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the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 21

The Pulpit CommentariesThe Pulpit Commentaries

Verses 1-3




Numbers 21:1

And when king Arad the Canaanite, which dwelt in the south, heard tell. Rather, "And the Canaanite, the king of Arad, which dwelt in the Negeb, heard tell." It is possible that Arad was the name of the king (it occurs as the name of a man, 1 Chronicles 8:15), but it was almost certainly the name of his place. The "king of Arad, is mentioned in Joshua 12:14, and "the Negeb of Arad" in Judges 1:16. From the context of these passages it is evident that it was situated in the southernmost district of what was afterwards the territory of Judah. According to Eusebius, it stood twenty Roman miles to the south of Hebron, and its site has been found by modern travelers at Tel-Arad, a low hill in this direction. On the Negeb see note on Numbers 13:17. By the way of the spies. דֶּרֶךְ הָאַתָרִים. Septuagint, ὀδὸν Αθαρείν. The translation is very uncertain; atharim may be a proper name, as the Septuagint seems to suppose, or it may be an unusual plural formed from תוּר, equivalent to הַתָּרִים, "spies," as the Chaldee, Samaritan, and most of the versions take it; or it may be simply the plural from אַתַר, a place, used with some local meaning which made it practically a proper name. If the rendering of the A.V. be correct, "the way of the spies" must have been the route by which they ascended to Hebron through the Negeb (Numbers 13:17, Numbers 13:22), and the king of Arid must have anticipated an invasion in that direction, and sought to forestall it. And took some of them prisoners. This would seem to show that he fell upon them unawares, and cut off some detached parties. Nothing is said of any disobedience on the part of Israel to account for defeat in battle.

Numbers 21:2

And Israel vowed a vow. On these vows, and on things "devoted" or "banned" (חֵרֶם—ἀνάθεμα), see on Leviticus 27:28, and on the moral character of such wholesale slaughters see on Numbers 31:1-54. If it was right to destroy the Canaanites at all, no fault can be found with the vow; it merely did for that military proceeding what national feeling and discipline does for the far more bloody exigencies of modern warfare, removing it from the sphere of private hatred, revenge, and cupidity, and placing it upon a higher level. The patriot soldier of these days feels himself to be a mere instrument in the hands of the rulers of his people to maintain their rights or avenge their wrongs. The Israelite could not have this feeling, which was foreign to his time and place in history, but he could feel that he was a mere instrument in the hands of God to perform his will upon his enemies. In either case a must important advantage is secured; the soldier does not slay in order to gratify his own hatred, or in order to satisfy his own cupidity. It is quite true that such vows as are here mentioned would certainly in a more advanced stage of civilization be abused to throw a cloak of religion over frightful enormities; but it does not in the least follow that they were not permitted and even encouraged by God in an age to which they were natural, and under circumstances in which they were beneficial.

Numbers 21:3

They utterly destroyed them and their cities. Rather, "they banned (יַּחַרֵם—ἀναθεμάτισεν) them and their cities." No doubt the banning implies here their utter destruction, because it is not the vow before the battle, but the carrying of it out after the victory, which is here spoken of. And he called the name of the place Hormah. Rather, "the name of the place was called (impersonal use of the transitive) Charmah." חָרְמָה. Septuagint, Ἀνάθεμα. It is not very clear what place received this name at this time. It does not appear to have been Arid itself, as would have seemed most natural, because Arid and Hormah are mentioned side by side in Joshua 12:14. It is identified with Zephath in Judges 1:17. It may have been the place where the victory was won which gave all the cities of Arid to destruction. Whether it was the Hormah mentioned in Judges 14:1-45 is very doubtful (see note there). The nomenclature of the Jews, especially as to places, and most especially as to places with which their own connection was passing or broken, was vague and confused in the extreme, and nothing can be more unsatisfactory than arguments which turn upon the shifting names of places long ago perished and forgotten. It must be added that the three verses which narrate the chastisement of this Canaanite chieftain have caused immense embarrassment to commentators. If the incident is narrated in its proper order of time, it must have happened during the stay of the Israelites under Mount Hor, when they had finally left the neighbourhood of the Negeb, and were separated from the king of Arid by many days' march, and by a most impracticable country. It is therefore generally supposed that the narrative is out of place, and that it really belongs to the time when Israel was gathered together for the second time at Kadesh, and When his reappearance there in force might well have given rise to the report that be was about to invade Canaan from that side. This is unsatisfactory, because no plausible reason can be assigned for the insertion of the notice where it stands, both here and in Numbers 33:40. To say that Moses wished to bring it into juxtaposition with the victories recorded in the latter part of the chapter, from which it is separated by the incident of the fiery serpents, and the brief record of many journeys, is to confess that no explanation can be invented which has the least show of reason. If the narrative be displaced, the displacement must simply be due to accident or interpolation. Again, it would seem quite inconsistent with the position and plans of Israel since the rebellion of Kadesh that any invasion and conquest, even temporary, of any part of Canaan should be made at this time, and that especially if the attack was not made until Israel was lying in the Arabah on his way round the land of Edom. It is therefore supposed by some that the vow only was made at this time, and the ban suspended over the place, and that it was only carried out as part of the general conquest under Joshua; that, in fact, the fulfillment of the vow is narrated in Joshua 12:14; Judges 1:16, Judges 1:17. This, however, throws the narrative as it stands into confusion and discredit, for the ban and the destruction become a mockery and an unreality if nothing more was done to the towns of the king of Arad than was done at the same time to the towns of all his neighbours. It would be more reverent to reject the story as an error or a falsehood than to empty it of the meaning which it was obviously intended to convey. We are certainly meant to understand that the vow was there and then accepted by God, and was there and then carried into effect by Israel; the towns of Arad were depopulated and destroyed as far as lay in their power, although they may have been immediately reoccupied. There are only two theories which are worth considering. 1. The narrative may really be displaced, for what cause we do not know. If so, it would he more satisfactory to refer it, not to the time of the second encampment at Kadesh, but to the time of the first, during the absence of the spies in Canaan. It is probable that their entry was known, as was the case with Joshua's spies (Joshua 2:2); and nothing could be more likely than that the king of Arad, suspecting what would follow, should attempt to anticipate invasion by attack. If it were so it might help to account for the rash confidence shown by the people afterwards (Numbers 14:40), for the mention of Hormah (Numbers 14:45), and for the reappearance of kings of Hormah and of Arad in the days of Joshua 2:1-24. The narrative may after all be in place. That the Israelites lay for thirty days under Mount Hor is certain, and they may have been longer. During this period they could not get pasture for their cattle on the side of Edom, and they may have wandered far and wide in search of it. It may have been but a comparatively small band which approached the Negeb near enough to be attacked, and which, by the help of God, was enabled to defeat the king of Arad, and to lay waste his towns. It had certainly been no great feat for all Israel to overthrow a border chieftain who could not possibly have brought 5000 men into the field.


Numbers 21:1-3


In this brief narrative of three verses we have by anticipation almost the whole spiritual teaching of the Book of Joshua; we have, namely, the struggle and the victory of the soldier of Christ over his spiritual foes, and the consequent duty which he has to perform. Consider, therefore—

I. THAT THE FEAR AND THE ANGER OF THE CANAANITE WERE KINDLED BY THE NEWS THAT ISRAEL WAS COMING BY THE WAY OF THE SPIES, i.e; were following in the steps of those that had gone before into the land of promise. Even so the rage of Satan and of all evil spirits is stirred against us because he knows that we follow in the way which leads to heaven, and because it is his ardent desire to keep us out, if he can and while he can. If the Canaanite had perceived that Israel had rebelled and turned his back on the ]and of promise, he would never have troubled to come forth and attack him. Satan makes no direct assault on those whom he sees to be walking contrary to God and to rest.

II. THAT HE ATTACKED ISRAEL SUDDENLY AND UNEXPECTEDLY, AND WITH SOME success. Most likely they were scattered abroad in search of pasture when he fell upon them, and made them prisoners. Even so the assaults of our spiritual foes are secretly prepared and suddenly delivered at moments when we are off our guard, and many a one falls a victim, at least for a while. The enemy goeth about indeed as a roaring lion, but the lion does not roar at the moment that he springs upon his prey, nor does Satan give any signal of his worst temptations.

III. THAT HE MADE SOME OF THEM PRISONERS, which seems to have been his object—perhaps that they might serve as hostages. Even so the enemy of souls desires to make prisoners who may not only be held in miserable bondage themselves, but may give him control and influence over their brethren.

IV. THAT ISRAEL DID NOT ATTEMPT TO MEET THE CANAANITES AS ORDINARY FOES, HUT VOWED TO TREAT THEM AS GOD'S ENEMIES, AND TO EXTERMINATE THEM ACCORDINGLY. Even so the right way and the only way to overcome the temptations and sins, the evil habits, passions, and tempers, which assail us (and often too successfully) on the way to heaven, is to regard them as God's enemies, as hateful to him, and to smite them accordingly without remorse, weariness, or thought of self. Many are vexed and annoyed with follies and tempers which get the better of them, and they contend against them on the ground of that vexation, wishing to get the mastery over them, and yet not caring to go to extremities against them. But the faithful soul will solemnly resolve, as before God and for h/s sake, to make an utter end at any cost of the sins which have prevailed against them, and so dishonoured him.

V. THAT GOD ACCEPTED THAT VOW AND GAVE THEM THE VICTORY OVER THE CANAANITES. Even so if we regard and face our spiritual enemies in the true light, as God's enemies, to be relentlessly exterminated, God will give us strength and power to have victory and to triumph over them, and it may be to set our captive brethren free also (2 Timothy 2:26).

VI. THAT THE ISRAELITES PROCEEDED TO FULFIL THEIR VOW, although, as all the spoil was anathema, they had nothing to gain themselves but labour and loss of time. Even so will the good soldier of Christ not cease his most earnest efforts until he has quite destroyed the evil habits and evil tempers over which God has given him victory. The majority of Christian people are too lazy and selfish to do this; they will strive to overcome a known sin or bad habit; but when it has been (as they think) overcome they have not sufficient zeal to pursue it into its last lurking-places and exterminate it. As long as it does not actively trouble them they are content, and so the remnants remain to the dishonour of God and to their own future loss and danger. How few Christians radically get rid even of a single fault!

VII. THAT THE PLACE WAS CALLED HORMAHANATHEMA: a perpetual reminder that the enemies of God are under a ban, and should be exterminated; a sacred delenda est Carthago. Even so it is ever impressed upon the soldier of Christ that there can be no truce between him and sin, or even between him and selfish indifference. "If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema"—a Hormah, a thing devoted, a being with whom no compromise can be made and no amity knit until that indifference of his which is so hateful to God be abolished for ever.

Verses 4-9


THE FIERY SERPENTS (Numbers 21:4-9).

Numbers 21:4

They journeyed from Mount Hor. It appears from comparison of Numbers 33:38 and Numbers 20:29 that their departure was not earlier than the beginning of the sixth month of the fortieth year. This season would be one of the hottest and most trying for marching. By the way of the Red Sea, i.e; down the Arabah, towards Ezion-geber, at the head of the Elanitic Gulf. Septuagint, ὁδὸν ἐπὶ θά. Not far from this place they would reach the end of the Edomitish territory, and turn eastwards and northwards up the Wady el Ithm towards the steppes of Moab. Discouraged. Literally, "shortened" or "straitened," as in Exodus 6:9. Septuagint, ὡλιγοψύχησεν ὁ λαός. Because of the way. The Ambah is a stony, sandy, almost barren plain shut in by mountain walls on either side, and subject to sand-storms. It was not only, however, merely the heat and drought and ruggedness of the route which depressed them, but the fact that they were marching directly away from Canaan, and knew not how they were ever to reach it.

Numbers 21:5

There is no bread, neither is there any water. The one of these statements was no doubt as much and as little true as the other. There was no ordinary supply of either; but as they had bread given to them from heaven, so they had water from the rock, otherwise they could not possibly have existed. Our soul loatheth this light bread. קְלקֵל, a stronger form than קַל from קָלַל. Septuagint, διακένῳ. They meant to say, as their fathers had (Numbers 11:6), that it was unsavory and unsubstantial in comparison with the heavy and succulent diet of Egypt (see note on Numbers 20:3).

Numbers 21:6

Fiery serpents, גְחָשִׁים שְׂרָפִים. Nachash is the ordinary word for serpent. The word saraph which seems to mean "burning one," stands (by itself) for a serpent in Numbers 21:8, and also in Isaiah 14:29; Isaiah 30:6. In Isaiah 6:2, Isaiah 6:6 it stands for one of the symbolic beings (seraphim) of the prophet's vision. The only idea common to the two meanings (otherwise so distinct) must be that of brilliance and metallic luster. It is commonly assumed that the "fiery" serpents were so called because of the burning pain and inflammation caused by the bite, after the analogy of the πρηστῆρες and καύσωνες of Dioscorus and AElian. But is hardly possible that Isaiah should have used the same word in such wholly dissimilar senses, and it is clear from comparison with Ezekiel's vision of the cherubim (Ezekiel 1:7) that the saraph of Isaiah 6:2 was so called from the burnished luster of his appearance. Even our Lord himself is described in the Apocalypse as having in the highest degree this appearance of glowing brass (Revelation 1:15; Revelation 2:18). It is further clear that the saraph was so named from his colour, not his venom, because when Moses was ordered to make a saraph he made a serpent of brass (or rather copper), with the evident intent of imitating as closely as possible the appearance of the venomous reptile. We may conclude then with some confidence that these serpents were of a fiery red colour, resembling in this respect certain very deadly snakes in Australia, which are known as "copper snakes." Travelers speak of some such pests as still abounding in the region of the Arabah, but it is quite uncertain whether the fiery serpents of that special visitation can be identified with any existing species.

Numbers 21:7

Pray unto the Lord. This is the first and only (recorded) occasion on which the people directly asked for the intercession of Moses (cf; however, Numbers 11:2), although Pharaoh had done so several times, and never in vain.

Numbers 21:8

Make thee a fiery serpent. A saraph. The Septuagint, not understanding the meaning of saraph, has simply ὄφιν (cf. John 3:14). Set it upon a pole. גֵם Septuagint σήμειον. Vulgate, signum. The same word is better translated "ensign" in such passages as Isaiah 11:10; "banner" in such as Isaiah 60:4; "standard" in such as Jeremiah 51:27. The "pole" may have been the tallest and most conspicuous of those military standards which were planted (probably on some elevation) as rallying points for the various camps; or it may have been one loftier still, made for the occasion.

Numbers 21:9

When he beheld the serpent (גָחָשׁ in all three places of this verse) of brass, he lived. The record is brief and simple in the extreme, and tells nothing but the bare facts. The author of the Book of Wisdom understood the true bearing of those facts when he called the brazen serpent a σύμβολον σωτηρρίας (Numbers 16:6), and when he wrote ὁ ἐπιστραφεὶς οὐ διὰ τὸ θεωρούμενον (the thing he looked at) ἐσώζετο ἀλλὰ διὰ σὲ τὸν πάντων σωτῆρα. At an earlier day Hezekiah had estimated the σύμβολον σωτηρίας at its true value, as being in itself worthless, and under certain circumstances mischievous (see on 2 Kings 18:4).


Numbers 21:4-9


The type of the brazen serpent lifted up in the wilderness is the only one which our Lord directly claims for himself as a type of his own crucifixion. No one can doubt that many other types, hardly less wonderful and instructive, exist; but this one will always have a certain pre-eminence of regard, because our Lord in his own words applied it to himself. Spiritually, therefore, we have in this passage Christ lifted up upon the cross in the likeness of sinful flesh in order to save from the deadly virus of sin and from eternal death all those who will raise the eye of faith to him. There is much else, but all subordinate to this. Taking the type as a whole, we may divide it under the four heads of discouragement, complaint, destruction, salvation.


1. That the Israelites were discouraged, or straitened in soul, because of the way, and this was the beginning of all that suffering and death. Even so are we often and often discouraged because of the way to heaven, the way of life by which it pleases God to lead us, and which seems so hard, so weary, so interminable, so unendurable at times. It is "because of the way" that all our distresses and discouragements arise. The "end" is well enough; who would not seek it? but the way is weary indeed!

2. That this discouragement was not only because of the hardships of the road, although they were great, but especially because it did not seem to be leading them to Canaan at all—rather away from it. Even so we are, many of us, discouraged grievously, not only because the way in which we walk is so hard and painful, and demands so much self-denial, but especially because we seem to make no progress in it; we do not feel that we are any nearer to the promised rest; the cross is as heavy as ever, but the crown does not show any more bright; rather we seem to be getting further and ever further from that repose of mind and soul to which we had looked forward.

3. That their discouragement because of the way was aggravated by the fact that the evil was due to the unkindness of their brother Edom, who forced them to march round by the Arabah. Even so very many of our discouragements and difficulties arise from the unkindness, the opposition, even the hostility in religious matters, of those who are most nearly related to or most closely connected with us. Often they seem to hold the passes through which lies our way to rest, and they deliberately block them against us.


1. That they complained of Moses and of God instead of reproaching themselves, as they should have done. Even so when we are suffering, as we must expect sometimes to suffer, from religious depression and discouragement we are in great danger of murmuring against God and of complaining of our lot. If it were, as it ought to be,

"our chief complaint That our love is weak and faint,"

we should soon cease to have cause to complain.

2. That they spoke contemptuously of the manna. Even so are we tempted at times of weariness to think slightingly and ungratefully of the spiritual food which God has provided for us, as though it not only palled upon us by reason of sameness, but failed to satisfy us by reason of its unsubstantial character. We demand something more coarse, more exciting.


1. That fiery serpents came among them. Even so it is when men lose heart and faith, and complain of their lot (i.e; of God's providence), and contemn their religious privileges, that they are especially in danger of falling a prey to deadly sins which war against the soul. A heart discouraged and an angry mind are Satan's grand opportunities, for they mean God alienated and his grace forfeited.

2. That the serpents bit them, and their bite was fatal, for much people died. Even so do sins—not mere sin in the abstract, but definite and particular sins—fasten upon unhappy souls and instill a poison into them which works death; for the life of the soul is union with God, and this union is broken up by the action of sin upon the soul, so that it must die if the poison be not cast out. And many do die, as we see.


1. That the perishing people cried to Moses to pray for them, for lie was their mediator. Even so the cries of men yearning to be delivered from their sins, and from the death which follows sin, have always reached the Father through the intercession of the one Mediator, even though they knew him not.

2. That a "saraph" was ordained to heal the deadly bites of the "seraphim." Even so our Lord was made in the likeness of sinful flesh,—of that sinful flesh in which the deadly poison of sin existed,—and took that very form which in every other Case was full of sin (Romans 8:3; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22-24).

3. That Moses made the serpent of brass in order to resemble the fiery serpents in appearance. Even so our Lord was so thoroughly human, and in the eyes of men so like to sinners, that he was freely suspected, loudly accused, and finally condemned as a sinner.

4. That the brazen serpent, however much a saraph inform and colour, had no poison in it. Even so our Lord. though truly and perfectly human, was without sin, neither was any guile found in his mouth.

5. That the brazen serpent was lifted up upon a standard; no doubt in order that all eyes might be drawn to the symbol of salvation. Even so our Lord was lifted up upon the cross, which is an ensign unto the nations, the standard of the Lord's host, and the sign (signum—σήμειον) of the Son of man; and he was lifted up to draw all men unto him by the startling character and persuasive attraction of that elevation.

6. That whoever looked at the brazen serpent was healed of the bite of the serpent. Even so every one that beholdeth Christ crucified with the eye of faith is healed of the deadly wound inflicted upon him by the old serpent, and "hath everlasting life." Moreover, as they died of the bite of some particular serpent, and were healed of that bite, so do we suffer from the effects of some particular sin or sins, and from these—their power and poison—we must be and may be healed. Christ is evidently set forth before us crucified that we may be saved from our besetting sin, whatever it may be; and it is to that end that we must look to him.

7. That everybody within sight of the standard might have been healed, but only those who looked were healed. Even so there is in the cross of Christ healing full and free for all sinners to whom the knowledge of the cross may come, but as a fact only those are healed who fix upon the Saviour the gaze of faith.

8. That it was not the "symbol of salvation," but the power and goodness of God acting through it, which saved the people. Even so it is not anything formal or material in the sacrifice of Calvary, neither is it any definitions or dogmas about that sacrifice: but it is the saving grace of God in Christ and in him crucified, which delivers from the terror and virus of sin. Notice further—

(1) That it does not say that those who beheld the serpent were relieved of all pain and suffering from their bites, only that they "lived." Even so those who are saved through faith in Christ crucified are not therefore saved from the sad and bitter consequences of their sins in this world, but the promise is they shall "not perish, but have everlasting life."

(2) That it does not say that the serpents were taken away, as it does in the case of the plagues of Egypt. They may have continued to infest the camp as long as they traveled through that region, and the brazen serpent may have been daily lifted up. Even so the Divine remedy appointed for sin has not taken away sin out of the world. Sins will beset us still and war against our souls, and as long as we journey through this wilderness we shall need to look for healing to the cross (1 John 1:10; 1 John 2:1).


Numbers 21:4


The circumstances of the Israelites suggest some of the discouragements of Christian pilgrims. These may arise from—

I. THE DIRECTION OF THE WAY. It led away from Canaan; it was apparently a retreat. Our circumstances may seem to be drawing us further and further from God and heaven; but if we are in God's way it must lead right at last. Illustrate from Exodus 13:17, Exodus 13:18, and cf. Psalms 25:4, Psalms 25:5, Psalms 25:10

II. THE LENGTH OF THE WAY. It might have been shorter, through Edom instead of round it; but it would have been a way of war, on which God's blessing would not have rested. The length avoided loss. Our short cuts may be perilous; e.g; David (1 Samuel 27:1), Jeroboam (1 Kings 12:26-30).

III. THE ROUGHNESS OF THE WAY. Among rocky mountain defiles and treacherous foes. Portions of our pilgrimage are among the green pastures of peace; but others over hills of difficulty, intricate paths, and rugged mountain passes, and amidst powers of darkness that tempt us to despair. Illustrate Jeremiah in his trying and unpopular mission (Jeremiah 12:5, Jeremiah 12:6; Jeremiah 15:10-21).

IV. THE COMPANIONSHIPS OF THE WAY. Some of our comrades are complainers, and may infect us; others laggards, and tempt us to sloth; others apostates, who turn back and bring an evil report of the way beyond us (like Bunyan's Timorous and Mistrust). But God may be our companion to the end of the way (Psalms 48:14; Psalms 73:24).

V. THE PROVISIONS OF THE WAY (verse 5). This a discouragement of their own seeking, and most culpable. Applicable to those who are dissatisfied with the truth provided as spiritual food for the pilgrimage (its quality, or quantity, or the means of imparting it, as though God must be expected to satisfy every intellectual whim). Applicable also to those who distrust the providence and promises of God in regard to temporal supplies. Our only safe course is to "walk in" (Colossians 2:6) Christ, "the Way."—P.

Numbers 21:6-9


If this narrative was a bare record of facts, it would supply precious lessons respecting sin and salvation; but being one of the typical histories, applied by the Saviour. to himself,… it has in itself "no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory which excelleth. It was a type, not through the discernment of men, but by the preordination of God. Among the analogies the following may be suggested, from which such truths may be selected as will best further the object for which the subject is used in the pulpit.

1. The origin of the evil in the camp and in the world was the same sin.

2. The fiery serpents apt "ministers" (2 Corinthians 11:15) of "the old serpent," and so sufferings and death the natural work of Satan, who "was a murderer from the beginning," and who hath the power of death (Romans 6:23; Hebrews 2:14).

3. The devil could have no power to injure "except it were given him from above." "The Lord sent the serpents "(cf. Isaiah 45:7; Amos 3:6; 1 Corinthians 5:5; 1 Timothy 1:20).

4. The helplessness of the sufferers the same. A new life needed in each case. But neither herbs, nor cordials, nor caustics, nor charms could expel the poison from the blood. And neither reformation, nor tears, nor services, nor ceremonies can avert the consequences of sin.

5. The remedy of Divine appointment. "God sent forth his Son" (Romans 8:32; Galatians 4:4, Galatians 4:5; cf. Wisdom 16:6, 7, 12).

6. In both cases a resemblance between the destroyer and the deliverer. The brazen serpent a deliverer in the likeness of the destroyer; Christ a Saviour in the likeness of the stoner (Romans 8:3). But the serpent was without venom, and Christ without sin.

7. Deliverance was provided not by words, but by deeds. The Son of man, like the serpent, lifted up.

8. In both cases a declaration of God's plan follows its appointment. Moses proclaimed to the camp the heaven-sent remedy, and "we preach Christ crucified."

9. An appropriation of God's offer required: "when he looketh," "whosoever believeth." Salvation limited to those who trust.

10. No obvious connection between the means and the result. The serpent and the cross "foolishness" to the scoffer.

11. Saving faith impossible without "godly sorrow working repentance'' (cf. Numbers 21:7; Acts 20:21; 1 John 1:9).

12. The offer of salvation made to all, and the effect of faith alike in all. Cf. Numbers 21:9 and the world-embracing "whosoever."—P.


Numbers 21:4, Numbers 21:5


"The soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way."

I. THE ACTUAL REASON FOR DISCOURAGEMENT. Discouragement and trouble of mind because of the difficulties of life is of course very common, but a great deal depends on where the difficulties come from. Here we are plainly told the discouragement arose because of the way.

1. It appears to have been a bad bit of the road in itself. None of the way over which the Israelites had traveled since they left Egypt could be called easy. They had begun with a strange experience, marching through the depths of the sea, and ever since they had wandered in the wilderness in a solitary way; they found no city to dwell in. For forty years they had been accustomed to wilderness life, but the district through which they were now passing is, by the description of travelers, desolate and repellent in an extraordinary degree. So the course of the Christian, all the way through, is subject to external difficulties and hardships, and the more faithful he is, the more these may abound, add at certain stages they may be so increased and intensified as to become well nigh intolerable. Discouraged by different things at different times, there may come a time to us, as to Israel, when we shall be especially discouraged because of the way.

2. It came as a sort of rebuff after God had given them special encouragement. For forty years they had been under chastisement, a doomed, dying, hopeless generation, but recently God had brought them back to Kadesh, and made the dry, forbidding rock to pour forth plenteously for the thirst of man and beast. Man is easily lifted up by anything that satisfies his senses, and gives him a visible support, and when it subsides he is correspondingly depressed. The desolate district through which the people passed probably looked all the worse because of the hopes which had been excited in them at Meribah.

3. It was particularly vexatious because they had been turned out of a more direct way. They were compassing the land of Edom, because brother Edom, of whom Israel expected kinder things, had closed the way through his land with a drawn sword. Even though the road had been pleasanter in itself, the very fact that it was circuitous was enough to cause some annoyance.

II. THIS ACTUAL REASON WAS NOT SUFFICIENT. It was natural enough, to some extent excusable, but not a reason worthy of the people of God.

1. It pointed to purely external difficulties. It was by no fault of Israel that it found itself in this cheerless and starving place. Canaan was not a land easy to get into, and the Israelites had been shut up to this road, difficult as it was. We dishonour God greatly when we are discouraged by difficulties rising entirely outside of ourselves. The less of help and comfort we can discern with the eyes of sense, the more we should discern those unfailing comforts and resources which come through a childlike dependence upon God. The Israelites wanted a Habakkuk among them to say, "Though the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation."

2. There was a negligent and ungrateful omission to consider reasons for encouragement. Even if the way was hard, it was a mercy there was a way at all. The way through Edom, direct and easy as it looked, might have proved both tedious and perilous in the end. God knows the way of the righteous, even when the righteous himself scarcely knows it. Bad as the way was, it is called the way of the Red Sea, and the very sight of those memorable waters should have brought to mind, and kept in mind, an unparalleled instance of God's guiding and delivering power.

3. The discouragement because of the way prevented other and weightier reasons for discouragement from being felt. The state of the heart within should have caused far more depression and anxiety than the state of the world without. We know the people themselves were in a bad state of heart, for the words of murmuring prove it. Whatever hopes the gushing waters of Meribah had raised were carnal, and found no sympathy with God. There are two states of heart on which we may be sure he looks with approval.

(1) When his people, in spite of the way, surrounded by poverty, sickness, and all the circumstances of a cold, unsympathetic world, are nevertheless courageous, trustful, grateful, cheerful.

(2) When his people, with everything in their circumstances pleasant and attractive, are nevertheless utterly cast down because of the proofs they daily get of the power of inbred sin. To trust God, in spite of the badness of the way, and to distrust and abhor self, in spite of the comforts of the way—be it our care to attain and preserve these states of mind as long as they are needed. Robert Hall has a sermon on verse 4.—Y.

Numbers 21:6-9


Each time the people break into open sin there is something new in the treatment of them. Now God gives the fruition of their desires; they are surfeited with quails, and perish with the delicate morsels in their mouths (Numbers 11:1-35.). Again he makes as if at one sudden, comprehensive blow he would sweep away the whole nation (Numbers 14:12). Yet again we read of the fifteen thousand who perished in different ways at the gainsaying of Korah (Numbers 16:1-50). Then there is a complete change of treatment, and though the people murmured bitterly at Meribah, God is gracious to them, and visits Moses and Aaron, in wrath. Thus we advance to consider this present outbreak of sin, which is treated in a novel and very peculiar way, and one very profitable indeed to consider.


1. It was through the serpent The Lord sent the fiery serpents. It is said that the district abounds in serpents which would be well described by the word fiery. But the Israelites were not allowed to consider the serpents as one of the perils of the district, into which they had fallen by some kind of chance. The Lord sent the serpents. Because the people ceased to trust in him, he delivered them to one of the dangers of the way (Deuteronomy 32:24; Job 26:13; Jeremiah 8:17; Amos 9:3).

2. The serpent rather than another mode of destruction was chosen. God in his wrath does not take the first weapon that comes to hand. If destruction, simply and only destruction, had been in view, doubtless there were other deadly creatures in the wilderness which might have served the purpose. But it is not enough for the people to die; the wag in which they die is also significant. Their thoughts are turned back to the very beginning and fountain of human troubles, to Eden before it was lost, and to the serpent who led our first parents into the ways of sin and death. As the serpent had to do with bringing sin into the world, so he is shown as having to do with the punishment of it.

3. The destruction is represented as being in many cases complete. "Much people of Israel died." Probably some of the few aged still surviving and doomed to die in the wilderness (Numbers 14:29) perished thus, confirmed in their rebellious spirit beyond remedy. Many of those bitten by a serpent toss awhile in pain, looking vaguely for a remedy, but, being ignorant of the original cause of their suffering, and not understanding that God has sent the serpent, they do not find the remedy, and then they die.

4. But in other cases the destruction is incomplete. The bite of the serpent, with its effects, sets before us that gnawing consciousness of misery which comes to so many, and which no art of man can conjure away. Why were some bitten and others not? He who can answer that question can answer another—why some can go through life light-hearted, never having the weight of a wasted life on their consciences, never made miserable by anything save physical pain or disappointed selfishness, and happy at once if the pain and disappointment cease; while others so soon have the serpent poisoning their consciousness and filling them with a deep sense of the failure, sadness, and misery of natural human life. There are some who seem to have triple armour against the serpent-bite. Of the bitten ones, many had been no worse in their unbelief than some who remained unbitten. It is part of the mystery of life that it is not the worst man who is obviously in all cases the suffering one. Then of those who were bitten, some went on to death, others sought if there might be some means of deliverance. Many would give themselves up to fatalism and despair. Many do so still. The question for the miserable in conscience is, "Will you go on allowing the misery of the serpent-bite to eat out all that is salvable in you, or wilt you do as some of Israel wisely and promptly did in their sore distress, namely, turn to God? Only he who sent the serpents can take the venom of their bite away.


1. The cry for salvation contained in verse

7. There is a show of repentance here, but we must not make too much of it. The people had talked in the same humble fashion before, saying they had sinned, yet soon showing that they did not understand what sin was (Numbers 14:40); though perhaps the expression in Numbers 21:5 should be particularly noted—" the people spake against God." Hitherto their wrath had been vented on the visible Moses and Aaron. It is something that even in their murmurings they at last seem distinctly to recognize God as having a hand in the disposition of their course. And so now they put in the confession, "We have spoken against the Lord." This may have had more to do with the peculiar way in which God treated them than at first appears. Whether their repentance is good for anything will be seen if they bring forth such fruit of repentance as they will presently have the opportunity of manifesting. Note also the connection of the healing with the request of the people. If they had gone on in silent endurance they might all in course of time have died. Their confession of sin told the truth, whether they felt all that truth or not. The serpent-bite was connected with their sin. Observe also their approach to God through a mediator, one whose services they had often proved, yet often slighted, in the past. They come to Moses for a greater service than they have yet any conception of. Thus we are encouraged to make Jesus the Mediator of spiritual salvation and blessing, by considering' how often, while upon earth, he was the Mediator of salvation and blessing in earthly things. The God who is infinite in power and unfailing in love, and who gave through Jesus the lesser blessings to same, waits also to give through Jesus the greater blessings to all.

2. As the destruction was through the serpent, so the salvation also. God sent the fiery serpents, and also the serpent of brass. There was nothing in it to save if Moses had made it as Aaron made the golden calf. It had not the efficacy of some natural balm. A bit of brass it was to begin with, and to a bit of brass in the course of ages it returned (2 Kings 18:4). So Jesus expressly tells us that in all his gradual approach to the cross he was carrying out his Father's will. All the process by which he was prepared to be lifted up was a process appointed by the Father. It was his meat and drink, that which really and truly sustained him, and entered as it were into his very existence, to do his Father's will and finish his work. When the brazen serpent was finished, fixed and lifted on the pole, this act found its antitype in that hour when Jesus said, "It is finished." All was finished then according to the pattern which God himself had indicated in the wilderness.

3. As destruction was through a serpent, salvation also was through a serpent. "He was made sin for us who knew no sin." Jesus was lifted on the cross amid the execration and contempt of well-nigh all Jerusalem. In its esteem he was worse than Barabbas. To judge by the way the people spoke and acted, the consummation of all villanies was gathered up in him. It was a great insult, and so considered in the first days of the gospel, to proclaim him of all persons as Saviour of men. And so when Moses lifted up the brazen serpent it may have been received indignantly by some. "Do you wish to mock us with the sight of our tormentor?" When we look at Jesus in his saving relation to us, we are brought closer than ever to our own sins, and indeed to the sin of the whole world. We see him, the sinless One, under a curse, as having died on the tree, manifestly under a curse, groaning forth as the Father's face passes into the shade, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Forsaken of God, the holy One, forsaken of unfaithful and terror-stricken servants, hated by the world, we may well say that the semblance of the serpent sets him forth.

4. And yet it was the semblance only. By the way men treated him, he appeared to be judged as a destroyer and deceiver, but we know that in himself he was harmless.

5. There is the prominence of the saving object. The serpent was set upon a pole. We may suppose that it was as central and prominent an object as the tabernacle itself. It was to be placed where all could see, for there were many in the camp, and the bitten ones were everywhere around. And what Moses did for the brazen serpent, God himself, in the marvelous arrangements of the gospel, has done for the crucified Jesus. It is not apostles, evangelists, theologians who have pushed forward the doctrine of the cross; Jesus himself put it in the forefront in that very discourse which contains the deepest things of God concerning our salvation (John 3:14). No one saw him rise from the dead; thousands saw him, or had the opportunity of seeing him, on the cross. We can no more keep the cross in obscurity than we can keep the sun from rising.

6. The pure element of faith is brought in. Contrast the mode of God's treatment here with that employed when Aaron with his smoking censer stood between the living and the dead (Numbers 16:47). On that occasion nothing was asked from the people. Aaron with his censer was the means of sparing even the unconscious. The mercy then was the mercy of sparing; now through the serpent it is the mercy of saving. The serpent was of no use to those who did not look. A man may long be spared in unbelief, but in unbelief he cannot possibly be saved. It is a great advance from sparing to saving. Thus the faith required was put in sharp contrast with past unbelief, which had been so sadly conspicuous and ruinous, gaining its last triumph a little while before in the fall of Moses and Aaron (Numbers 20:12). The people were shut up to pure faith. If once in their great pain and peril they began to doubt how a brazen image of a serpent should save, then they were lost. If there had been anything in the image itself to save, there would have been no room for faith to work. If one serpent-bitten person had been healed without looking, that would have proved faith no necessity. But only those who looked were healed; all who looked were healed; and those who refused to look perished. Thus Jesus early began inviting a needy world to look to him with a spirit full of faith and expectation, and the more he seemed to a critical world incapable and presumptuous, the more he asked for faith. "After that, in the wisdom of God, the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe" (1 Corinthians 1:21).

7. The salvation depends on the disposition of the person to be saved. Man fell with his eyes open and in spite of a solemn commandment and warning. And every man must be saved with his eyes open, turning himself intelligently; wholly, and gratefully towards the Saviour. There is everything to help the stoner if he will only turn. Some there might be in Israel who seemed too far gone even to turn their eyes, but doubtless God recognized the genuine turning of the heart. Though the eyes of sense beheld not the serpent, the eyes of the heart beheld, and' this was enough for healing. It was very helpful to be assured that there was one mode of healing, and only one, for only one was needed. It is only while we are cleaving to our sins that we find distraction and perplexity. There was distraction, anxiety, and fear in abundance as long as the Israelite lived in momentary terror of the fatal bite; but with the lifted serpent there came not only healing, but composure. God in sending his Son has not distracted us by a complication of possible modes of salvation.—Y.

Verses 10-35



(Numbers 21:10 Numbers 22:1).

Numbers 21:10

The children of Israel set forward, and pitched in Oboth. In the list of Numbers 33:1-56, there occur two other stations, Zahnonah and Phunon, between Mount Hor and Oboth. Phunon may be the Pinou of Genesis 36:41, but it is a mere conjecture.

All we can conclude with any certainty is that the Israelites passed round the southern end of the mountains of Edom by the Wady el Ithm, and then marched northwards along the eastern border of Edom by the route now followed between Mekba and Damascus. On this side the mountains are far less precipitous and defensible than on the other, and this circumstance must have abated the insolence of the Edomites. Moreover, they must now have seen enough of Israel to know that, while immensely formidable in number and discipline, he had no hostile designs against them. It is therefore not surprising to find from Deuteronomy 2:6 that on this side the mountaineers supplied Israel with bread and water, just as they supply the pilgrim caravans at the present day. That they exacted payment for what they supplied was perfectly reasonable: no one could expect a poor people to feed a nation of two million souls, however nearly related, for nothing. Oboth has been identified with the modern halting-place of el-Ahsa, on the pilgrim route above mentioned, on the ground of supposed similarity in the meaning of the names; but the true rendering of Oboth is doubtful (see on Leviticus 19:31), and, apart from that, any such similarity of meaning is too vague and slight a ground for any argument to be built upon.

Numbers 21:11

And pitched at Ije-abarim. Ije (עִיִיּ), or Ijm (עִיִּים), as it is called in Numbers 33:45, signifies "heaps" or "ruins." Abarim is a word of somewhat doubtful meaning, best rendered "ridges" or "ranges." It was apparently applied to the whole of Peraea in later times (cf. Jeremiah 22:20, "passages"), but in the Pentateuch is confined elsewhere to the ranges facing Jericho. These "ruinous heaps of the ranges" lay to the east of Moab, along the desert side of which Israel was now marching, still going northwards: they cannot-be identified.

Numbers 21:12

Pitched in the valley of Zared. Rather, "in the brook of Zered." בְנַחַל זֶרֶד Perhaps the upper part of the Wady Kerek, which flows westwards into the Salt Sea (see on Deuteronomy 2:13).

Numbers 21:13

Pitched on the other side of Arnon. The Arnon was without doubt the stream or torrent now known as the Wady Mojeb, which breaks its way down to the Salt Sea through a precipitous ravine. It must have been in the upper part of its course, in the desert uplands, that the Israelites crossed it; and this both because the passage lower down is extremely difficult, and also because they were keeping well to the eastward of Moabitish territory up to this point. It is not certain which side of the stream is intended by "the other side," because the force of these expressions depends as often upon the point of view of the writer as of the reader. It would appear from Deuteronomy 2:26 that Israel remained at this spot until the embassage to Sihon had returned. That cometh out of the coasts of the Amorites, i.e; the Aruon, or perhaps one of its confluents which comes down from the northeast. For Arnon is the border of Moab. It was at that time the boundary (see on Deuteronomy 2:26).

Numbers 21:14

Wherefore, i.e; because the Amorites had wrested from Moab all to the north of Arnon. In the book of the wars of the Lord. Nothing is known of this book but what appears here. If it should seem strange that a book of this description should be already in existence, we must remember that amongst the multitude of Israel there must in the nature of things have been some "poets" in the then acceptation of the word. Some songs there must have been, and those songs would be mainly inspired by the excitement and triumph of the final marches. The first flush of a new national life achieving its first victories over the national foe always finds expression in songs and odes. It is abundantly evident from the foregoing narrative that writing of some sort was in common use at least among the leaders of Israel (see on Numbers 11:26), and they would not have thought it beneath them to collect these spontaneous effusions of a nation just awaking to the poetry of its own existence. The archaic character of the fragments preserved in this chapter, which makes them sound so foreign to our ears, is a strong testimony to their genuineness. It is hardly credible that any one of a later generation should have cared either to compose or to quote snatches of song which, like dried flowers, have lost everything but scientific value in being detached from the soil which gave them birth. What he did in the Red Sea, and in the brooks of Arnon. Rather, "Vaheb in whirlwind, and the brooks of Arnon." The strophe as cited here has neither nominative nor verb, and the sense can only be conjecturally restored. וָהֵב is almost certainly a proper name, although of an unknown place. בָּסוּפָה is also considered by many as the name of a locality "in Suphah;" it occurs, however, in Nahum 1:3 in the sense given above, and indeed it is not at all a rare word in Job, Proverbs, and the Prophets; it seems best, therefore, to give it the same meaning here.

Numbers 21:15

And at the stream of the brooks. Rather, "and the pouring (וְאֶשֶׁד) of the brooks," i.e; the slope of the watershed. Ar. עָר is an archaic form of עִיר, a city. The same place is called Ar Moab in Numbers 21:28. It was situate on the Arnon somewhat lower down than where the Israelites crossed its "brooks." The peculiarity of the site, "in the midst of the river" (Joshua 13:9, cf. Deuteronomy 2:36), and extensive ruins, have enabled travelers to identify the spot on which it stood at the junction of the Mojeb (Arnon) and Lejum (Nahaliel, Numbers 21:19). It is uncertain whether the Greeks gave the name of Areopolis, as Jerome asserts, to Ar, but in later times it was Rabbah, a town many miles further south in the heart of Moab which bore this name. Ar was at this period the boundary town of Moab, and as such was respected by the Israelites (Deuteronomy 2:9, Deuteronomy 2:29).

Numbers 21:16

And from thence … to Beer. A well; so named, no doubt, from the circumstance here recorded. That they were told to dig for water instead of receiving it from the rock showed the end to be at hand, and the transition shortly to be made from miraculous to natural supplies.

Numbers 21:17

Then Israel sang this song. This song of the well may be taken from the same collection of odes, but more probably is quoted from memory. It is remarkable for the spirit of joyousness which breathes in it, so different from the complaining, desponding tone of the past.

Numbers 21:18

By the direction of the lawgiver, בִּמְחֹקֵק. Literally, "by the lawgiver," or, as some prefer, "with the scepter." The meaning of michokek is disputed (see on Genesis 49:10), but in either ease the meaning must be practically as in the A.V. It speaks of the alacrity with which the leaders of Israel, Moses himself amongst them, began the work even with the insignia of their office. And from the wilderness … to Mattanah. Beer was still in the desert country eastward of the cultivated belt: from thence they crossed, still on the north of Arnon, and probably leaving it somewhat to the south, into a more settled country.

Numbers 21:19

And from Mattanah to Nahaliel. The latter name, which means "the brook of God," seems to be still retained by the Encheileh, one of the northern affluents of the Wady Mojeb. From Nahaliel to Bamoth. Bamoth simply means "heights" or "high places," and was therefore a frequent name. This Bamoth maybe the same as the Bamoth-Baal of Numbers 22:41; Joshua 13:17, but it is uncertain. A Beth-Bamoth is mentioned on the Moabite stone.

Numbers 21:20

And from Bamoth in the valley, that is in the country of Moab, to the top of Pisgah. The original runs simply thus: "And from Bamoth—the valley which in the field—Moab—the top—Pisgah." It may therefore be read, "And from the heights to the valley that is in the field of Moab, viz; the top of Pisgah." The "field" of Moab was no doubt the open, treeless expanse north of Arnon, drained by the Wady Waleh, which had formerly belonged to Moab. Pisgah ("the ridge") was a part of the Abarim ranges west of Heshbon, from the summit of which the first view is gained of the valley of Jordan and the hills of Palestine (cf. Numbers 33:47; Deuteronomy 3:27; Deuteronomy 34:1). Which looketh toward Jeshimon. Jeshimon, or "the waste," seems to mean here that desert plain on the north-east side of the Salt Sea now called the Ghor el Belka, which included in its barren desolation the southernmost portion of the Jordan valley.

Numbers 21:21

And Israel sent messengers unto Sihon. The narrative here returns to the point of time when the Israelites first reached the Upper Arnon, the boundary stream of the kingdom of Sihon (see on Numbers 21:13, and cf. Deuteronomy 2:24-37). The list of stations in the preceding verses may probably have been copied out of some official record; it may be considered as marking the movements of the tabernacle with Eleazar and the Levites and the mass of the non-combatant population. In the mean time the armies of Israel were engaged in victorious enterprises which took them far afield. King of the Amorites. The Amorites were not akin to the Hebrews, as the Edomites, Moabites, and Ammonites were, who all claimed descent from Terah. They were of the Canaanitish stock (Genesis 10:16), and indeed the name Amorite often appears as synonymous with Canaanite in its larger sense (Deuteronomy 1:7, Deuteronomy 1:19, Deuteronomy 1:27, &c.). If at one time they are mentioned side by side with five or six other tribes of the same stock (Exodus 34:11), yet at another they seem to be so much the representative race that "the Ammorite" stands for the inhabitants of Canaan in general whom Israel was commissioned to oust on account of his iniquity (Genesis 15:16). It is not, therefore, possible to draw any certain distinction between the Amorites of Sihon's kingdom and the mass of the Canaanites on the other side Jordan. Both Sihon and his people appear as intruders in this region, having come down perhaps from the northern parts of Palestine, and having but recently (it would seem) wrested from the king of Moab all his territory north of Arnon. It was the fact of the Amorites being found here which led to the conquest and settlement of the trans-Jordanic territory. That territory was not apparently included in the original gift (compare Numbers 34:2-12 with Genesis 10:19 and Genesis 15:19-21), but since the Amorite had possessed himself of it, it must pass with all the rest of his habitation to the chosen people.

Numbers 21:22

Let me pass through thy land. Cf. Numbers 20:17. Israel was not commanded to spare the Amorites, indeed he was under orders to smite them (Deuteronomy 2:24), but that did not prevent his approaching them in the first instance with words of peace. If Sihon had hearkened, no doubt Israel would have passed directly on to Jordan, and he would at least have been spared for the present.

Numbers 21:23

And he came to Jahaz, or Jahzah, a place of which we know nothing.

Numbers 21:24

And Israel smote him with the edge of the sword. This was the first time that generation had seen war, if we except the uncertain episode of the king of Arad, and they could have had no weapons but such as their fathers had brought out of Egypt. It was, therefore, a critical moment in their history when they met the forces of Sihon, confident from their recent victory over Moab. We may suppose that Joshua was their military leader now, as before and after. From Arnon unto Jabbok. The Jabbok, which formed the boundary of Sihon on the north towards the kingdom of Og, and on the east towards the Ammonites, is the modern Zerka: it runs in a large curve northeast, north-west, and west, until it fails into Jordan, forty-five miles north of the mouth of the Arnon. Even unto the children of Ammon: for the border of the children of Ammon was strong. This is perhaps intended to explain rather why the Amorites had not extended their conquests any further, than why the Israelites made no attempt to cross the border of Ammon; they had another and more sufficient reason (see Deuteronomy 2:19). Rabbah of Ammon, which stood upon the right (here the eastern) bank of the Upper Jabbok, was an extremely strong place which effectually protected the country behind it, even until the reign of David (see on 2 Samuel 11:1-27, 2 Samuel 12:1-31).

Numbers 21:25

And Israel dwelt in all the cities of the Amorites. The territory overrun at this time was about fifty miles north and south, by nearly thirty east and west. It was not permanently occupied until a somewhat later period (Numbers 32:33); but we may suppose that the flocks and herds, with sufficient forces to guard them, spread themselves at once over the broad pasture lands. Heshbon, and all the villages, thereof. Literally, "the daughters thereof. By a similar figure we speak of a "mother city." Heshbon occupied a central position in the kingdom of Sihon, half way between Arnon and Jabbok, and about eighteen miles eastward of the point where Jordan falls into the Salt Lake; it stood on a table-land nearly 3000 feet above the sea, and had been made his city (i.e. his capital) by Sihon at the time of his victories over Moab.

Numbers 21:26

All his land. This is qualified by what follows: "even unto Arnon" (cf. Judges 11:13-19).

Numbers 21:27

They that speak in proverbs. הַמָּשְׁלִים. Septuagint, οἰ αἰνιγματισταί. A class of persons well marked among the Hebrews, as perhaps in all ancient countries. It was their gift, and almost their profession, to express in the sententious, antistrophic poetry of the age such thoughts or such facts as took hold of men's minds. At a time when there was little difference between poetry and rhetoric, and when the distinction was hardly drawn between the inventive faculty of man and the Divine afflatus, it is not surprising to find the word mashal applied to the rhapsody of Balsam (Numbers 23:7), to the "taunting song" of Isaiah (Isaiah 14:4), to the "riddle" of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 17:2), as well as to the collection of earthly and heavenly wisdom in the Book of Proverbs. That which follows is a taunting song, most like to the one cited from Isaiah, the archaic character of which is marked by its strongly antithetic form and abrupt transitions, as well as by the peculiarity of some of the words. Come to Heshbon. This may be ironically addressed to the Amorites, lately so victorious, now so overthrown; or, possibly, it may be intended to express the jubilation of the Amorites themselves in the day of their pride.

Numbers 21:28

There is a fire gone out of Heshbon. This must refer to the war-fire which the Amorites kindled from Heshbon when they made it the capital of the new kingdom. Ar Moab and the (northern) heights of Arnon were the furthest points to which their victory extended.

Numbers 21:29

O people of Chemosh. עַם־כָּמוּשׁ. Chemosh was the national god of the Moabites (1 Kings 11:7; Jeremiah 48:7), and also to some extent of the Ammonites (Judges 11:24). It is generally agreed that the name is derived from the root כבש, to subdue, and thus will have substantially the same meaning as Milcom, Molech, and Baal; indeed it appears probable that there was a strong family likeness among the idolatries of Palestine, and that the various names represented different attributes of one supreme being rather than different divinities. Thus Baal and Ashtaroth (Judges 2:13) represented for the Zidonians the masculine and feminine elements respectively in the Divine energy. Baal himself was plural (Baalim, 1 Kings 18:18) in form, and either male or female (ἡ βάαλ in Hosea 2:8; Romans 11:4). In the inscription on the Moabite stone a god "Ashtar-Chemosh" is mentioned, and thus Chemosh is identified with the male deity of Phoenicia (Ashtar being the masculine form of Ashtoreth), while, on the other hand, it was almost certainly the same divinity who was worshipped under another name, and with other rites, as Baal-Peor (see on Numbers 25:3). On the coins of Areopolis Chemosh appears as a god of war armed, with fire-torches by his side. Human sacrifices were offered to him (2 Kings 3:26, 2 Kings 3:27), as to Baal and to Moloch. He hath given his sons, i.e; Chemosh, who could not save his own votaries, nor the children of his people.

Numbers 21:30

We have shot at them. וַגִּירָם. A poetical word of somewhat doubtful meaning. It is generally supposed to be a verbal form (first person plural imperf. Kal), from יָרָה, with an unusual suffix (cf. יִלְבָּשָׁם for יִלְבָּשֵׁם in Exodus 29:30). יָרָה has the primary meaning "to shoot at," the secondary, "to overthrow," as in Exodus 15:4. Others, however, derive the word from ארה, a root supposed to mean "burn." Even unto Dibon. See on Numbers 32:34. The site of Nophah, perhaps the Nobah of Judges 8:11, is unknown. Which reacheth unto Medeba. The reading is uncertain here as well as the meaning. The received text has hsilgnE:egaugnaLאַשֶׁר עַד־מַידבָא}, which gives no meaning, but the circle over the resh marks it as suspicious. The Septuagint (πῦρ ἐπ Μωάβ) and the Samaritan evidently read אֵשׁ, and this has been generally followed: "we have wasted even unto Nophah,—with fire unto Medeba." Medeba, of which the ruins are still known by the same name, lay five or six miles south-south-east of Heshbon. It was a fortress in the time of David (1 Chronicles 19:7) and of Omri, as appears from the Moabite stone.

Numbers 21:32

Jaazer. Perhaps the present es-Szir, some way to the north of Heshbon (see on Jeremiah 48:32). This victory completed the conquest of Sihon's kingdom.

Numbers 21:33

They turned and went up by the way of Bashan. The brevity of the narrative does not allow us to know who went upon this expedition, or why they went. It may have been only the detachment which had reconnoitered and taken Jaazer, and they may have found themselves threatened by the forces of Og, and so led on to further conquests beyond the Jabbok. Og the king of Bashan. Og was himself of the aboriginal giant race which had left so many remnants, or at least so many memories, in these regions (see on Deuteronomy 2:10-12, Deuteronomy 2:20-23; Joshua 12:4; Joshua 13:12); but he is classed with Sihon as a king of the Amorites (Joshua 2:10) because his people were chiefly at least of that race. Bashan itself comprised the plain now known as Jaulan and Haulan beyond the Jarmuk (now Mandhur), the largest affluent of the Jordan, which joins it a few miles below the lake of Tiberias. The kingdom of Og, however, extended over the northern and larger part of Gilead, a much more fertile territory than Bashan proper (see on Deuteronomy 3:1-17). At Edrei. Probably the modern Edhra'ah, or Der'a, situate on a branch of the Jarmuk, some twenty-four miles from Bozrah. The ancient city lies buried beneath the modern village, and was built, like the other cities of Bashan, in the most massive style of architecture. The cities of Og were so strong that the Israelites could not have dispossessed him by any might of their own if he had abode behind his walls. Either confidence in his warlike prowess or some more mysterious cause (see on Joshua 24:12) impelled him to leave his fortifications, and give battle to the Israelites to his own utter defeat.

Numbers 21:34

Fear him not. He might well have been formidable, not only on account of his size (cf. Deuteronomy 1:28; Deuteronomy 3:11; 1 Samuel 17:11), but from the formidable nature of those walled cities which are still a wonder to all that see them.

Numbers 21:35

So they smote him. Acting under the direct commands of God, they exterminated the Amorites of the northern as they had of the southern kingdom.

Numbers 22:1

And the children of Israel set forward. Not necessarily after the defeats of Sihon and Og; it is quite as likely that this last journey was made while the armies were away on their northern conquests. And pitched in the plains of Moab. The Arboth Moab, or steppes of Moab, were those portions of the Jordan valley which had belonged to Moab perhaps as far north as the Jabbok. In this sultry depression, below the level of the sea, there are tracts of fertile and well-watered land amidst prevailing barrenness (see on Numbers 33:49). On this side Jordan by Jericho. Rather, "beyond the Jordan of Jericho," מֵעֵבֶר לְיַרְדֵּן יְרֵחוֹ. On the phrase, "beyond the Jordan" ("Peraea"), which is used indifferently of both sides, the one by a conventional, the other by a natural, use, see on Deuteronomy 1:1. The Jordan of Jericho is the river in that part of its course where it flows past the district of Jericho.


Verse 21:10-22:1


In this passage, which has a very distinctive character, we have, spiritually, the rapid progress of the soul towards rest, and the flint great triumphs given to it over its spiritual foes, after that, by the power of the cross through faith in him that was lifted up, the soul has been delivered from the deadly venom of the sins which did beset it. There is a time when the soul hangs between death and life; there is a time when, this crisis past, it speeds onward with unexpected ease and victory towards its goal in the full assurance (πληροφορία, as under full sail) of faith. Consider, therefore, with respect to these last journeys—

I. THAT AFTER THE LIFTING UP OF THE BRAZEN SERPENT THE PROGRESS OF ISRAEL WAS SURPRISINGLY RAPID AND UNINTERRUPTED; most markedly so if compared with the tedious turnings and returnings of the time before. This journey from Mount Hor to Pisgah occupied at most five mouths, as compared with the thirty-nine and a half years wasted theretofore. Even so it is with the progress of the soul towards the heavenly rest. Until Christ has been lifted up, and the poison of sin overcome through the steadfast gaze of faith in him, there can be no real progress, only a drifting to and fro in the wilderness. But after that, no matter how difficult the road, or how many the foes, the soul goes forward swift and unhindered to the haven where it would be.

II. THAT AFTER THE BRAZEN SERPENT WE HEAR OF NO MORE COMPLAININGS OR REBELLIONS, BUT, ON THE CONTRARY, WE CATCH THE ECHOES OF A GLAD ALACRITY AND OF A CHEERFUL COURAGE. Even so the soul that has not mastered the lesson nor known the healing of the cross is always unhappy, sure to complain, and ready to despair; but when this is past it is of another spirit, joyful through hope, patient through faith, obedient through love.

III. THAT AS THE JOURNEY DREW TO AN END ISRAEL WAS ENCOURAGED TO USE HIS OWN EFFORTS TO SUPPLY HIS NEEDS. He bought bread and water of the Edomites, and dug for water at Beer, and probably helped himself to some extent to the provisions of the conquered Amorites. Even so the soul which is trained by grace for glory is encouraged more and more to cooperate with grace and to "work out its own salvation" not because it can do without supernatural grace, but because God is pleased to give his grace according to its efforts.

IV. THAT THE FIRST SONG OF ISRAEL AFTER THE TRIUMPH OF THE EXODUS, FORTY YEARS BEFORE, WAS OVER THE DIGGING OF A WELL, by which God was to give them water. Even so our work of faith, and that labour which looks for blessing from God, is the only condition of gladness and of spiritual songs. And note that this labour was shared by all, the very nobles beginning the work with their staves of office. Thus it is labour in a good cause which unites us all, and it is the union of all that promotes a glad alacrity.

Consider again, with respect to these first victories—

I. THAT THE CONQUESTS BEYOND JORDAN WERE NOT PART, SO TO SPEAK, OF GOD'S ORIGINAL PLAN FOR ISRAEL. If Moab had been still in possession to the south of Jabbok, and Ammon to the north, then Israel would have passed straight through and over Jordan; it was the fact of Sihon having extruded the Moabites which led to these conquests of Israel Even so it is often the case that the triumphs of Christian principle and Christian faith are forced upon us, as it were, by the action, and the evil action, of others, under the providence of God. The soul that would pass quietly on its way to heaven is driven to victories of faith great and lasting by the unexpected obstacles in its way.

II. THAT EVEN SIHON WAS APPROACHED WITH WORDS OF PEACE, IF HE WOULD HAVE HAD PEACE. Even so it becomes us to live peaceably with all men, even with the profane and accursed, if it be possible. He that forces on a conflict with evil men or evil passion, even if that conflict be indeed inevitable, may thereby forfeit the grace of God. Courtesy and forbearance before the encounter are the best pledges for courage and success in the encounter.

III. THAT SIHON, ALTHOUGH CONQUEROR OF MOAB, AND MUCH MORE FORMIDABLE THAN THE CANAANITES WHOM ISRAEL HAD FEARED AT KADESH, FELL EASILY BECAUSE ISRAEL FOUGHT IN FAITH. There is no adversary that can really offer any effectual opposition to our onward march if assailed in the strength of Christ with a cheerful courage.

IV. THAT OG THE KING OF BASHAN WAS MUCH MORE FORMIDABLE EVEN THAN SIHON, YET HE SEEMS TO HAVE FALLEN YET MORE EASILY, judging from the brief notice of the conquest. Even so when once we have overcome a difficulty or conquered an evil habit in the strength of faith, other conquests open out before us readily and naturally which we should not have dared to contemplate before. It is most true in religion that "nothing succeeds like success."

V. THAT THE EASY OVERTHROW OF SIHON AND OG WAS PROVIDENTIALLY ORDERED BY GOD FOR THE PURPOSE OF ENCOURAGING AND ANIMATING ISRAEL FOR THE GREAT WORK OF CONQUEST IN CANAAN PROPER (see Psalms 136:17-22). Even so to the faithful soul that fears the great strife against sin, God is often pleased to give some anticipatory victories of singular moment in order to inspire it with a dauntless confidence in him.

VI. THAT WHEN ISRAEL REACHED CANAAN PROPER HE WAS ALREADY POSSESSED OF A LARGE AND VALUABLE TERRITORY, which God had enabled him to win by his own sword. Even so when the soul shall reach its heavenly rest it will not only enter into its reward, but it will, as it were, take a part of its reward with it, gained already on this side the river. Thus it is said of the dead that "their works do follow them;" and thus the apostles were hidden to bring of the fish which they had caught to acid to that heavenly meal (John 21:9, John 21:10). What we have achieved by the grace of God here will be part of our reward there.

Consider once more, with respect to the well of Beer—

I. THAT A WELL WAS A PERPETUAL SOURCE OF COMFORT AND CENTRE OF BLESSING; hence so many of the events of Scripture are connected with wells. Even so in the gospel there are wells of salvation (Isa 12:1-6 :8), from which a man may draw with joy; nor only so, but he shall have a well of life in himself which shall never fail (John 4:14; John 7:38).

II. THAT TO THIS WELL MOSES WAS TO GATHER THE PEOPLE; GOD WAS TO GIVE THEM WATER. Even so in the Church of God it is the part of human leaders to gather the people together, to direct their search, to combine their efforts; but it is the part of God, and of God only, to give the spiritual blessing and refreshment. So too, in another sense, Moses in the Pentateuch gathers the people to a well, a well full of Divine consolation and knowledge, and God will give them water if they seek in faith.

III. THAT ISRAEL SANG OVER THE WELL, OR RATHER OVER THE PLACE WHERE GOD PROMISED THEM WATER. Even so it is ours to sing and make melody in our hearts, and to encourage ourselves and others with spiritual songs, while we seek and labour for the sure mercies of God.

IV. THAT THE PRINCES AND NOBLES DIGGED THE WELL. Even so that God only gives spiritual blessings does not dispense with, but, on the contrary, requires and encourages, earnest effort on our part. In a settled and ordinary religious state the fountains of salvation must not be expected to gush in a moment from the rock, but must be dug for in wells. So too they that are most eminent in the Church of God must be foremost in labour for this purpose.

V. THAT THEY DUG BY THE DIRECTION OF THE LAWGIVER. If they had dug where fancy or even their own experience guided them, they had not found water. Even so when we seek the supply of grace and of the Spirit of God we must seek it by the direction of the one Lawgiver (Matthew 7:29; James 4:12), in implicit obedience to him.

VI. THAT THE NOBLES AND PRINCES DUG THE WELL WITH THEIR STAVES, the insignia of their office. Even so in the Church of God, if men will labour for the common good, it must be according to the station which God hath given them. If they have received authority, they must use authority; if they bear a commission, they must not be ashamed of it. It may be easier to act merely as one of the throng; it does not follow it is right.


Numbers 21:10-35


The lifted serpent and the spirit of faith excited among the people produce not only the immediate and direct effect of healing; certain other encouraging effects are not obscurely indicated in the remainder of the chapter. The events recorded must have extended over some considerable time, and they took the Israelites into very trying circumstances, but there is not a word of failure, murmuring, or Divine displeasure. The narrative is all the other way, and in this surely there must be some typical significance. Looking to the lifted serpent made a great difference. All things had become new; there was alacrity, success, gladness, hitherto lacking—a spirit and conduct altogether different. So Paul, speaking of those who are justified by faith, and have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, goes on to indicate for them a course of satisfaction and triumph, which is in things spiritual what the course of Israel, as recorded in the remainder of this chapter, was in things typical and temporal (Romans 5:1-21).

I. THEY ADVANCE UP TO A CERTAIN POINT WITHOUT HINDRANCE OF ANY SORT. We hear nothing more of this difficult and depressing way which had troubled them so much. Nothing is spoken of as arresting their progress till they come to the top of Pisgah. God takes them right onward to the place where afterward he showed Moses the promised land, and the hindrance which comes there is from outside themselves. It is not the lusting and murmuring of the people that come in the way, nor is it a craven fear of the enemy, nor the ambition and envy of a Korah. It is the enemy himself who comes in the way, and of course he must be expected, and may be amply prepared for.

II. DURING THE ADVANCE THERE WAS MUCH SATISFACTION AND JOY. It was a negative blessing, and much to be thankful for, to have no murmurings and discords. It was a positive blessing, and even more to be thankful for, to take part in such a scene as that at Beer. How different from Marah, Rephidim, and Meribah, where God's mercy came amid complainings from Meribah especially, where the mercy was accompanied with judgments on the leaders of the people. Here, unsolicited, God gives water; he makes the princes and nobles of the people his fellow-workers; and, above all, the voices so long used in murmuring now sounded forth the sweet song of praise. The Lord indeed put a new song in their mouth. There had been a sad want of music before. There had been loud rejoicings indeed at the Red Sea, but that was a long while ago. It was something new for the people to sing as they did here. Where there is saving faith in the heart, joy surely follows, and praise springs to the lip.

III. ISRAEL MAKES A COMPLETE CONQUEST OF THE FIRST ENEMY HE MEETS. Israel did not want Sihon to be an enemy. He offered to go through his land, as through Edom, a harmless and speedy traveler. If the world will block the way of the Church, it must suffer the inevitable consequence. Sihon, emboldened doubtless by the knowledge of Israel's turning away from Edom, presumed that he would prove an easy prey. But Sihon neither knew why Israel turned away nor how strong Israel now was. The people were no longer discouraged because of the way, though they were contending not against the adversities of nature, but against the united forces of Sihon struggling for the very existence of their land.

IV. THERE IS AN OCCUPATION OF THE ENEMY'S TERRITORY (Numbers 21:25, Numbers 21:31). "Israel dwelt in the land of the Amorites." There was thus an earnest of the rest and possession of Canaan, a foretaste of city and settled life that must have been very inspiring to people so long wandering, and having no dwelling more substantial than the tent.

V. THERE IS CONTINUED VICTORY. The second hindrance disappears after the first. Og, king of Bashan, last of the giants (Deuteronomy 3:11), fared no better for all his strength than Sihon. It was not some peculiar weakness of Sihon that overthrew him. All enemies of God, however different in resource they may appear when they measure themselves among themselves, are alike to those who march in the strength of God. The power by which the Christian conquers one foe will enable him to conquer all. And yet because Og did look more formidable than Sihon, God gave his people special encouragement in meeting him (Numbers 21:34). God remembers that even the most faithful and ardent of his people cannot get entirely above the deceitfulness of outward appearances.

VI. THERE IS GREAT ENERGY IN DESTROYING WHAT IS EVIL. Israel asks and is refused a way through the land of brother Edom, and then quietly turns aside to seek another way. By and by he asks Sihon for a peaceful way through his land, and is again refused, whereupon he conquers and occupies the land. But Og did not wait to be asked, perhaps would not have been asked if he had waited. It was a case of presumptuous opposition m spite of the warning fall of Sihon. And what made Og's opposition especially evil, looked at typically, was that he interposed the last barrier before reaching Jordan. Having conquered him, Israel was free to go fight on and pitch "in the plains of Moab, on this side Jordan, by Jericho." Og, therefore, is the type of evil fighting desperately in its last stronghold. And similarly the destroying energy of Israel seems to show how utterly evil will be smitten by the believer, when he meets it even at the verge of Jordan. Thus we have a cheering record of unbroken progress from the time the people looked to the lifted serpent to the time when they entered on the plains of Moab.—Y.

Preliminary Note to Numbers 22:2-24

That this section of the Book of Numbers has a character to a great extent peculiar and isolated is evident upon the face of it. The arguments indeed derived from its language and style to prove that it is by a different hand from the rest of the Book are obviously too slight and doubtful to be of any weight; there does not seem to be any more diversity in this respect than the difference of subject matter would lead us to expect. The peculiarity, however, of this section is evident from the fact that these three chapters, confessedly so important and interesting in themselves, might be taken away without leaving any perceptible void. From Numbers 22:1 the narrative is continued in Numbers 25:1-18, apparently without a break, and in that chapter there is no mention of Balaam. It is only in Numbers 31:1-54. (Numbers 31:8, Numbers 31:16) that two passing allusions are made to him: in the one his death is noted without comment; in the other we are made acquainted for the first time with a fact which throws a most important light upon his character and career, of which no hint is given in the section before us. Thus it is evident that the story of Balaam's coming and prophecies, although imbedded in the narrative (and that in the fight place as to order of time), is not structurally connected with it, but forms an episode by itself. If we now take this section, which is thus isolated and self-contained, we shall not fail to see at once that its literary character is strikingly peculiar. It is to all intents and purposes a sacred drama wherein characters and events of the highest interest are handled with consummate art. No one can be insensible to this, whatever construction he may or may not put upon it. Probably the story of Balaam was never made the subject of a miracle play, because the character of the chief actor is too subtle for the crude intelligence of the age of miracle plays. But if the sacred drama were ever reintroduced, it is certain that no more effective play could be found than that of Balaam and Balak. The extraordinary skill with which the strangely complex character of the wizard prophet is drawn out; the felicity with which it is contrasted with the rude simplicity of Balak; the picturesque grandeur of the scenery and incident; and the art with which the story leads up by successive stages to the final and complete triumph of God and of Israel, are worthy, from a merely artistic point of view, of the greatest of dramatic poets.

There is no such minute drawing out of an isolated character by means of speech and incident to be found in the Old Testament, unless it be in the Book of Job, the dramatic form of which serves to give point to the comparison; but few would fail to see that the much more subtle character of Balaam is far more distinctly indicated than that of Job. Balaam is emphatically a "study," and must have been intended to he so. Yet it must be remembered that it is only to modern eyes that this part of the varied truth and wisdom of Holy Scripture has become manifest. To the Jew Balaam was interesting only as a great foe, greatly baffled; as a sorcerer whose ghostly power and craft was broken and turned backward by the God of Israel (Deuteronomy 23:5; Joshua 13:22; Joshua 24:10; Micah 6:5). To the Christian of the first age he was only interesting as the Scriptural type of the subtlest and most dangerous kind of enemy whom the Church of God had to dread—the enemy who united spiritual pretensions with persuasions to vice (Revelation 2:14). To the more critical intellects of later ages, such even as Augustine and Jerome, he was altogether a puzzle; the one regarding him as prophetam diaboli, whose religion was a mere cloak for covetousness; the other as prophetam Dei, whose fall was like unto the fall of the old prophet of Bethel. The two parallel allusions to his character in 2 Peter 2:15, 2 Peter 2:16; Jud 2 Peter 1:11 do not take us any further, merely turning upon the covetousness which was his most obvious fault. Unquestionably, however, Balaam is most interesting to us, not from any of these points of view, but as a study drawn by an inspired hand of a strangely but most naturally mixed character, the broad features of which are constantly being reproduced, in the same unhallowed union, in men of all ]ands and ages. This is undeniably one of the instances (not perhaps very numerous) in which the more trained and educated intelligence of modern days has a distinct advantage over the simpler faith and intenser piety of the first ages. The conflict, or rather the compromise, in Balaam between true religion and superstitious imposture, between an actual Divine inspiration and the practice of heathen sorceries, between devotion to God and devotion to money, was an unintelligible puzzle to men of old. To those who have grasped the character of a Louis XI, of a Luther, or of an Oliver Cromwell, or have gauged the mixture of highest and lowest in the religious movements of modern history, the wonder is, not that such an one should have been, but that such an one should have been so simply and yet so skillfully depicted.

Two questions arise pre-eminently out of the story of Balaam which our want of knowledge forbids us to answer otherwise than doubtfully.

I. Whence did Balaam derive his knowledge of the true God, and how far did it extend? Was he, as some have argued, a heathen sorcerer who took to invoking Jehovah because circumstances led him to believe that the cause of Jehovah was likely to be the winning cause? and did the God whom he invoked in this mercenary spirit (after the fashion of the sons of Sceva) take advantage of the fact to obtain an ascendancy over his mind, and to compel his unwilling obedience? Such an assumption seems at once unnatural and unnecessary. It is hardly conceivable that God should have bestowed a true prophetic gift upon one who stood in such a relation to him. Moreover, the kind of ascendancy which the word of God had over the mind of Balaam is not one which springs from calculation, or from a mere intellectual persuasion. The man who lives before us in these chapters has not only a considerable knowledge of, but a very large amount of faith in, the one true God; he walks with God; he sees him that is invisible; the presence of Gods and God's direct concern about his doings are as familiar and unquestioned elements of his everyday life as they were of Abraham's. In a word, he has religious faith in God, a faith which is naturally strong, and has been further intensified by special revelations of the unseen; and this faith is the basis and condition of his prophetic gift. Balaam's religion, therefore, on this side was neither an hypocrisy nor an assumption; it was a real conviction which had grown up with him and formed part of his inner self. It is true that in Joshua 13:22 he is called a soothsayer (kosem), a name of reproach and infamy among the Jews (cf. 1 Samuel 15:23, "witchcraft;" Jeremiah 14:14, "divination"); but no one doubts that he played for gain the part of a soothsayer, employing with more or less of inward unbelief and contempt the arts of heathen sorcery; and it was quite natural that Joshua should recognize only the lower and more obvious side of his enemy's character.

It remains then to consider how Balaam, living in Mesopotamia, could have had so considerable a knowledge of the true God; and the only satisfactory answer is this, that such knowledge had never disappeared from that region. Every glimpse which is afforded us of the descendants of Nahor in their Mesopotamian home confirms the belief that they were substantially at one with the chosen family in religious feeling and religious speech. Bethuel and Laban acknowledged the same God, and called him by the same name as Isaac and Jacob (Genesis 24:50; Genesis 31:49). No doubt idolatrous practices prevailed in their household (Genesis 31:19; Genesis 35:2; Joshua 24:2), but that, however dangerous, was not fatal to the existence of the true faith amongst them, any more than is the existence of a similar cultus amongst Christians. Centuries had indeed passed away since the days of Laban, and during those centuries we may well conclude that the common people had developed the idolatrous practices of their fathers, until they wholly obscured the worship of the one true God. But the lapse of years and the change of popular belief make little difference to the secret and higher teaching of countries like the Mesopotamia of that age, which is intensely conservative both for good and evil. Men like Balaam, who probably had an hereditary claim to his position as a seer, remained purely monotheistic in creed, and in their hearts called only upon the God of all the earth, the God of Abraham and of Nahor, of Melchizedec and of Job, of Laban and of Jacob. If we knew enough of the religious history of that land, it is possible that we might be able to point to a tolerably complete succession of gifted (in many cases Divinely-gifted) men, servants and worshippers of the one true God, down to the Magi who first hailed the rising of the bright and morning Star.

There is connected with this question another of much narrower interest which causes great perplexity. Balaam (and indeed Balak too) freely uses the sacred name by which God had revealed himself as the God of Israel (see on Exodus 6:2, Exodus 6:3). There are two views of this matter, one or other of which is tolerably certain, and for both of which much may be said: either the sacred name was widely known and used beyond the limits of Israel, or else the sacred historian must have freely put it into the mouths of people who actually used some other name. There are also two views both of which may be summarily rejected, because their own advocates have reduced them to absolute absurdity: the one is, that the use of the two names Elohim and Jehovah shows a difference of authorship; the other, that they are employed by the same author with variety of sense—Elohim (God) being the God of nature, Jehovah (the Lord) the God of grace. It is no doubt true that there are passages where the sole use, or the pointed use, of one or other of these names does really point to a diversity either of authorship or of meaning; but it is abundantly clear that in the general narrative of Scripture, including these chapters, not the least distinction whatever can be drawn between the use of Elohim and Jehovah which will stand the simplest test of common sense; the same ingenuity which explains the occurrence of Elohim instead of Jehovah in any particular sentence would find an explanation quite as satisfactory if it were Jehovah instead of Elohim.

II. Whence did Moses obtain his knowledge of the incidents here recorded, many of which must have been known to Balaam alone? Was it directly, by revelation; or from some memorials left by Balaam himself?

The former supposition, once generally held, is as generally abandoned now, because it is perceived that inspiration over-ruled and utilized for Divine purposes, but did not supersede, natural sources of information. The latter supposition is rendered more probable by these considerations:—

1. That a man of Balaam's character and training would be very likely to put on record the remarkable things which had happened to himself. Such men who habitually lead a double life are often keenly. alive to their own errors, and are singularly frank in writing themselves down for the benefit of posterity.

2. That Balaam was slain among the Midianites, and that his effects must have fallen into the hands of the victors. On the other hand, it is inconceivable that Balaam, being what he was, should have written these chapters at all as they stand; the moral and religious intent of the story is too evident in itself, and is too evidently governed by Jewish faith and feeling. It may be allowable to put it before the reader as an opinion which may or may not be true, but which is quite compatible with profound belief in the inspired truth of this part of God's word, that Moses, having obtained the facts in the way above indicated, was moved to work them up into the dramatic form in which they now appear—a form which undoubtedly brings out the character of the actors, the struggle between light and darkness, and the final triumph of light, with much more force (and therefore much more truth) than anything else could. If it be objected that this gives a fictitious character to the narrative, it may be replied that when the imagination is called into exercise to present actual facts, existing characters, and prophecies really uttered in a striking light,—and that under the over-ruling guidance of the Divine Spirit,—the result cannot be called fictitious in any bad or unworthy sense. If it be added that such a theory attributes to this section a character different from the rest of the Book, it may be allowed at once. The episode of Balaam and Balak is obviously, as to literary form, distinct from and strongly contrasted with the narrative which precedes and follows.

It has been made a question as to the language in which Balaam and his companions spoke and wrote. The discovery of the Moabite stone has made it certain that the language of the Moabites, and in all probability of the other races descended from Abraham and Lot, was practically the same as the language of the Jews. Balaam's own tongue may have been Aramaic, but amongst his western friends and patrons he would no doubt he perfectly ready to speak as they spoke.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Numbers 21". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tpc/numbers-21.html. 1897.
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