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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 21

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


In this chapter we move very close to the entry into Canaan, but a number of experiences prior to that entry which would aid Israel in the struggles to come remained to be recorded, and the record of them would fill the Pentateuch, all the way to the end of Deuteronomy.

The chapter naturally falls into the following divisions: the conflict with Arad (Numbers 21:1-3), the experience of the fiery serpents (Numbers 21:4-9), a transitional brief summary of several encampments of Israel (Numbers 21:10-13), the journey continued (Numbers 21:14-20), the conflict with the Amorites (Numbers 21:21-32), and a defeat of Bashan (Numbers 21:33-35).

Verses 1-3

“And the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who dwelt in the South, heard tell that Israel came by the way of Atharim; and he fought against Israel, and took some of them captive. And Israel vowed a vow unto Jehovah, and said, If thou wilt indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities. And Jehovah hearkened to the voice of Israel, and delivered up the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed their cities: and the name of the place was called Hormah.”

“The king of Arad” “The name of this place still survives in the old ruins lying some 16 miles south of Hebron, known as Tell Arad.”(F1) The “king of Arad” therefore is not a personal name, but the name of his capitol.

“By way of Atharim” The name Atharim could be translated as “the spies,” in the KJV, meaning “the way of the spies”; if it is a place-name, “the location is not known.”(F2) What is evident here is that the ruler of Arad, as was the case no doubt with many Canaanites, anticipated the eventual assault of Israel upon their territory, and he, hearing of their long march up the eastern border of Edom, decided to halt their advance, probably attacking some isolated contingent of the sprawling camp of Israel and taking captives.

The reaction of Israel to this was dramatic. The Israelites made a vow to God that if indeed he delivered Arad into their hands, they would “utterly destroy” the people. The word in the Hebrew here is proscribe them, with the meaning that, “They would `utterly destroy them, not even reserving any booty to themselves, except that which would be deposited in the sanctuary as an offering’.”(F3) The word used for this continually is “to ban” or place under the “ban.” The use of “my hand” instead of “our hands” in Numbers 21:2, is of no significance, such grammatical lapses being found throughout the Holy Scriptures.

“They utterly destroyed” (Numbers 21:3). This is said to be by anticipation of what Israel actually did at a later time, and, for this reason, some suppose that the inspired Joshua is the author of this particular information. However, as Whitelaw pointed out, this also might have happened immediately instead of later after crossing the Jordan:

“It could have been a comparatively small band of Israel that approached Arad near enough to be attacked, and which by the help of God, was enabled to defeat Arad and destroy their cities… Arad was only a small border chieftain.(F4)

In light of this consideration, all of the scholarly talk about this passage coming from a later hand, or being misplaced in the text, may certainly be taken with a grain of salt.

Regarding what some humanists like to call the “morality” of God’s decree that the Canaanites should be utterly destroyed, it is sufficient here to note that only a fool can question the morality of God Himself. Yes, God decreed that all the earth at once (save Noah and his family) should be drowned. Was this right, or moral? Certainly. When any civilization reached a state of rebellion against God which, in the eyes of God, made its continued existence on earth a hazardous danger to all mankind, history indicates that God removed the offensive portion of humanity. It was true of the Canaanites.

Verses 4-9

“And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way to the Red Sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul loathed this light bread. And Jehovah sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, because we have spoken against Jehovah, and against thee; pray unto Jehovah, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And Jehovah said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a standard: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he seeth it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and set it upon the standard: and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked unto the serpent of brass, he lived.”

“By way of the Red Sea” (Numbers 21:4). It seems almost incredible that so many current commentaries go out of their way here to insert comments such as the following: “This means Sea where the reeds grow! The word is [~Yam] [~Cuwph], or Reed Sea.”(F5) This is an example of how otherwise dependable scholars can be deceived by the persistent attack of liberal critics. (See the full discussion of this unconscionable error at the end of Exodus 13 in my commentary on Exodus.) Most of the scholars, even including Moffatt, who was one of the first to adopt this error, had the understanding that denied the use of it here! The place here spoken of is the head of the Gulf of Aqaba, at Ezion-Geber, where Solomon launched his navy, and common sense should, tell anyone that Solomon did not launch his great triennial Navy on “the Sea of Reeds”! The Hebrew term [~Yam] [~Cuwph] never meant “Reed Sea.” It is impossible for the term “Reed” as used on ancient Egyptian monuments to modify any body of water. The words [~Yam] [~Cuwph] actually mean “Sea of the End” or “End Sea,” a mid-second millenium B.C. name for all the great southern oceans (the Indian Ocean), including all of its adjacent gulfs, bays, straits, etc. That this is true appears in the fact that the Pentateuch gave the name of the sea where Israel crossed and Pharoah’s army “went gurgling down” as the [~Yam] [~Cuwph] (the head of the Suez Gulf; and here the same [~Yam] [~Cuwph] is applied to the Gulf of Aqaba, the easternmost of the two great arms of the [~Yam] [~Cuwph] lying, one west (Suez), the other east (Aqaba) of the Sinaitic peninsula. (For the complete scientific refutation of the “Reed Sea” nonsense, see the article by Batto.(F6))

The complaint of these verses was prompted by real need: “No bread… no water… a dislike of that `light bread’.” Well, it was time to teach this nation of cry-babies the way of the rest of the human race. God commanded them to “dig a well” for the water, a signal that He would also shortly withhold the giving of the manna.

“Our soul loatheth the light bread” (Numbers 21:5). The words light bread do not convey the meaning of this term as used by Israel. Dummelow rendered it, “This vile food.”(F7) Wade translated it, “This contemptible food.”(F8) Plaut found the meaning as, “This miserable food.”(F9) Thompson read it as, “This worthless food.”(F10) Orlinsky declared that, “Just about any derogatory word will do!”(F11)

God’s response in this situation was swift and fatal for Israel; many of them perished from the poisonous venom of deadly snakes God sent upon His murmuring people. It was about time. Many, many times before this the sinful and unreasonable complaints of the people of God had long ago exceeded the merciful and understanding forbearance of God. The exact description of these snakes is not given, nor would it be helpful if we had it. Speculations about the exact species, or whether or not it can be identified with any of the snakes in that area today are worthless. As always, intelligent people are capable of responding to justly deserved punishment, and Israel promptly repented, apologized to Moses, confessed their sins, and requested Moses’ prayers on their behalf. For once, they were on exactly the right track.

“Make a serpent of brass… set it upon a standard… everyone that is bitten, when he seeth it shall live” (Numbers 21:8-9). The great significance of this derives from Jesus’ mention of it as follows:

“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). Also John 12:32-33, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto myself. But this he said, signifying by what manner of death he should die.”

It is nothing short of amazing that the Christ should have found foreshadowings in this event of his own redemptive work on the Cross, but there cannot be any doubt of it, and we therefore receive this event in certain particulars of it as a Type of Christ, “Not through the discernment of man, but by the preordination of God, being one of the typical histories, applied by the Saviour to himself.”(F12)


A. Man’s enemy, Satan, appears here in the form of the venomous serpents, which like “That Old Serpent” (Revelation 12:9), were the cause of sin and death.

B. The uniqueness of the remedy God here proposed is like that of Christ himself, being no other.

C. The lifting up of the serpent foretold the manner of Jesus’ death on Calvary.

D. Just as the brass serpent had the likeness and form of the serpents themselves, Jesus also was “made in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3). And just as the brass serpent which was lifted up was without any evil whatever; so was Christ.

E. Faith in what God commanded, demonstrated by “looking unto” the serpent was like the faith that obeys the Word of God with reference to what Christ commanded. Healing in both cases resulted from hearing, believing, and obeying the Divine commandments.

F. Some have equated “looking unto” with “faith alone” as the means of appropriating healing and salvation, but there is a fatal flaw in that analogy. “Looking unto” was a positive and obedient objective action. “Saving faith” as understood by solifidians is none of this!

G. The “lifting up of the serpent upon the standard” is typical of the “Lifting up of Christ,” not solely restricted to this death on a cross, but also applicable to the worldwide, and perpetual “lifting up” of the Saviour himself in the worship and adoration of all nations and tribes and tongues and peoples.

The student is invited to contrast the marvelous richness of this great event set forth in the above analogies with the snide comments that see nothing here except, “that of sympathetic magic - the belief that the fate of an object or person can be governed by the manipulation of its exact image!”(F13) This of course gives the same status to this event as that encountered in the Voodoo cults of Africa and the West Indies.

One other question of interest is that of “What became of the brass serpent?”

The brazen image of the serpent was taken by the Israelites to Canaan, and preserved until the time of Hezekiah, who had it broken in pieces because the idolatrous people presented incense-offerings to this holy relic (2 Kings 18:4).(F14)

Verses 10-20

“And the children of Israel journeyed, and encamped in Oboth. And they journeyed from Oboth, and encamped at Iye-abarim, in the wilderness which is before Moab, toward the sunrising. From thence they journeyed, and encamped in the valley of Zered. From thence they journeyed, and encamped on the other side of the Arnon, which is in the wilderness, that cometh out of the border of the Amorites: for the Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites. Wherefore it is said in the book of the Wars of Jehovah, Vaheb in Suphah, And the valleys of the Arnon, And the slope of the valleys That inclineth toward the dwelling of Ar, And leaneth upon the border of Moab. And from thence they journeyed to Beer: this is the well whereof Jehovah said unto Moses, Gather the people together, and I will give them water. Then sang Israel this song: Spring up, O well; sing ye unto it: The well, which the princes digged, Which the nobles of the people delved, With the sceptre, and with their staves. And from the wilderness they journeyed unto Mattanah; and from Mattanah to Nahaliel; and from Nahaliel to Bamoth; and from Bamoth to the valley that is in the field of Moab, to the top of Pisgah, which looketh down upon the desert.”

Concerning both this chapter and the next, Gray alleged that, “They contain the work of many writers.”(F15) However, he did not give the names of any such writers, nor identify them as to age, race, nationality, or in any other manner, thus casting a dark cloud over any such notion. Moses’ name is the only name associated with Numbers throughout human history. Nothing is any more ephemeral, speculative, or uncertain than that great hosts of “writers, redactors, and editors” so numerously stabled in the stalls of liberal critics!

The list of places where Israel camped (Numbers 21:10-13) is different from that in Numbers 33, making this an abbreviated account, or minor adjustments associated collectively with the same camp. It makes no difference at all. Only the people hunting discrepancies can have the slightest interest in such things. First, the names of many of the places were certainly dual, making two different names to be assigned here and there to the same place; and nobody knows whether, in each case, “all Israel” or only its headquarters was moved here or there, and to which, reference is here made.

Of particular interest is the mention of “The Book of the Wars of Jehovah.” Moses here quoted from it; but we cannot know all that was in it or in fact anything that was in it except what is quoted here. Certainly, it has the utility of showing that “books” were being written in that era of time, and that there were perhaps many of them. Writing had been known for centuries, as witnessed by the Code of Hammurabi dated from about 2000 B.C.

“I will give you water” (Numbers 21:16) “... The princes digged” (Numbers 21:18). The event here was not a case of Moses striking the rock and bringing forth water, but of God’s ordering a well to be dug; and the leaders of the people “digged it.” That is still the way God gives water to people all over the world; and Israel was here initiated into the universal understanding of the problem.

“With the sceptre and with their staves” One need not suppose that it was possible to dig a well with any such thing as a staff or a sceptre, and perhaps Adam Clarke was correct in the affirmation that the word here rendered “digged,” actually means “searched out, which is a frequent meaning of the root.”(F16) It could also be a metaphorical reference to their lending the full authority of their office to the effort.

“This song” (Numbers 21:17). “This song was sung for centuries in the Temple in Jerusalem on every Third Sabbath.”(F17)

“Pisgah” (Numbers 21:20). The mention of this place appears somewhat ominous, as it was from its summit that Moses received his only glimpse of the Holy Land. “It is located in the Abarim mountains, opposite Jericho, east of the northern tip of the Dead Sea. Here Moses viewed Canaan; and he died there. (Deuteronomy 34:1; Deuteronomy 34:5).”(F18)

Verses 21-32

“And Israel sent messengers unto Sihon king of the Amorites, saying, Let me pass through thy land: we will not turn aside into field, or into vineyard; we will not drink of the water of the wells: we will go by the king’s highway, until we have passed thy border. And Sihon would not suffer Israel to pass through his border: but Sihon gathered all his people together, and went out against Israel into the wilderness, and came to Jahaz; and he fought against Israel. And Israel smote him with the edge of the sword, and possessed his land from the Arnon unto the Jabbok, even unto the children of Ammon; for the border of the children of Ammon was strong. And Israel took all these cities: and Israel dwelt in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all the towns thereof. For Heshbon was the city of Sihon the king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab, and taken all his land out of his hand, even unto the Arnon. Wherefore they that speak in proverbs say, Come ye to Heshbon; Let the city of Sihon be built and established: For a fire is gone out of Heshbon, a flame from the city of Sihon: It hath devoured Ar of Moab, The lords of the high places of the Arnon. Woe to thee, Moab! Thou art undone, O people of Chemosh: He hath given his sons as fugitives, And his daughters into captivity, Unto Sihon king of the Amorites. We have shot at them; Heshbon is perished even unto Dibon, And we have laid waste even unto Nophah, which reacheth unto Medeba Thus Israel dwelt in the land of the Amorites. And Moses sent to spy out Jazer; and they took the towns thereof, and drove out the Amorites that were there.”

Here the formal conquest of the land of Canaan began in earnest. Israel conquered the powerful kingdom of the Amorites and possessed their land as far north as the Jabbok (Numbers 21:24). Moses was still in charge of Israel for this campaign and also for that against Jazer, another satellite kingdom of the Amorites (Numbers 21:31-32).

Again, Moses mentioned the song (or proverbs) sung by the people in celebration of the victory. These amazing lines (fourteen) have somewhat the nature of a sonnet, the first eleven lines (Numbers 21:27-29) extolling the power and might of Heshbon and Sihon, and the last three (Numbers 21:30) extolling the utter destruction of Heshbon.

“Thou art undone, O people of Chemosh” (Numbers 21:29). “Chemosh was the national god of the Moabites (1 Kings 11:7; Jeremiah 48:7), and to some extent the god of the Ammonites (Judges 11:24).”(F19) He is the same as Milcom, or Molech, and was worshipped with the sacrifice of children. Solomon built a shrine to this deity (1 Kings 11:7). “Jerome stated that Chemosh was only another name for Baal-Peor (see Numbers 26), a sun-god worshipped as a god of war.”(F20)

Verses 33-35

“And they turned and went up by the way of Bashan: and Og the king of Bashan went out against them, he and all his people, to battle at Edrei. And Jehovah said unto Moses, Fear him not: for I have delivered him into thy hand, and all his people, and his land; and thou shalt do to him as thou didst unto Sihon king of the Amorites, who dwelt at Heshbon. So they smote him, and his sons and all his people, until there was none left him remaining: and they possessed his land.”

“Fear him not” (Numbers 21:34). Og was a giant, and he might have inspired fear by his size, and also because of strongly fortified cities which he had built, “Which are still a wonder to all who behold their ruins.”(F21)

Cook spoke of these verses thus: “In these apparently unimportant words is the record of the Israelite conquest of Bashan and the occupation of Gilead north of the Jabbok.”(F22) Og’s kingdom was largely peopled with Amorites, but the fealty of the region belonged to Og. Thus, with the total destruction of the Amorite kingdoms, Israel had at this point secured their rear and were then standing opposite the city of Jericho, the first of the cities of Canaan proper that were destined to fall before the invincible armies of Israel. Before the entry into Canaan, however, other important episodes of their history would be recorded, notably their defection at Baal-Peor (Numbers 26), and the pitiful efforts of Balaam to seduce Israel, which, in fact, he accomplished in the fiasco at Baal-Peor.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Numbers 21". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/numbers-21.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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