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Chapter 21

CHAPTER 21

Journey Of Children Of Israel In "Compassing" Land Of Edom - The "Fiery Serpents" And The "Brazen Serpent" - Israel Enters The Land Of The Amorites - Victories Over Sihon And & Og, - The Kings Of The Amorites And Of Bashan - Israel Camps In "Lowlands Of Moab" Close By The Jordan
Numbers 21:3-35; 33:35-49; Deuteronomy 2, 3

THE opposition of Edom and the unprovoked attack of the Canaanite king of Arad must have convinced Israel that the most serious difficulties of their march had now commenced. It was quite natural that, during the thirty-eight years when they were scattered up and down in the Sinaitic peninsula, their powerful neighbors should have left them unmolested, as the wandering Bedouin are at this day.*  But when Israel again gathered together and moved forward as a host, then the tidings of the marvelous things which God had done for them, communicated with all the circumstantiality common in the east, would excite mingled terror and a determination to resist them. The latter probably first; the former as resistance was seen to be vain, and the God of Israel realized as stronger than all other national deities. Eastern idolaters would naturally thus reason; and the knowledge of this will help our understanding of the Scriptural narrative.

* This is well brought out in Palmer's Desert of the Exodus, Part 2., pp. 517, etc.

The general direction of Israel's march, in order to "compass" the land of Edom, was first to the head of the Elanitic Gulf of the Red Sea, or the Gulf of 'Akabah. Thence they would, a few hours north of Ezion-geber (the giant's backbone), enter the mountains, and then pass northwards, marching to Moab "by the road which runs between Edom and the limestone plateau of the great eastern desert"*  (comp. Deuteronomy 2:8).

* Desert of the Exodus, vol. 2 p. 523.

Probably they were prepared to contend for every fresh advance which they made northwards. But the first part of their journey was otherwise trying. That deep depression of the Arabah through which they marched - intensely hot, bare of vegetation, desolate, rough, and visited by terrible sandstorms - was pre-eminently "that great and terrible wilderness," of which Moses afterwards reminded the people. (Deuteronomy 1:19) What with the weariness of the way, the want of water, and of all food other than the manna, "the soul of the people was much discouraged," "and the people spake against God and against Moses." The judgment of "fiery serpents" which the Lord, "in punishment, sent among the people," and of which so many died bore a marked resemblance to all His former dealings. Once more He did not create a new thing for the execution of His purpose, but only disposed sovereignly of what already existed. Travelers give remarkable confirmation and illustrations of the number and poisonous character of the serpents in that district. *  Thus one writes of the neighborhood of the gulf: "The sand on the shore showed traces of snakes on every hand. They had crawled there in various directions. Some of the marks appeared to have been made by animals which could not have been less than two inches in diameter. My guide told me that snakes were very common in these regions." Another traveler on exactly the route of the children of Israel states: "In the afternoon a large and very mottled snake was brought to us, marked with fiery spots and spiral lines, which evidently belonged, from the formation of its teeth, to one of the most poisonous species… The Bedouins say that these snakes, of which they have great dread, are very numerous in this locality."**  From the fact that the brazen serpent is also called "fiery" (a Saraph), we infer that the expression describes rather the appearance of these "fire-snakes" than the effect of their bite.

* For many and very apt Scripture illustrations we would here refer to Mr. Wilton's Negeb, p. 47, etc.

** Kurtz, History of the Old Covenant, vol. 3. pp. 343, 344, English translation.

Two things are most marked in this history, the speedy repentance of Israel, couched in unwonted language of humility, (Numbers 21:7) and the marvelous teaching of the symbol, through which those who had been mortally bitten were granted restoration to life and health. Moses was directed to make a fiery serpent of brass, and to set it upon a pole, and whosoever looked upon it was immediately healed. From the teaching of our Lord (John 3:14, 15) we know that this was a direct type of the lifting up of the Son of Man, "that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life." The simplicity of the remedy - only to look up in faith, its immediateness and its completeness as well as the fact that this was the only but also the all-sufficient remedy for the deadly wound of the serpent - all find their counterpart in the Gospel. But for the proper understanding both of the type and of the words of our Lord, we must inquire in what manner Israel would view and understand the lifting up of the brazen serpent and the healing that flowed from it. Undoubtedly, Israel would at once connect this death through the fiery serpents with the introduction of death into Paradise through the serpent.*  

* Both the Jerusalem and the Jonathan Targum contain an allusion to this.

And now a brazen serpent was lifted up, made in the likeness of the fiery serpent, yet without its poisonous bite. And this was for the healing of Israel. Clearly then, the deadly poison of the fiery serpent was removed in the uplifted brazen serpent! All this would carry back the mind to the promise given when first the poisonous sting of the serpent was felt, that the Seed of the Woman should bruise the head of the serpent, and that in so doing His own heel should be bruised. In this sense even the apocryphal Book of Wisdom (16:6) designates the brazen serpent "a symbol of salvation." And so we are clearly taught that "God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh;" (Romans 8:3) that

"He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; (2 Corinthians 5:21)

and that

"His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree." (1 Peter 2:24)

The precious meaning of the type is thus deduced by Luther from the three grand peculiarities of this "symbol of salvation:" "First, the serpent which Moses made at the command of God had to be of brass or copper, that is, red, and like those fiery serpents, which were red, and burning in their bite - yet without poison. Secondly, the brazen serpent had to be set up on a pole for a sign" (comp. Colossians 2:14, etc.). "Thirdly, those who would be healed of the fiery serpents bite must look up to the brazen serpent, lifted up on the pole" (perceive, and believe), "else they could not recover nor live." Similarly a modern German critic thus annotates John 3:14:

"Christ is the antitype of this serpent, inasmuch as He took upon Himself and vicariously bore sin, the most noxious of all noxious powers."

It is of the deepest interest to follow the march of the children of Israel, when every day's journey brought them nearer to the Land of Promise as their goal. To them it was not, as to us, a land of ruins and of memories, but of beauty and of hope. To a people who had all their lives seen and known nothing but "the wilderness," the richness, fertility, and varied beauty of Palestine, as it then was, must have possessed charms such as we can scarcely imagine. Then every step in advance was, so to speak, under the direct leading of God, and, in a sense, a miracle, while every such leading and miracle was itself a pledge of others yet to follow. The researches of modern travelers*  enable us almost to company with Israel on this their march. As already stated, the wonderful tenacity with which old names keep their hold in the far East helps us to discover the exact spots of Biblical scenes; while, on the other hand, descriptions of the localities throw most vivid light on the Scriptural narratives, and afford evidence of their trustworthiness.

* We cannot, of course, here enter on a description of these localities as illustrative of the Bible, however interesting the subject. For further information we direct the reader, besides the works of Professor Robinson, Canon Williams, Mr. Wilton, and Professor Palmer, to Canon Tristram's Land of Moab, especially illustrative of this part of our history.

The reader ought to remember that the route which lay before Israel was in part the same as that still traversed by the great caravans from Damascus to Mecca. The territories which they successively passed or entered were occupied as follows. First, Israel skirted along the eastern boundary of Edom, leaving it on their left. The western boundary of Edom, through which Israel had sought a passage when starting from Kadesh, (Numbers 20:18) would from its mountainous character and few passes have been easily defended against the Israelites. But it was otherwise with the eastern line of frontier, which lay open to Israel, had they not been Divinely directed not to fight against Edom. (Deuteronomy 2:4-6) This, however, explains the friendly attitude which the Edomites found it prudent to adopt along their eastern frontier, (Deuteronomy 2:29) although their army had shortly before been prepared to fight on the western. At Ije Abarim,*  "the ruins," or "the hills of the passages," or "of the sides" -perhaps "the lateral hills" the Israelites were approaching the wilderness which lay to the east of Moab.

* There is reason to suppose that Abarim, or "passages," was a generic name for the mountains which bordered the territory of Moab.

The brook or Wady Zared (Numbers 21:12) here forms the boundary between Edom and Moab. But as Israel had been also commanded not to fight against Moab, (Deuteronomy 2:9) they left their territory equally untouched, and, continuing straight northwards, passed through the wilderness of Moab, until they reached the river Arnon, the modern Wady Moab, which formed the boundary between the Moabites and the Amorites. The territory of the Amorites stretched from the Arnon to the Jabbok. It had originally belonged to the Moabites; (Numbers 21:26) but they had been driven southwards by the Amorites. No command of God prevented Israel from warring against the Amorites, and when Sihon, their king, refused to give them a free passage through his territory, they were Divinely directed to that attack which issued in the destruction of Sihon, and the possession of his land by Israel.

At the brook Zared - on the southern boundary of Moab - the Israelites had already been in a line with the Dead Sea, leaving it, of course, far on their left. The river Arnon also, which formed the boundary between Moab and the Amorites, flows into the Dead Sea almost opposite to Hazazon-tamar, or En-gedi. This tract, which now bears the name of el-Belkah, is known to the reader of the Old Testament as the land Gilead, while in New Testament times it formed the province of Perea. Lastly, the district north of the Jabbok and east of the Jordan was the ancient Bashan, or the modern Hauran. The fact that the country north of the Arnon had, before its possession by the Amorites, been so long held by Moab explains the name "Fields of Moab" (rendered in the Authorized Version "country of Moab," Numbers 21:20)as applied to the upland hills of Gilead, just as the western side of Jordan similarly bore the name of "the plains of Moab," or rather "the lowlands of Moab." (Numbers 22:1) The children of Israel were still camped on the south side of the Arnon when they sent the embassy to Sihon, demanding a passage through his territory. Canon Tristram has given a most vivid description of the rift through which the Arnon flows. Its width is calculated at about three miles from crest to crest, and its depth at 2,150 feet from the top of the southern, and at 1,950 from that of the northern bank. Of course, the army of Israel could not have passed the river here, but higher up, to the east, "in the wilderness." (Numbers 21:13) They probably waited until the messengers returned from Sihon. How high their courage and confidence in God had risen, when tidings arrived that Sihon with all his army was coming to meet them, appears even from those extracts of poetic pieces which form so marked a peculiarity of the Book of Numbers, and which read like stanzas of war-songs by the camp-fires.*  From the banks of the Arnon the route of Israel was no doubt northward till they reached Bamoth or Bamolh Baal, "the heights of Baal," (Numbers 21:19) one of the stations afterwards taken up by Balak and Balaam. (Numbers 22:41) "And from Bamoth (they marched) to the valley, which is in the fields of Moab (on the plateau of Moab), on the height of Pisgah, and looks over to the face of the wilderness,"**   that is, over the tract of land which extends to the north-eastern shore of the Dead Sea. (Numbers 21:20)

* Not less than three of these "songs" are quoted in Numbers 21. We cannot here refer further to these deeply interesting compositions. Similarly, it is impossible to enter into fuller geographical details, or to compare the list of stations in Numbers 21 with that in chap. 33: and in Deuteronomy 2. But the most perfect harmony prevails between them.

** So literally.

From this plateau on the mountains of the Abarim, of which Pisgah and Nebo were peaks, Israel had its first view of the Land of Promise, and especially of that mysterious Sea of Salt whose glittering surface and deathlike surroundings would recall such solemn memories and warnings. At last then the goal was in view! The decisive battle between Sihon and Israel was fought almost within sight of the Dead Sea. The victory at Jahaz, in which Sihon was smitten "with the edge of the sword" - that is, without quarter or sparing, - gave Israel possession of the whole country, including Heshbon and "all the daughters thereof" - or daughter-towns, - from the Arnon to the upper Jabbok (the modern Nahr Amman). The latter river formed the boundary between the Arnorites and the Ammonites. Beyond this the Arnorites had not penetrated, because "the border of the children of Ammon was strong." (Numbers 21:24) And Israel also forbore to penetrate farther, not on the same ground as the Amorites, but because of an express command of God. (Deuteronomy 2:19) Leaving untouched therefore the country of Ammon, the Israelites next moved northward, defeated Og, king of Bashan, and took possession of his territory also, and of the mountains of Gilead.*  The whole country east of the Jordan was now Israel's, and the passage of that river could not be disputed.

* These territories and their ancient sites have of late been visited and described by such travelers as Canon Tristram, Professor Palmer, and others.

Before actually entering upon their long-promised inheritance, some great lessons had, indeed, yet to be learned. An event would take place which would for ever mark the relation between the kingdom of God and that of this world. The mission of Moses, the servant of the Lord, must also come to an end, and the needful arrangements be made for possessing and holding the land of Palestine. But all these belong, strictly speaking, to another period of Israel's history. When the camp was pitched in Shittim, "on this side Jordan by Jericho," waiting for the signal to cross the boundary line, the wanderings of the children of Israel were really at an end.