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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 21

Benson's Commentary of the Old and New TestamentsBenson's Commentary


A.M. 2552. B.C. 1452.

The defeat of Arad, Numbers 21:1-3 . The people murmur and are plagued with fiery serpents, Numbers 21:4-6 . They are healed by looking on the brazen serpent, Numbers 21:7-9 . They journey forward, Numbers 21:10-20 . Conquer Sihon, Numbers 21:21-31 . And Og, Numbers 21:33-35 .

Verse 1

Numbers 21:1. The armies of Israel now begin to emerge out of the wilderness, and to come into a land inhabited; to enter upon action, and take possession of the frontiers of the land of promise. King Arad Or rather, according to the Hebrew, and all the ancient versions, The Canaanitish king of Arad; for Arad was not the name of a man, but of a city or territory, Judges 1:16; and he seems to be called a Canaanite in a general sense, as the Amorites and others. Which dwelt in the south Of Canaan, toward the east, and near the Dead sea. By the way of the spies For though the spies, whom Moses had sent thirty-eight years before, then went into Canaan, and returned unobserved, yet their coming, and their errand, it is likely, were afterward known to the Canaanites, gave them an alarm, and obliged them to keep an eye on Israel, and get intelligence of their motions. The Seventy, however, and others, take the word Atharim, which we render spies, for the name of a place. Took some of them prisoners God permitting it for Israel’s humiliation, and to teach them not to expect the conquest of that land from their own wisdom or valour.

Verse 2

Numbers 21:2. Israel vowed a vow unto the Lord Being unexperienced in war, and sensible of their own weakness, they were afraid of these Canaanites, and therefore thus endeavour to engage God to help them in the war which they intended to renew. I will utterly destroy their cities I will reserve no person or thing for my own use, but devote them all to total destruction. The Israelites knew that the destruction of the seven nations of Canaan was predetermined in the counsels of heaven, on account of their excessive national wickedness, (Genesis 9:25-27,) and that it had only been deferred till their incorrigible iniquity, having baffled all the gentler methods of Providence, which, during the course of some hundreds of years, had been employed for their reformation, had proved itself to be full, as God himself expresses it, Genesis 15:16. They believed, it seems, that the time for effecting this destruction was now come, and hence made the vow here recorded.

The reader will observe, that it appears from all historical records of the seven Canaanitish nations, that before they were given up to utter destruction they were sunk into the deepest degeneracy and depravity. Thus (Leviticus 18:0.) where the Israelites are cautioned against the commission of several enormous crimes, such as offering their children to Moloch, lying with mankind as with womankind, lying with beasts, and women standing before beasts to lie down to them, it is added, For in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you. And again, For all these abominations have the men of the land done, which were before you. Thus it appears that the destined period for their extirpation was arrived; their iniquities were full, and they brought down this desolation upon themselves. It must be observed, however, that this decree of utter destruction only extended to the seven nations of Canaan, all, it seems, equally sunk in guilt and depravity. The Israelites were at liberty to offer, nay, were commanded to offer, peace to other cities or states that were not of those nations, on condition that they became tributaries to them. See the whole command on this subject, (Deuteronomy 20:10-18,) with the reason assigned for destroying the seven nations, which is thus expressed: That they teach you not to do after their abominations, which they have done unto their gods, so should you sin against the Lord your God. It may be proper to observe further here, that the extirpation of this people, so sunk in idolatry and wickedness, was intended to be a warning to the Israelites themselves, and a most awful one it certainly was; and it was one which they had great need of; for such was their proneness to idolatry in that age of the world, that nothing less seemed likely to be effectual to restrain them from it, than to impress their minds with the most horrid idea of that crime, as what rendered nations accursed in the sight of God and men, and destined to be utterly extirpated from the face of the earth.

Verse 3

Numbers 21:3. They utterly destroyed them That is, as many of them as they took at that time; but it is plain that all these Canaanites were not destroyed at this time, for we find the king of Arad and the king of Hormah mentioned among the kings whom Joshua smote some time after this, Joshua 12:14; and several of their cities were not taken and destroyed till after the death of Joshua, Judges 1:16-17. Indeed, all that the Hebrew here ( יחרם , jacharem) signifies is, that they now devoted them and their cities to destruction, and when their cities came into their possession they fulfilled their vow. He called the name of the place Hormah That is, devoted to destruction, or, Anathema.

Verse 4

Numbers 21:4. By the way of the Red sea The way which led to the Red sea, which they were under a necessity of taking, that they might compass the land of Edom. But as they had gained an advantage over the king of Arad, why did they not pursue their victory, and now enter Canaan? Because God would not permit it, there being several works yet to be done; other people must be conquered, the Israelites must be further humbled, tried, and purged, Moses must die, and then they shall enter, and that in a more glorious manner, even over Jordan, which shall be miraculously divided to give them passage. The soul of the people was much discouraged Or, they grew fretful and impatient, as the words import. Having met with so many difficulties and discouragements in their way to Canaan; particularly being now obliged, by the Edomites refusing to give them a passage through their country, to retire back southward, and thence again to turn eastward, and to take a round by the territories of the Moabites; they began to think they should never come to the promised land, and so fell into their old spirit of murmuring against God, and throwing reflections on Moses. They seem to have been the more excited to this by the successful entrance and victorious progress which some of them had made in the borders of Canaan; because they concluded from this that they might speedily have gone in and taken possession of it, and so have saved the tedious travels, and further difficulties, into which Moses had again brought them.

Verse 5

Numbers 21:5. The people spake against God Against Christ, their chief conductor, whom they tempted. Our soul loatheth this light bread Thus contemptuously did they speak of manna, whereas it appears it yielded excellent nourishment, because in the strength of it they were able to go so many and such tedious journeys.

Verse 6

Numbers 21:6. Fiery serpents Hebrew, נחשׁים , nechashim, the plural of the word translated serpent, Genesis 3:1, where Moses speaks of the temptation and fall of our first parents, and which, when intended of a living creature, we believe, always means a serpent of one species or other, and is accordingly uniformly so rendered, not only by our translators, in the Scriptures, but by the Seventy, and in most or all other versions whatever; and, what certainly ought to have great weight with Christians, by the evangelists and apostles, whenever they quote or refer to those passages of the Old Testament where the word occurs: see on Genesis 3:1. There were many such serpents as Moses here speaks of in this wilderness, which, having been hitherto restrained by God, were now let loose and sent among them: see Jeremiah 8:17. They are called fiery from their effects, because their poison caused an intolerable heat, burning, and thirst, which was aggravated with this circumstance of the place, that there was no water, Numbers 21:5.

Verses 8-9

Numbers 21:8-9. A fiery serpent That is, the figure of a serpent in brass, which is of a fiery colour. This would require some time: God would not speedily take off the judgment, because he saw they were not thoroughly humbled. Upon a pole That the people might see it from all parts of the camp, and therefore the pole must be high, and the serpent large. When he looketh This method of cure was prescribed, that it might appear to be God’s own work, and not the effect of nature or art: and that it might be an eminent type of our salvation by Christ. The serpent signified Christ, who was in the likeness of sinful flesh, though without sin, as this brazen serpent had the outward shape, but not the inward poison of the other serpents: the pole resembled the cross upon which Christ was lifted up for our salvation: and looking up to it designed our believing in Christ. He lived He was delivered from death, and cured of his disease.

Verses 10-13

Numbers 21:10-13. In Oboth Not immediately, but after two other stations, mentioned chap. 33. The valley of Zared Or rather, by the brook of Zared, which ran into the Dead sea. On the other side Or rather, on this side of Arnon, for so it now was to the Israelites, who had not yet passed over it. Between Moab and the Amorites Though formerly it and the land beyond it belonged to Moab, yet afterward it had been taken from them by Sihon. This is added to reconcile two seemingly contrary commands of God; the one, that of not meddling with the land of the Moabites, (Deuteronomy 2:9,) the other, that of going over Arnon and taking possession of the land beyond it, (Deuteronomy 2:24,) because, saith he, it is not now the land of the Moabites, but of the Amorites.

Verse 14

Numbers 21:14. The book of the wars of the Lord This seems to have been some poem or narration of the wars and victories of the Lord, either by, or relating to the Israelites: which may be asserted without any prejudice to the integrity of the holy Scripture, because this book doth not appear to have been written by a prophet, or designed for a part of the canon, but which Moses might quote, as St. Paul doth some of the heathen poets. And, as St. Luke assures us that many did write a history of the things done and said by Christ, (Luke 1:1,) whose writings were never received as canonical, the like may be conceived concerning this and some few other books mentioned in the Old Testament. The brooks The brook, the plural number for the singular, as the plural number, rivers, is used concerning Jordan, (Psalms 74:15,) and concerning Tigris, (Nahum 2:6,) and concerning Euphrates, ( <19D701>Psalms 137:1,) all which may be so called because of the several little streams into which they were divided.

Verses 15-16

Numbers 21:15-16. Ar A chief city in Moab. Beer This place, and Mattanah, Nahaliel, and Bamoth, named here, (Numbers 21:19,) are not mentioned among those places where they pitched or encamped, chap. 33. Probably they did not pitch or encamp in these places, but only pass by or through them. I will give them water In a miraculous manner. Before they prayed, God granted, and prevented them with the blessings of goodness. And as the brazen serpent was the figure of Christ, so is this well a figure of the Spirit, who is poured forth for our comfort, and from him flow rivers of living waters.

Verses 17-18

Numbers 21:17-18. Spring up Hebrew, ascend; that is, let thy waters, which now lie hid below in the earth, ascend for our use. It is either a prediction that it should spring up, or a prayer that it might. With their staves Probably as Moses smote the rock with his rod, so they struck the earth with their staves, as a sign that God would cause the water to flow out of the earth where they smote it, as he did before out of the rock. Or, perhaps, they made holes with their staves in the sandy ground, and God caused the water immediately to spring up.

Verse 20

Numbers 21:20. Pisgah This was the top of those high hills of Abarim.

Verses 21-22

Numbers 21:21-22. Sent messengers By God’s allowance, that so Sihon’s malice might be the more evident and inexcusable, and their title to his country more clear in the judgment of all men, as being gotten by a just war, into which they were forced for their own defence. Let me pass They spoke what they seriously intended, and would have done, if he had given them a quiet passage.

Verse 24

Numbers 21:24. From Arnon Or, which reached from Arnon; and so here is a description or limitation of Sihon’s conquest and kingdom, that it extended only from Arnon unto the children of Ammon And then the following words, for the border of the children of Ammon was strong, come in very fitly, not as a reason why the Israelites did not conquer the Ammonites, for they were absolutely forbidden to meddle with them, (Deuteronomy 3:8,) but as a reason why Sihon could not enlarge his conquests to the Ammonites, as he had done to the Moabites. Jabbok A river by which the countries of Ammon and Moab were in part bounded and divided. Strong Either by the advantage of the river, or by their strong holds in their frontiers.

Verse 26

Numbers 21:26. Heshbon was the city of Sihon This is added as a reason why Israel took possession of this land, because it was not now the land of the Moabites, but in the possession of the Amorites. The former king The predecessor of Balak, who was the present king. See the wisdom of God’s providence, which prepares long before for the accomplishment of his purposes in their season! This country, being designed for Israel, is beforehand put into the hand of the Amorites, who little think they have it but as trustees, till Israel comes of age. We understand not the vast schemes of Providence: but known unto God are all his works!

Verse 27

Numbers 21:27. In proverbs The poets or other ingenious persons of the Amorites or Canaanites, who made this following song over the vanquished Moabites, which is here brought in as a proof that this was now Sihon’s land, and as an evidence of the just judgment of God in spoiling the spoilers, and subduing those who insulted over their conquered enemies. Come into Heshbon These are the words either of Sihon speaking to his people, or of the people exhorting one another to come and possess the city which they had taken. Of Sihon That which once was the royal city of the king of Moab, but now is the city of Sihon.

Verse 28

Numbers 21:28. A fire The fury of war, which is fitly compared to fire. Out of Heshbon That city which before was a refuge and defence to all the country, now is turned into a great annoyance. It hath consumed Ar

This may be understood not of the city Ar, but of the people or the country subject or belonging to that great and royal city. The lords of the high places The princes or governors of the strong holds, which were frequently in high places, especially in that mountainous country, and which were in divers parts all along the river Arnon. So the Amorites triumphed over the vanquished Moabites. But the triumphing of the wicked is short!

Verse 29

Numbers 21:29. People of Chemosh The worshippers of Chemosh; so the god of the Moabites was called. He That is, their god, hath delivered up his own people to his and their enemies; nor could he secure even those that had escaped the sword, but suffered them to be carried into captivity. The words of this and the following verse seem to be, not a part of that triumphant song, made by some Amoritish poet, which seems to be concluded Numbers 21:28, but of the Israelites making their observation upon it. And here they scoff at the impotency, not only of the Moabites, but of their god also, who could not save his people from the sword of Sihon and the Amorites.

Verse 30

Numbers 21:30. Though you, feeble Moabites, and your god too, could not resist Sihon, we Israelites, by the help of our God, have shot With success and victory; at them At Sihon and his Amorites. Heshbon The royal city of Sihon, and by him lately repaired; is perished Is taken away from Sihon, and so is all his country, even as far as Dibon.

Verse 32

Numbers 21:32. Jaazer One of the cities of Moab, formerly taken from them by Sihon, and now taken from him by the Israelites.

Verse 33

Numbers 21:33. Og Who was also a king of the Amorites. And it may seem that Sihon and Og were the leaders or captains of two great colonies which came out of Canaan, and drove out the former inhabitants of these places. Bashan A rich country, famous for its pastures and breed of cattle, and for its oaks.

Bibliographical Information
Benson, Joseph. "Commentary on Numbers 21". Benson's Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/rbc/numbers-21.html. 1857.
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