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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 21

Dummelow's Commentary on the BibleDummelow on the Bible

Verses 1-35

The Brazen Serpent. Conquest of Bashan

1-3. The southern Canaanites repulse the Israelites, but are eventually destroyed.

1. King Arad] RV ’king of Arad.’ The name of this place still survives in Tell Arad, some ruins about 16 m. S. of Hebron and about 50 m. N. of Kadesh. The way of the spies] RV ’the way of Atharim.’ The word is evidently the name of a place. It has not been identified.

2. Destroy] lit. ’devote.’ See on Leviticus 27:26, Leviticus 27:29.

3. This took place much later: see Joshua 12:14; Judges 1:16, Judges 1:17. Had they been victorious on this occasion the Israelites would naturally have marched directly northwards into Canaan; but, being repulsed, they retreated southwards, having registered this vow which was ultimately fulfilled. Hormah means a ’devoted thing.’ It is from the same root as the verb in Numbers 21:2.

4-9. The Brazen Serpent. Retreating southwards the people are discouraged and give way again to murmuring. Venomous serpents are sent among them. Moses is commanded to make a brazen serpent, and all who look to it in faith are healed.

4. To compass] to go round: see on Numbers 20:22-29. The Red Sea] i.e. the arm now called the Gulf of Akaba. Because of the way] They were now marching away from Canaan instead of towards it.

5 This light bread] or, ’this vile food.’ The manna is meant: cp. Numbers 11:6.

6. Fiery serpents] i.e. serpents whose sting caused violent inflammation. Venomous sandsnakes are still found in this locality.

8. Upon a pole] RV ’upon a standard.’ This brazen serpent was long preserved by the Israelites, and ultimately became an object of superstitious veneration, in consequence of which Hezekiah ordered it to be destroyed (2 Kings 18:4).

9. When he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived] rather, ’when he looked to it,’ i.e. not casually but of purpose and with faith. The lifeless image of the serpent that had caused the pain and death of so many was a symbol of the victory over these things that God gives to those who trust in Him. The Jewish commentators recognise here an illustration of the power of faith. ’The serpent neither killed nor preserved alive, but if the Israelites lifted up their eyes and turned their hearts to their Father in heaven they were healed; if not, they perished.’ Similarly in the book of Wisdom (Numbers 16:6-7), the brazen serpent is called ’a token of salvation to put them in remembrance of the commandment of Thy law, for he that turned toward it was not saved because of that which was beheld, but because of Thee, the Saviour of all.’ The brazen serpent raised upon the pole, for the healing of those who were ready to die, is a striking emblem of the Saviour ’lifted up’ on the Cross, for the salvation of all who are wounded by ’that old serpent the devil,’ and who look in faith to Him: see John 3:14.

10-15. Journey to the Arnon.

12. Zared] The Zered flowed into the Dead Sea at its southern extremity.

13. The other side of Arnon] This means the S. side of the river Arnon, as the story is narrated from the standpoint of one living in Canaan: see Intro. and Numbers 22:1. The Arnon flows into the Dead Sea about the middle of its E. side. It is the boundary between the Moabites on the S. and the Amorites on the N. The Israelites did not go through Moab, as the passage was denied to them, but went round it on the E. side, crossing the upper courses of the Arnon: see Numbers 21:11, and cp. Judges 11:17, Judges 11:18.

14. As the Moabites afterwards crossed the Arnon and took possession of part of the land of the Amorites, this ancient fragment of poetry from the ’book of the Wars of the Lord’ indicates the original boundary of Moab. The ’book of the Wars of the Lord,’ which is mentioned only here in the OT., was probably a collection of war songs, illustrating what Jehovah did for His people by the hand of Moses. The other poetical fragments in this chapter (Numbers 21:17-18, Numbers 21:27-30) are, in all probability, from the same collection. What he did in the Red Sea] RV ’Vaheb in Suphah.’ The words are names of localities now unknown. Some verb is to be supplied before them, such as ’they subdued.’

16-20. Passage through the land of the Amorites from the Arnon to Pisgah at the N. end of the Red Sea. During this march the people seem to have suffered from want of water. The ’Song of the Well’ celebrates the finding of water at Beer. ’Beer’ means ’well.’

20. Jeshimon] rather, ’the Jeshimon,’ the plain lying to the NE. of the Dead Sea.

21-30. Conquest of the Amorites and Song of Triumph.

21. Cp. the similar request and refusal in Numbers 20:14-21.

24. Was strong] This seems to give the reason why the Israelites did not follow up their conquest of the Amorites by entering the land of Ammon. LXX, however, reads, ’the border.. was Jaazer,’ a town mentioned in Numbers 21:32.

27. In proverbs] This Hebrew word is sometimes rendered ’parable.’ It is applied to a by-word or taunt song: see 1 Kings 9:7; Jeremiah 24:9; Isaiah 14:4; Job 27:1 and Numbers 23:7, Numbers 23:18; Numbers 24:3, Numbers 24:15, Numbers 24:20-21, Numbers 24:2. The opening words of the song are an ironical challenge to the former inhabitants to return to Heshbon, which has been captured and destroyed. ’Come if you can,’ they say, ’and dispossess us and repair the city of your king.’ The next two vv. refer to the fact stated in Numbers 21:26. The haughty conqueror of Moab is now himself subdued. This song is quoted in Jeremiah 48:45, Jeremiah 48:46.

28. Read with RV ’fire went out.. it consumed.’ The fire is the fire of war.

29. Chemosh] the sun-god of the Moabites to whom human sacrifices were sometimes offered: see 2 Kings 3:27, and see on Genesis 22; Judges 11:30. The name occurs frequently on the Moabite Stone, a valuable relic dating from the 9th centuryb.c. and discovered at Dibon (see next note), on which Mesha, king of Moab (see 2 Kings 3:4), celebrates his victories over the Israelites, and attributes them to the favour of his god Chemosh. Solomon himself built a high place for Chemosh: see 1 Kings 11:7. The words here should read ’he (i.e. Chemosh) gave his sons as fugitives,’ i.e. he abandoned them so that they fled.

30. We] the Israelites. Dibon is near the Arnon (Numbers 21:13). The locality of Nophah is unknown. Medeba is a few miles S. of Heshbon. The concluding words of the song are obscure, and may be rendered, ’and we laid waste so that fire raged unto Medeba.’

33-35. Conquest of Bashan. Bashan was the northernmost part of the country E. of the Jordan, stretching from the river Jabbok in the S. to Mt. Hermon in the extreme N. This extensive district was celebrated for the richness of its vegetation, being ranked in this respect with Lebanon, Carmel, and Sharon: see Isaiah 33:9; Jeremiah 1:19; Nahum 1:4. Its giant oaks and vast herds of wild cattle are frequently referred to by the sacred writers: see Deuteronomy 32:14; Isaiah 2:13; Ezekiel 27:6; Ezekiel 39:18; Zechariah 11:2. In early times it was inhabited by a race of giants, from whom Og was descended (Genesis 14:5; Deuteronomy 3:11 see on Numbers 13:33). The ruins of the Giant Cities of Bashan remain to testify to the strength of its former inhabitants. See additional notes on Deuteronomy 3. After its final conquest it was occupied by the half tribe of Manasseh: see Numbers 32:33; Deuteronomy 3:13.

Bibliographical Information
Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Numbers 21". "Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcb/numbers-21.html. 1909.
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