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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 21

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary



The New Beginning.

After the gap for the wilderness wanderings and the return to Kadesh, there now follows a series of historical events which bring Israel to the plains of Moab, and point to a new beginning. History has become important again because Yahweh’s purposes were now going forward. The first section (Numbers 20:1 to Numbers 21:20) deals with the view that was to be taken of the future. It was to be a move from dearth to abundance, from death to life. The old was being put to one side, so that the new could take over, although only under Yahweh.

· It commences with the arrival at Kadesh (qdsh - the holy place) to find little water there, followed by the death of Miriam, the prophetess, who would have been greatly influential among those who had come out of Egypt. All is death. But at the same time it promises that the resulting seeming dearth will be followed by abundant water (Numbers 20:1-11), although even that at the cost of death for it goes on to reveal that neither Aaron nor Moses will enter the land. They will die in God’s time and be replaced by new leaders (Numbers 20:12-13).

· It warns against seeing the future simply in terms of aggression and spoliation. When Edom resist their advance they must not show aggression and seize their land but must go another way. For Edom’s land belongs to Edom and has been given to them by God (this is implicit in Numbers and explicit in Deuteronomy 2:0), just as shortly their land will belong to them (Numbers 20:14-21). Israel is only to offer death to those who deserve death.

· It tells of the death of Aaron and his replacement as ‘the Priest’ by his son, Eleazar, a member of the new generation, which will lead on to greater blessing (Numbers 20:22-29). Out of death comes life.

· It describes the first defeat of the Canaanites, a further indication of the new beginning and a firstfruit of what was to come. They are at last ready to take the land (Numbers 21:1-3).

· It then warns of what the result will be for those of the new generation who rebel against God, in the judgment of the fiery serpents which were a flashback to and reminder of the old wilderness days (Deuteronomy 8:15). Let them remember the wilderness, for that is what awaits those who rebel against Yahweh, as it had awaited their fathers (Numbers 21:4-10).

And it finally describes the arrival at a place of abundance of water sufficient to cause them to sing with joy and praise, a symbol of the new beginning, a symbol of life (Numbers 21:11-20 compare Numbers 22:5-8).

The second section (Numbers 21:21 to Numbers 25:18) will go on to deal with victory in the Wars of Yahweh including the defeat of the Amorites who had once defeated them (Numbers 21:21 to Numbers 22:1 compare Deuteronomy 1:44), the ‘battle’ with Balaam (Numbers 22:1 to Numbers 24:25), and their establishment in the plains of Moab having received their first instalment of Yahweh’s inheritance (Numbers 25:1 a) which results in the sin of Peor and deliverance by the hand of Phinehas, son of Eleazar (Numbers 25:1-18).

(I). The Turning Point of the Death of Miriam and Aaron and the Change in the High Priesthood, The Warning of the Demise of Moses, and The New Approach to Be Taken As They Enter The Land (Numbers 20:1 to Numbers 21:20 ).

This section commences with shortage of water and terrible thirst, and the death of Miriam, with abundance of water then provided by Yahweh (Numbers 20:1-13), but at the cost of the lives of Moses and Aaron. It then continues, with the death of Aaron and appointment of Eleazar coming between (Numbers 20:22-29), and ends with even greater abundance of water (21:11-20). The new beginning produces new life. This is not just a coincidence. In a similar way in referring to the death of Aaron, and appointment of Eleazar in his place in Deuteronomy 10:6-7, Moses preceded the incident with being at the springs of the sons of Yaakan, leading on to Moserah (chastisement), and followed it with arrival at Yotbathah, a land of brooks of water. In both cases his aim was to bring out that through this change of High Priesthood, which no doubt filled the people with foreboding, God was going to bring even greater blessing. To a nation of farmers water was the essence of all that was good in life. It represented life itself (Numbers 24:5-7).

In the same way Paul likened God’s continual provision of water to His people in the wilderness as like the availability to us today of the lifegiving, thirst quenching presence of Jesus Christ, He is our rock, once smitten (as at Massah and Meribah in Exodus 17:6), that we may drink of Him (see 1 Corinthians 10:4), and Jesus Himself continually pictured the provision of life by the Holy Spirit in terms of abundance of water (John 3:5; John 4:6-15; John 6:35; John 7:37-39).

Analysis Of The Section.

a The people suffer dire shortage of water (Numbers 20:1-2 a).

b The people grumble at lack of water and are sent deliverance by the water from the rock at Meribah, which causes the sin of Aaron and Moses (Numbers 20:2-13).

c Edom seek to block Israel’s way forward. Israel not to show aggression but to seek peace with their neighbours (Numbers 20:14-21).

d Aaron climbs Mount Hor to his death and is replaced by Eleazar (Numbers 20:22-29).

c The king of Arad seeks to block Israel’s way forward. Israel to destroy the Canaanite as God had commanded (Numbers 21:1-3).

b The people grumble at lack of food and water and are sent fiery serpents followed by deliverance by the brazen serpent (Numbers 21:4-9).

a Yahweh provides further abundance of water (Numbers 21:10-20).

The section is divided into sub-divisions which all follow the same pattern. The first deals with the death of Miriam (mrym) and the provision of the waters of Meribah (myrbh).

Verses 1-3

Chapter 21 From Victory Through Chastening To Further Victory.

The death of Aaron did indicate a new era. In this chapter we cover the first defeat of ‘the Canaanites’, the dire warning and chastisement of the fiery serpents, the provision of abundant water, and the defeat of the Amorites under Sihon.

4). The Canaanites Under the King of Arad Defeated (Numbers 21:1-3 ).

Another attempt to interfere with Israel right of passage now followed, but this time it resulted in a glorious victory. Those who made the attempt were Canaanites. With them there could be no compromise. Here were the firstfruits of what Yahweh intended for the whole of Canaan. All Canaanites must be destroyed. It was His judgment on their sins for which He had waited for hundreds of years (Genesis 15:16). The new beginning was continuing. And it would give Israel their first taste of victory over Canaanites and a new certainty that Yahweh was with them for the future.

So while on the one side of Aaron’s death there was a kind of failure in their being turned aside by Edom, even though it taught them an important lesson, on the other side of his death was glorious victory. His death had not weakened Israel, it had rather made them strong. Whether this lesson is in chronological order or simply in theological order is disputed, for it is apparent throughout that the book is constructed to teach its lessons within a given pattern rather than to be a chronological history. It is what happened rather than when it happened that is considered important. The answer to the whole question partly depends on what route we see Israel as having taken. For we may probably assume that the king of Arad, which was seemingly in the northern Negeb, attacked before they rounded the bottom end of the Dead Sea. The message is, however, quite clear.

It is a reminder that at times of sorrow our Adversary will seek to attack our hearts and minds. We too must then take our stand and do battle using the weapons of our warfare, the word of God and the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 6:10-18). Then victory will be ours, but he may take captives first.


a The King of Arad learns through scouts of Israel’s approach and defeats them and takes prisoners (Numbers 21:1).

b Israel vows that if they can defeat them they will devote them to Yahweh (Numbers 21:2).

a Arad in turn is defeated and totally destroyed and the place is called Hormah - ‘devoted’ (Numbers 21:3).

Numbers 21:1

‘And the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who dwelt in the South, heard tell that Israel came by the way of Atharim, and he fought against Israel, and took some of them captive.’

The news of Israel’s approach naturally spread. The movement of such a large body of people could hardly be kept secret. And it reached the ears of the king of Arad, a city and region in the northern Negeb (see 33:40). Later Pharaoh Shishak would mention two Arad’s captured during his invasion of Israel. This was probably Arad the Great. Learning that they were using ‘the way of Atharim’ he attacked their column and took prisoners. The way of Atharim may have led past Edom on the western side. As with Edom this massing of his troops may have been intended as a warning, warning them off his territory, but the taking of prisoners was a mistake. It demanded response and retaliation in order to obtain their fellow-countrymen back.

Numbers 21:2

‘And Israel vowed a vow to Yahweh, and said, “If you will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.” ’

The people of Israel were angry and called on Yahweh. But they knew that these people were Canaanites and thus under Yahweh’s ban. So they promised Him that if He would deliver them into their hand they would utterly destroy their cities.

Numbers 21:3

‘And Yahweh listened to the voice of Israel, and delivered up the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their cities, and the name of the place was called Hormah.’

And Yahweh heard their cry. He delivered up the Canaanites to them and they utterly destroyed them with their cities devoting them to destruction. The name Hormah means ‘devoted to destruction’. Either that was a coincidence accompanied by the fact that thirty eight years earlier the Israelites had been driven back to this very place (Numbers 14:45), or more likely the name was given to the smouldering mound left after the destruction, a mound left as a testimony to what the future held for Canaanites, as it had been given to other mounds.

The lesson we can learn from this incident is that when there are major changes which affect our lives (like the death of Aaron) God is quite able to follow it with important victories which reveal that He is still in control.

Verses 4-10

5). The Brazen Serpent (Numbers 21:4-10 ).

Having defeated the king of Arad Israel continued its journey from Mount Hor by ‘the way to the Reed Sea’, skirting the land of Edom. As they had been hoping to take the much easier King’s Highway they were greatly discouraged at the hardship of the way, for it led through difficult territory where there was no water and no means of obtaining bread, and they only had the despised manna (compare Numbers 11:5-6). It was like being back in the wilderness again. This again caused them to hanker after Egypt (compare Numbers 20:3-5). Forgetting the glory of their recent victory they fell back into their old ways.

So Yahweh gave them a reminder of their time in the wilderness, by sending ‘fiery serpents’ among them. Compare Deuteronomy 8:15 where fiery serpents were symbolic of the hardships of the wilderness. It was a reminder that if they wanted to go back to the trials of the wilderness period they could do so.

They were possibly called fiery serpents because their bite caused men’s bodies to be ‘set on fire’, or it may have been because they basked in the sun which shone on them and was seen as reflected in them.

In the Christian life victories are often followed by meeting up with ‘biting serpents’. The secret then is to look to Jesus as the crucified One. It is a continual lesson to us of how we must be continually dependent on Him.


a The people journey by Edom and are discouraged (Numbers 21:4).

b The people murmur against God and against Moses instead of looking to God (Numbers 21:5).

c Yahweh sends fiery serpents among them so that many die (Numbers 21:6).

d The people ask Moses to plead for forgiveness for them (Numbers 21:7 a).

d Moses pleads for forgiveness for the people (Numbers 21:7 b).

c Yahweh says that a fiery serpent is to be set up on a pole so that he who looks may live (Numbers 21:8).

b The brazen serpent is set up and the people who turn to God and look to it live (Numbers 21:9).

a The people journey to Oboth (Numbers 21:10)

Numbers 21:4

‘And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way to the Reed Sea, to compass the land of Edom, and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.’

Their journey now took them through a parched region where they again had to depend totally on the manna, and this caused great discouragement. They themselves were parched and they were sick of the manna, ‘this light bread’. If only they could have used the King’s Highway instead of this harsh and dreary route round the border of Edom. Did Yahweh not care?

Numbers 21:5

‘And the people spoke against God, and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, and there is no water, and our soul loathes this light bread.” ’

So in their usual vein they turned against God and against Moses. Why had Moses dragged them away from Egypt to die in the wilderness? Why did they have to put up with this pretended bread? Why had they no proper bread and water to satisfy them?

Numbers 21:6

‘And Yahweh sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many people of Israel died.’

And the result was that they found themselves in a place seemingly filled with snakes. Many of the people were bitten, and many died. Yahweh was reminding them of what it had been like to travel through the wilderness (compare Deuteronomy 8:15). But they had never come across snakes as bad and as numerous as this before. It quickly brought them to their senses. Did it also remind them of the time when the rod of God had turned into a serpent before their eyes? (Exodus 4:3; Exodus 4:30; Exodus 7:7). That also had happened at a new beginning. But here were many rods of God come to chastise His people.

Or it may well be that this incident would take their minds back to Genesis 3:15. The serpent was bruising their heels. Yahweh had warned of what the serpent might do in the future, and here it was. It was a clear judgment from God.

Numbers 21:7

‘And the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against Yahweh, and against you. Pray to Yahweh, that he take away the serpents from us.” And Moses prayed for the people.’

Either way this faced them up with what they were doing. They recognised their folly and admitted that they had sinned both against Yahweh and against Moses. Then they begged Moses to intercede on their behalf, and ask Yahweh to take the serpents away. And Moses did pray as they requested.

Numbers 21:8

‘And Yahweh said to Moses, “Make you a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard, and it shall come about, that every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” ’

Yahweh responded mercifully. Not only would He remove the snakes but He would cause many of those bitten to be healed. So He commanded Moses to set up an image of a fiery serpent and set it up on a pole. Then He promised that whoever then looked to that image would live.

Remarkable examples of bronze and copper serpents have been discovered in Canaan. At Timna, south of Hebron, where copper was mined, a gilded copper snake has been found. At Hazor a serpent standard has been discovered. And a bronze serpent was found at Gezer. Thus there are parallels to the fiery serpent of bronze (or copper). The thought here was that they were to look away from the serpents who crawled in the dust to the serpent provided by Yahweh, lifted up high before them. The serpents slithering in the dust spelled death. Yahweh offered life. But they had to look. Unless they looked to Yahweh’s provision they would die. Some have seen the redness of the copper as symbolising the blood of sacrifice. But the lesson may more have been that in order to find life they must lift their eyes from the dust wherein death lies (compare Leviticus 11:20; Leviticus 11:23; Leviticus 11:31) and look to Yahweh the living God.

If the serpent into which Moses’ rod had turned in the time in Egypt was in mind, and it was not something easily forgotten, indeed may well have been proverbial among the Israelites, then this copper serpent ‘frozen’ on a pole might well have indicated how Yahweh could ‘freeze’ serpents whenever He would (Exodus 4:4). It would indicate to the people without words that their deliverance could only come through the rod of God and His power over serpents. They would possibly remember how Yahweh’s serpent had eaten up all the other serpents (Exodus 7:12). Thus it would enhance their faith and they would know from Whom their deliverance came.

Numbers 21:9

‘And Moses made a serpent of bronze (or copper), and set it on the standard, and it came about, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked to the serpent of bronze (copper), he lived.’

And Moses did as he was commanded. He made the serpent of bronze/copper, set it on a pole, and lifted it up. Then whoever of those who had been bitten, who looked to the serpent, lived. They had taken their minds from earthly things to seek the heavenly. They had looked to the rod and mighty authority of Yahweh.

Jesus used this example as a picture of His being lifted up on the cross, so that whoever looked to Him and believed on Him would live and have eternal life (John 3:14-15). Men had been bitten by sin and were doomed, but He had come to give them new life.

Numbers 21:10

‘And the children of Israel journeyed, and encamped in Oboth.’

Then the people continued their journey and encamped in Oboth. The name Oboth means ‘waterskins’. Perhaps there is a hint here of readiness for the plentiful water soon to come.

So we have here again the reminder that because God loves His people He chastens them. He will not allow us to permanently continue in known sins. If we murmur and complain against Him then we must expect ‘serpents’, troubles of some kind, to come among us. But in the final analysis His aim is to make us turn to Him so that we may have and enjoy eternal life.

Verses 11-20

6). Journey from Oboth to the Pisgah Looking Towards Jeshimon (Numbers 21:11-20 ).

From this point on there is no shortage of water, as they move via the Wadi Zered to the River Arnon. And the abundance of water seemed to them like a dream fulfilled which they celebrated in song. The battle against the wilderness was won. But then they would have to move on to a different kind of battle. One difficulty after another would arise. In a sinful world life is ever such. But with Yahweh with them it would all turn out for the good.


a The people journey to the southern border of Moab - the Valley of Zered - and then pass on to their northern border, ‘on the other side of the Arnon’ (Numbers 21:11-13)

b A song from the Wars of Yahweh referring to water at Arnon (Numbers 21:14-15)

c The people come to the well where Yahweh promises water (Numbers 21:16)

b A song of the well as water is obtained (Numbers 21:17-18 a)

a The people journey to the Pisgah - north of Moab - with the land in sight from the Pisgah (Numbers 21:18-20).

Journey to the Arnon (Numbers 21:11-13 ).

Numbers 21:11

‘And they journeyed from Oboth, and encamped at Iye-abarim, in the wilderness which is before Moab, toward the sunrising.’

Compare here Numbers 33:44. Iye-abarim means ‘the ruins of Abarim’. It was by Moab, on the east (the sunrising).

Numbers 21:12

‘From there they journeyed, and encamped in the valley of Zered. From there they journeyed, and encamped on the other side of the Arnon, which is in the wilderness, which comes out of the border of the Amorites.’

And from Iye-abarim they journeyed to the valley of Zered through which ran the Wadi Zered. The crossing of the Zered was seen as a major event in Deuteronomy 2:13-14. There we learn that at this point the old generation was seen as having all passed away. Yahweh’s work of pruning was completed.

Numbers 21:13

‘From there they journeyed, and encamped on the other side of the Arnon, which is in the wilderness, which comes out of the border of the Amorites. For the Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites.’

They then moved along the eastern border of Moab in semi-desert and came to the River Arnon, Moab’s northern border. Note the continual stress on their being ‘in the wilderness’. They avoided the ‘built up areas’. They were seeking not to cause offence and to avoid aggression. But progress was now satisfactory.

A Song of Victory And Taking Of Water Sources and Land (Numbers 21:14-15 ).

After the preliminary victory over Arad there now began a period of constant victory. The instatement of Eleazar had introduced a new era indeed.

Numbers 21:14-15

‘For this reason it is said in the book of the Wars of Yahweh:

“Vaheb in a whirlwind,

And the tributary wadis of the Arnon,

And the slope of the valleys,

Which inclines toward the dwelling of Ar,

And leans on the border of Moab.” ’

The book of the Wars of Yahweh is mentioned only here. It probably contained the details of the battle at Rephidim (Exodus 17:8-16) and subsequent wars and skirmishes, including the battles fought here, written by Moses as God had instructed (Exodus 17:14).

The quotation was a reminder that their journey had been catalogued with this being an extract depicting this moment of the beginnings of their first major war, and it vividly pictured the victories which were to come. Vaheb was no doubt an Amorite fortress city, seemingly rapidly taken by Israel ‘in a whirlwind’, followed by the regions of the tributaries of the Arnon and the plains looking down on the Moabite border and the city of Ar, sources of water and land. Chronologically this would come in verse 24. But it is mentioned here as a reminder of their first permanent capture of water sources and fertile land which took place after reaching the Arnon, a firstfruit of what was to come. Together with what followed it stressed the abundance of water now made available to Israel. It was the commencement of the period of ‘milk and honey’, and with what follows it was the climax of the new beginning. Plentiful water was ever the picture of blessing, from Eden on to Revelation 22:0.

Yahweh Provides An Abundant Water Source (Numbers 21:16-20 ).

Numbers 21:16

‘And from there they journeyed to Beer, that is the well of which Yahweh said to Moses, “Gather the people together, and I will give them water.”

Their next movement was to Beer (well). We are told that this was specifically a well revealed by Yahweh and made available to them, for He had said to Moses, “Gather the people together, and I will give them water.” This well was so abundant that it resulted in a song of triumph. Note the song sandwich (see analysis above), a song before and a song afterwards. The water sources and well were the ultimate answer to all Israel’s periods of shortage of water as epitomised by the contention at Meribah. Only those who have known extreme water shortage can appreciate quite what this meant to Israel. The water sources were a symbol of life.

Numbers 21:17-18 a

Then sang Israel this song,

“Spring up, O well; sing you to it,

The well, which the princes dug,

Which the nobles of the people delved,

With the sceptre, and with their staves.”

Yahweh having revealed the whereabouts of the spring the well ‘sprang up’. The princes and nobles took the lead, digging it with their sceptre and staves. This would be the ceremonial element. Others would move in and do the hard work. But the song reveals the general rejoicing. They knew that their troubles with regard to water were behind them.

The wonder of the Christian life is that this overflowing water is always available in Christ. We can come to Him and drink, and the water we receive will then be in us a spring of water springing up to eternal life (John 4:14), and flowing out from us to a thirsty world round about (John 7:37-38).

Numbers 21:18-20 (18b-20)

‘And from the wilderness they journeyed to Mattanah, and from Mattanah to Nahaliel; and from Nahaliel to Bamoth; and from Bamoth to the valley that is in the field of Moab, to the top of Pisgah, which looks towards Jeshimon (or ‘down on the desert’).’

Now that they had abundant water advance was rapid. They moved quickly from one place to another until they came to the border of the promised land, and were able to look over at it from the Pisgah.

Bamoth (heights, high places) is probably identical with the Bamoth Baal, ‘the heights of Baal’ of Numbers 22:4. The purpose in these names here is to indicate the speed of travel until they came to the Pisgah (precipice) from which they could view the promised land across the Jordan valley. Thus the movement is seen as going from place to place almost without stopping until they reached the valley in the field of Moab and the top of the Pisgah which looks over the bleak desert over the Jordan at that point (compare for the description Numbers 23:28). This last area would be synonymous with ‘Abarim which is before Nebo’. These were not encampments, they were landmarks.

Compare here Numbers 33:45-47. But there it is the encampments which were recorded, where they set up the Dwellingplace, identified by the names of cities by which they encamped, while here those were deliberately ignored in order to give the impression of haste. Dibon-gad (Dibon of Gad), Almon-diblathaim and Abarim which is before Nebo (Numbers 33:45-47) would be camp sites near cities, where the Dwellingplace was set up.

Verses 21-22

(II). Victory In The Wars of Yahweh (Numbers 21:21 to Numbers 25:18 ).

Having tasted victory against the king of Arad, and come to the land of plenty, Yahweh now provided them with a series of victories forced on them by belligerent enemies. These would give them possession of the land of plenty on that side of Jordan, continuing the theme of the new beginning. These victories were important. Through their being forced on Israel they had to face them without thinking too hard, so that by the time that they had triumphed they were adequately prepared for ventures ahead. Had they had time to think they might well have decided that Sihon and Og were too powerful for them, but they had no time to think, and Yahweh reversed the defeat of their fathers by the Canaanites/Amorites (Numbers 14:45 compare Deuteronomy 1:44) by giving glorious victories.


a The defeat of Sihon king of the Amorites in the land of the Moabites, with the result that they dwelt there (Numbers 21:21-31).

b The defeat in the north of Og, king of Bashan, by their armies, and they possess his land (Numbers 21:32-35).

c The people finally arrive at the plains of Moab and pitch their tents there (Numbers 21:31 to Numbers 22:1).

b The defeat of the evil influence of Balaam brought from the north by the Moabites (Numbers 22:2 to Numbers 24:25).

a The defeat of the evil influence of Moab in the land of the Moabites (Numbers 25:0).

The territory that Israel were now operating in was in the land of the Moabites, although it was a section under the control of the Amorites who had seized it from Moab. Moses in fact wished to pass amicably by the land of Sihon, king of the Amorites but Sihon sought to prevent it. That was why he felt able to invade it and take possession of it. These were Amorites, akin to the Canaanites, and thus fair game. Nor had their land been given to them by Yahweh. They were trespassers. Yet they would have been left alone had they been cooperative, for they were not strictly people of ‘the land’. But Deuteronomy 2:30 confirms that it was Yahweh’s intention that the attack and defeat took place.

This would then be followed by a campaign against Og, king of Bashan and a ‘battle’ of another kind between Yahweh and the prophet Balaam who was recruited by Moab to curse Israel. They were moving on from victory to victory. It would only be their own lustful desires that would drag them down and bring God’s chastening on them (25). This was a reminder of the fact that the enemy we must most beware of is our own selves.

The term Amorite has various meanings in the Old Testament. It can refer to all the people of Canaan, (e.g. Genesis 15:16), to tribes living in the hill country of Canaan (Joshua 5:1; Joshua 10:5; Judges 1:34), to inhabitants of the Negeb and the region to the southeast of the Dead Sea (Genesis 14:7), and very often, as here, to the inhabitants east of the Jordan under the rule of Sihon and Og.

Battles with the Amorites (Numbers 21:21-35 ).

Now commenced the epoch-making battles with the two kings of the Amorites on the east side of the Jordan which would provide Israel with its first conquered land.

1). The Defeat of Sihon, King of the Amorites (Numbers 21:21-31 ).

While what is now described passes in a few verses we must not overlook what was involved. The taking of the land of the Amorites and of their fortified cities would not have been easy and would have taken considerable time and effort. But as the poem above made clear, Yahweh was with Israel and thus progress was rapid. It was Israel’s first period of sustained warfare.


a Plea to Sihon to be allowed to pass through the land of the Amorites (Numbers 21-22).

b Sihon refuses and belligerently faces up to Israel (Numbers 21:23).

c Sihon is defeated and his land possessed up to the borders of Ammon (Numbers 21:24).

c The cities of Sihon which were once Moab’s are possessed (Numbers 21:25).

b Sihon’s belligerency against Moab (the song of Heshbon) (Numbers 21:25-29).

a Israel taunt Sihon and settle in the land of the Amorites (Numbers 21:30-31).

A Plea to Sihon to Be Allowed to Pass Unscathed Through The Land of the Amorites (Numbers 21:21-22 ).

Numbers 21:21

‘And Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, saying,’

In accordance with practise messengers were sent requesting safe passage without interference. They brought Moses’ words to the king.

Numbers 21:22

Let me pass through your land. We will not turn aside into field, or into vineyard. We will not drink of the water of the wells. We will go by the king’s highway, until we have passed your border.”

The request was from ‘king’ to king. ‘Let me pass through your land.’ It was then promised that if he did so they would use only the highway and not trespass on their fields or drink their water. This was referring to the continuation of ‘the Kings Highway’, the trade route to Damascus, which would make travel easier.

Verse 23

Sihon Refuses and Faces Up to Israel (Numbers 21:23 ).

Numbers 21:23

‘And Sihon would not allow Israel to pass through his border, but Sihon gathered all his people together, and went out against Israel into the wilderness, and came to Jahaz, and he fought against Israel.’

But Sihon was determined to prevent their passage. It may have been that he recognised that they were proceeding to an invasion on fellow-Amorites, or it may have been because he did not trust Israel and what they might do once they were in the midst of the land, or it may simply have been because he enjoyed fighting and saw the possibility of much booty. But whichever way it was he went out with his army to where Israel were ‘in the wilderness’, outside the fertile land, and coming to Jahaz, he fought against Israel.

Jahaz would shortly become a Reubenite city, and a levitical city (Joshua 13:18; Joshua 21:34; Joshua 21:36), but it would later be in conflict with Mesha, king of Moab, who, according to the Moabite stone, would eventually seize it. It would still be in Moabite hands in the days of Isaiah 15:4 and Jeremiah 48:21; Jeremiah 48:34.

Verse 24

Sihon Is Defeated and His Land Possessed Up to The Borders of Ammon (Numbers 21:24 ).

Numbers 21:24

‘And Israel smote him with the edge of the sword, and possessed his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, even to the children of Ammon. For the border of the children of Ammon was strong.’

Israel defeated Sihon, and possessed his land. There would first be the initial battle and then the progressive taking of cities and seizure of the land which is described in summary. This is then followed by the history of Heshbon in poetic form.

“From the Arnon to the Jabbok.” The Arnon was the southern border of Sihon’s land and formed the border with Moab. The River Jabbok was to the north and then curved round southward to form a border with Ammon.

Once Sihon determined to resist Israelite progress battle was inevitable. The border of Ammon, the only other possible route, was strong, guarded by a ring of fortresses to which archaeology bears witness. Thus it was defeat Sihon or retreat. And once the victory had been won the rest followed. Deuteronomy tells us that in fact all this was because Yahweh intended this land for Israel and therefore hardened Sihon’s spirit in order to make him behave in the way in which he did (Deuteronomy 2:30). There the credit for the victory goes to Yahweh. And as the Amorites were basically ‘Canaanites’ (related to inhabitants of Canaan) they were all to be put to the sword.

Verses 25-26

The Possession of the Cities of Sihon (Numbers 21:25-26 ).

Numbers 21:25

‘And Israel took all these cities. And Israel dwelt in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all its towns.’

Having defeated Sihon Israel took his cities, including Heshbon the capital city, one by one until all were in their possession. And subsequently they set up residence there, and throughout the whole country.

Numbers 21:26

‘For 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 to the Arnon.’

Then it is explained that in fact Heshbon was the royal city where Sihon dwelt, and that he and the Amorites had captured it from Moab, a description of these events then being provided in a celebration ode.

Verses 27-29

The Triumph Song of the Amorites (Numbers 21:27-29 ).

Numbers 21:27-29

‘That is the reason that they who speak in proverbs say,

“Come you to Heshbon;

Let the city of Sihon be built and established,

For a fire is gone out of Heshbon,

A flame from the city of Sihon,

It has devoured Ar (or ‘the cities’) of Moab,

The lords of the high places of the Arnon.

Woe to you, Moab!

You are undone, O people of Chemosh,

He has given his sons as fugitives,

And his daughters into captivity,

To Sihon king of the Amorites.

In vivid language the defeat of Moab by Sihon is described. First he captured Heshbon, which would become his royal city, and fortified it (established it’). Then he moved down like a flame and a fire as far as ‘Ar, a city of Moab and defeated the border lords, seizing a number of captive slaves. And although Chemosh was the god of Moab he was able to do nothing about it. Indeed he surrendered them to the opposing forces.

The point behind the song was not only to display Sihon’s belligerency, but also to expose Chemosh’s helplessness. But now Israel had defeated Sihon. That proved that Yahweh was Lord over all. And as Chemosh had surrendered the land, Moab no longer had a claim on it.

“Ar was to the south of the Arnon but may simply be named as the nearest city to the border, being wasted but not retained. However, in early Hebrew ‘r could probably also signify ‘are (‘cities”) and that may be the rendering here.

Verse 30

Israel’s Taunt Song Against the Amorites (Numbers 21:30 ).

We have shot at them;

Heshbon is perished even to Dibon,

And we have laid waste even to Nophah,

Which reaches to Medeba.”

In an addition to the poem, which does not compare as literature with the original, Israel then taunt Sihon and the Amorites with their loss. Israel had in turn shot at them and captured all their cities and territory. Apart from Nophah the cites are all well testified to. It may be significant that Sihon’s gods are not mentioned. The Pentateuch appears to deliberately avoid any mention of Baal apart from Baalpeor (22:41; 25:3, 5; Deuteronomy 4:3) and in place names (32:38; 33:7; Exodus 14:2; Exodus 14:9), possibly because of the danger at this early stage of ‘baal’ (lord) being linked with Yahweh. In the early days in the land ‘baal’ was even included in Israelite names (e.g Ish-baal, Meri-baal, which were changed into Ish-bosheth, Mephi-bosheth where bosheth means ‘shame’). We too must beware of false terminology. By astute use of language what is displeasing to God can easily be presented as being the real thing. The only way to prevent ourselves from being ensnared is to avoid sin and test everything by the word of God.

Verse 31

Israel Settle In The Land of the Amorites (Numbers 21:31 ).

Numbers 21:31

‘Thus Israel dwelt in the land of the Amorites.’

The passage ends triumphantly with the fact that Israel now dwelt in the land of the Amorites. The Amorite bogey (Deuteronomy 1:27; Deuteronomy 1:44) had been laid once for all.

One lesson for us from this incident is that sometimes what appears to be a disappointment can be turned by God into a triumph. In this case He was working in His sovereignty with the blessing of His people in mind. Israel were no doubt disappointed that the Amorites refused them passage, but the final result was possession of lands which would be theirs permanently.

Verses 32-35

2). The Defeat of Og, King of Bashan (Numbers 21:32-35 ).

The defeat of Sihon did not pass unnoticed and when Israel advanced even further northwards Og, king of Bashan decided that enough was enough. Gathering his forces he came down from the north, from northern Gilead and Bashan, and faced up to Israel. Og was probably a giant of a man, and connected with a race similar to the Anakim (Deuteronomy 3:11). But that made no difference to Yahweh. Og was defeated and Gilead and Bashan were both taken and occupied and their cities subdued. The description is brief but the actual carrying out of it would again take some time.


a Moses spies out Jazer (Numbers 21:32 a).

b He defeats the Amorites there and captures their cities (Numbers 21:32 b).

c Og, king of Bashan, comes out to face up to Israel (Numbers 21:33).

c Yahweh assures Moses of victory (Numbers 21:34).

b He defeats Og and they possess his land (Numbers 21:35)

a They journey to the plains of Moab (Numbers 22:1).

Numbers 21:32

‘ And Moses sent to spy out Jazer; and they took its towns, and drove out the Amorites who were there.’

After the defeat of Sihon Moses sent scouts to spy out Jazer, an Amorite city in Sihon’s kingdom. It was taken with its towns and the Amorites were ‘driven out’, possibly fleeing across the Jordan. Or they may have gone as refugees to Bashan thus prompting Og’s subsequent action.

Numbers 21:33

‘And they turned and went up by the way of Bashan, and Og the king of Bashan went out against them, he and all his people, to battle at Edrei.’

The advance of the Israelite army then continued on ‘the way of Bashan’. It may be that they were pursuing the Amorites who had fled from Jazer. This prompted Og to bring his army to Edrei, possibly in response to pleas for help, and there they met in battle. Edrei is modern Dura.

Numbers 21:34

‘And Yahweh said to Moses, “Fear him not, for I have delivered him into your hand, and all his people, and his land, and you shall do to him as you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who dwelt at Heshbon.’

We are told that Yahweh had given Moses especial assurance of victory. This may have been because of the imposing stature of Og, who would be enough to frighten the Israelites, or it may simply have been an added encouragement on the way. In their enthusiasm over their victories it was important that they recognised that their victories came from Yahweh. Either way the promise was that Og and his people would be delivered into their hands, and would have done to them what had been done to Sihon and his Amorites.

Numbers 21:35

‘So they smote him, and his sons and all his people, until none were left remaining to him, and they possessed his land.’

The end result was total defeat for Og. He and his sons were slain, and all the people exterminated, according to God’s requirement for all ‘Canaanites’ and ‘Amorites’. And finally they possessed his land. Although described so briefly it would in fact be an extended campaign.

More details of this conquest are given in Deuteronomy 3:1-11. While the details are here only given in summary form we must not underestimate the significance of the victories. They comforted Israel with the fact that they were well able to meet formidable foes and capture fortified cities, and they confirmed the power of Yahweh. And once they were completed and the land settled they were able to rejoice in the fact that Yahweh had given them the firstfruits of the land of milk and honey.

So quite unexpectedly as far as Israel were concerned they found themselves potential possessors of a huge area of fertile land which had plenty of water. It would still have to be settled, and parts would have to be reconquered in the future as the defeated former residents moved back while Israel were busy elsewhere, but it was a glorious firstfruits of what the future held for them. The taking over of this land by Reuben, Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh is described in Numbers 32:0.

The clear lesson we learn from this is that it matters not how superior our antagonists may appear to be. If God is on our side we have nothing to fear. Nothing is too hard for Him.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Numbers 21". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/numbers-21.html. 2013.
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