Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, July 20th, 2024
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 21

Grant's Commentary on the BibleGrant's Commentary

Verses 1-35



The king of Arad, a Canaanite, heard that Israel was in the same vicinity from which they had sent the spies into the south of Canaan. He therefore took the initiative to attack Israel, and was able to take some Israelites captive (v.1). This seems to have awakened an energy in the people to retaliate, and they vowed to the Lord that if He would support their attack, they would utterly destroy the cities of these Canaanites (v.2). The Lord fully opened the way for them and they destroyed the Canaanites and their cities (v.3). The place was called Hormah, meaning "destruction."

The meaning of Canaanites is "traffickers." They were holding possession of the land of promise, but they picture unbelievers who use the things of God for the purpose of making material gain, just as those whom the Lord threw out of the temple who were selling oxen, sheep and doves and changing money for profit. He told them, "Do not make My Father's house a house of merchandise!" (John 2:16). The same offensive practices are carried on today in many places that claim to be Christian churches, and by many radio and TV preachers. Believers are called upon to thoroughly refuse this Canaanite custom. The victory of Israel over the Canaanites was a contrast to Israel's sad defeat in Numbers 14:45, brightening for them the prospect of conquering the land. We too shall be blest if we refuse to allow merchandising in the house of God.



Israel still had humbling lessons to learn even before entering the land of promise. They journeyed again toward the south to go around the land of Edom, and deep feelings of discouragement took possession of them again. They gave in to the same grumbling attitude that had only harmed them before (vs.4-5). Their complaint is similar to that before, except that it is not that they lacked food and water. Probably there was at least some water available, and they still had the manna, but spoke of loathing it. But the manna speaks of Christ in His lowly humiliation on earth. Does He become unpalatable to us? Do we need fleshly attractions as well as Christ?

This time there was no semblance of excuse for their grumbling, except that they felt discouraged. Therefore God did not answer as He did in chapter 20:8, but rather sent a plague of fiery serpents among the people, so that many died when bitten (v.6). The serpent is typical of Satan, into whose snare Israel had already fallen by their unbelieving discouragement; so that God was now impressing on them what it means to let Satan take control of them.

It is true of all mankind that we have been bitten by the poisonous doctrine of Satan, from the time of Adam and Eve in the garden, and the eventual result of that bite is death.

Yet it is good to see that Israel's conscience was awakened at this time to confess before Moses that they had sinned in speaking against the Lord and against Moses. This is a refreshing contrast to their usual attitude all through the wilderness. Then they asked Moses to pray that the Lord would take away the serpents (v.7).

But the Lord in His great grace did more than this. He told Moses to make a serpent of brass (or copper) and set it on a pole that evidently stood upright. Then anyone who had been bitten needed only to look at this imitation serpent to be cured (vs.8-9). The Lord Jesus refers to this event inJohn 3:14-15; John 3:14-15, when He says, "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life."

It may seem strange that the brazen serpent is used to illustrate the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus, for the serpent is a picture of Satan. But it was on the cross that the Lord Jesus met all the power of Satan and crushed Satan's head (Genesis 3:15). So it was not a live serpent lifted up, but one that symbolized the paralyzing of all Satan's power. One look at that serpent on the pole was sufficient to heal any victim, just as one look in faith at Christ in His great sacrifice is sufficient to both deliver anyone from the poison of sin and give eternal life. Wonderful message of God's love and grace!



Now we are given an account of journeys of Israel that are no longer simply wanderings, but journeys that bring them nearer to the place from which they are to enter the land of Canaan. Various names are given as to the stages of the journey, and certainly all of them have meanings that refer to some spiritual significance, little as we may be able to discern that significance.

But it appears that the country now was not so desolate, for we read of "the brooks of Arnon" (v.14), then also of Israel coming to Beer (meaning "well"), where the Lord told Moses, "Gather the people together, and I will give them water" (v.16). No complaining of the people is heard at this time, but rather, a song of appreciation (vs.17-18). It was not a miraculous provision of water, but it came through the work of the leaders and nobles of the people.

Though they had turned away from Edom, and by this time had circumvented it, they did not avoid Moab, but came into a valley in that land, and even to the top of Mount Pisgah (v.20) from which, not much later than this, God gave Moses a view of all the land that Israel was to inhabit (Deuteronomy 34:1-4). They did not even ask permission to pass through Moab, and it seems Moab had no ability to withstand them, though in chapter 24 we read of Moab's king desiring Balaam to put a curse on Israel, which curse God turned into a blessing.

Moab is the picture of sensual, easy-going religion (Jeremiah 48:11) that works, not usually by direct conflict, but by seduction. Moab was proud and haughty, but "his idle boasts have accomplished nothing" (Jeremiah 48:29-30). Yet Moab knew how to tempt Israel into evil complicity with their women and their gods (Numbers 25:1-3), just as Christians may be tempted by the easy living styles of the world to choose a self-indulgent life with little serious exercise, little sense of pleasing God, and little genuine concern for the need of others. Therefore, Moab was to be subdued, not turned away from, as was the case with Edom.



From Moab Moses sent messengers to Sihon, an Amorite king, to request passage through their land (vs.21-22). When Sihon refused, however, Israel did not turn away, as they did from Edom. Sihon came out with an army to fight against Israel. What is the character of the Amorites? Their name means "Sayer," which reminds us of the Lord's words as to the scribes and Pharisees, "they say, and do not do" (Matthew 23:3). They are those who have a form of godliness, but only know how to use their tongue to get their own way. Psalms 12:3-4 tells us, "May the Lord cut off all flattering lips, and the tongue that speaks proud things, who have said, 'With our tongue will we prevail; our lips are our own: who is lord over us?'"

As Israel was called to fight against the Amorites, so it is only right that we should judge in ourselves the tendency to merely speak well and not act on the truth. For this character is actually dishonest. But it does too often attack the people of God.

Sihon's name means "sweeping away," for mere talk tends to sweep away all that is good, for it is empty vanity. On this occasion therefore, when Sihon and his army attacked, Israel did not meet him with talk, but with decided action. By the grace and power of God they defeated this proud enemy, and took possession of his cities (vs.24-26). Thus Israel was showing something of the courage of faith before they actually entered the land of Canaan. In this way God was preparing them for the conquest of the land.

We are told that Heshbon, Sihon's chief city, had been captured from the Moabites, for self-satisfied, lazy pride of man (as seen in Moab) will often succumb to the persuasive talk of a deceiver. Our only protection from such things is a vital knowledge of the Lord Jesus.

Verses 27-30 record the words of "those who speak in proverbs," indicating Moab's defeat by Sihon (vs.28-29), for Moab's pride was unable to resist the smooth talk of the Amorites. However, verse 30 introduces a "But." In other words, Israel changed matters decisively. They had shot at the Amorites and Heshbon had perished instead of consuming Moab (v.28), the country of the Amorites was laid waste, and Israel took possession.

However, others of the Amorites remained in the area of Jazer, which Israel first spied out, then captured its villages and drove out the inhabitants. Then they went to Bashan, another Amorite city, and King Og, with his people came out to fight them. Having the Lord's word not to fear Og because God had already delivered him into their hand, Israel without difficulty defeated him and took possession of his land. InDeuteronomy 3:11; Deuteronomy 3:11 we read that Og was a giant, having a bedstead nine cubits long and four cubits wide, which would be over thirteen feet by six feet. Though some of the spies had before been fearful because of giants in the land, yet now Israel attacked without fear, and fully subdued the Amorites.

Bibliographical Information
Grant, L. M. "Commentary on Numbers 21". Grant's Commentary on the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lmg/numbers-21.html. 1897-1910.
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