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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 21

Barnes' Notes on the Whole BibleBarnes' Notes

Verse 1

King Arad the Canaanite - Rather, “the Canaanite, the king of Arad.” Arad stood on a small hill, now called Tel-Arad, 20 miles south of Hebron.

In the south - See Numbers 13:17, Numbers 13:22.

By the way of the spies - i. e. through the desert of Zin, the route which the spies sent out by Moses 38 years before had adopted (compare Numbers 13:21).

He fought against Israel - This attack (compare Numbers 20:1 and note), can hardly have taken place after the death of Aaron. It was most probably made just when the camp broke up from Kadesh, and the ultimate direction of the march was not as yet pronounced. The order of the narrative in these chapters, as occasionally elsewhere in this book (compare Numbers 9:1, etc.), is not that of time, but of subject matter; and the war against Arad is introduced here as the first of the series of victories gained under Moses, which the historian now takes in hand to narrate.

Verse 3

He called the name of the place - Render it as: “the name of the place was called.” The transitive verb here is, by a common Hebrew idiom, equivalent to an impersonal one.

Hormah - i. e. “Ban.” See Numbers 14:45 and note. In Judges 1:17, we read that the men of Judah and Simeon “slew the Canaanites that inhabited Zephath, and utterly destroyed it;” and further, that “the name of the city was called Hormah.” But it does not follow that the name “Hormah” was first bestowed in consequence of the destruction of the place in the time of the Judges, and that in Numbers its occurrence is a sign of a post-Mosaic date of composition. The text here informs us that this aggression of the king of Arad was repelled, and avenged by the capture and sack of his cities; and that the Israelites “banned” them (compare Leviticus 27:28-29). But it was not the plan of the Israelites in the time of Moses to remain in this district. They therefore marched away southeastward; and no doubt for the time the Canaanites resumed possession, and restored the ancient name (Zephath). But Joshua again conquered the king of this district, and finally in the time of the early Judges the ban of Moses and his contemporaries was fully executed. We have therefore in the passage before us the history of the actual origin of the name “Hormah.”

Verse 4

The direct route to Moab through the valleys of Edom being closed against them Numbers 20:20-21, they were compelled to turn southward. Their course lay down the Arabah; until, a few hours north of Akaba (Ezion-Geber) the Wady Ithm opened to them a gap in the hostile mountains, allowed them to turn to their left, and to march northward toward Moab Deuteronomy 2:3. They were thus for some days (see Numbers 22:1 note) in the Arabah, a mountain plain of loose sand, gravel, and detritus of granite, which though sprinkled with low shrubs, especially near the mouths of the wadys and the courses of the winter-torrents, furnishes extremely little food or water, and is often troubled by sand-storms from the shore of the gulf. Hence, “the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.”

Verse 5

This light bread - i. e. “this vile, contemptible bread.”

Verse 6

Fiery serpents - The epithet Deuteronomy 8:15; Isaiah 14:29; Isaiah 30:6 denotes the inflammatory effect of their bite. The peninsula of Sinai, and not least, the Arabah, abounds in mottled snakes of large size, marked with fiery red spots and wavy stripes, which belong to the most poisonous species, as the formation of the teeth clearly show.

Verse 8

Make thee a fiery serpent - i. e. a serpent resembling in appearance the reptiles which attacked the people. The resemblance was of the essence of the symbolism (compare 1 Samuel 6:5). As the brass serpent represented the instrument of their chastisement, so the looking unto it at God’s word denoted acknowledgment of their sin, longing for deliverance from its penalty, and faith in the means appointed by God for healing. In the serpent of brass, harmless itself, but made in the image of the creature that is accursed above others Genesis 3:14, the Christian fathers rightly see a figure of Him John 3:14-15 who though “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners” Hebrews 7:26, was yet “made sin” 2 Corinthians 5:21, and “made a curse for us” Galatians 3:13. And the eye of faith fixed on Him beholds the manifestation at once of the deserts of sin, of its punishment imminent and deprecated, and of the method of its remission devised by God Himself.

Verses 10-11

The earlier stations in this part of their journey were Zalmonah and Punon Numbers 33:41-42. Oboth was north of Punon, east of the northern part of Edom, and is pretty certainly the same as the present pilgrim halting-place el-Ahsa. Ije (“ruinous heaps”) of Abarim, or Iim of Abarim, was so called to distinguish it from another Iim in southwestern Canaan Joshua 15:29. Abarim denotes generally the whole upland country on the east of the Jordan. The Greek equivalent of the name is Peraea.

Verse 12

The valley of Zared - Rather, the brook or watercourse of Zared “the willow.” It is probably the present Wady Ain Franjy.

Verse 13

The Arnon, now the Wady Mojeb, an impetuous torrent, divided the territory which remained to the Moabites from that which the Amorites had wrested from them, Numbers 21:26.

Verse 14

Of “the book of the wars of the Lord” nothing is known except what may be gathered from the passage before us. It was apparently a collection of sacred odes commemorative of that triumphant progress of God’s people which this chapter records. From it is taken the ensuing fragment of ancient poetry relating to the passage of the Arnon River, and probably also the Song of the Well, and the Ode on the Conquest of the Kingdom of Sihon Numbers 21:17-18, Numbers 21:27-30.

What he did ... - The words which follow to the end of the next verse are a reference rather than a quotation. Contemporaries who had “the Book” at hand, could supply the context. We can only conjecture the sense of the words; which in the original are grammatically incomplete. The marg. is adopted by many, and suggests a better sense: supplying some such verb as “conquered,” the words would run “He” (i. e. the Lord) “conquered Vaheb in Suphah, and the brooks, etc.” Suphah would thus be the name of a district remarkable for its reeds and water-flags in which Vaheb was situated.

Verse 15

To the dwelling of Ar - Ar (compare Numbers 21:28; Isaiah 15:1) was on the bank of the Arnon, lower down the stream than where the Israelites crossed. Near the spot where the upper Arnon receives the tributary Nahaliel Numbers 21:19, there rises, in the midst of the meadow-land between the two torrents, a hill covered with the ruins of the ancient city (Joshua 13:9, Joshua 13:16; compare Deuteronomy 2:36).

Verse 16

Beer is probably the “Well,” afterward known as Beer-elim, the “well of heroes” Isaiah 15:8.

Verses 17-18

This song, recognized by all authorities as dating from the earliest times, and suggested apparently by the fact that God in this place gave the people water not from the rock, but by commanding Moses to cause a well to be dug, bespeaks the glad zeal, the joyful faith, and the hearty cooperation among all ranks, which possessed the people. In after time it may well have been the water-drawing song of the maidens of Israel.

Numbers 21:18

By the direction of the lawgiver - Some render, with the lawgiver’s scepter; i. e. under the direction and with the authority of Moses; compare Genesis 49:10, and note.

Verse 19

Nahaliel - i. e. “brook of God;” the modern Wady Enkheileh. The Israelites must have crossed the stream not much above Ar.

Bamoth - Otherwise Bamoth-baal, “the high places of Baal” Numbers 22:41 : mentioned as near Dibon (Dhiban) in Joshua 13:17, and Isaiah 15:2. See Numbers 32:34.

Verse 20

In the country of Moab - Rather, in the field of Moab: the upland pastures, or flat downs, intersected by the ravine of Wady Waleh.

Pisgah, which looketh toward Jeshimon - Or, “toward the waste.” See Numbers 33:47. Pisgah was a ridge of the Abarim mountains, westward from Heshbon. From the summit the Israelites gained their first view of the wastes of the Dead Sea and of the valley of the Jordan: and Moses again ascended it, to view, before his death, the land of promise. The interest attaching to the spot, and the need of a convenient name for it, has led Christians often to designate it as “Nebo,” rather than as “the mountain of, or near to, Nebo;” but the latter is the more correct: Nebo denoted the town Isaiah 15:2; Jeremiah 48:1, Jeremiah 48:22 on the western slope of the ridge.

Verse 24

Jabbok (now Wady Zerka: compare Genesis 32:22) runs eastward under Rabbah of the children of Ammon, thence westward, and reaches the Jordan, 45 miles north of the Arnon. It was between Rabbah and Gerasa that it formed the Ammonite boundary.

Verse 25

Heshbon - Now Heshban, a ruined city, due east of the point where the Jordan enters the Dead Sea; conspicuous from all parts of the high plateau on which it stands, but concealed, like the rest of the plateau, from the valley beneath.

Verse 27

They that speak in proverbs - The original word is almost equivalent to “the poets.” The word supplies the title of the Book of Proverbs itself; and is used of the parable proper in Ezekiel 17:2; of the prophecies of Balsam in Numbers 23:7-10; Numbers 24:3-9; etc.; and of a song of triumph over Babylon in Isaiah 14:4.

Verse 29

Chemosh - The national God of the Moabites (compare the marginal references). The name probably means “Vanquisher,” or “Master.” The worship of Chemosh was introduced into Israel by Solomon 1Ki 11:7; 2 Kings 23:13. It was no doubt to Chemosh that Mesha, king of Moab, offered up his son as a burnt-offering 2 Kings 3:26-27.

In the first six lines Numbers 21:27-28 the poet imagines for the Amorites a song of exultation for their victories over Moab, and for the consequent glories of Heshbon, their own capital. In the next lines Numbers 21:29 he himself joins in this strain; which now becomes one of half-real, half-ironical compassion for the Moabites, whom their idol Chemosh was unable to save. But in the last lines Numbers 21:30 a startling change takes place; the new and decisive triumph of the poet’s own countrymen is abruptly introduced; and the boastings of the Arnorites fade utterly away. Of the towns Heshbon was the northernmost, and therefore, to the advancing Israelites, the last to be reached. Medeba, now Madeba, was four miles south of Heshbon (compare 1 Chronicles 19:7, 1 Chronicles 19:15).

Verse 32

Jaazer - To he identified probably with the ruins Sir or es-Sir 10 miles north of Heshbon. The occupation of it by the Israelites virtually completed their conquest of the Amorite kingdom; and prepared the way for the pastoral settlements in it which they not long after established Numbers 32:35.

Verse 33

In these apparently unimportant words is contained the record of the Israelite Numbers 32:39 occupation of Gilead north of the Jabbok; a territory which, though populated, like southern Gilead, by the Amorites (Deuteronomy 3:9; Joshua 2:10, etc.), formed part of the domain of Og king of Bashan, who was himself of a different race Deuteronomy 3:2; Joshua 12:5; Joshua 13:11. We are not told whether they were led there by express warrant of God, or whether their advance upon Bashan was provoked by Og and his people.

At Edrei - Now Edhra’ah, commonly Der’a; situate on a branch of the Jarmuk. This river formed the boundary between Gilead and Bashan.

Bibliographical Information
Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Numbers 21". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bnb/numbers-21.html. 1870.
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