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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 21

Clarke's CommentaryClarke Commentary

Verse 1


Arad, a king of the Canaanites, attacks Israel, and makes same

prisoners, 1.

They devote him and his people to destruction, 2;

which they afterwards accomplished, 3.

They journey from Hor, and are greatly discouraged, 4.

They murmur against God and Moses, and loathe the manna, 5.

The Lord sends fiery serpents among them, 6.

They repent, and beg Moses to intercede for them, 7.

The Lord directs him to make a brazen serpent, and set it on a

pole, that the people might look on it and be healed, 8.

Moses does so, and the people who beheld the brazen serpent

lived, 9.

They journey to Oboth, Ije-abarim, Zared, and Arnon, 10-13.

A quotation from the book of the wars of the Lord, 14, 15.

From Arnon they came to Beer, 16.

Their song of triumph, 17-20.

Moses sends messengers to the Amorites for permission to pass

through their land, 21, 22.

Sihon their king refuses, attacks Israel, is defeated, and all

his cities destroyed, 23-26.

The poetic proverbs made on the occasion, 27-30.

Israel possesses the land of the Amorites, 31, 32.

They are attacked by Og king of Bashan, 33.

They defeat him, destroy his troops and family, and possess his

land, 34, 35.


Verse Numbers 21:1. The way of the spies — אתרים atharim. Some think that this signifies the way that the spies took when they went to search the land. But this is impossible, as Dr. Kennicott justly remarks, because Israel had now marched from Meribah-Kadesh to Mount Hor, beyond Ezion-Gaber, and were turning round Edom to the south-east; and therefore the word is to be understood here as the name of a place.

Verse 3

Verse Numbers 21:3. The Lord hearkened to the voice of Israel — The whole of this verse appears to me to have been added after the days of Joshua. It is certain the Canaanites were not utterly destroyed at the time here spoken of, for this did not take place till after the death of Moses. If, instead of utterly destroyed them, ויחרם vaiyacharem, we translate they devoted them to utter destruction, it will make a good sense, and not repugnant to the Hebrew; though some think it more probable that the verse was added afterwards by Joshua or Ezra, in testimony of the fulfilment of God's promise; for Arad, who is mentioned as being destroyed here, is mentioned among those destroyed by Joshua long after, (see Joshua 12:14): but this is quite consistent with their being devoted to destruction, as this might be fulfilled any time after. Leviticus 27:34.

Verse 5

Verse Numbers 21:5. This light bread. — הקלקל hakkelokel, a word of excessive scorn; as if they had said, This innutritive, unsubstantial, cheat - stomach stuff.

Verse 6

Verse Numbers 21:6. Fiery serpents — הנחשים השרפים hannechashim hasseraphim. I have observed before, on Genesis 3:1, that it is difficult to assign a name to the creature termed in Hebrew nachash; it has different significations, but its meaning here and in Genesis 3:1 is most difficult to be ascertained. Seraphim is one of the orders of angelic beings, Isaiah 6:2; Isaiah 6:6; but as it comes from the root שרף saraph, which signifies to burn, it has been translated fiery in the text. It is likely that St. Paul alludes to the seraphim, Hebrews 1:7: Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a FLAME of FIRE. The animals mentioned here by Moses may have been called fiery because of the heat, violent inflammation, and thirst, occasioned by their bite; and consequently, if serpents, they were of the prester or dipsas species, whose bite, especially that of the former, occasioned a violent inflammation through the whole body, and a fiery appearance of the countenance. The poet Lucan has well expressed this terrible effect of the bite of the prester, and also of the dipsas, in the ninth book of his Pharsalia, which, for the sake of those who may not have the work at hand, I shall here insert.

Of the mortal effects of the bite of the dipsas in the deserts of Libya he gives the following description: -

"Signiferum juvenem Tyrrheni sanguinis Aulum

Torta caput retro dipsas calcata momordit.

Vix dolor aut sensus dentis fuit: ipsaque laeti

Frons caret invidia: nec quidquam plaga minatur.

Ecce subit virus tacitum, carpitque medullas

Ignis edax, calidaque incendit viscera tabe.

Ebibit humorem circum vitalia fusum

Pestis, et in sicco linguam torrere palato

Coepit: defessos iret qui sudor in artus

Non fuit, atque oculos lacrymarum vena refugit."

Aulus, a noble youth of Tyrrhene blood,

Who bore the standard, on a dipsas trod;

Backward the wrathful serpent bent her head,

And, fell with rage, the unheeded wrong repaid.

Scarce did some little mark of hurt remain,

And scarce he found some little sense of pain.

Nor could he yet the danger doubt, nor fear

That death with all its terrors threatened there.

When lo! unseen, the secret venom spreads,

And every nobler part at once invades;

Swift flames consume the marrow and the brain,

And the scorched entrails rage with burning pain;

Upon his heart the thirsty poisons prey,

And drain the sacred juice of life away.

No kindly floods of moisture bathe his tongue,

But cleaving to the parched roof it hung;

No trickling drops distil, no dewy sweat,

To ease his weary limbs, and cool the raging heat.


The effects of the bite of the prester are not less terrible:

"Nasidium Marsi cultorem torridus agri

Percussit prester: illi rubor igneus ora

Succendit, tenditque cutem, pereunte figura,

Miscens cuncta tumor toto jam corpore major:

Humanumque egressa modum super omnia membra

Effiatur sanies, late tollente veneno."

A fate of different kind Nasidius found,

A burning prester gave the deadly wound;

And straight, a sudden flame began to spread,

And paint his visage with a glowing red.

With swift expansion swells the bloated skin.

Naught but an undistinguished mass is seen;

While the fair human form lies lost within.

The puffy poison spreads, and leaves around,

Till all the man is in the monster drowned.


Bochart supposes that the hydrus or chersydrus is meant; a serpent that lives in marshy places, the bite of which produces the most terrible inflammations, burning heat, fetid vomitings, and a putrid solution of the whole body. See his works, vol. iii., col. 421. It is more likely to have been a serpent of the prester or dipsas kind, as the wilderness through which the Israelites passed did neither afford rivers nor marshes, though Bochart endeavors to prove that there might have been marshes in that part; but his arguments have very little weight. Nor is there need of a water serpent as long as the prester or dipsas, which abound in the deserts of Libya, might have abounded in the deserts of Arabia also. But very probably the serpents themselves were immediately sent by God for the chastisement of this rebellious people. The cure was certainly preternatural; this no person doubts; and why might not the agent be so, that inflicted the disease?

Verse 8

Verse Numbers 21:8. Make thee a fiery serpent — Literally, make thee a seraph.

And put it upon a pole — על נס al nes, upon a standard or ensign.

Verse 9

Verse Numbers 21:9. And Moses made a serpent of brass — נחש נחשת nechash nechosheth. Hence we find that the word for brass or copper comes from the same root with nachash, which here signifies a serpent, probably on account of the colour; as most serpents, especially those of the bright spotted kind, have a very glistening appearance, and those who have brown or yellow spots appear something like burnished brass: but the true meaning of the root cannot be easily ascertained.

On the subject of the cure of the serpent-bitten Israelites, by looking at the brazen serpent, there is a good comment in the book of Wisdom, Apoch. Wis 16:4-12, in which are these remarkable words: "They were admonished, having a sign of salvation, (i. e., the brazen serpent,) to put them in remembrance of the commandments of thy law. For he that turned himself towards It was not saved by the THING that he saw, but by THEE, that art the Saviour of all." To the circumstance of looking at the brazen serpent in order to be healed, our Lord refers, John 3:14-15: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life." The brazen serpent was certainly no type of Jesus Christ; but from our Lord's words we may learn,

1. That as the serpent was lifted up on the pole or ensign, so Jesus Christ was lifted up on the cross.

2. That as the Israelites were to look at the brazen serpent, so sinners must look to Christ for salvation.

3. That as God provided no other remedy than this looking for the wounded Israelites, so he has provided no other way of salvation than faith in the blood of his Son.

4. That as he who looked at the brazen serpent was cured and did live, so he that believeth on the Lord Jesus Christ shall not perish, but have eternal life.

5. That as neither the serpent, nor looking at it, but the invisible power of GOD healed the people, so neither the cross of Christ, nor his merely being crucified, but the pardon he has bought by his blood, communicated by the powerful energy of his Spirit, saves the souls of men.

May not all these things be plainly seen in the circumstances of this transaction, without making the serpent a type of Jesus Christ, (the most exceptionable that could possibly be chosen,) and running the parallel, as some have done, through ten or a dozen particulars?

Verse 12

Verse Numbers 21:12. They - pitched in the valley of Zared. — נחל זרד nachal zared. This should be translated the brook Zared, as it is in Deuteronomy 2:13-14. This stream has its origin in the mountains eastward of Moab, and runs from east to west, and discharges itself into the Dead Sea.

Verse 13

Verse Numbers 21:13. Arnon — Another river which takes its rise in the mountains of Moab, and, after having separated the ancient territories of the Moabites and Ammonites, falls into the Dead Sea, near the mouth of Jordan.

Verse 14

Verse Numbers 21:14. The book of the wars of the Lord — There are endless conjectures about this book, both among ancients and moderns. Dr. Lightfoot's opinion is the most simple, and to me bears the greatest appearance of being the true one. "This book seems to have been some book of remembrances and directions, written by Moses for Joshua's private instruction for the management of the wars after him. See Exodus 17:14-16. It may be that this was the same book which is called the book of Jasher, i. e., the book of the upright, or a directory for Joshua, from Moses, what to do and what to expect in his wars; and in this book it seems as if Moses directed the setting up of archery, see 2 Samuel 1:18, and warrants Joshua to command the sun, and expect its obedience, Joshua 10:13."

What he did in the Red Sea, and in the brooks of Arnon — This clause is impenetrably obscure. All the versions, all the translators, and all the commentators, have been puzzled with it. Scarcely any two agree. The original is את והב בסופה eth vaheb besuphah, which our translators render, what he did in the Red Sea, following here the Chaldee Targum; but not satisfied with this version, they have put the most difficult words in English letters in the margin, Vaheb in Suphah. Calmet's conjecture here is ingenious, and is adopted by Houbigant; instead of והב vaheb, he reads זרד zared. Now a ז zain may be easily mistaken for a ו vau, and vice versa; and a ה he for a ר, resh, if the left limb happened to be a little obliterated, which frequently occurs, not only in MSS., but in printed books; the ב beth also might be mistaken for a ד daleth, if the ruled line on which it stood happened in that place to be a little thicker or blacker than usual. Thus then והב vaheb might be easily formed out of זרד zared, mentioned Numbers 21:12; the whole might then be read, They encamped at the brook Zared, and they came to Suphah, and thence to the brook Arnon. Take the passage as we may, it is evidently defective. As I judge the whole clause to have been a common proverb in those days, and Vaheb to be a proper name, I therefore propose the following translation, which I believe to be the best: From Vaheb unto Suph, and unto the streams of Arnon. If we allow it to have been a proverbial expression, used to point out extensive distance, then it was similar to that well known phrase, From Dan even unto Beersheba.

Verse 17

Verse Numbers 21:17. Spring up, O well, &c. — This is one of the most ancient war songs in the world, but is not easily understood, which is commonly the case with all very ancient compositions, especially the poetic. Exodus 15:1; Exodus 15:1, &c.

Verse 18

Verse Numbers 21:18. The princes digged the well - with their staves. — This is not easily understood. Who can suppose that the princes dug this well with their staves? And is there any other idea conveyed by our translation? The word חפרו chapharu, which is translated they digged, should be rendered they searched out, which is a frequent meaning of the root; and במשענתם bemishanotham, which we render with their staves, should be translated on their borders or confines, from the root שען shaan, to lie along. With these corrections the whole song may be read thus: -

Spring up, O well! Answer ye to it. i.e. Repeat the other part of the song.
The well, the princes searched it out. This is the answer.
The nobles of the people have digged it. By a decree, upon their own borders. This was the chorus.

This is the whole of the quotation from what is called the book of the wars of the Lord. But see Dr. Kennicott's remarks at the end of this chapter.

Verse 26

Verse Numbers 21:26. For Heshbon was the city of Sihon, &c. — It appears therefore that the territory now taken from Sihon by the Israelites was taken from a former king of Moab, in commemoration of which an epikedion or war song was made, several verses of which, in their ancient poetic form, are here quoted by Moses.

Verse 27

Verse Numbers 21:27. They that speak in proverbs — המשלים hammoshelim, from משל mashal, to rule, to exercise authority; hence a weighty proverbial saying, because admitted as an axiom for the government of life. The moshelim of the ancient Asiatics were the same, in all probability, as the Poetae among the Greeks and Latins, the [Arabic] shaara among the Arabs, who were esteemed as Divine persons, and who had their name from [Arabic] shaara, he knew, understood; whose poems celebrated past transactions, and especially those which concerned the military history of their nation. These poets were also termed [Arabic] sahebi deewan, companions or lords of the council of state, because their weighty sayings and universal knowledge were held in the highest repute. Similar to these were the bards among the ancient Druids, and the Sennachies among the ancient Celtic inhabitants of these nations.

The ode from the Numbers 21:27-30; Numbers 21:27-30Numbers 21:27-30; Numbers 21:27-30 verse is composed of three parts. The first takes in verses Numbers 21:27 and Numbers 21:27; the second verse Numbers 21:29; and the third verse Numbers 21:30.

The first records with bitter irony the late insults of Sihon and his subjects over the conquered Moabites.

The second expresses the compassion of the Israelites over the desolations of Moab, with a bitter sarcasm against their god Chemosh, who had abandoned his votaries in their distress, or was not able to rescue them out of the hands of their enemies.

The third sets forth the revenge taken by Israel upon the whole country of Sihon, from Heshbon to Dibon, and from Nophah even to Medeba. See Isaiah 15:1-2.

The whole poem, divided into its proper hemistichs, as it stands in Kennicott's Hebrew Bible, is as follows: -

VERSE Numbers 21:27. PART I

Come ye to Heshbon, let it be rebuilt;

The city of Sihon, let it be established.

VERSE Numbers 21:28

For from Heshbon the fire went out,

And a flame from the city of Sihon:

It hath consumed the city of Moab,

With the lords of the heights of Arnon.

VERSE Numbers 21:29. PART II

Alas for thee, O Moab!

Thou hast perished, O people of Chemosh!

He hath given up his fugitive sons

And his daughters into captivity,

To the king of the Amorites, Sihon.

VERSE Numbers 21:30. PART III

But on them have WE lifted destruction,

From Heshbon even to Dibon;

We have destroyed even to Nophah,

The fire did reach to Medebah.

See Kennicott's Remarks.

Verse 35

Verse Numbers 21:35. So they smote him, and his sons — There is a curious note of Dr. Lightfoot here, of which I should think it wrong to deprive the reader.

"Sihon and Og conquered, A. M. 2553. Of the life of Moses, 120. From the Exodus, 40. It is now six and twenty generations from the creation, or from Adam to Moses; and accordingly doth Psalms 136:0, rehearse the durableness of God's mercy six and twenty times over, beginning the story with the creation, and ending it in the conquest of Sihon and Og. The numerals of the name יהוה Jehovah amount to the sum of six and twenty."

ON some difficulties in this chapter Dr. Kennicott makes the following observations: -

"This one chapter has several very considerable difficulties; and some verses, as now translated, are remarkably unintelligible, A true state of this chapter is not, however, to be despaired of; and it has in it some circumstances which merit more than common attention. It contains the history of the last part of the travels of the Israelites in their way to the promised land; beginning with them at Mount Hor, the thirty-fourth encampment, and concluding with them, as in their forty-second and last encampment, near Jordan, in the country which they had acquired by conquest over Sihon, king of the Amorites.

"It begins with saying - that King Arad, the Canaanite, who dwelt in the south, (in the land of Canaan, Numbers 33:40), attacked Israel and was defeated, and that Israel destroyed their cities; and that, after destroying these Canaanite cities, and consequently after being in a part of Canaan, a part of the very country they were going to, on the west of the Dead Sea, they returned towards the Red Sea, and near the eastern tongue or gulf of the Red Sea, on the south of Edom, marched round Edom to the east of the Dead Sea, in order to enter Canaan from the east side of Jordan!

"This surprising representation of so vast and dangerous a march, quite unnecessarily performed, is owing to two circumstances. The first is, (Numbers 21:1), the Canaanites heard that Israel was coming by the way of the spies, meaning, by the way the spies went from Kadesh-Barnea into Canaan. But this being impossible, because Israel had now marched from Meribah-Kadesh to Mount Hor, beyond Ezion-gaber, and were turning round Edom, to the south-east; it is happy that the word rendered spies, in our version, is in the Greek a proper name, (Atharim,) which removes that difficulty: and the other difficulty (Numbers 21:2-3) is removed by the Greek version likewise, according to which, the vow made, with the facts subsequent, does not signify destroying the Canaanite cities, but devoting them to destruction at some future time. See Wall's Crit. Notes.

"It proceeds with saying, that after defeating the Canaanites at Mount Hor, they journeyed from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, (in the road from Ammon, Midian, c., to the eastern gulf of the Red Sea,) to compass the land of Edom that on their murmuring for want both of bread and of water they were punished by fiery serpents, after which they marched to Oboth, and thence to Ije-abarim in the wilderness, east of Moab. The encampments of the Israelites, amounting to forty-two, are recorded all together, in historical succession, in Numbers 33:1-49, where Ije-abarim is the 38th; Dibon-gad, 39; Almon-Diblathaim, 40; mountains of Abarim, 41; and the plains of Moab, by Jordan, 42. This regular detail in Numbers 33:1-49 has occasioned great perplexity as to Numbers 21:10-20, where, after the stations at Oboth and Ije-abarim, in Numbers 21:10-11, we have, in Numbers 21:19-20, the words Mattanah, Nahaliel, and Bamoth; which are usually considered as the proper names of three places, but widely different from the three proper names after Ije-abarim in the catalogue at Numbers 33:44-48.

"But there is, in reality, no inconsistency here. In the plain and historical catalogue (Numbers 33:44-48) the words are strictly the proper names of the three places; but here the words Mattanah, Nahaliel, and Bamoth follow some lines of poetry, and seem to form a continuation of the song. They evidently express figurative and poetical ideas. The verbs journeyed from and pitched in are not found here, though necessary to prose narration: see verses Numbers 21:10 and 11 here, and Numbers 33:44-48. Lastly, verse Numbers 21:20; Numbers 21:20, (in this 21st chapter), usually supposed to express the last encampment, does not. Pisgah signifies a hill; and the Israelites could not encamp on the top of any single hill, such as this is described. Balak took Balaam to the top of Peor, which looketh toward Jeshimon, (Numbers 23:28), which Peor undoubtedly was in Moab. He took him to another hill in Moab, when he took him (Numbers 23:14) to the top of Pisgah, in the field of Zophim. And if the Pisgah or hill in Numbers 21:20, was in the country of Balak, it could not point out the last encampment, which was not in Balak's country, but north of Arnon.

"The word Mattanah probably alludes to a place distinguished by some gift or blessing from God. Fagius says: Nomen loci, ab eventu aquarum quas Dominus ibi dedit, sic appellati; מתנה nam significat donum -

'The name of the place was so called, from the circumstance of the waters which the Lord gave there; for Mattanah signifies a gift.' נהליאל Nahaliel is torrentes Dei; i. e., great streams, particularly seasonable or salutary. And במות Bamoth (Numbers 21:28) may point out any high places of signal benefit in the country of Moab, or it may answer to the last station but one, which was the mountains of Abarim.

If, therefore, these words were meant to express poetically some eminent blessing, what blessing was so likely to be then celebrated as copious streams of water? And after they had wandered nearly forty years through many a barren desert, and after (compare Deuteronomy 8:15) having passed through that great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents and drought, where there was no water, it is no wonder they should shout for joy at finding water in plenty, and finding it almost on the banks of Arnon, the last river they were to pass, in their way to their last station, east of Jordan. No wonder they should sing in poetic rapture, that after the wilderness was (Mattanah) the GIFT of GOD; meaning the great well in Moab, dug by public authority; and no wonder that, after such a gift, there were (Nahaliel) blessed streams, by which they passed, till they came to (Bamoth) the high places from which, perhaps, these streams descended. And the thanksgiving ends, where the blessing was no longer wanted, on their coming down into the valley, along the banks of Arnon, which was then the north boundary of Moab.

"The Israelites had spent no less than thirty-eight years in coming from Kadesh-Barnea to their encampment north of Zared. Here, at this fortieth station, they were commanded to pass through Moab by ער Ar, the chief city; but were not to stop till they came to the valley on the south of Arnon. At this last station but one they probably continued no longer than was necessary for sending messengers to Sihon, king of the Amorites, at Heshbon, and receiving his answer. They then crossed the Arnon; and having vanquished Sihon and Og, took possession of the forty-second and last encampment.

"This one chapter has three pieces of poetry, either fragments or complete; and poetry, seldom found in a historical narrative, may be here accounted for from the exuberance of joy which must have affected these wearied travellers, when arriving thus happily near their journey's end. What occurs first is in Numbers 21:14; and has often been called the fragment of an old Amorite song. But it may have been Amorite or Moabite, or either or neither, for the subject matter of it, as it is generally understood, if indeed it can be said to be understood at all. The words את והב בסופה ואת הנתליס ארנו , usually supposed to contain this fragment, do not signify, as in our English version, What he did in the Red Sea, and in the brooks of Arnon. Without enumerating the many interpretations given by others, I shall offer a new one, which seems to make good sense, and a sense very pertinent.

"Observe first, that there must have been a place called Suph, near the conflux of the Arnon and Jordan; because Moses, whilst in that last station, begins Deuteronomy with saying, he was on this side (i. e., east) of Jordan, over against Suph. By this word is not here meant the Red Sea; partly, because that has every where else the word for sea before it, and partly, because of the great distance of the Red Sea now from Moses. The single word, therefore, signifies here some place in itself obscure, because no where mentioned but in these two passages. And yet we cannot wonder that Moses should mention it twice, as the word Suph, introduced in speaking of the two last encampments, recalled to mind the Sea of Suph, so glorious to Israel, near the beginning of their march towards Canaan.

"Moses had now led Israel from the Red Sea to the river Arnon, through many dreadful dangers, partly from hostile nations, partly from themselves; such dangers as no other people ever experienced, and such as no people could have surmounted, without the signal favour of the Almighty. And here, just before the battles with Sihon and Og, he reminds them of Pharaoh, c. and he asserts, that in the history of the wars it shall be recorded that JEHOVAH, who had triumphantly brought Israel through the Sea of Suph, near Egypt, at first, had now conducted him to Suph, near Arnon; that

JEHOVAH went with him to SUPH,

And he came to the streams of Arnon.

"This version removes the difficulties urged by Hobbes, page 266, fol. 1750; by Spinoza, page 108, 4to., 1670; and retailed in a deistical pamphlet called The Doubts of the Infidels, page 4, 8vo., 1781.

"The general meaning of the next piece of poetry seems to be this: that at some distance from the city of Ar, by which the Israelites were to pass, (Deuteronomy 2:18), they came to A WELL of uncommon size and magnificence, which seems to have been sought out, built up, and adorned for the public, by the rulers of Moab. And it is no wonder that, on their arrival at such a well, they should look upon it as a blessing from Heaven, and speak of it as a new miracle in their favour.

Numbers 21:17. Then Israel sang this song: -

Spring up, O WELL! Sing ye hitherto!

Numbers 21:18. THE WELL! princes searched it out;

The nobles of the people have digged it;

By their decree, by their act of government,

So, after the wilderness, was Mattanah!

Numbers 21:19. And after Mattanah were Nahaliel!

And after Nahaliel were Bamoth!

Numbers 21:20. And after Bamoth was the valley;

Where, in the country of Moab,

Appeareth the top of Pisgah,

Which is over against Jeshimon.

See Dr. KENNICOTT'S Remarks upon Select Passages in the Old Testament.

Bibliographical Information
Clarke, Adam. "Commentary on Numbers 21". "The Adam Clarke Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/acc/numbers-21.html. 1832.
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