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Deeper Commentary


Num 21:1 The Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the South, heard tell that Israel came by the way of Atharim; and he fought against Israel, and took some of them captive-
The promise that an obedient Israel would make their enemies flee before them was not operational here. The conclusion is surely that Israel had sinned and therefore were defeated.

Arad- This may not be in chronological order; it could be that in these chapters we have a series of conflicts with the surrounding tribes at the start of the journey. It could also be that this defeat by Arad was part of a series of defeats of those who insisted on trying to enter the land after they had been told they must wander in the wilderness for a generation. It would be as if they tried to go by the 'way of the spies' again, but how at Arad their way was finally blocked. In this case, the victory against the Canaanites of :3 would refer to a later victory against them.

The way of Atharim- Heb. 'the way of the spies'. History was being intentionally repeated, in the hope that the Israelites would learn the lesson, reflecting that they were taking the same road the spies had taken, and challenging themselves to have more faith than they did. And history likewise repeats in our lives for the same reason.

Took some of them captive - Again, these words are frequently used about Israel's judgment at the hand of their enemies because of their sinfulness. All this lends weight to the conclusion that this was another attempt by Israel to enter Canaan as happened immediately after the news of their rejection (Dt. 1:44). Those rejected from the Kingdom at judgment day will likewise desperately want to be there, nobody will be passive in that day, nor shrugging their shoulders as people do today when encountering the possibility that they may not be there. The wilderness journey speaks of our lives after baptism. It's not a story of glorious victory after glorious victory. There are defeats and failures, partly from our failures, and partly because God in His wisdom knows that this too is part of our path towards the Kingdom.


Num 21:2 Israel vowed a vow to Yahweh, and said, If You will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities-
The Hebrew for "utterly destroy" means to devote. Whatever comes into our hands during our wilderness journey should be devoted to the Lord. But it was in any case a command to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites (Dt. 7:2; 12:2; 20:17). We shouldn’t consider that which is our duty to do as some kind of special dedication to God which deserves His reward. But so eager is God for relationship with His people that He all the same agreed (:3).

Just as all the animals and everything in the eretz promised to Abraham was 'delivered into the hands' of Noah (s.w. Gen. 9:2), so the nations of that eretz were delivered into the hands of Israel (s.w. Ex. 6:8; 23:31; Dt. 2:24; 3:2,3; 7:24; 21:10; Josh. 2:24; Jud. 1:2). Tragically, like Adam in Eden [perhaps the same eretz promised to Abraham] and Noah in the new, cleansed eretz, Israel didn't realize this potential. What was delivered into the hand of Joshua (Josh. 2:24) actually wasn't delivered into their hand, because they disbelieved (Jud. 2:23); and this looks ahead to the disbelief of so many in the work of the Lord Jesus, who has indeed conquered the Kingdom for us. They considered the promise of the nations being delivered into their hand as somehow open to question, and only a possibility and not at all certain (Jud. 8:7; Num. 21:2 cp. Num. 21:34). Some like Jephthah (s.w. Jud. 11:32; 12:3), Ehud (Jud. 3:10,28), Deborah (Jud. 4:14), Gideon (Jud. 7:15) did, for a brief historical moment; but as individuals, and their victories were not followed up on. Instead they were dominated by the territory. And so instead, they were delivered into the hands of their enemies within the eretz (s.w. Lev. 26:25; Jud. 13:1).   

Num 21:3 Yahweh listened to the voice of Israel, and delivered up the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their cities. The name of the place was called Hormah-
- 'Devoted', LXX 'Anathema'.  Paul spoke of those who leave the faith as 'Anathema' (1 Cor. 16:22), but the idea was likely that we should consider even those we separate from as 'devoted' to the Lord. We do not condemn, but pass them to the Lord, in the hope that they will finally be devoted to Him. There's a powerful logic in all this- we are to be devoted to the Lord in any case, either by condemnation or by willing devotion of ourselves to Him in this life, that we might be eternally devoted to Him. The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof- and all finally returns to Him in any case. This idea sheds light on the reference in 1 Cor. 5:5 to delivering a wrongdoer to "Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved". The idea of delivering over in Hebrew thought was understood as delivering over to God. The 'satan' may therefore refer to a Divine Angel or some other Divine agent who would attempt to work to bring back the straying sheep, that it might be saved at the end. All separation, therefore, should be in a spirit of desiring the individual's salvation, and not as an expression of our own personal anger or dislike.

How God works through sin is revealed in the way that although God always provided food for Israel in the wilderness, He ‘suffered them to hunger’ for 40 years, in order to try to teach them that man lives not by bread alone, but by God’s word (Dt. 8:2,3). The Jews in the wilderness despised the food God gave them as worthless (Num. 21:3); they went hungry not literally, but in the sense that they despised the manna of God’s provision. And He allowed them to have that hunger, in order that He might [try to] teach them about the value of His word. He didn’t simply punish them for their ingratitude. He sought to work through it in order to teach them something. Even the process of rejection results in the victims coming to ‘know the Lord’.


Num 21:4 They travelled from Mount Hor by the way to the Red Sea, to compass the land of Edom; and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way-
"Much discouraged" is Heb. 'reaped down', the same word used about how they felt in Egypt (Ex. 6:9). They adopted the same attitude they had in Egypt, ever searching for something better, and now not wanting to accept what God had planned for them, not looking at the end of their journey but just caught up in the immediacy of their daily feelings. Yet they had just had the exhilaration of having made a vow to God about the cities of Canaan, obeying it, and seeing God answer them. Before that, they had sinned (see on :1). And now, they were again discouraged and low. This is the yo-yo path through the wilderness we all experience. It's not going to be entirely positive. They likely reasoned that God should have spared them this awful part of the journey because they had just been obedient to Him. But that's not how the path to the Kingdom is. The sequence in this chapter so far was: Disobedience- Cursing - Obedience - Blessing- Cursing. And sometimes [as in the blessing of Isaac materially after his lying about his wife] the sequence can be: Disobedience- Blessing- Blessing. There is no clear connection between obedience and immediate blessing or cursing. God sees a far wider and longer picture and perspective than we do.

Their route took them back on themselves at this point, heading back towards Egypt. This may have been the psychological trigger for their desire to be back in Egypt (:5). We must try to avoid things and situations which may stimulate a desire to leave the way to the Kingdom and return to the world.

"Because of the way" reflects how this was indeed geographically one of the worst parts of Israel's journey, through shifting sands blown by the strong sirocco winds. Only camels can survive here, so it's likely that the sheep and oxen Israel had brought from Egypt would've died at this point.


Num 21:5 The people spoke against God, and against Moses, Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul loathes this light bread-
See on Num. 20:3. Israel “chode with Moses... they strove with the Lord” (Num. 20:3,13) uses the same Hebrew word for both “chode” and “strove”. To strive with Moses was to strive with the Lord- i.e. with the guardian Angel that was so closely associated with Moses? Num. 20:4 continues rather strangely with the Israelites addressing Moses in the plural: “The people chode with Moses, saying... Why have ye [you plural] brought up...”. Could it be that even they recognized his partnership with God? Likewise Num. 21:5: “And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye [plural] brought us up out of Egypt to die?”.

To die in the wilderness- This was the punishment and consequence of their own sins; but we easily blame others, and even God, for the consequence of our own sins.

There is no bread- An exaggeration, because they go on to say that they hated the "light bread", the manna, which they were given. We can likewise assume we have nothing when in fact we do have God's basic provision. Likewise "no water" was surely untrue- the water from the rock followed them (1 Cor. 10:10). But they forgot God's daily material blessings and felt they had nothing at all. For good reason should we regularly give thanks for our food and not forget that we are daily loaded with His material blessings. See on 21:16 I will give them water.

It would seem from Dt. 8:2,3 that Israel went hungry- because they refused to eat the manna. How God works through sin is revealed in the way that although God always provided food for Israel in the wilderness, He ‘suffered them to hunger’ for 40 years, in order to try to teach them that man lives not by bread alone, but by God’s word (Dt. 8:2,3). The Jews in the wilderness despised the food God gave them as worthless (Num. 21:3); they went hungry not literally, but in the sense that they despised the manna of God’s provision. And He allowed them to have that hunger, in order that He might [try to] teach them about the value of His word. He didn’t simply punish them for their ingratitude. He sought to work through it in order to teach them something. Even the process of rejection results in the victims coming to ‘know the Lord’.

Light bread- The Hebrew translated "light" is usually used in the sense of 'cursing', which in Semitic thought means to make light of a person or thing. They felt the bread was inadequate for their needs, and it was a sign of their cursing by God. So easily do men come to the same attitude towards the manna we are given in the wilderness- the word of the Lord Jesus. They accept it is given, but consider it inadequate for their needs.

Num 21:6 Yahweh sent fiery snakes among the people, and they bit the people; and many people of Israel died-
Again we find the Bible written from the perspective of how people felt at the time. The fire was in the feeling of fire within the person bitten and injected with venom, which would have felt like fire. It wasn't that the snakes literally breathed fire.

This incident is interpreted in Jn. 3:14-16 as a symbol of Christ lifted up on the pole at His death; looking toward the snake is seen as faith in Him; and healing from the snake bite as eternal life. This is another reason for thinking that the ‘cross’ of Christ wasn’t as traditionally understood; the Greek word stauros translated “cross” means a tree trunk or pole. The snake was a symbol of sin- but it was as it were dead in Christ. As He hung there, He was so deeply identified with our sins (despite never sinning personally) that a snake can legitimately be used as a symbol for Him there. We are in the position of the Israelites feeling the poisonous venom rising within them, knowing they had limited time left in this life, recognizing they had indeed sinned and deserved death and yet didn’t wish to die. In an encampment of over three million people living in single storey dwellings, i.e. tents, it would have taken some people several kilometres walk to get to the bronze snake. To walk when you have been bitten by a snake is dangerous; you shouldn’t let your heart work any more than necessary so that the venom isn’t spread. So they were commanded to do that which is counter-instinctive, what is totally against worldly wisdom and sense. Our faith in Christ is similar. But it could be that the people were told about the existence of the bronze snake, and had to look toward it in faith from where they were, believing it was there, although not seeing it. This would be similar to our faith in Christ’s death. We didn’t see it, there is no physical representation of it within our sight, but we look to it from far away in time, space and understanding, and believe it was there- and believe that really, 2000 years ago, on a day in April, on a Friday afternoon, on a hill outside Jerusalem, it really did happen. We can imagine the relief of the people as they felt the temperature subside, the fever go; and their gratitude afterwards, their eager vowing to give their saved lives to God and not rebel again. These should be our emotions as we reflect on our salvation in Christ.


Num 21:7 The people came to Moses and said, We have sinned, because we have spoken against Yahweh, and against you. Pray to Yahweh, that He take away the serpents from us. Moses prayed for the people-
The people again complain, and God punishes them with serpents; Moses' prayer for them is accepted. These prayers for others' salvation must have required intense faith and acceptability to be heard. "We have sinned... pray for us... taken away..." [the plague] is all language reminiscent of Pharaoh's dialogue with Moses. They are presented in the record as no better than Pharaoh; they had been brought out of Egypt but the spirit of Egypt remained with them. You can take a man out of Egypt but you can't always take the Egypt out of the man.

Previously in such situations, God had just accepted Moses’ prayer. But now He asked the people to additionally make some personal effort to demonstrate their faith. Quickly dashing off a request for Christ’s mediation in the case of sin may sometimes be met by God seeking to convict us more deeply of our sin and asking us to make some more concrete effort.

Num 21:8 Yahweh said to Moses, Make a fiery snake, and set it on an ensign pole; and it shall happen, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks to it, shall live-
With the sun reflecting upon it, the bronze image would've looked like the snakes. The Lord clearly states that the serpent lifted up represented Him on the cross. But just as the crucifix has been misused and turned into a talisman, so was this brass snake in Israel's later history (2 Kings 18:4). Israel were to believe that the snake was dead- if they looked upon it in faith. Likewise the power of sin, which seems so powerful to us, is actually dead- in the crucified, human Jesus. But they had to drag themselves into sight of it, rather than trusting in family and friends or the various cures against snake bites which primitive cultures are full of. The power of the cross is foolishness to unbelievers. The serpent was a symbol of healing and good luck in the surrounding cultures, as can be seen even today in the symbol displayd by some dispensing chemists; but for God's people, starting in Gen. 3:15, the snake was to be understood as a symbol of sin and evil.

"As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up" (John 3:14). It was the serpent which gave salvation to sin-stricken Israel, not Moses; and the serpent represented Christ in this case. Moses "lifted up" the serpent in the same way as the Jews "lifted up" Christ in crucifying him (Jn. 8:28). Moses drew attention to serpent and it's power to save, in the same way as his Law drew attention to how sin would be condemned in Christ as the means of our salvation. The connection between Moses "lifting up" Christ  and Israel doing likewise is another indicator of how Moses was representative of Israel (cp. Christ).

Num 21:9 Moses made a snake of brass, and set it on the ensign pole; and it happened, that if a snake had bitten any man, when he looked toward the snake of brass, he lived-
Another reason for thinking the 'cross' was a stake of wood rather than a crucifix. The lifting up of Christ on the pole resulted in all men being drawn unto him (Jn. 12:32); but this is taking language from Isaiah's prophecies of how the Lord Jesus at His return would be raised up like an ensign (s.w. pole, Num. 21:9), and all people would be gathered to Him for judgment (Is. 5:26; 11:10; 18:3; 49:22; 62:10). There is evidently a connection between the Lord's lifting up on the pole / cross and gathering all men to Him, and the way in which all men will be gathered to Him at His return. His cross was a foretaste of the judgment. Our feelings before His cross now will be those we experience before Him at the final judgment. Jn. 3:14 uses the Greek word semeion for the standard / pole on which the serpent was lifted up, representing as it did the cross of Christ. But semeion is the word which John seven times uses to describe the sign-miracles worked by the Lord in His ministry. Interestingly, the Jewish Midrash on Num. 21:9 likewise associates the pole with something miraculous: “Moses made a serpent of brass, and set it up by a miracle. He cast it into the air and it stayed there" (Soncino translation). Surely John’s point is the same as Paul’s in 1 Cor. 1:22-25: the Jews want signs / miracles, but Christ crucified is the power of God, the greatest sign. And maybe this is why John alone of the Gospel writers doesn’t record any miracle within the narrative of the crucifixion. The simple, actual death of Jesus was and is the greatest and most convicting sign.

There are many allusions to the serpent on the pole in John's Gospel. Take Jn. 6:40: "And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day". This is similar language to that concerning the lifted up snake, where everyone who “looked upon the serpent of brass… lived" (Num. 21:9). God’s will is that we should look upon the cross, with the faith that comes from a true understanding, and accept that great salvation. This is why the cross must be central to our whole living and thinking and conception of our faith and doctrine.


Num 21:10 The children of Israel travelled, and encamped in Oboth-
Heb. 'water skins'. One wonders whether they had to take the water from the rock with them in skins; and we note the later provision of water at 21:16, as if the water in their water skins had now run out. Perhaps they were being shown that in essence they were no better than Hagar (Gen. 21:15), whose line of descent they were by grace separate from and superior to in spiritual covenant terms.


Num 21:11 They travelled from Oboth, and encamped at Iyeabarim, in the wilderness which is before Moab, toward the sunrise.
Num 21:12 From there they travelled, and encamped in the valley of Zered.
Num 21:13 From there they travelled, and encamped on the other side of the Arnon, which is in the wilderness, that comes out of the border of the Amorites (for the Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites).
Num 21:14 Therefore it is said in the book of the Wars of Yahweh, Vaheb in Suphah, the valleys of the Arnon-
 And in the brooks
- The suggestion could be that here was another miraculous water crossing, just as there was at the Red Sea. The essence of the Red Sea deliverance continues throughout our wilderness journey, just as the cloud of water which enveloped them at the Red Sea actually continued over them throughout the journey.

Num 21:15 the slope of the valleys that incline toward the dwelling of Ar, leans on the border of Moab.
Num 21:16 From there they travelled to Beer; that is the well of which Yahweh said to Moses, Gather the people together, and I will give them water-
 I will give them water
- This would suggest that they did not have provision of water continually. And yet 1 Cor. 10:10 seems to say that water from the rock followed them. Perhaps it was that they did have water but wanted more, or fresher, cooler water- see on :5. Or maybe they had to ask for water, or the flow of water from the rock which "followed them" did at times dry up?


Num 21:17 Then sang Israel this song: Spring up, O well; sing to it:-
 Spring up
- Marvin Vincent [Vincent's Word Studies] comments: "Paul appears to recall a rabbinic tradition that there was a well formed out of the spring in Horeb, which gathered itself up into a rock like a swarm of bees, and followed the people for forty years; sometimes rolling itself, sometimes carried by Miriam, and always addressed by the elders, when they encamped, with the words, “Spring up, O well!” (Num. 21:17)". Whether this is true or not, Paul is alluding to this idea in 1 Cor. 10:10- hence the rather awkward idiom to non-Jewish readers.

Num 21:18 the well, which the princes dug, which the nobles of the people dug, with the sceptre, and with their poles. From the wilderness they travelled to Mattanah;-
 The princes dug
- Digging was not usually for princes, so perhaps the idea is that the princes did the work which usually only manual workers did. We recall how the man in the parable was ashamed to dig, as it was the lowest work (Lk. 16:3). Perhaps this song was sung or chanted during the digging work. It has a rhythmic quality to it.

With the sceptre- Or, "by the direction of the lawgiver", Moses.

With their poles- Moses had used his staff to strike the rocks previously in order to get water. The association between staves and the provision of water continues, but the idea is that the elders were being trained up to take over from Moses; and he lead them in this process. Thus God provided water for Israel in various ways, and the variation in His methods was in order to try to instruct them. His ways likewise vary in the way He leads and provides for us.

It's worth noting that a group of men would not in practice dig a well with poles or scepters. These are not digging instruments. The idea may just be that these men, princes who were not manual labourers, used what they had, and all the same it was blessed by God and water was found- encouragement for white collar workers who feel that they are hopelessly inadequate at practical service for their Lord. Or it could be that we are intended to make the fairly obvious connection between those poles / scepters and the divining rods used to locate water and sink wells. Many desert peoples had paganic ideas about how to locate water, and it could be in this case that God worked through the paganic ideas- just as He did with Jacob through the myths relating to animal conception before rods.


Num 21:19 and from Mattanah to Nahaliel; and from Nahaliel to Bamoth;
Num 21:20 and from Bamoth to the valley that is in the field of Moab, to the top of Pisgah, which looks down on the desert

Num 21:21 Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, saying,
Num 21:22 Let me pass through your land. We will not turn aside into field, or into vineyard; we will not drink of the water of the wells; we will go by the king’s highway, until we have passed your border-

The Hebrew word translated as "thousand" can mean a family, or some other administrative division. Many of the 'number problems' in the Hebrew Bible are only really resoluble using this approach. And that may be in view in the census of Israel taken in Num. 1, and in the statement that six hundred 'thousands' of footmen left Egypt (Ex. 12:37). The census of Num. 1 gives figures such as those in Num. 1:21 for Reuben, which could be rendered: "forty six families ['thousands'] and five hundred (men)". Although a "hundred" might also refer to an administrative division. The total in Num. 1 would then be 598 families with a total of 5550 men. The sum given in the second census in Num. 26 comes out as roughly the same, with 596 families amounting to 5730 men. On this basis, the total population (including women and children) would be anything between 20,000 to 40,000. This would enable us to make better sense of the statements that Israel were the smallest numerically of all the surrounding peoples (Dt. 7:1,7; 11:23; 20:1). If we insist upon taking "thousand" literally in Ex. 12:37, then 600,000 male foot soldiers would imply a total population of between two and six million. The population density would have been intense, and far greater than that of many modern nations. Estimates of global population at the time suggest it was only about 40 million, and the population of Egypt was a maximum of three million (probably far less). If the Israelites were smaller than the other nations, and they numbered say 5 million, then the total population of the seven peoples of Canaan would have been at least 40 million. The territory of Canaan could not have supported such numbers. Only 70 Israelites came into Egypt with Jacob. Expansion over 430 years to several million is not realistic. This approach helps us better understand how all the men of war marched around Jericho (Josh. 6:3). If there were literally 600,000 men then the city would have had to be many kilometers in circumference for them all to march around it seven times in one day. Archeaological evidence from Jericho simply doesn't support the idea of such a vast city. If Israel numbered say 5 million people, and recall there was also a "mixed multitude" with them, then if they marched 10 abreast this would require a column stretching around 1000 kilometers. Their promises to Edom and the Amorites to march only along a highway and not spill over it (Num. 20:17; 21:22) is unrealistic if they had such huge numbers. A figure of 600 family units leaving Egypt is more realistic; otherwise we start to wonder how ever all the Israelites, millions of them, came to be in one place at one time on Passover night.

Num 21:23 Sihon would not allow Israel to pass through his border; but Sihon gathered all his people together, and went out against Israel into the wilderness, and came to Jahaz; and he fought against Israel.
Num 21:24 Israel struck him with the edge of the sword, and possessed his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, even to the children of Ammon; for the border of the children of Ammon was strong.
Num 21:25 Israel took all these cities; and Israel lived in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all its towns.
Num 21:26 For Heshbon was the city of Sihon the king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab, and taken all his land out of his hand, even to the Arnon.
Num 21:27 Therefore those who speak in proverbs say, Come to Heshbon. Let the city of Sihon be built and established;
Num 21:28 for a fire has gone out of Heshbon, a flame from the city of Sihon. It has devoured Ar of Moab, The lords of the high places of the Arnon.
Num 21:29 Woe to you, Moab! You are undone, people of Chemosh! He has given his sons as fugitives, and his daughters into captivity, to Sihon king of the Amorites.
Num 21:30 We have shot at them. Heshbon has perished even to Dibon. We have laid waste even to Nophah, which reaches to Medeba.

Num 21:31 Thus Israel lived in the land of the Amorites.
Num 21:32 Moses sent to spy out Jazer; and they took its towns, and drove out the Amorites who were there.
Num 21:33 They turned and went up by the way of Bashan; and Og the king of Bashan went out against them, he and all his people, to battle at Edrei-
As noted in Num. 21:33; Dt. 3:4,10, some of the places they had known in their wilderness journeys (cp. our life now after baptism, which is like crossing the Red Sea, 1 Cor. 10:1,2) were revisited and taken by Joshua (Josh. 12:4), and incorporated into God's Kingdom. Perhaps situations and places we know in this life will then become eternally ours when we possess them in God's Kingdom.  

Num 21:34 Yahweh said to Moses, Don’t fear him; for I have delivered him into your hand, and all his people, and his land; and you shall do to him as you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who lived at Heshbon.
Num 21:35 So they struck him, and his sons and all his people, until there was none left him remaining; and they possessed his land-
Yet Israel presumably moved on from this land. We too have some foretaste of the possession of the Kingdom in this life, but the full literal fulfilment of it all is yet future. These victories were surely to develop the faith of the Israelites and to show them that military conquest of the promised land was for from impossible for them.