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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 21

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 1-3

The destruction of Arad 21:1-3

"Arad was a large town in the northern Negeb, about 17 miles . . . south of Hebron." [Note: G. Wenham, Numbers, p. 154. See The Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, s.v. "Arad," by Siegfried H. Horn; Ze’ev Herzog, Miriam Aharoni, and Anson Rainey, "Arad," Biblical Archaeology Review 13:2 (March-April 1987):16-35; and Ruth Amiran, Rolf Goethert, and Ornit Ilan, "The Well at Arad," ibid., pp. 40-44.]

"Atharim" means "spies" (Numbers 21:1). Evidently this is the route the Israelite spies had taken into Canaan.

The Canaanites of Arad took the offensive against Israel. Perhaps they did so because 38 years earlier the Israelites had suffered defeat at Hormah (which means "destruction"). Hormah lay very near Arad. The Israelites had experienced this defeat when they sought to enter the land after God had sentenced them to wander in the wilderness for 38 more years (Numbers 14:45).

"As being at Kadesh forms a framework for the wilderness wanderings, so does being at Hormah. After this victory at Hormah, where there had once been defeat, the Israelites are victorious regularly (Numbers 21:21-35)." [Note: Ashley, pp. 398-99.]

This was the Israelites’ first victory over the Canaanites, and it was undoubtedly a great confidence builder for them. It came after the Israelites vowed to obey God completely by exterminating these Canaanites if He would give them victory as He had promised. In this vow the Israelites simply promised to obey God. The conquest of Canaan must have seemed more certain to the Israelites now than ever before.

This narrative is similar to the one that described Israel’s previous victory over the Amalekites (Exodus 17). An account of the people’s murmuring due to lack of water introduces both stories (Exodus 17:1-7; Numbers 20:1-13). In both cases an enemy attacked the Israelites, but Israel proceeded to defeat each one with the Lord’s help brought down by prayer (Exodus 17:8-13; Numbers 21:1-3). Perhaps the writer intended us to learn from this that it was common for unbelieving nations to be hostile toward God’s people. They opposed them at the beginning and toward the end of their sojourn in the wilderness (cf. Numbers 21:10-20). Nevertheless God enabled the Israelites to be victorious in answer to prayer despite their unworthiness.

Verses 1-35

2. The climax of rebellion, atonement, and the end of dying chs. 21-25

Verses 4-9

The bronze snake 21:4-9

The Israelites next traveled to the southeast around the southern border of Edom. They took "the way of the Red Sea" (Numbers 21:4), a road to the town of Elath that stood at the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqabah. [Note: See Denis Baly, "Elath, Ezion-geber, and the Red Sea," Biblical Illustrator 9:3 (Spring 1983):66-69.] This route took them through the Arabah. The Arabah was a low-lying plain that runs from north of the Sea of Chinnereth (Galilee), through that Sea, the Jordan Valley, and the Dead Sea, south to the Gulf of Aqabah. Steep mountain walls border the Arabah to the south of the Dead Sea.

It is, ". . . a horrible desert, with a loose sandy soil, and drifts of granite and other stones, where terrible sandstorms sometimes arise from the neighborhood of the Red Sea . . . ." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 3:138-39.]

It is easy to understand why the Israelites grumbled again (Numbers 21:4-5), though this is the last mention of their complaining during the march to the Promised Land.

The serpents that the Lord sent to discipline the people were "fiery" probably because their bite caused intense burning. [Note: Ashley, p. 404; Keil and Delitzsch, 3:139; Wenham, Numbers, p. 157.] However poisonous snakes with red spots on their bodies still afflict the Bedouins in this desert. [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 3:139.]

God’s discipline moved the Israelites to confess their sin and to request Moses’ intercession (Numbers 21:7; cf. Numbers 11:2). As usual, this proved effective (Numbers 21:8).

The serpent that God told Moses to make was probably copper or bronze to resemble the color of the real snakes. It was not a real snake but an image, ". . . in which the fiery serpent was stiffened, as it were, into dead brass, as a sign that the deadly poison of the fiery serpents was overcome in this brazen serpent." [Note: Ibid., 3:140.]

"I suggest that the clue to the symbolism should be sought in the general principles underlying the sacrifices and purificatory rites in the Old Testament. Animals are killed, so that sinful men who deserve to die may live. Blood which pollutes when it is spilled can be used to sanctify and purify men and articles. The ashes of a dead heifer cleanse those who suffer from the impurity caused by death. In all these rituals there is an inversion: normally polluting substances or actions may in a ritual context have the opposite effect and serve to purify. In the case of the copper serpent similar principles operate. Those inflamed and dying through the bite of living snakes were restored to life by a dead reddish-coloured snake. It may be that copper was chosen not only because its hue matched the inflammation caused by the bites, but because red is the colour that symbolizes atonement and purification." [Note: G. Wenham, Numbers, pp. 157-58.]

We see a similar inversion in some of Jesus’ healing miracles. Rather than becoming unclean by touching those who were unclean, Jesus’ touch cleansed them. Rather than physically touching the substitute sacrifice, as God normally required, visual contact was all that was necessary in this case.

The Israelites preserved this metal serpent and later in their history offered incense to it (2 Kings 18:4). King Hezekiah finally had it broken up and destroyed since the Israelites were venerating it as a holy relic.

This narrative, as the previous one, also has a parallel earlier in the Pentateuch, namely, when Moses threw down his staff in Pharaoh’s presence and it became a snake (Exodus 4:3; Exodus 4:30). The context of both incidents is the people’s complaining.

"The purpose of such parallels is to underscore the basic themes of the book. In both narratives, the writer emphasizes the necessity of the people’s response of faith in the sign. They must look to the sign in faith before they can be delivered." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 402]

Jesus Christ identified the copper serpent as a type of Himself (John 3:14). Like Christ, someone lifted this serpent up from the earth on a pole. Both Christ and this serpent were completely harmless as they hung on their poles. Furthermore if a fatally wounded person wanted deliverance, he or she had simply to look on the serpent or on Christ in faith relying on God’s promise of salvation.

"If ever there were a less expected pairing of types, this would be it. The manna was an altogether gracious gift of God, which the people turned against with stomach revulsion. The snakes were an instrument of God’s judgment because of the peoples’ ingratitude and rebellious spirits; yet it was a metal copy of just such a snake that became the means for their deliverance.

"The bread is a picture of Jesus; as the Bread of Heaven he is the proper nourisher of his people. The bronze snake is a picture of Jesus, who became sin for us as he hung on that awful tree. The manna had to be eaten. The snake had to be seen. The commands of Scripture are for doing. The manna was no good if left to rot. The metal snake would not avail if none looked at it. The manna and the snake are twin aspects of the grace of God." [Note: Allen, p. 879. See James Van Oosting, "Moses, Hezekiah, and Yale’s gang of four," Reformed Journal 33:11 (November 1983):7-8, for some comments on the hermeneutics of this passage.]

Verses 10-20

The journey toward Moab 21:10-20

The list of stopping places Moses recorded here differs from the one in Numbers 33:41-49. Apparently neither list is complete but both are selective. Archaeologists have not yet identified most of the sites Moses mentioned here. The route of the Israelites was around Edom in a counter-clockwise direction until they came to the Wadi Zered (Numbers 21:12). [Note: See J. Maxwell Miller, "The Israelite Journey through (around) Moab and Moabite Toponymy," Journal of Biblical Literature 108:4 (1989):577-95.] A wadi (Arabic, Heb. nahal) was a river or streambed that was dry during most of the year but became a rushing torrent during the rainy season. The Israelites took the Way of the Wilderness, a route that ran generally parallel to but east of the King’s Highway (Numbers 20:17; Numbers 20:19). The Zered flowed westward, in the rainy season, into the Arabah near the south end of the Dead Sea. It constituted the boundary between Edom and Moab.

Moving farther north, through Moab, the nation crossed the Arnon Wadi that feeds into the east side of the Dead Sea about at its mid-point north to south. This river was the border between the Moabites and the Amorites (Numbers 21:13). This crossing brought Israel to the threshold of the Promised Land.

The Amorites were, ". . . the mightiest of all the tribes of the Canaanites." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 3:145. See Siegfried Schwantes, "The Amorites as Rulers of Mesopotamia," chapter 4 in A Short History of the Ancient Near East, for more information about these powerful and influential people.]

Here the Israelites received direction from God to make war with Sihon, a king of the Amorites, and to possess his land. God promised them that they would be victorious (Deuteronomy 2:24-25). This revelation filled the Israelites with joy and courage.

The "Book of the Wars of the Lord" (Numbers 21:14) was a collection of songs that commemorated God’s glorious acts on behalf of the Israelites. Apparently Moses or one of his contemporaries wrote or edited it. The fragment of one of these songs that the writer included here (Numbers 21:14-15) describes the Arnon. The fact that Moses inserted this strophe reflects the joy that the Israelites felt on this occasion.

At Beer (lit. Well) God provided water for the people by instructing them to dig wells (Numbers 21:16-18). This proved to be another occasion of great rejoicing as God provided for His needy people.

Moses mentioned several other sites as camping places before the nation settled down on the tableland of the Pisgah range of mountains. This area lay east of the place where the Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea. The "wasteland" (Jeshimon) is the desert directly to the northeast of the Dead Sea.

Verses 21-32

Israel’s defeat of Sihon 21:21-32

This account fits chronologically after Numbers 21:13. It records two great victories that God gave His people over two of the mighty Amorite kings.

"The term Amorite has various meanings in the OT: Canaanites generally (e.g., Genesis 15:16), inhabitants of the land west of the Jordan (e.g., Joshua 5:1), inhabitants of the regions of Judah (e.g., Joshua 10:5-6), inhabitants of the Negeb and the region to the southeast of the Dead Sea (e.g., Genesis 14:7), and very often, as here, the inhabitants east of the Jordan under the rule of Sihon and Og . . ." [Note: Ashley, pp. 418-19. See The New Bible Dictionary, 1962 ed., s.v. "Amorites," by A. R. Millard.]

Moses made his peaceful request for permission to pass through Sihon’s territory and into the Promised Land (Numbers 21:22) realizing that Sihon would not allow this (cf. Deuteronomy 2:24-26). Compare Moses’ request that Pharaoh would let the Israelites go in Exodus 5:1 (cf. Exodus 3:19).

". . . this was done simply to leave the decision of his fate in his own hand . . ." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 3:150.]

Sihon then attacked Israel (Numbers 21:23), but Israel defeated his army (Numbers 21:24). Moses had very little to do with the acquisition of any land for Israel. [Note: See George W. Coats, "Conquest Traditions in the Wilderness Theme," Journal of Biblical Literature 95:2 (1976):177-90, for discussion of Moses’ lack of prominence in Israel’s battles during this period.] This victory gave the Israelites possession of all of Sihon’s territory. It extended south to the Arnon and north to the Jabbok, which flows into the Jordan River from the east about halfway between the Sea of Chinnereth (Galilee) and the Dead Sea. It included Jazer, a town that the Israelites defeated (Numbers 21:32). This victory over one of the most powerful of the Canaanite city-states, Heshbon, inspired poets in Israel who wrote proverbs (Numbers 21:27) to compose songs commemorating God’s deliverance (Numbers 21:27-30).

"The summons to come to Heshbon and build this ruined city again [Numbers 21:27], was not addressed to the Israelites, but to the conquered Amorites, and is to be interpreted as ironical . . ." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 3:152.]

Chemosh (Numbers 21:29) was the chief Moabite deity and was similar to the Ammonite god Molech (cf. Judges 11:24; 1 Kings 11:7). [Note: The Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, s.v. "Gods, False," by Andrew K. Helmbolt.] See Deuteronomy 2:16-37 for another account of this victory. John Van Seters argued that Numbers 21:21-25 derives from conflation of Deuteronomy 2:26-37 and Judges 11:19-26. [Note: John Van Seters, "The Conquest of Sihon’s Kingdom: A Literary Examination," Journal of Biblical Literature 91:2 (June 1972):182-97.] John R. Bartlett countered that the Numbers passage is the source of the other two accounts. [Note: John R. Bartlett, "The Conquest of Sihon’s Kingdom: A Literary Re-examination," Journal of Biblical Literature 97:3 (September 1978):347-51.]

Verses 33-35

Israel’s defeat of Og 21:33-35

Heshbon was a city, but Bashan was a territory. Bashan lay north of the Yarmuk Wadi. Evidently at the time of Israel’s conquest Og controlled the territory south of the Yarmuk as far as the Jabbok, the area known as Gilead. [Note: Eugene H. Merrill, Kingdom of Priests, p. 89.] Og’s domain lay north of the Jabbok Wadi and extended north as far as Mt. Hermon, about 60 miles north of the Sea of Chinnereth (Galilee). The town of Edrei (Numbers 21:33) stood near the border of Bashan. See Deuteronomy 3:1-17 for a fuller description of this victory.

The Israelites moved their camp from Mt. Pisgah (Numbers 21:20) farther west and a little north to the plains of Moab (Numbers 21:1) between Beth-jeshimoth and Abel-shittim (lit. meadow of acacia groves; Numbers 33:49). This site was closer to the Jordan River and opposite Jericho, which stood about five miles west of the Jordan. The people stayed at this location until they crossed the Jordan under Joshua’s leadership (Joshua 3:1). The remaining events Moses recorded in Numbers and all those he penned in Deuteronomy took place here.

These victories gave the Israelites possession of all the land east of the Jordan River, west of the border of the Ammonites, north to Mt. Hermon, and south to the Arnon. The Israelites defeated the Amorites that occupied this area. They did not fight the Edomites, Moabites, or Ammonites, however, by the command of God because these people were their relatives. They were not Canaanites. This great victory over Og assured the Israelites further that God would give them victory on the other side of the Jordan (Numbers 21:34).

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Numbers 21". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/numbers-21.html. 2012.
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