Him: “Beloved, when I first came to Christ as a poor sinner and looked to him, I thought him the most precious object my eyes had ever lit upon; but this night I have been looking to him while I have been preaching to you, in remembrance of my own discouragements, and my own complaining, and I find my Lord Jesus dearer than ever. I have been seriously ill, and sadly depressed, and I fear I have rebelled, and therefore I look anew to him, and I tell you that he is fairer in my eyes to- night than he was at first.”
f. So Moses made a bronze serpent: God command Moses to make an image of a serpent, even though such images were otherwise forbidden by Exodus 20:4. Actually, Exodus 20:4 forbids the making of idols, and this was no idol – it was a symbol, commanded 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.
ii. “From excavations at Timna about 15 miles (25 km) north of Eilat has come remarkable confirmation of the biblical story, or at least of its origin in the wilderness period. At the foot of one of the Pillars of Solomon in Timna, Rothenberg found a temple of the Egyptian god, Hathor, used in the 13th century bc. When abandoned by the Egyptians about 1150 B.C., it was taken over by the Midianites who covered it with curtains to make a tent shrine, somewhat like the tabernacle. Inside this tent temple in the holy place was found a copper snake 5 inches (12 cm) long.” (Wenham)
B. On the way to the Promised Land.
1. (10-20) The journey towards 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. There was thankful joy for the ways God provided water for the people (brooks of the Arnon…the slope of the brooks…. I will give them water). Israel was trusting God and God provided for them.
i. The last time we hear of Israel singing was back at the Red Sea (Exodus 15). That was a long time ago, about 40 years. Once again, they sang joyful songs.
ii. The Arnon is the modern Wadi al Mujib in Jordan, on the east of the Dead Sea. It marked the border between the land of the Amorites and the land of the Moabites. Israel was making progress northward up the eastern side of the Jordan River.
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. “This book was presumably an ancient collection of songs of war in praise of God.” (Allen)
ii. 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.
c. Spring up, O well! This joyful song remembers an occasion when the leaders of Israel (the nation’s nobles) helped dig wells, even using their staves (rods or staffs).
i. “They digged the well, and they digged it with their staves-not very first-class tools. Would not the mattock and the spade have been better? Ay, but they did as they were told. They digged with their staves. These, I suppose, were simply their rods, which, like the sheiks in the East, they carried in their hands as an emblem of government, somewhat similar to the crook of the shepherd.” (Spurgeon)
ii. “We must dig as we can. We must use what abilities we have. It is every Christian’s duty to try to know as much and get as much talent as he can, but if you have but one talent, use that one talent.” (Spurgeon)
iii. Alexander Maclaren used this as a way to point to the work of Jesus for His people: “Jesus dug the well with the staff of His cross; but we wish that the Spirit, who is as a fountain of living water, fed from eternity and returning to its source, may spring up within it with greater volume and force.”
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: The Edomites threatened Israel and gathered their army, but they did not attack Israel (Numbers 20:18-21). The Amorites were different. They 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 Sihon because he was not originally favorable towards Israel. God did not change Sihon’s heart to make him attack Israel. God simply gave Sihon over to what his 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: Though this was still on the eastern side of the Jordan River, it was the first land Israel possessed in coming out of Egypt. For the first time, they could dwell in cities, the conquered cities of the Amorites. Later this land became the allotment of the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh (Numbers 32).
c. Fire went out from Heshbon… woe to you Moab: This quotes an ancient song of the Amorites, celebrating when Sihon defeated Moab. The idea is that if Sihon defeated Moab and Israel defeated Sihon and the Amorites(as in 21:24), then surely Israel could and would defeat the Moabites.
i. This “is the so-called song of Heshbon, a very old poem apparently composed by Amorite bards to celebrate Sihon’s defeat of Moab. It is probably inserted here to justify Israel’s right to hold the land.” (Wenham)
ii. What seemed the certain defeat of Moab prepares the reader for the story of Balak and Balaam in the following chapters. “Moab was next, and their defeat seemed imminent. Thus Balak king of Moab wished to transfer the battle arena from the field of men to the realm of the gods.” (Allen)
iii. The Moabites were called the people of Chemosh because he was the idol they worshipped.
iv. Moses sent to spy out Jazer: “These spies must have done as they were instructed, in contrast to the rebellious spies of Numbers 13-14.” (Allen)
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 through their God they won a glorious victory.
b. Do not fear him, for I have delivered him into your hand: This was needed encouragement, because Og of Bashan was noted for his size and strength. Deuteronomy 3:11 says, For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of the giants.
c. And they took possession of his land: This land also becomes part of Israel, and a portion of the inheritance of tribes that settled east of the Jordan.
i. This chapter saw the new generation of Israel start in unbelief. But, after the bronze serpent incident, Israel trusted God and saw many victories and the beginning of their possession of the land. Yet, there remained many challenges.