Chapter 21

NUMBERS CHAPTER 21

Victory Over the Canaanites

    • The Canaanite king of Arad (who lived in the Negev region) heard that the Israelites were coming along the road that leads to Atharim, so he attacked them and took some of them prisoner. At this time the Israelites made the following vow to the Lord: “If You will give these people to us we, we will completely destroy their cities.” The Lord heard the Israelites and made them victorious over the Canaanites. Israel fulfilled their vow and totally destroyed the people and their cities. Because of this, they named the place Hormah (which means “destruction”).

      • Interestingly, this is the second time that the Israelites came up against the Canaanites at this location. The first time was just after they had refused to proceed into the promised land due to the report of the unfaithful scouts. After the Lord decreed their punishment (they would wander in the wilderness for 40 years and none of that generation would enter the promised land) the devastated Israelites attempted to overcome the Canaanites without God’s blessing. As a result, they were swiftly defeated. Now, years later, in the very same place and against the very same foe, the Israelites were successful because the Lord was with them.

      • Guzik writes, “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.’”

The Bronze Serpent

    • Then the Israelites left Mount Hor traveling toward the Red Sea in order to go around the land of Edom. The long journey made the people impatient and they complained against God and Moses saying, “Why did you lead us out of Egypt just so we would die in the wilderness? There is nothing here to eat or drink and we are sick of this horrible manna!”

      • The Israelites go from making a vow to the Lord and trusting Him to deliver them in battle to complaining against Him in almost the same breath. Guzik’s commentary provides excellent insight into the Israelites’ morale at this point and the gravity of their complaints at this juncture:

        • 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. 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. 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. 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! 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.”

    • So the Lord sent venemous snakes among them and they were bitten- many died. The people came to Moses crying, “We have sinned by complaining against the Lord and you. Please pray to the Lord for us so He will take these snakes away!” Moses prayed on their behalf.

      • The word translated “venomous” in different Bible translations is actually serapim or “burning.” For this reason, the KJV translates this word “fiery.” While some individuals understand this to mean that the snakes themselves were on fire, the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible notes the most common view, “…serapim (‘burning’) may refer to the burning pain from the lethal injection of venom through the serpents’ fangs or to a species of snake whose bite caused a burning sensation. The carpet viper is a highly poisonous viper known from Africa and the Middle East- thus a likely candidate. Other suggestions include the puff adder and sand viper, neither of which is as lethal as the carpet viper.”

Carpet Viper (Wikipedia)
    • Then the Lord told Moses, “Make a replica of a venomous snake and mount it on a pole. Anyone who has been bitten will live if they look at it.” So Moses made a snake out of bronze and put it up on a pole. Anytime someone was bitten and then looked at the pole, they were healed.

      • Time out!! This is definitely one of those “wait, what??” moments from Scripture. At first gloss it almost sounds as if God instructed Moses to build an idol- something that was explicitly condemned in Exodus 20:4! What’s even more amazing is that, in the gospel of John, Jesus uses this very incident as an analogy to explain to Nicodemus what He came to earth to do: John 3:14-15: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

        • As we know, many things in the Old Testament are “shadows” or “types” of things that will be fulfilled in the New. The Israelites and the bronze snake is just such an event. Steven J. Cole lists 5 comparisons between this wilderness incident and the cross in his article, “How Jesus is Like a Snake (John 3:14-15; Numbers 21:4-9)”:

          • (1) Because of sin, all people are under the curse of death: The people in the wilderness were dying because of their sin. They did not deserve to live, because they had rebelled terribly against God and His goodness toward them. They had a track record of 40 years of grumbling in spite of God’s gracious faithfulness. He had delivered them from Pharaoh’s army…But in spite of God’s abundant goodness, they grumbled at Him about their circumstances. And so He sent these deadly snakes among them as a judgment because of their sin…whether it’s grumbling against God or having other gods before Him or failing to love others or pride or lust or greed or selfishness, we’ve all sinned against God more times than we can count. As Paul argues (Rom. 3:10), ‘There is none righteous, not even one.’ And (Rom. 6:23), ‘The wages of sin is death.’…This story brings out a great contrast between religion and Christianity. Religion either ignores human sin and says that God is so loving that He just overlooks our sin; or, it says that we can pay for our sins through good works or penance. But biblical Christianity recognizes that God cannot overlook sin or He would not be holy and just. And, we cannot pay for our own sins, because our good deeds are filthy rags in God’s sight. Our good deeds cannot erase the penalty for our sins, which is the second death.”

          • (2) God graciously provided the remedy for the curse:The snake-bitten people could not do anything to save themselves. They were dropping like flies. God had to provide a way for them to be healed or they all would die. When they confessed their sin and asked Moses to intercede for them, God provided this strange remedy…Even so, we’re all under the condemnation of eternal death because of our sin. No human remedy can help. God graciously provided the way of salvation for us. He sent His own Son to be like that snake, lifted up in the wilderness.”

          • Under this point, Cole notes 5 important similarities between the remedy of the cross and the remedy of the bronze snake:

            • (1) “First, it’s a supernatural remedy. It came from God. Moses didn’t say, ‘Give me a few days to think about this.’ After consulting with the smartest leaders in Israel, he announced, ‘We’ve got it, people! I just made this bronze snake that’s up on that pole. Whoever looks at it will live!’ Everyone would have thought that he was nuts! Even so, Paul wrote (1 Cor. 1:18), ‘For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.’ The cross is God’s remedy…It came from God, who devised His plan of salvation before the foundation of the world.”

          • (2) “Also, the snake on the pole was a sufficient remedy…There was nothing to add to it. God would heal you if you didn’t do anything except to look at that bronze snake. In the same way, the cross of Christ is sufficient for the salvation of the worst of sinners. You don’t have to add anything to it. You don’t have to give money to the church. You don’t need to do penance to help pay for your sins. You don’t have to join the church. You don’t need to add your good works to what Christ has done. Jesus paid it all! There’s nothing for you to do, except to look unto Him in faith and He will save you.”

          • (3) “The snake was also a sure remedy. Everyone who looked was cured on the spot. No one who looked died. It was a perfect, sure-fire cure for everyone who looked. Even so, Jesus saves every sinner who believes in Him. As He says (John 3:15), ‘Whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.’”

            • (4) “Also, this snake was a simple remedy. As I said, it was sufficient so that there was nothing else needed. Its sufficiency made it extremely simple…all you had to do was to look and live. And all you need to do is believe in Jesus as the One who paid the penalty for your sin and you will have eternal life.”

          • (5) “Also, this snake was a self-effacing remedy. You couldn’t take any credit for your cure. You couldn’t boast that you had fasted for days or deprived yourself of anything or done any good works or brought any offerings to the snake. You just needed to realize that you couldn’t cure yourself. You were doomed if God didn’t intervene.”

        • (3) “The remedy must be lifted up: John 3:14: ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.’ John uses this phrase of Jesus three other times and each time it refers to the cross: John 8:28: ‘So Jesus said, ‘When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me.’ John 12:32: [Jesus said], ‘And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.’ John 12:34, ‘The crowd then answered Him, “We have heard out of the Law that the Christ is to remain forever; and how can You say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this Son of Man?’” Must occurs in two of those verses. It points to the fact that the cross was absolutely necessary to atone for our sins…But the only way to satisfy God’s perfect justice was for the sinless Son of Man to be lifted up on the cross as our substitute.”

        • (4) “The only thing that cursed people have to do to be healed is look in faith to God’s remedy: God could have removed the deadly snakes, but instead, He left the snakes, but provided a remedy: Just look to the snake that Moses put up on the pole and you will live. That seemed absurd. It didn’t require anything for them to do except to look in the faith that they would be healed…In the same way, we need to believe God’s promise that whoever looks to Jesus and His death as the just payment for his sins will be forgiven and granted eternal life.”

        • (5) “The result of looking was life: Whoever looked in faith at the snake lived. Whoever believes will in Jesus have eternal life…Eternal life is not only life forever, but abundant, joyous, life in the presence of God forever, without any sorrow or pain or death or sin (Rev. 21:4).”

– Two additional points of interest regarding this passage:

            • (1) The fate of this mounted bronze serpent is also quite interesting. The Israelites kept it and unfortunately generations later it was treated as an idol. Guzik notes, “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.” According to the Jewish Virtual Library, “The Nehushtan probably stood in the Temple court, and the people believed that it had the power of curing sicknesses.”

Hezekiah orders Nehushtan to be destroyed
          • (2) The snake on a pole is still used in modern society as an emblem for healing:

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Journey Around Moab

    • Next the Israelites traveled to Oboth and camped. From there they continued traveling along the eastern border of Moab, stopping at Iye-abarim, then on to the Zered Valley where they camped. From there they moved on, setting up camp on the other side of the Arnon River which serves as the border between the Moabites and the Amorites.

      • HCSB commentary notes, “The Moabite boundaries, like those of the Edomites, were fluid during this period, but their territory was generally located in the arable zone between the Wadi Zered and the Arnon River.”

    • For this reason, The Book of the Wars of the Lord says, “the town of Waheb in the area of Suphah, and the ravines of the Arnon River, and the ravines that extend all the way to the city of Ar on the border of Moab.”

      • On this ancient book (The Book of the Wars of the Lord) the HCSB commentary notes, “This ancient Hebrew source was lost in antiquity, but was one of many sources mentioned in the OT that were incorporated into the Hebrew Bible.” The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible adds, “This document… probably consisted of victory songs and tales of the deeds of Yahweh and the leaders of Israel.”

    • From there, the Israelites traveled to Beer, which is the well where the Lord told Moses, “Call the people together and I will give them water.” Then, the people sang: “Spring up well! Sing of this well that was dug by princes- that nobles hollowed out with there scepters and staffs.”

    • Then the Israelites left the wilderness traveling through Mattanah, Nahaliel, Bamoth, then on to the valley in Moab which is close to the Pisgah plateau overlooking the wasteland.

Victory Over Amorite Kings

    • Israel sent messengers to Sihon, King of the Amorites, saying, “Let us travel through your land. We will keep to the King’s Highway only and won’t stray into any of your fields or vineyards or drink any of your well water.”

        • NLT Illustrated Study Bible notes, “The Amorites were a group of Nomadic peoples who had conquered areas from Mesopotamia to Canaan in the Middle Bronze Age (about 2000-1500 BC), including Babylon (around 1830 BC) and Assur (around 1750 BC). Amorites living in the hill country of Canaan had terrified Israel’s spies (Deuteronomy 1:26-28) and had then repelled Israel’s misguided attempt to enter Canaan (Numbers 14:44-45). At the time of Israel’s arrival, Amorites had gained control of much of the Transjordan (the area east of the Jordan)…The territory of King Sihon was sandwiched between Moab and Ammon. The Israelites were not to invade Ammon (Deuteronomy 2:19), Edom, or Moab (Deuteronomy 2:4-9) because they were kin (Genesis 19:30-38; 32:3), but Israel needed to cross Transjordan to enter Canaan. Sihon’s territory was the natural route.”

    • Sihon refused to allow Israel passage. He mobilized his army and attacked them in the wilderness. Battle ensued at Jahaz. The Israelites defeated him and took possession of his territory from the Arnon River to the Jabbok River. However, they didn’t go past the Ammonite border because it was fortified. The Israelites captured and settled in all these Amorite cities including Heshbon and the surrounding villages.

    • Heshbon was the capital of the Amorite King Sihon. He had defeated the previous Moabite king and taken all of his land as far as the Arnon River.

      • NLT Illustrated Study Bible writes, “After Israel occupied this region for several hundred years, it was reclaimed by King Mesha of Moab (2 Kings 3:4-27) through a campaign described in detail around 830 BC on the Mesha Inscription (also known as the Moabite Stone).”

Mesha Inscription or Moabite Stone c. 840 BC discovered 1868-70 (Wikipedia)
      • For this reason the poets wrote this about him: “Come to Heshbon and let it be rebuilt; let Sihon’s city be restored. A fire blazed forth from Heshbon and burned the Moabite city of Ar; it destroyed the rulers of the Arnon heights. Woe to you Moab! You people of Chemosh have been destroyed. Chemosh left his sons as refugees and his daughters in captivity to Sihon, the Amorite king. We have destroyed them from Heshbon to Dibon. We have completely wiped them out all the way to Nophah and Medeba.”

        • HCSB commentary adds, “The ‘Song of Heshbon’ contains satirical lyrics about the Amorites’ victory over Moab. The Israelites adapted it from the Amorites to express their claim to the land and the superiority of Israel’s God to Moabite patron deity Chemosh.”

    • The Israelites lived in the Amorites land and after Moses sent men to scout out Jazer, they captured the villages in that region and drove out the Amorites who lived there. From there, the Israelites marched to Bashan. Og, the king of Bashan, and his army marched out to attack them at Edrei. The Lord told Moses, “Don’t be afraid of him because I have already handed him, his people, and all his land over to you. Do the same to him as you did to Sihon and the Amorites at Heshbon.” The Israelites obeyed. They killed Og, his sons, and his entire army- no one was left alive. Then, they took possession of their land.

      • NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible writes, “Bashan was situated east-northeast of the Sea of Galilee and north of the Yamuk River. The modern Golan area in Israel covers some of this territory, but in ancient times Bashan extended to Mount Hermon in the north and to the Yamuk River in the south, and was bounded on the west by the Jordan Valley and on the east by the great eastern desert…Ashtaroth, Og’s capital…was mentioned in Egyptian, Assyrian, and possibly Ugaritic texts and is designated as Tell Ashtarah today.”