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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 21

Haydock's Catholic Bible CommentaryHaydock's Catholic Commentary

Verse 1

Arad. This was either the name of the king, or of his city, which was situated in the southern parts of Chanaan, and which fell to the share of Hobab, in the tribe of Juda. (Haydock) --- When this king heard, by means of his spies, or was informed that Israel intended to make an irruption into his country like spies, without declaring war, or by the way which their spies had marked out either just before, or in the second year after their exit; or in fine, by the road, which the Septuagint leave untranslated, Athrim, and which means "of the spies," he resolved to be beforehand with them; and, coming suddenly upon them, took some spoils, or, according to the Hebrew, Septuagint, &c., "captives." These, by the ancient laws of war, he might either sell or put to death. Vendere cum possis captivum, ocidere noli. (Horace) (Grotius, Jur. iii. 7.) The Rabbins pretend that this king took fresh courage on account of the death of Aaron, and the consequent disappearance of the cloud, and that he drove the Israelites seven encampments back, as far as Mosera, which they confound with Haseroth.

Verse 2

Cities. Hebrew, "I will subject their cities to anathema, or utter destruction." This vow they probably made at the place called Horma, or "Anathema," which was anciently called Saphaad, Judges i. 17. They fully executed their threat under Josue, who defeated the king of Hered, (Josue xii. 14,) though they destroyed, at present, whatever they could. Arad was afterwards rebuilt by Hobab.

Verse 3

Anathema. That is, a thing devoted to utter destruction. (Challoner) --- The explanation of Horma is inserted by St. Jerome. (Haydock)

Verse 4

Edom, one of the princes, had refused them a passage; upon which they went by Salmona to Phunon, (chap. xxxiii. 37, 42,) where they probably murmured, (chap. v.,) and were bitten by the serpents, as we read in this chapter. (Calmet)

Verse 5

God. They had before often directed their complaints against the two brothers. Now, Aaron being no more, they attack God himself, who had always resented the injury done to his ministers. --- Food. So they call the heavenly manna: thus worldlings loathe the things of heaven, for which they have no relish. (Challoner) --- Septuagint, "our soul is indignant at this most empty bread," which has no solidity in it, nor support. Many translate the Hebrew, "most vile bread." Thus, in the blessed eucharist, the substance of bread is removed, and the accidents only appear; so that to the worldly receiver, it seems very empty and light, though in reality it be supersubstantial; containing Christ himself, who fills the worthy communicant with grace and comfort, and enables him to go forward on the road to heaven, without fainting. (Haydock)

Verse 6

Fiery serpents. They are so called, because they that were bitten by them were burnt with a violent heat. (Challoner) --- Hence they are called seraphim, by which name an order of angels are known. The Egyptians adored a serpent which they called serapis, at Rome; and they represented their god serapis, with a serpent entwining a monstrous figure, composed of a lion, a dog, and a wolf. (Macrobius, Saturn i. 20.) The seraph was a winged serpent, Isaias xiv. 29. xxx. 6. Such often infested Egypt, in spring, coming from Arabia, unless they were intercepted by the ibis. Their wings resembled those of bats. (Herodotus, ii. 76.; Mela, &c.) God probably sent some of this description into the camp of the Israelites. (Calmet) --- Some call them prœster, (Pliny, [Natural History?] xxiv. 13,) from their burning; others the hydra, or, when out of water, the chershydra, the venom of which is most dangerous. The Septuagint style them simply, "the destroying, or deadly serpents." See Bochart, T. ii. B. iii. 13.; Deuteronomy viii. 15.; Wisdom xvi. 5, 10.) (Haydock)

Verse 8

Brazen. Hebrew, "fiery." But, in the following verse, it is said to have been "of brass." We might translate, "make a seraph, and fix it upon a standard," (Calmet) in which form it would resemble one suspended on a cross. It was placed at the entrance of the tabernacle. (St. Justin Martyr, First Apology) Ezechias afterwards destroyed it, because it was treated with superstitious honours, 4 Kings xviii. 4. Thus the best things are often abused. (Haydock) --- God commands this image to be erected, while he forbids all images of idols. (Worthington) --- By comparing the different passages of Scripture we may discern the true import of them. Pictures may often prove very useful and instructive. They serve the ignorant instead of books. But then the ignorant must be carefully instructed not to treat them with improper respect, as St. Gregory admonishes. And is not the same caution requisite for those who read even the word of God, lest they wrest it to their own destruction, as both the unlearned and the unstable frequently do, 2 Peter iii. 16. If every thing must be rejected which is liable to abuse, what part of the creation will be spared? The Bible, the sacraments, all creatures must be laid aside. For we read, (Romans viii. 20, 22,) the creature was made subject to vanity --- every creature groaneth. (Haydock) --- It is probable that Moses represented on the standard such a serpent, as had been the instrument of death. This was not intended for a charm or talisman, as Marsham would impiously pretend. (Chron. x. p. 148.) Such inventions proceed from the devil; and the Marsi were famous for curing the bites of serpents, by giving certain plates of brass. (Arnob. ii.) See Psalm lviii. 5. But this image was set up by God’s express command; and the Book of Wisdom (xvi. 5, 7) assures us, that the effect was entirely to be attributed to him, the figure of a brazen serpent being rather calculated to increase than to remove the danger. (Kimchi; Muis) Hence Jonathan well observes, that only those were healed who raised their hearts to God. (Calmet)

Verse 9

A brazen serpent. This was a figure of Christ crucified, and of the efficacy of a lively faith in him, against the bites of the hellish serpent, John iii. 14. (Challoner) (St. Ambrose; Apol. i. 3.) As the old serpent infected the whole human race, Jesus Christ gives life to those that look at him with entire confidence. (Theodoret, q. 38.) The brazen serpent was destitute of poison, though it resembled a most noxious animal; so Jesus Christ assumed our nature, yet without sin. (Calmet)

Verse 10

Oboth, where Obodas, an ancient king of the Nabatheans, was adored. Hither they came from Phunon, celebrated for its copper-mines, where Bochart believes the Hebrews were bitten by the serpents, though others say that judgment was inflicted upon them at Salmona; which may be derived from tselem enu, "our image."

Verse 11

Jeabarim, means "the ford, (of Zared, ver. 12,) or the straits of passages, passengers, or Hebrews; or the hills Abarim," which extended over the eastern parts of Moab. It was the 38th station, (Calmet) at the southern extremity of Mount Abarim. (Haydock) --- After which Moses specifies those of Zared, (ver 12,) Mathana, Nahaliel, Bamoth, Arnon, (ver. 19,) Dibon-gad, and Helmon-dablataim, (Calmet) all on the sides of that mountain, before they came to the summit, which was also called Phasga and Nabo, chap. xxxiii. 45, &c. But Pococke reckons only the two last among the stations, and makes those of Abarim and Shittim the 41st and 42d. The Septuagint read, "they encamped in Achelgai, on the other side, in the desert." (Haydock) --- Eusebius and St. Jerome call this station of Jee, Gai or Hai, which they place near Petra, Jeremias xlix. 4. --- East. The Samaritan here inserts, (Deuteronomy ii. 9,) "And the Lord said to Moses, Fight not," &c.

Verse 12

Zared. The Israelites passed over this torrent, 38 years after the murmur at Cades-barne, (Deuteronomy ii. 14,) when God ordered Moses not to attack the Moabites.

Verse 13

Against. Hebrew, "on the other, or on this side of (the river, ver. 14) Arnon," which runs from the east, almost in the same direction as the torrent of Zared, but empties itself into the Dead Sea higher up, near the mouth of the Jordan. (Calmet) --- It divides the Moabites from their brethren, the children of Ammon, who lay to the north-east. The Hebrews encamped on the south side of this river, in the desert of Cademoth, (Deuteronomy ii. 26,) whence they sent to ask leave of Sehon to pass through his dominions; but, on his refusal, God ordered them to cross the Arnon by force. (Calmet)

Verse 14

The book of the wars, &c. An ancient book, which, like several others quoted in Scripture, has been lost. (Challoner) --- St. Augustine (q. 42) thinks this book was written by one of that country. Others believe that Moses wrote a more detailed account of the wars which he had to wage with the Amalecites, (Exodus xvii. 14,) and these other nations, out of which he has only inserted some of the heads in the Pentateuch. But whether these two verses were taken from another work of Moses, or from the history of some other person, they are now of divine authority. Saul says to David, (1 Kings xviii. 17,) fight the battles of the Lord,....and the children of God and of Ruben pass all armed for war before the Lord, (chap xxxii. 29.; Calmet) whence it appears, that the wars of the Hebrews were attributed to God. Tostat is of opinion, that the Book of the Just, is the same with that to which Moses here refers. See Josue x. 13., and 2 Kings i. 18. But Theodoret thinks rather, that the former was a more extensive account of the transactions of Josue, out of which the book which bears his name was compiled. Such records certainly existed, to which the sacred historians frequently refer: and it is very probable, that a work of this nature was compiled in the days of Moses, or perhaps before his time. (St. Augustine, City of God xviii.) As it contained a prediction, respecting the future wars, in which the Hebrews were about to engage, it could not but make a suitable impression upon them. It might already be in every one’s mouth, and the Hebrew may insinuate, that it would be handed down to the latest posterity: "Wherefore in the history, or account of the wars of the Lord, this also shall be mentioned," jamor, dicetur. According to this interpretation, it would not be necessary to suppose, that Moses refers to any more ancient book, as sepher means also, "a narration" by word of mouth; and Rabbi Menachem believes, that God had revealed this event to Moses, encouraging him with the assurance, that he would give him the victory over the nations bordering upon the Arnon, as he had done over the Egyptians and Amalecites at the Red Sea. See Sixt. Senens. (Haydock) --- Of Arnon, the waters of which are supposed to have given the Hebrews a passage, as the Chaldean asserts on the authority of Psalm lxxiii. 15. Habacuc (iii. 13) also mentions that several rivers were dried up by God. The Hebrew text is almost unintelligible, "From, or against, Vahab to Supha." As there is no verb, some translate, "he (Sehon) fought against Vaheb (Grotius reads Moab) at Supha, or he came to Veb." But Calmet would substitute Zared instead of Vaheb: "The encamped at the torrent of Zared, and came to Supha, (Deuteronomy i. 1, where we read the Red Sea) to the torrent of Arnon." Protestants translate, "What he did in the Red Sea, and in the brooks of Arnon, (16) and at the stream of the brooks that goeth down to the dwelling or Ar, and lieth upon the border of Moab." (Haydock)

Verse 15

The rocks. Some assert that the rocks fell upon the enemy: others, that they gave way and opened a passage for the Hebrews, while the rivers were also dried up. Hebrew, "They encamped on the stream of the torrents, which bends towards the dwelling (or city) of Ar, and rests upon the frontiers of Moab." Thus the book to which Moses alludes, confirms his account of these different encampments. (Calmet) --- The Septuagint give rather a different turn of these two verses: "Hence it is said in a book, The war of the Lord has burnt Zoob and the torrents of Arnon---and has sent the torrents to inhabit Er: and it lies upon the borders of Moab." The river, it seems, had been removed out of its bead by a subterraneous fire or earthquake, and deluged the city of Ar, belonging to Moab. The mighty hand of God terrified those nations, while all nature fought against the wicked and the unwise, Wisdom v. 21. (Haydock) --- Rocks were hurled upon the heads of the Amorrhites, and the waters conveyed their dead bodies into the vale of Moab. (Worthington)

Verse 16

Well. Hebrew Beer. (Haydock) --- This station is not mentioned under the same name at least, chap. xxxiii. Probably the inhabitants had covered up this well with sand, and God having discovered it to Moses, he informed the princes, who pushed their staves down. Upon which the waters appearing, the people sung a hymn of thanksgiving and joy. Water is very scarce, and, of course, of course, of great value in those deserts, where even still the Arabs conceal their wells, and often fight to hinder passengers from taking any of the water. (Calmet)

Verse 17

They sung. Hebrew, "sing ye unto it," in chorus, men and women. Septuagint, "commence a canticle unto it. This well the princes dug, the kings of nations hewed in the rock, in their kingdom, while they held dominion."

Verse 18

Mathana. Perhaps they did not stop here, though all the encampments are not specified, chap. xxxiii. Nahaliel, "God my torrent," and Bamoth, "the heights," are also situated upon the Arnon.

Verse 20

Desert. Hebrew and Chaldean, "Yeshimon," (Josue xiii. 28; Ezechiel xxv. 9,) a city of the Moabites.

Verse 21

Messengers, not from the city of Cademoth, which was in the midst of Phasga, but from a desert of the same name, situated out of the dominions of Sehon, Deuteronomy ii. 24. (Eusebius) --- God had already promised this country to Abraham, and though Moses did not intend to attack the king at present, being eager to fall upon the Chanaanites on the other side of the Jordan, God punishes the refusal of Sehon to let his people pass, by a swifter destruction. (Calmet) --- The measure of his crimes was full, though the mere denial of a passage to such a vast multitude might even by justified by sound policy. (Haydock)

Verse 22

Wells. We shall content ourselves with the torrents. They had only to travel about thirty miles. (Calmet)

Verse 23

Jasa was not far from the Arnon, between Medaba and Dibon, Isaias xv. 4. (Eusebius)

Verse 24

Garrison, either against Sehon, or against the Hebrews, whom God did not, as yet, authorize to attack the Ammonites, (Calmet) though the latter knew it not. (Haydock)

Verse 26

Arnon. Hence this territory, which formerly belonged to Moab, being taken in a just war, the Moabites could not lawfully retain it, as they attempted to do under Jephte, Judges xi. 13. (Grotius, Jur. iii. 6.) --- Hesebon, or Esbus, was the capital, and lay over-against Jericho, twenty miles from the Jordan.

Verse 27

Proverb. Hebrew Moshelim: "Those who speak proverbs, or enigmas, say." Those were the ancient poets of the Amorrhites, who composed this canticle on the victory of Sehon. (Calmet) --- Moses inserts it in his work, as an additional proof, that the country was entirely lost to Moab, and as a denunciation of the evils which still hung over the head of that people, and would be inflicted upon them by David, &c., 2 Kings x. i., 4 Kings iii. 16., and Amos i. 13. (Haydock)

Verse 28

A fire and flame, denote the horrors of war, Judges ix. 20. --- Ar. Samaritan and Septuagint read ad, "hath consumed even the country of the Moabites and the lords (or pillars, Septuagint) of Bamoth, (the heights mentioned in ver. 18, 19,) on the Arnon." These lords may be the principal men, priests, or gods of the city. Jeremias (xlviii. 45,) reads this passage in a different manner, "it (the flame) shall devour part of Moab, and the crown of the head of the children of tumult." The city of Ar (which some confound with Aroer) always continued in the hands of the Moabites, so that the efforts of Sehon against it, seem to have proved abortive, Deuteronomy ii. 9, 18, 29. (Bonfrere) See chap. xxiv. 17.

Verse 29


He. Chamos, the idol of Moab, is upbraided as too weak to defend his people. The pagans generally formed their judgments of the power of their gods, by the event; and, if that proved unfortunate, they were ever ready to consign the idols to the flames. Chamos was probably the sun. (Calmet) --- Some say he was Bacchus, whom the Greeks call Komas. (Menochius)

Verse 30

Hesebon in the north, to Dibon in the southern extremity of the conquered country, near the Arnon, where Moses places the station of Dibon-gad. The yoke, or dominion of the Moabites, was ruined in all those parts. (Calmet) --- Hebrew, "We have shot at them; or their lamp, (children or power,) from Hesebon as far as Dibon, is extinguished; and their wives (or we have destroyed them) even unto Nophe and Medaba." Septuagint, "Their women have still kindled a fire against Moab." Nophe is probably the Nabo of Isaias, (xv. 2,) in the environs of Medaba, where the fainting Moabites had time to breathe. The fire, which the Septuagint say the women enkindled against Moab, might seem to indicate that the war was commenced on their account, like that which brought on the destruction of Troy. They entailed a still heavier destruction upon their country, when, by alluring the Hebrews to sin, they enkindled God’s indignation, chap xxv. With this verse the quotation, from the Amorrhite proverbial writers, concludes, ver. 27. (Haydock)

Verse 32

Jazer, a famous city, 15 miles from Hesebon, given afterwards to the Levites. Moses "took the Amorrhites who were there" prisoners, according to the Hebrew; or, "drove them away," (Septuagint) putting to death those who continued to make resistance. (Calmet)

Verse 33

Og, the king of the most fertile country of Basan, was of gigantic stature, Deuteronomy iii. 11. The Rabbins relate many fables concerning him. --- Edrai was 15 miles to the north of the torrent Jeboc, (Calmet) which was the southern extremity of this territory. (Haydock)

Bibliographical Information
Haydock, George Leo. "Commentary on Numbers 21". "Haydock's Catholic Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/hcc/numbers-21.html. 1859.
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