Numbers 21


‘When the Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming along the road to Atharim, he attacked the Israelites and captured some of them. Then Israel made this vow to the LORD: “If you will deliver these people into our hands, we will totally destroy their cities.” The LORD listened to Israel’s plea and gave the Canaanites over to them. They completely destroyed them and their towns; so the place was named Hormah.’ Numbers 21:1-3

Arad Destroyed

In the previous chapter we how after being refused entry through the land of Edom, Moses didn’t want to get involved in any war with Israel’s brother Edom, Numbers 20:14-21.

Here, we read that the Canaanite king, Arad, heard what was going on and decided to attack Israel and take some of them captive.

After being attacked Israel make a vow to God saying if God will deliver them into Israel’s hands, then, in turn Israel will totally destroy them, their cities and their towns.

It’s difficult to understand why they would make such a vow when we remind ourselves that Israel were commanded by God to destroy all the Canaanites in the first place, Deuteronomy 20:18.

The Bronze Snake

‘They travelled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.’ Numbers 21:4-9

On their travels around Edom, Numbers 20:14-21, Israel, once again, complain against God and Moses, Exodus 15:24 / Exodus 16:2 / Exodus 17:3 / Numbers 12:1 / Numbers 14:2 / Numbers 16:3 / Numbers 16:41 / Numbers 20:2, and question why were they brought up from Egypt in the first place, which is a repeat of what their forefathers said whilst in the wilderness.

The make the complaint that there was no bread, which obviously wants true because God had provided manna and quail for them to eat. This is obviously a faith in God issue.

As a result of Israel’s lack of faith and lack of gratitude, God sent venomous snakes among them, the snakes bit people and many in Israel died from the snake bite. It appears that it took a bunch of venomous snakes to bring Israel to their senses, Deuteronomy 8:15 / Isaiah 14:29 / Isaiah 30:6, hence, why they confessed they had sinned against God and Moses.

After praying to God on behalf of the people again, the Lord tells Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole and anyone who looked at it would be granted life.

What we find happening here is a very clear picture of the Christ, who in His sacrificial death, would be lifted upon the cross for the spiritual healing of all men, John 3:14-15 / Isaiah 53:5-6 / Romans 8:3 / 2 Corinthians 5:21.

Notice how simple this was for those in Israel to be saved, all they had to do was to look at the bronze serpent and they would be healed and saved, Isaiah 45:22. The snake were miraculously produced by God to punish them and when they looked at the bronze snake, they would be miraculously healed.

We may wonder, what ever happened to this bronze snake? We don’t have to wonder, because the Scriptures tells us that the bronze snake was taken by the Israelites to Canaan, and preserved until the time of Hezekiah, who had it broken in pieces because the idolatrous people presented incense-offerings to this holy relic, 2 Kings 18:4.

Coffman, in his commentary, says the following.

Typical Of Christ

1. Man’s enemy, Satan, appears here in the form of the venomous serpents, which like ‘That Old Serpent’, Revelation 12:9, were the cause of sin and death.

2. The uniqueness of the remedy God here proposed is like that of Christ himself, being no other.

3. The lifting up of the serpent foretold the manner of Jesus’ death on Calvary.

4. Just as the brass serpent had the likeness and form of the serpents themselves, Jesus also was ‘made in the likeness of sinful flesh’, Romans 8:3. And just as the brass serpent which was lifted up was without any evil whatever, so was Christ.

5. Faith in what God commanded, demonstrated by ‘looking unto’ the serpent was like the faith that obeys the Word of God with reference to what Christ commanded. Healing in both cases resulted from hearing, believing, and obeying the Divine commandments.

6. Some have equated ‘looking unto’ with ‘faith alone’ as the means of appropriating healing and salvation, but there is a fatal flaw in that analogy. ‘Looking unto’ was a positive and obedient objective action. ‘Saving faith’ as understood by solifidians is none of this!

7. The ‘lifting up of the serpent upon the standard’ is typical of the ‘lifting up of Christ’, not solely restricted to this death on a cross, but also applicable to the worldwide, and perpetual ‘lifting up’ of the Saviour himself in the worship and adoration of all nations and tribes and tongues and peoples.

The Journey To Moab

‘The Israelites moved on and camped at Oboth. Then they set out from Oboth and camped in Iye Abarim, in the wilderness that faces Moab toward the sunrise. From there they moved on and camped in the Zered Valley. They set out from there and camped alongside the Arnon, which is in the wilderness extending into Amorite territory. The Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites. That is why the Book of the Wars of the LORD says: “… Zahab in Suphah and the ravines, the Arnon and the slopes of the ravines that lead to the settlement of Ar and lie along the border of Moab.” From there they continued on to Beer, the well where the LORD said to Moses, “Gather the people together and I will give them water.” Then Israel sang this song: “Spring up, O well! Sing about it, about the well that the princes dug, that the nobles of the people sank—the nobles with sceptres and staffs.” Then they went from the wilderness to Mattanah, from Mattanah to Nahaliel, from Nahaliel to Bamoth, and from Bamoth to the valley in Moab where the top of Pisgah overlooks the wasteland.’ Numbers 21:10-20

After the incident with the snakes, Israel continue their journey into Canaan.

Coffman, in his commentary, says the following.

‘The list of places where Israel camped, Numbers 21:10-13, is different from that in Numbers 33, making this an abbreviated account, or minor adjustments associated collectively with the same camp. It makes no difference at all.’

The Book of the Wars doesn’t exist today and it wasn’t inspired of God, it was a record of Israel’s military exploits, especially the military conquest of the land of Canaan.

Before the snake incident, the people complained they had no water, Numbers 21:5, here, we read that God once again would provide water, but this time the Israelites had to dig a well to access it.

According to some commentators, the song which was sung here was sung for centuries in the temple in Jerusalem on every third Sabbath.

Barnes, in his commentary, says the following.

‘This song, recognized by all authorities as dating from the earliest times, and suggested apparently by the fact that God in this place gave the people water not from the rock, but by commanding Moses to cause a well to be dug, bespeaks the glad zeal, the joyful faith, and the hearty cooperation among all ranks, which possessed the people. In after time it may well have been the water-drawing song of the maidens of Israel.’

Defeat Of Sihon And Og

‘Israel sent messengers to say to Sihon king of the Amorites: “Let us pass through your country. We will not turn aside into any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the King’s Highway until we have passed through your territory.” But Sihon would not let Israel pass through his territory. He mustered his entire army and marched out into the wilderness against Israel. When he reached Jahaz, he fought with Israel. Israel, however, put him to the sword and took over his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, but only as far as the Ammonites, because their border was fortified. Israel captured all the cities of the Amorites and occupied them, including Heshbon and all its surrounding settlements. Heshbon was the city of Sihon king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab and had taken from him all his land as far as the Arnon. That is why the poets say: “Come to Heshbon and let it be rebuilt; let Sihon’s city be restored. “Fire went out from Heshbon, a blaze from the city of Sihon. It consumed Ar of Moab, the citizens of Arnon’s heights. Woe to you, Moab! You are destroyed, people of Chemosh! He has given up his sons as fugitives and his daughters as captives to Sihon king of the Amorites. “But we have overthrown them; Heshbon’s dominion has been destroyed all the way to Dibon. We have demolished them as far as Nophah, which extends to Medeba.” So Israel settled in the land of the Amorites. After Moses had sent spies to Jazer, the Israelites captured its surrounding settlements and drove out the Amorites who were there. Then they turned and went up along the road toward Bashan, and Og king of Bashan and his whole army marched out to meet them in battle at Edrei. The LORD said to Moses, “Do not be afraid of him, for I have delivered him into your hands, along with his whole army and his land. Do to him what you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon.” So they struck him down, together with his sons and his whole army, leaving them no survivors. And they took possession of his land.’ Numbers 21:21-35

Israel sent messengers to Sihon, who was the king of the Amorites. The Amorites were one of the main cultural groups of the Canaanites, Genesis 10:16. The name was sometimes used to refer to all the Canaanites of the region, Deuteronomy 1:7 / Deuteronomy 1:19 / Deuteronomy 1:27.

When Israel arrived, Sihon was ruling over a part of the Amorites to the east of the Jordan River. It’s clear that it wasn’t Moses’ original plan to go to war against the Amorites and so, Sihon wouldn’t allow Israel to pass through the land, Deuteronomy 2:30, but came out to fight against Israel, however, Israel fought against the Amorites and Sihon, both of whom were defeated by Israel.

Barnes, in his commentary, says the following concerning the poets.

‘The original word is almost equivalent to ‘the poets’. The word supplies the title of the Book of Proverbs itself and is used of the parable proper in Ezekiel 17:2, of the prophecies of Balsam in Numbers 23:7-10 / Numbers 24:3-9, etc. and of a song of triumph over Babylon in Isaiah 14:4.’

As a result of the victory over the Amorites and Sihon, Israel now occupied all the cities of the Amorites, Deuteronomy 2:30-37. It’s interesting to note that Chemosh was a Moabite god, Judges 11:24 / 1 Kings 11:7 / Jeremiah 48:7.

The point is that because God defeated Israel’s enemies, would let everyone know that there is only One true living God and that He was very much working in and through His people.

The city of Heshbon’s name means city of daughters or the mother city. Although many of the cities didn’t have fortified walls around them, Deuteronomy 3:5, Og who was one of the last of the tribes of giants in Canaan, was the king of a warrior nation who lived within walled cities. However, well-fortified city walls are no match for God, they too were destroyed.

The land where Og reigned was beautiful pasture land and so, because of this, the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half the tribe of Manasseh desired to dwell in this land, Deuteronomy 3:15-17. God had told Israel not to be afraid of Og and his army, and Israel took God at His word, and so, God gave them the victory.

We must remember that the Israelites weren’t warriors, they had little to none experience of war, and yet God blessed them with the victory because they trusted Him.

Go To Numbers 22


"Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will."

Romans 12:2