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Bible Commentaries

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and Homiletical

Numbers 21

Verses 4-35

From Mount Hor to the Plains of Moab

Numbers 21:4 to Numbers 22:1


Numbers 21:4-4.21.9

4And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged1 because of the way. 5And 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, 6neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.

7Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take 8away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. 9And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole; and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.


[Numbers 21:5. Light; Luther, De Wette, mean; Bunsen, wretched; light, not as opposed to solid, but as that which nauseates, disgusts—vile.—A. G.]

[Numbers 21:6. Lange: venomous. The שַׂרָף, literally burning, denotes with נָחָשּׂ and sometimes without (Numbers 21:8, below) a kind of serpent whose bite produces burning heat and thirst. Our word fiery is a good rendering, but is ambiguous. De Wette and others retain the Hebrew word Seraphim.—A. G

[Numbers 21:7. And the people.]

[Numbers 21:8. omit Serpent.]

[Numbers 21:8. נֵם, standard. See Exodus 17:15 : Jehovah-nissi.—A.G.]


Keil gives as the heading to the contents of this section: “The march of Israel through the Arabah.” He starts with the assumption that mount Hor stands near Petra. “Leaving mount Hor, Israel must take the way to the Red Sea, in order to compass the land of Edom, since Edom refused permission to cross its territory, and thus descend the Arabah to the head of the Ailanitic gulf.” But if it is settled that the Arabah forms a part of Edom, and if it is further settled that by the command of Jehovah, Israel must pass around Edom, it is impossible that they should have marched through the Arabah on their way to the Red Sea, for leaving out of view the difficulty of their finding sustenance in this narrow rocky valley (see Shubert, Travels, II. 396), Ritter, Erdkunde XIV., p. 1013 [see however, on the other hand, Robinson, Res. II. 594 seq., and Stanley, Sinai and Palestine, pp. 84, 85.—A. G.], they would be in constant danger of attack by the Edomites and of perishing by the sword with their wives and children. As they came up from Sinai to Kadesh through the desert plateau Et Tih. (Paran), so they must have returned through the same desert, although farther to the east, from Kadesh to the Red Sea. The Israelites, it is true, at the end of their march to the Red Sea, must have crossed the limits of the Edomitish territory, as this comes out clearly in Deuteronomy 2:1. They compassed mount Seir many days, and they were commanded to turn northward, not of course back upon the way they had come, but in a north-easterly direction, which shows that they had reached the extreme limits of the Edomite kingdom, and must how penetrate it, passing over below their brethren the sons of Esau, and below the Arabah (comp. the notes in this Commentary, Deuteronomy 2:12).

The desert plateau Et Tih was, according to the testimony of modern travellers, far better fitted for the returning path of the Israelites than the Arabah. See extracts in Ritter’s Erdkunde, part 14, Book 3, p. 830, The Central and Northern Routes across the Desert Et Tih to the Promised Land, from Seetzen, Russegers and others. The description of Seetzen, who went from the north to the south, from Beersheba to Sinai, merits special attention. Here we met several Wadys with broad pasture-lands, our path at times crossing rolling flowery meadows, across heaths blooming with white-flowering heather, now and then by springs or fountains, but also through rocky fields, strewn with flint-stones, while at times also we found “the ground full of holes the homes of serpents, lizards, etc.” The fiery serpents cannot therefore be urged with force in favor of the Arabah. [Stanley, Sinai and Palestine, p. 84, agrees with Keil, and uses this strong language of the Israelites and the Arabah: “It is indeed doubtful whether they passed up it on their way to Canaan; but no one can doubt that they passed down it when the valleys of Edom were closed against them. This was clearly the natural route for them to take; and the very argument which Lange uses against it—the want of sustenance—seems strongly to favor it. The scarcity of food made them more sensible of their dependence upon the manna, and they wearied with the sameness; our soul loatheth this vile bread.—Geographical considerations, the well-ascertained fact that the Arabah abounds in poisonous serpents, and the tenses of the narration all favor the Arabah. The incidents of the later narrative and the easy egress from the Arabah to the plains east of Edom through the Wady Ithm confirm this view.—A. G.]

Numbers 21:4-4.21.9. And the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.—The young and vigorous generation found the long return journey wearisome, partly because it seemed like a discomfiture, because they so carefully avoided the Edomites, with whom they had recently tried their strength in the region of Arad, and from whom they may have captured large herds, which proved a source of supply in the march. At all events they were greatly depressed. They sighed for a fruitful land, and the manna from a miraculous food, became to them as a light (contemptible קְלקְ֗ל) bread, while the usual bread and water were wanting. They spake against God (Elohim) and against Moses.—It is observable that they did not rebel against Jehovah, but murmured against the divine guidance and the leading of Moses. [There seems to be little ground for the distinction drawn between Elohim and Jehovah as the object of their querulous complaints.—A. G.] Their unbelief grew out of the delusion which the previous generation expressed, that they also, as their fathers, must die in the desert. The punishment laid upon them is commensurate with their less turbulent and violent disobedience. Then sent Jehovah (not Elohim) fiery serpents among the people.—Here again the judicial providence of God uses the noxious product of the land for punishment, converting the serpents of the desert into a divine punitive visitation. “Fiery, literally burning serpents; so called from the inflammatory nature of their bite, which infuses a burning, deadly poison; as the Greeks also name certain serpents, especially the διψὰς, because its poison wrought like burning fire, προστῆρες and καύσωνες (Dioscorides VII. 13; Aelian, Natura Anim. VI. 51), and not because they had fiery, red spots upon their skins, which are frequently found in the Arabah, and are extremely poisonous.” Keil. But why should they not have been named from the fiery red color of the serpents, which finds its reflection later in the fiery glow of the brazen serpent? The one quality, however, does not necessarily exclude the other. This is clear from a citation from V. Shubert’s Travels: “At midday a very mottled snake, marked with fiery red spots and wavy stripes, which belonged to the most poisonous species, as the construction of its teeth clearly showed. According to the Bedouins, these snakes, which they greatly dreaded, were very common in that neighborhood.” [For similar occurrences see Strabo XV. 723; XVI. 759, referred to in Bible Com. I. 725.—A. G] And much people of Israel died. Although the swarm of serpents was extraordinarily large, we may suppose that the excitement among the people, the confusion, and their conscience awakened to a sense of their guilt, greatly increased their terror. The voluntary repentance of the people, which was wanting in the earlier generation, shows how greatly the present generation was in advance of its predecessor. They confess that they have sinned against Jehovah their covenant-God, and against Moses, and implored him to intercede in their behalf.

The divine answer is adapted to the situation, shows a marvellous and profound psychological insight, and at the same time is of great Christological and soteriological significance. Make thee a fiery serpent (an image of one), and set it upon a pole (standard), and it shall come to pass that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live (shall not die). Moses understood the command correctly, and made a brazen serpent. This goes to show that the assumption that the serpents were named from their red color is correct. The miraculous result corresponds fully with the promise.

This obscure and mysterious narration rises into great importance in its soteriological aspect, through the application which Christ Himself makes of it to His own life, which He also makes in mysterious words. Many theologians therefore have been earnestly engaged in the explanation of this passage. For the literature see in Keil, p. 179, note Eng. Trans., Kurtz, Hist. of Old Cov., Vol. II., p. 428 [see also Lange, Com. on John, Numbers 3:14; Cowles, The Pentateuch, has a brief and satisfactory note.—A. G.] Among the explanations of the brazen serpent, the passage in Wis 16:6-7. It is a symbol of salvation to remind them of the commandment of thy law. We have a clearer interpretation of the symbol here than we find in some modern theologians. The profoundest, but also the most obscure application of the passage is the word of our Lord, John 3:14. Keil gives Luther’s explanation: “In the first place the serpent which Moses was to make at God’s command was to be of brass or copper, i.e. of a reddish color, and in every way (though without poison) like those, who from the bite of the fiery serpents were red and burning with heat. In the second place, the brazen serpent must be set upon a pole for a sign. And in the third place, those who were bitten of the fiery serpents and would live must look to the brazen serpent so lifted up; otherwise they could not recover or live.”

But this is rather a description of the event than an explanation of the symbol. Hengstenberg’s explanation reminds us of Menken: “Christ is the antitype of the serpent in so far as He took sin, the most pernicious of all pernicious potencies, upon Himself, and made a vicarious atonement for it.” The great mistake in this explanation lies in the thought that the serpents here typify sin, whereas they were sent as a punishment and an antidote for sin. Men fall into the mistake through the operation of a dead mechanical principle of hermeneutics, according to which the same image, e.g., the leaven, must always represent the same thing.

But the serpents here have, on the one hand, just as little to do with the serpent in Eden, or with the devil, the old serpent, as, on the other hand, they have with the serpent of Æsculapius, the symbol of healing power or virtue. Keil rejects, with good reason, the interpretation of Winer, Knobel and others, that the view common to the religion of antiquity, that the serpent was a beneficent and health-bringing power, lies at the basis of this narrative. On this supposition the direct, immediate view of the fiery (brazen) serpent must have been much more effective. In sharp antagonism to this interpretation stands the view of the dogmatic realists as wrought out by Menken in his Treatise on the Brazen Serpent (Works, Vol. VI., p. 351, Bremen, 1858). In this view the serpent signifies in the first place the devil, then sin, then further (in entire consistency with that system) inherited original sin, as it clave even to the nature of Christ, but as the sin of humanity, was extirpated through His sufferings upon the cross. To reach the full import of this thought, Menken supposes that the standard upon which the serpent was placed was the principal standard of Israel, the banner of the tribe of Levi, and this most probably was in the form of a cross, so that the sins of humanity appeared here symbolically upon the cross, i.e., overcome and destroyed. As if the poor bitten Jew himself must have thought of all this, or could even have suspected it. Others hold, Sack, e.g., that the symbolism is not in the figure, but in the lifting up (the lifting up of the serpent, the lifting up of Christ). Ewald places it in the symbolic destruction of the serpents which to the believing one who looked was an assurance of the redeeming power of Jehovah.

If we make this our starting point, which clearly results from the narrative, that the fiery serpents indicate not the sins of Israel, but the counteracting agency of the sins, the punishment, thus also the evil, then the mystery, in its great features, soon comes into the light. The view of evil in the confidence that it is Jehovah’s remedy against sin, this is the main thing. Heathenism proclaims its delusion in two words: sin is merely an ill, an endurable fate, but the ill itself is the real peculiar harm, far worse than the sin. Christendom, on the contrary, in its truth proclaims: sin is the intolerable injury, but the ill result, its consequence, is also its remedy. Thus in the cross, or even in death, in the communion in death with Christ, is salvation. In that case therefore the look to the serpent image taught that the true, peculiar, pernicious, fiery serpents were their murmuring disposition and complaints against Jehovah, while the fiery serpents were sent by God for a little season for a terror and warning. Thus also, according to the epistle to the Hebrews, Christians have become free from the bondage of sin and Satan, since with the look to the cross of Christ they have recognized death as the salvation of the world. When this confidence in the healing power of all pure, divinely destined ill is established, then the heart is fixed. In the restful assurance which the Jew found in his look to the brazen serpent, as it symbolized to him the saving virtue and agency of Jehovah, he lost all dread of the fiery serpents, and could assume towards them the attitude of a conqueror. We know not how in any other way the great pestilential scourges which have descended from heathendom, have lost to such an extent, their fearful terrifying sympathetic power, within the sphere of Christendom. A more definite relation between the serpent upon the standard and the Saviour upon the cross, lies firstly in its elevation; it was a raised sign visible to all. The cross of Christ is a sign for the whole world. Then Christ appeared upon the cross, under the assumption by the blinded world, that He was the betrayer and corrupter of men, the serpent in the bosom of the people of God, while in truth He was absolutely the contrary, so that believing humanity must recognize its saving Friend in the form and image of its hereditary foe. Thus He was the antitype of that brazen serpent which had the form of the fiery serpents which filled Israel with dismay, while it was made only as a means of rescue and healing, but at the same time was a symbol of the truth that the external visible fiery serpents did not constitute the real calamity of Israel, but the serpents of cowardice and discontent, comp. Comm. on John 3:14.

The great impression made upon the Israelites by the brazen serpent, appears from the fact that they took it with them into Canaan, where it was at first regarded as a sacred relic, but at last was destroyed in the time of Hezekiah, as it had become an object of idolatrous reverence (2 Kings 18:4).

[Knobel: “In a similar way Alexander lost many men as he marched through Gedrosia, the serpents springing upon the men from the brushwood upon the sand-hills. The Sinaitic peninsula is dangerous to travellers from the number of serpents who have their homes here.”—A. G.].


1. [“The heathen view of the serpent as a blessing or healing power, is not only foreign to the Old Testament, but is irreconcilably opposed to the Biblical view of the serpent as the representative of evil which was founded upon Genesis 3:15. To this we may add that the thought which lies at the foundation of this explanation, viz., that poison is to be cured by poison, has no support in the Scriptures. God, it is true, punishes sin by sin, but He neither cures sin by sin, nor death by death. On the contrary, to conquer sin it was necessary that the Redeemer should be without sin, and to take away the power from death, it was requisite that Christ, the Prince of life, who had life in Himself, should rise again from death and the grave (John 5:26; John 11:25; Acts 3:15; 2 Timothy 1:10).”—A. G.].

2. [The looking of the bitten Israelite and the looking in obedience to the divine direction, and upon the promise, was a part of the typical transaction; as much so as the lifting up. There is scarcely anything which can better represent the simple act of faith than the looking.—A. G.].


[The brazen serpent one of the most significant types of the Old Testament. A proof also of the peculiar and profound attention with which Christ read the Scriptures, and discovered its meaning, when all others had failed. Bible Comm.: “The look to the brazen serpent denoted acknowledgment of their sin, longing for deliverance from its penalty, and faith in the means appointed by God for healing.” Henry: “They that are disposed to quarrel will find fault when there is no fault to find. Justly are those made to feel God’s judgments, that are not thankful for His mercies. They that cry without cause have justly cause given them to cry out their repentance; they confess their guilt; they are particular in their confession; they seek the prayers of Moses for their deliverance. The provision which God made for their relief, was wonderful, and yet was suited to their case. Observe the resemblance, 1. Between their disease and ours; 2. Between their remedy and ours; 3. Between the application of their remedy and ours. The brazen serpent being lifted up would not cure if it was not looked upon. They looked and lived, and we, if we believe, shall not perish. It is by faith that we look unto Jesus, Hebrews 12:2.—A. G.].


Numbers 21:10-4.21.20.

10, And the children of Israel set forward, and pitched in Oboth. 11And they journeyed from Oboth, and pitched at 2Ije-abarim, in the wilderness which is before Moab, toward the sunrising.

12, 13From thence they removed, and pitched in the valley of Zared. From thence they removed, and pitched on the other side of Arnon, which is in the wilderness that cometh out of the coasts of the Amorites: for Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites. 14Wherefore it is said in the book of the wars of the Lord,

What he did3 in the Red sea,

And in the brooks of Arnon,

15     And at the stream of the brooks

That goeth down to the dwelling of Ar,
And lieth 4upon the border of Moab.

16And from thence they went to Beer: that is the well whereof the Lord spake unto Moses, Gather the people together, and I will give them water.

17     Then Israel sang this song:

5Spring up, O well; 6sing ye unto it:

18     The princes digged the well,

The nobles of the people digged it,
By the direction of the lawgiver with their staves.

And from the wilderness they went to Mattanah: 19And from Mattanah to Nahaliel: and from Nahaliel to Bamoth: 20And from Bamoth in the valley, that is in the 7country of Moab, to the 8top of Pisgah, which looketh toward 9Jeshimon.


Numbers 21:14. [וָהֵכ which our version after the older Jewish commentators renders gave, or did, is now regarded as a proper name. סוּפָת not the sea, nor any proper name, but as in Nahum 1:3; Job 21:18, to destroy or overthrow as by a whirlwind.—A. G.].

Numbers 21:14. [Brooks, better valleys. Hirsch., the brooks or wadys forming the Arnon.—A. G.].

Numbers 21:18. Digged or delved with the sceptre מְהֹקֵק or ruler’s staff, Genesis 49:10. Our version gives the sense accurately.—A. G.].

Numbers 21:20. The margin rendering, wilderness or waste, is preferable.


The different and apparently conflicting representations as to this march, leave us in great uncertainty. It is necessary therefore to come to the defective, but established historical data of the Bible. It is clear from Deuteronomy 2:4-5.2.8 that the Israelites merely crossed from Ezion Geber the land of the Edomites, on the further side of the Arabah, but did not pass through its length; that they avoided, with the greatest care, the Moabitish territory also, so far as it was inhabited, and in like manner the country of the Ammonites. They thus sought, going out from Ezion Geber, to reach the east side of the kingdoms of Edom and Moab, and marched northwards, keeping along the line between their borders and the Arabian desert, till they touched the region of Ammon. The first station which they reached after leaving the undefined place of the fiery serpents was, according to the narrative here, Oboth, and from Oboth to Ije-Abarim, in the desert eastward of Moab. We may conjecture that Oboth lay on the eastern border of Edom as Ije-Abarim was upon the frontiers of Moab. In the list of stations, chap. 33, they went from Hor to Zalmonah, from there to Punon, and then to Oboth. One of these stations may well have been the undetermined place of the fiery serpents. The record here is so closely connected with the list of stations in chap. 33. that they must be considered together, and we defer the full investigation until that point in the narrative is reached. We confine ourselves here to that which comes in direct connection with the text. [Lange holds the identity of Hor and Hor-hagidgad; of Oboth and Ezion Geber; of Jotbath and Zalmonah, both suggesting the idea of a shaded, well-watered oasis; that Ebronah designates, with tolerable certainty, a crossing place, in which sense it corresponds with Punon (derived from פָּנָה to turn); and that near Ezion-Geber or Oboth they left the plain Et Tih and crossed the Arabah. His theory is constructed on the supposition that they did not march down the Arabah from Hor or Moserah. Keil thinks that Punon is doubtless the same with Phinon, a tribe seat of the Edomitish Phylarch, a village between Zoar and Petra, from which, according to Jerome, copper was dug by condemned criminals. He is compelled however to place Punon to the east of the lines from Petra to Zoar. The localities cannot be certainly identified at present. We may hope for that in the future progress of geographical discoveries. But the general direction is now well-nigh beyond question. They descended the Arabah to the month of the Wady El Ithm, which opens a few hours north of the Akaba or Ezion Geber, and gives easy access to the eastern plain. They then skirted the elevated plateau of Idumea, and began to turn to the north, following essentially the same route taken by the caravans of the present day. The character of the country prevented the Edomites from contesting their passage in this direction. Bible Com. regards the name Oboth as identical with the present pilgrim halting-place, El Ahsa. “The name Oboth, denoting holes dug in the ground,” being the plural of אוֹב. The term hasy, of which Ahsa is the plural, has the same meaning, and thus the modern station corresponds to the ancient both in name and place.” All that seems certain, however, is that the place must be sought in the desert on the eastern skirts of Edom or Idumea.—A. G.]. From Oboth they came to Ije-abarim, in the wilderness which is before, east of Moab. Keil translates “ruins of the crossings,” and thinks the place must be sought for north of the Wady El Ahsy, which divides Idumea from Moab. Ges., while he renders עִיִּים ruins, translates the phrase, tops of the mountain-chain Abarim. We must take a view of this eastern country or we shall fail to have any clear notion amid the confusion of conjectures. The land of Canaan itself is a region of alternate lowlands and highlands. The low-lying coast region is succeeded by the highland of the western mountain plateau; the valley of the Jordan by the Perean highlands. This type appears of a more decided character as we approach Arabia. The Jordan valley is prolonged in the Ghor and the Arabah, the Perean highlands in the mountain range of Abarim, which extends through the land of the Amorites, of Moab and of Edom. This mountain region terminates on the west in abrupt lofty masses, while on the east it slopes off into the first desert table land. This again is bordered by a loftier mountain chain, standing out as high mountains on the west, but falling off eastward into the wide desert plateau towards inner Arabia. This range belongs to the great encircling wall which girts around the larger part of Arabia. The highland of Abarim, however, like the lower regions toward the Ghor, is crossed from east to west by great wadys, which at last break down into mountain gorges. The name Abarim may be regarded as signifying that the heights of these mountains stretch away from and beyond all these ravines and torrent gorges. The Israelites appear to have encamped often by the fords of these streams, as they passed along the eastern edge of the inhabited mountain region, to avoid, as far as possible, the peopled regions of Moab and Edom. Thus they first encamped at Ije-Abarim, i.e., probably the ruins of the mountains rent by the Wady El Ahsy (in its lower stretches called El Kereky) over against the city Ar in Moab. They then pitched in the valley of Zared.—We much prefer to leave the Wady Zared undetermined, than to regard it as Wady Kerek “in the midst of the land of Moab,” or even the Wady Kerek “in the upper part of its course.” [“It is to be identified with the Wady Franjy, the main upper branch of Wady Kerek. The word Zared signifies “osier;” and, remarkably enough, the Wady Safsaf, Willow Brook, still clings to the tributary which unites with Wady Franjy below Kerek.” Bible Com.—A. G.]

Farther on they came to the Arnon, which divides the land of the Amorites from that of Moab, and encamped beyond the wady. Since the Arnon is formed by several smaller streams, and in its lower course passes through deep gorges, which would not admit of the passage of an armed host, it has been justly inferred that the passage was effected in the upper part of its course, and where the affluents still flowed apart. [Ritter quoted by Keil: “It is utterly inconceivable that a whole people, travelling with all their possessions, as well as with their flocks, should have been exposed without necessity to the dangers and enormous difficulties that would attend the crossing of so dreadfully wild and so deep a valley, and that merely with the purpose of forcing an entrance into an enemy’s country.”—A. G.] We come now to a very obscure passage, Numbers 21:14-4.21.15. The Sept. renders the passage singularly, but yet with a correct apprehension of the fundamental thought: τὴν Ζωο͂βἐφλὀγισε καὶ τοῦς χειμάρῥους Αρνῶν, καὶ τοῦς χειμάρῥους κατέστησε κατοικῆσαι Αρ, καὶ πρόσκειται τοις ὁρίοις Μωάβ. The Vulgate, in doubt as to the ἐφλὀγισε of the Septuagint, translates: Sicut fecit in mari rubro, sic faciet in torrentibus Arnon. Scopuli torrentium inclinati sunt ut requiescerent in Ar, et recumberent in finibus Moabitarum.

Since it is plainly the passage of the Arnon which is celebrated, it is difficult to see why Luther with others should cut the knot as he does and render Vaheb in Supha and the brooks of Arnon. And it is still harder to understand why Knobel also should read Vaheb in Supha, and add a senseless supplement. [Knobel supposes the verb to be supplied, and refers to the Amorites, viz.: they possessed Vaheb in Supha as their southern limit.—A. G.] Keil explains the passage by referring to the capture of the region by storm, although there has been thus far no allusion to a warlike attack. [So also Bible Com., Kurtz, Hengstenberg.—A. G.]

We offer the following translation:—
And onward unto the Red Sea (הֵב or יָהֵב) and (unto) the brooks of Arnon, and unto the upper current of the brook which reaches unto the dwelling of Ar, and leaneth upon the border of Moab. The passage will then stand connected with the crossing of the Arnon. It compares the passage of the separated streams of the upper Arnon with the passage of the Red Sea. It sees in both events something alike, a heroic deed, corresponding to the divine summons or call. The הָבָה, come on, appears here in הֵב or יָהֵב and הָ- of direction as the suffix of the noun סוּפֹ. What motive could there be for the celebration in a heroic song of a mere geographical notice in and for itself? The Sept. εφλόγισε may mean He glorified, made to shine the Red Sea and the brooks of Arnon, viz., through His leading and power. The Vulg. gives us a peculiar idea of the passage: as He did in the Red Sea, so He will do in the brooks of Arnon. The rocks of the torrents were carried down, so that they first rested in Ar, then lay on the borders of Moab. For the distinction between the Arnon referred to and the modern Ar in Moab, see Keil [also Hengstenberg’sGesch. Bileams, Bible Com., Keil. The Ar here referred to is the city of Moab on the border of Arnon, which is at the end of the Moabitish territory (Numbers 22:36). It was called Areopolis by the Greeks, and probably stood at the confluence of the Lejum and Mojeb in the fine green pasture land in the midst of which there is a hill with some ruins. This Ar is not to be identified with the modern Areopolis in Rabbah, which stood six hours south of the Lejum.—A. G.] The book of the wars of the Lord.—Some have regarded it as an Amoritish book of the conflicts of Baal; others attribute to it a late origin in the time of Jehoshaphat; but it clearly belongs to the Israelitish epic, and from its marks of extreme simplicity may be regarded as the first new awakening of inspired song in the rejuvenated Israel. The book is named only here, but the new poesy bloomed in other productions—especially in the song of the well. [The reference to this book has been seized upon by the negative critics as a grave objection to the Mosaic authorship of Numbers. “They have thought it incredible that such a work should have been extant at the time of Moses. But there is nothing more natural, or which occurs more constantly in the progress of humanity under like circumstances, than a body of song bursting out irrepressibly with the new fresh life of a people and commemorating the great events in its early history. As Baumgarten well observes that such a book should arise in the days of Moses, is so far from being a surprising fact, that we can scarcely imagine a more suitable time for the commencement of such a work. To the cavil that the wars of the Lord had scarcely begun when Moses died, and hence they could not have been referred to in any work written by him, Hengstenberg replies: When Moses wrote the Amalekites, the king of Arad, the king of Sihon, and Og king of Bashan, were all conquered. But the idea of the wars of the Lord in the usage of the Pentateuch is much wider than this (comp. Exodus 12:41; Exodus 12:51; Exodus 14:14; Exodus 14:25; Exodus 15:3; Numbers 33:1). All the signs and wonders in Egypt were regarded as a contest of Jehovah against Egypt and its gods; the march through the desert is the march of an armed host of whom Jehovah is the leader, so that there was the richest material for a book. And the very object of the book is to glorify the leading of Jehovah as He brings His people on their way.” So also Stanley, History of the Jewish Church, vol. I., p. 207.—A. G.].

And from thence they went to Beer—well or place of wells. The encampment is marked by a longed-for well in which the promise of Jehovah is accomplished through human effort. This well was dug by the princes with their sceptres, i.e., under their leading, greeted by the festal hymn of the people and embalmed in a song. The fountain thus praised lies still in the open desert somewhere. The place cannot be definitely determined, probably is the same with Beer-Elim in the north-east of Moab. And from the desert they went to Mattanah.—They pushed their way into the inhabited territory or the Amorites to the west or northwest. It was not their purpose to enter the land of the Amorite in a hostile manner, for the goal of their journey lay across the Jordan. The reference in Deuteronomy: Then sent I messengers out of the wilderness of Kedemoth (the east) unto Sihon king of Heshbon with words of peace, Deuteronomy 2:26, is to this time and place. But when Sihon refused them a peaceable transit, the conquest of his land took place by divine command, (Deuteronomy 2:31, see also Keil, p. 150). The encampments after that at the “well” or Beer, must have preceded the later-mentioned war with Sihon, since the advance of the great mass of the people must have been protected by a victorious warlike expedition, which must have been sent out between the stations Beer and Mattanah. The engagement took place at Jahaz [Keil Jahza] on the border of the Amoritish territory toward the desert. The desire of the writer to complete the list of stations led him to anticipate the record of the last encampments, and this the more that he might connect the subjugation of Og in Bashan with the victory over Sihon; as indeed it was only after the destruction of Og from the land of the Amorites, that the peaceful settlement of the people in the plains of Moab, took place (comp. Numbers 21:31 with Numbers 22:1). For the comparison of the stations in this section with the general register, chap. 33., see that chapter and notes. [Aside from any successful identification of the places mentioned, two principles, as Kurtz. Gesch. d. Alt. Bund., Vol. II., 453 well argues remove all difficulty. In the first place we are to bear in mind that the encampment of such a vast body, especially when they reached a cultivated and thickly settled region, must have included a number of places, some of which may appear in one record, and others in another, while both are strictly accurate. But it is more important to observe the diversity in the character of the different records. Chapter 33. is purely statistical. The author there enumerates only those stations, i.e., regular encampments, where Israel made a considerable stay, and hence not only constructed an organized camp, but set up the tabernacle. Here his interest is not statistical, but historical, and only those places which were of historical importance are mentioned. Hence the names of the stations between mount Hor and Ije-abarim, are omitted in this record, for they were of no historical moment, while we have a larger number between Ije-abarim and the plains of Moab because they were historically memorable, although they may not have been regular encampments.—A. G.]. We content ourselves here with a mere outline of their march through the eastern desert. Going up Wady El Ithm, and crossing the border of Edom, they were free to wander through the worthless common domain of the desert until they reached Beer—probably Beer-Elim—the well which the princes dug with their staves, i.e., presumably acquired as military leaders. Then they moved to Mattanah, i.e., gift, because it was the first camping place in the dominion of the Amorite king Sihon. They must now have passed the field of conflict with Sihon, for (Numbers 21:23) Sihon went out against Israel into the wilderness. The Israelites moreover could not have settled peaceably in the Amoritish country without some victory like this. And from Mattanah to Nahaliel, “Rivers of God.” The name corresponds to the description: Abarim before Nebo. We are ever coming back to the mountain chain Abarim. Nebo, without being definitely determined, may be regarded as forming one of the peaks of Pisgah lying over against Jericho. In this region where several wadys empty into the Jordan, and where the long-wished for Jordan valley first appeared in sight, they may well have said Nahaliel, “rivers of God.” Knobel. [Keil, Kurtz, Bible Com.], identify this place with Encheileh, which now lay far behind the Israelites. [Keil: Encheileh is the name given to the Lejum until its junction with the Saide. The Israelites then went from Beer north westerly to Mattanah or Tedun, and thence westerly to the northern bank of Encheileh.—A. G.]. And from Nahaliel to Bamoth. We can scarcely regard Bamoth (heights), with Keil and others, as identical with Bamoth-Baal, since Israel had before this encamped at Nebo, and certainly had passed the place where Balaam was first solicited to curse Israel. The people were at first busy in taking possession of Heshbon, at the same time capturing Jaazer on the extreme eastern border toward the land of the Ammonites. Then their course lay northwards towards Bashan, and Og, king of Bashan, came out to meet them at Edrei. But as Edrei is found far to the north in Bashan, it is not to be supposed that the armed host should have left the people behind them defenceless in the plains of Moab, where Balak might easily have destroyed them. We therefore accept fully the conclusion that Bamoth, which is here mentioned, was the basis of their warlike operations against Bashan in upper Gilead. Places bearing this name “heights” are common all over the world. After the conquest of Bashan they returned nearly to their former position in the plains of Moab. [The top of Pisgah which looketh toward Jeshimon: across the desert. Keil: “The field of Moab was a portion of the tableland which stretches from Rabbath Amnion, to the Arnon, and which extends to the desert of Arabia towards the east, and slopes off to the Jordan and the Dead Sea towards the west. The valley in this table land was upon the height of Pisgah, i.e., the northern part of the mountains of Abarim, and looked across the desert Jeshimon. Jeshimon, the desert, is the plain of Ghor El Belka, i.e., the valley of desolation on the north-eastern border of the Dead Sea. The valley in which the Israelites were encamped is to be sought for to the west of Heshbon, on the mountain range of Abarim, which slopes off into the Ghor El Belka.” Kurtz holds the same view and identifies this position with the field of Zophim, Numbers 23:14. Bible Com.: “Pisgah was a ridge of the Abarim mountain westward from Heshbon, and Nebo a town on or near that ridge, and apparently lying on its western slope.” See also Grove’s Art. Moab, Smith’s Bib. Dict., Palmer, The Desert and the Exodus, Vol. II., p. 472 et seq.—A. G.].


1. [God ever leads His people by a way which they know not, but leads them safely and well. They pass through the wilderness, but come out upon the top of Pisgah and then across the Jordan. All along the fountains spring up—not without human agency, and yet flowing with the fulness of divine blessing.—A. G.].
2. [The doctrine of God’s providence, and the duty of an implicit trust in it; of a hearty and cheerful compliance with it; and the safety and welfare of those who so yield to it are clearly seen in this narrative.—A. G.].


The march as it overcomes all obstacles. The passage over the river of Arnon, a reminiscence of the passage through the Red Sea, and a pledge of the passage over the Jordan. [Henry, Numbers 21:10. “It were well if we would thus do in our way to heaven, Numbers 21:14-4.21.15, what God has wrought for us, what He did at such a time, and in such a place ought to be distinctly remembered, Numbers 21:18. God promised to give them water, but they must open the ground to receive it. God’s favors are to be expected in the use of such means as lie within our power.” The wells—“fountains”—along the way. Wordsworth refers upon the wells of the Bible to Genesis 21:19; Genesis 21:31; Genesis 24:13; Genesis 26:15; Genesis 29:10; Exodus 2:15; Exodus 3:1; John 4:6. Moses gathers the people, God gives the water. This is a work which God is ever doing in His church. He gives the waters in His holy word, in His blessed Son of whom Moses wrote, and in the living waters of the Holy Spirit whom Christ sent.—A. G.].


Numbers 21:21 to Numbers 22:1.Deuteronomy 2:26; Deuteronomy 2:26 to Deuteronomy 3:22.

21And Israel sent messengers unto Sihon king of the Amorites, saying, 22Let me pass through thy land: we will not turn into the fields, or into the vineyards; we will not drink of the waters of the well: but we will go along by the king’s high way, until we be past thy borders. 23And 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 he came to Jahaz, and fought against Israel. 24And Israel smote him with the edge of the sword, and possessed his land from Arnon unto Jabbok, even unto the children of Ammon: for the border of the children of Ammon was strong. 25And Israel took all these cities: and Israel dwelt in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all the 10villages thereof. 26For 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 Arnon. 27Wherefore they that speak in proverbs say,

Come unto Heshbon,
Let the city of Sihon be built and prepared:

28     For there is a fire gone out of Heshbon,

A flame from the city of Sihon;
It hath consumed Ar of Moab,

And the lords of the high places of Arnon.

29     Woe to thee, Moab!

Thou art undone, O people of Chemosh:
He hath given his sons that escaped,
And his daughters, into captivity
Unto Sihon king of the Amorites.

30     We have shot at them;

Heshbon is perished, even unto Dibon,
And we have laid them waste even unto Nophah,
Which reacheth unto Medeba.

31Thus Israel dwelt in the land of the Amorites. 32And Moses sent to spy out Jaazer, and they took the villages thereof, and drove out the Amorites that were there.

33And they turned and went up by the way of Bashan: and Og the king of Bashan 34went out against them, he, and all his people, to the battle at Edrei. And the Lord 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, which dwelt at Heshbon. 35So they smote him, and his sons, and all his people, until there was none left him alive: and they possessed his land.

Numbers 22:1 And the children of Israel set forward, and pitched in the plains of Moab on this side Jordan by Jericho.


Numbers 21:27. Bunsen, De Wette: the poets; Zunz, Hirsch: the proverb speakers. [The Heb. הַמּשְׁלִים to make like, very aptly designates Heb. poems in which one was made like, parallel, to another.—A. G.].

[Numbers 21:30. Lange, we came upon them. Bunsen, Fuerst, Ewald, we have burned. Zunz, we have thrown them down. Hirsch, we came and overthrew them. נִּירָם formerly regarded as a noun, is now accepted as the first person plu. Imp. Kal. from יָרָה with the suffix of the 3d person. Hirsch makes a fut. Kal., and refers for suffix to Ex. 20:30.—A.G.]

Numbers 21:30. אֶשֶׁר Keri אֵשׁ, and hence is rendered by De Wette and others, a fire, burns to Medeba.

Chap. 22.Numbers 22:1. Plains. Keil, Steppes of Moab. Lange, fields.


The message of Israel to Sihon king of Heshbon, is like that sent to the king of Edom. We learn from Judges 11:17, that a similar message was sent to Moab; and we may infer, therefore, that besides a direct passage through Edom, they entertained a hope that they might press rapidly on between the end of the Dead Sea and the Edomitish territory, without seriously irritating the Edomites; as indeed they had later to cross the southern extremity of the land of Edom. Israel had originally only the promise of Canaan west of the Jordan. Even Peræa was not included in the promise. This limitation was carefully regarded in the message to Sihon. But since the Amorites at Heshbon, were included in the condemnation of the Canaanites, so the Israelites were not only at liberty to force their way through their land, but were under obligation to do so by the injunction of Jehovah. How Og. king of Bashan, in the northern part of Gilead, became involved in the conflict, is not explained; a sufficient explanation may be found in the fact that the successful assertion of a religious and moral dominion over Heshbon or lower Gilead, was not possible without the conquest of Bashan. Then we must bear in mind also that in Deuteronomy 3:8, the two kings stand in close connection as “kings of the Amorites.” Knobel strives in a strange way to prove from Deuteronomy 3:10, that there were two Edreis [Adraa; see for its location and description, Porter: Damascus, Vol. II., p. 271, and Giant Cities of Bashan, p. 94 sqq., and Smith’s Bib. Dict., art. Edrei.—A. G.]. A southern to be distinguished from the northern. He gives as the reason that “Og surely did not allow the Israelites to reach the northern boundary of his kingdom before he went out to meet them.” [So also Keil, Bible Com.—A. G.]. The conjecture however is obvious that the terror which the victory over Sihon spread far and wide, may have led the people of Bashan to retreat, until they found it necessary to make a stand at Edrei, their second capital, and not far from their chief city Ashtaroth. [Porter says, “The situation is most remarkable, and in selecting the site, everything seems to have been sacrificed to security and strength.” There was an all-sufficient reason therefore why they should make their final stand here.—A. G.].

It is recorded here that the king of the Amorites had fought against the former king of Moab, and taken all his land out of his hand, even unto Arnon; not, however, that they had reached the Ghor to the west. They had thrust themselves by force between Moab to the right and the desert and the land of the Ammonites to the left. Moab must at this time have exercised dominion in the border-land to the Ghor, for otherwise the plains of Moab would not have been spoken of here. If the dominion of the plains of Moab had been now in the hands of the Amorites, Balak, the king of Moab, would only have rejoiced at their overthrow, and would have sought alliance with Israel. On the other side the Amorites had not been able to conquer the children of Ammon in their mountain-fastnesses, Numbers 21:24. The Israelites were prevented by an express direction of Jehovah not to attempt an assault against these strong borders (Deuteronomy 2:37).

Sihon had as yet no suspicion of the strength of the rejuvenated Israel, and went out against him beyond his own bounds, as far as Jahaz. But Israel smote him with the edge of the sword, i.e. utterly destroyed him. He then took possession of his land, described as reaching from Arnon unto Jabbok. The military occupation is spoken of here; its political incorporation in the land of Israel followed afterward (see Numbers 32:33). They dwelt in Heshbon and all her daughters, i.e. Heshbon, the capital city, and its surrounding and dependent villages or cities. Wherefore they that speak proverbs. Why the proverbs? Why not wherefore says the song? The enigmatical form is probably chosen by design, so as to express the thought: now is Heshbon laid waste, as it just before had laid waste the Moabite capital Ar; and thus the land falls to the Israelites, who could not have held it as a Moabitish territory. Therefore come unto Heshbon; build it up anew. The purpose and burden of the song is that Israel should restore the ruins, rebuild the city. We cannot agree with Meyer and Ewald [Keil, Kurtz, Bible Com. in part also.—A. G.] that the appeal is to the Amorites and ironical. At first the fact is emphasized that this land has been wrested from Moab by right of war. The Amorites had taken it from Moab. Then the thought uttered is that the Israelites have wrested it in turn from the Amorites. [Ewald’s interpretation makes the song lifelike, beautiful and striking: “Come, come home to Heshbon—the city which no longer affords you a home or roof; rebuild, if you can, the city which now lies forever in ruins.” Thus the victors cry to the vanquished. But in order to explain the guilt of the conquered, a second voice verifies the earlier history. Is this the Heshbon from whose gates went the conquering hosts against Moab, poor Moab, over whose fall and the weakness of his god Chemosh the saddest complaints fill the air—that god who had left all his sons and daughters, i.e. all his worshippers, to be driven out and carried captive by Sihon? But then, while that victorious host, sweeping Moab with fire and sword, rests in fancied security, then the loud voice of the victor comes back to the beginning of his song: Then burned we it, and wasted it, from Heshbon, the central royal city, to the utmost limits of his land, and thus Israel avenged Moab.—A. G.]

For there is a fire gone out of Heshbon. The occupation of Heshbon is anticipated. The city is viewed as a point of departure for a conquest which should be completed by the torch of war. Ar of Moab. The earlier capital of Moab lay then in this part of its territory. Moab was not stricken without cause or as guiltless. It was the people of Chemosh, subduer, vanquisher. [Fuerst derives it from a root which leads to the signification “fire-god;” others, “sun-god.” The inscription on the Moabite stone shows that the worship of Chemosh was associated with that of the Phœnician Astarte. Ginsburg, The Moabite Stone.—A. G.] As the god of war, human victims were offered to him, as to Milcom and Moloch. He is not therefore to be regarded as identical with Baal Peor (Keil); for that idol as the god of lust and pleasure was Baal, as the god of misfortune, despair and of human sacrifices, he was Moloch. [It seems probable, however, that these heathen idols were worshipped under different forms according to the special attribute which was in view, or which called forth the special worship. He might thus be the god of war, and at another time, regarding prominently another attribute, the god of lust. See Bible Com. notein loc.—A. G.] Moab perished as the people of Chemosh. The distinction, that the sons took to flight back across the Arnon, while the daughters fell captives to Sihon, is entirely true to nature. Then follows the record of Israel’s victory and conquest. We shot at them, overthrew them. See textual note. Heshbon is perished, even unto Dibon, and we have laid them waste even unto Nophah. The textual difficulties in the last clause seem to be best solved by following the Sept., which some MSS. favor, and read fire upon, or to Medeba. [Keil, Bible Com., Wordsworth, Samaritan text.—A. G.] The confounding of Nophah and Nobach increases the confusion. We suggest, however, this reading: to the ridge of hills which reaches unto Medeba. We rend in Isaiah 15:2 : “He is gone up to Bajith and Dibon, the high places, to weep;” and in the same connection: “Moab shall howl over Nebo and over Medeba.” Even now it is said that Medeba lies on a rocky hill about four miles southeast of Heshbon. It seems to be a sketch of the new possession, and reveals in its very terms the tender conscience of Moses which prevented him from pushing his conquests into Moab.

Numbers 21:32. Jaazer. The special allusion to Jaazer between the narrative of the conquests of Heshbon and Bashan seems to imply that it was an independent province lying between the two small kingdoms. The city with her villages, daughters, was taken and laid waste. Jaazer lay in the direction of Rabbath-Ammon (Philadelphia), “ten miles to the west, and is to be found probably in the ruins Es Szir at the source of the Nahr Szir, in the neighborhood of which Seetzen found pools, which are probably the remains of ‘the sea of Jaazer’ alluded to Jeremiah 48:32.” Keil. Thence the army moved eastwards. To human view the Israelites may have seemed rash, in approaching so nearly the powerful Ammonites. And they turned, for Ammon could not be attacked. Hence the march tends northward towards Og, king of Bashan. It is needless to ask from what point Israel undertook the expedition against Bashan. “The kingdom of Og included the northern half of Gilead, i.e. the region between the Jabbok and the Mandhur (Deuteronomy 3:13; Joshua 12:5), the modern Jebel Ajlun, and all Bashan, or all the region of Argob (Deuteronomy 3:4; Deuteronomy 3:14), the modern plain of Jaulan and Hauran.” Keil. Keil follows Knobel, and recognizes a double Edrei in Bashan; but for the true Edrei at which the kingdom was overthrown by the Israelites, comp. Von Raumer’s Geog., p. 247. It has been inferred from Deuteronomy 3:10 that a second Edrei existed on the northwest border of Bashan, which is supposed to have been discovered in the ruins Zorah or Edrah. Von Raumer designates this place, however, as Esra or El Ira, and describes the ruins of both places. [The weight of authority at present is decidedly in favor of two Edreis.—The significant name might easily have been attached to different places, in a country naturally strong in fastnesses.—A. G.]

[The plains of Moab. After the conquest of the two Amorite kingdoms, the Israelites came down from the heights of Pisgah, and pitched in the Arboth Moab. These plains in the northern Arabah stretched from Beth-Jeshimoth, “houses of mortar,” to Abel Shittim, “the acacia meadow.” Here they remained till the death of Moses. The camp was beyond the Jordan, in the plain, as Lange supposes, still in the possession of Moab.—A. G.]


The song of triumph on the Arnon reminds us in its mysterious words of the song at the passage through the Red Sea. The revival of the spirit of song in the people is also an awakening of the heroic spirit which won the victories over Sihon and Bashan. They are inseparably connected in all ages.


The two great victories east of Jordan foreshadow the conquest of the promised land. New life, new songs. [Henry: “God gave Israel these successes while Moses was yet with them, both for his comfort, that he might see the beginning of that glorious work, which he must not live to see the finishing of, and for their encouragement in the war of Canaan under Joshua. It was the earnest of great things.”—A. G.]


[1]grieved, Heb. shortened.

[2]Marg. heaps of Abarim.

[3]Marg. Vaheb in Suphah.

[4]Marg. leaneth.

[5]Marg. ascend.

[6]Marg. answer.

[7]Marg. field.

[8]Marg. or the hill.

[9]Marg. or the wilderness.

[10]Heb. daughters.

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Bibliographical Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on Numbers 21". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". 1857-84.