Numbers 21



Arad Destroyed (21:1–3)

1–3 Arad was a Canaanite area located in the Negev, the southern desert region of the promised land. These were probably the same Canaanites who had attacked the first generation of Israelites thirty–eight years earlier, driving them back to Hormah (Numbers 14:45). Now Israel’s new generation was finally on the march to the promised land, and they found themselves under attack. They asked the Lord for victory, vowing to totally destroy70 these attackers from Arad (verse 2). And God gave them victory at Hormah,71 the same place their fathers had been defeated earlier.

Because of the great wickedness of the Canaanite tribes, God intended that they be “totally destroyed.” However, as we shall see later, the Israelites rarely carried out this policy of total destruction. As a result, many Canaanites continued living in Canaan, and they became a major reason for Israel’s later fall into idolatry and eventual dispersion into exile.

A final thing to note about this first successful battle in the conquest of Canaan is that it was the Lord who gave the Canaanites over to the Israelites (verse 3). This was the Lord’s battle, and the Israelites were assured victory as long as they did as the Lord commanded. This pattern would hold true for all the battles the Israelites engaged in: if they disobeyed, they would be defeated; if they obeyed, they would be victorious.

The Bronze Snake (21:4–9)

4–5 Very soon after the victory at Hormah, the Israelites fell back into the complaining ways of their fathers. Because Moses had to go the long way around Edom (Numbers 20:21), they grew impatient with the extended journey. But this time they spoke not only against Moses but also against God. And they called the manna miserable food (verse 5).

When they expressed contempt for the manna God was providing, they were expressing contempt for God, for His provision. They didn’t know it, but they were also showing contempt for God’s Son, who likened Himself to the manna, the bread from heaven, which gives life to the world (John 6:32–35,48–51).

6–9 God was not slow to punish them. He sent poisonous snakes among them, and many Israelites began to die. As God had done when He sent plagues against Egypt, He used natural means (snakes) in unnatural ways to carry out the punishment.

It appears that these second-generation Israelites were quicker to confess their sin than their fathers had been. Again Moses prayed to God, and God responded. But this time God didn’t stop the plague or remove the snakes; instead, He provided a means by which those who were bitten could be saved from death: the means was a snake—a bronze snake! (verse 9). But it required that the bitten Israelites look at it (verse 8)—look at it in faith, faith in God’s provision for saving their lives.

Thus it was not the bronze snake that saved the Israelites: it was God responding to their faith that saved them.

Jesus referred to this incident in John 3:14–15, when He said: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert,so the Son of Man must be lifted up (on the cross), that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Just as the Israelites received physical life by looking at the bronze snake, so we receive ETERNAL LIFE by looking at Jesus and believing in Him.72

The Journey to Moab (21:10–20)

10–20 In this section the journey to Moab is described; on the way the Lord continued to provide for His people. In particular, the provision of water is mentioned: the Lord led them to Beer (verse 16), which means “well”; and Israel responded gratefully in song (verses 17–18).

Finally the Israelites reached Moab (verse 20), located north of Edom and east of the Dead Sea. But they did not actually enter Moab; they journeyed around its eastern border and came to the land of the Amorites.

Defeat of Sihon and Og (21:21–35)

21–26 The land of the Amorites lay north of Moab and east of the Jordan River. The Israelites needed to pass through this land in order to reach Canaan. Just as Moses had written earlier to the king of Edom (Numbers 20:14), so now he wrote to the king of the Amorites, Sihon, asking for safe passage through his territory (verse 21). Sihon refused. But unlike the land of Edom, which the Lord had reserved for the descendants of Esau (Deuteronomy 2:4–6), the land of the Amorites was to be taken by the Israelites (Genesis 15:16). War was waged, and the Amorites were defeated (verse 24). All their cities were taken, including Heshbon, Sihon’s capital city (verse 25).

According to Deuteronomy 2:24–37, it was the Lord who made Sihon stubborn and obstinate, just as He had earlier hardened Pharaoh’s heart in Egypt (see Exodus 4:21 and comment); the Lord hardened Sihon’s heart in order to give him into Israel’s hands (Deuteronomy 2:30). The Lord did this not only because Sihon and the Amorites were themselves wicked, but also because He wanted the surrounding nations to fear the Israelites and the Lord who fought on their side (Deuteronomy 2:24–25). So, as they had done to Arad (verses 1–3), the Israelites completely destroyed73 all of the Amorite cities, along with their inhabitants (Deuteronomy 2:34).

27–31 At an earlier time, the Amorites had conquered the northern part of Moab (verse 26). Now the Israelites had conquered the Amorites. These verses record a poem about Israel’s victory. In verses 28 and 29, the Amorites’ victory over Moab is mentioned; then in verse 31, Israel’s victory over the Amorites is mentioned. The point of the poem is this: If the Amorites defeated Moab, and the Israelites subsequently defeated the Amorites, what then might the Israelites do to Moab? This question will be dealt with in the next chapter.74

32–35 After Israel had conquered the land of the Amorites, Moses turned his attention toward Bashan (verse 33), a region lying northeast of the Sea of Galilee in what is now Syria. Og king of Bashan came out to fight the Israelites; but again God handed him, his army, and all of Bashan over to the Israelites.75 These victories over Sihon and Og brought the whole region east of the Jordan River into Israel’s possession; this region, called Transjordan, would soon become the inheritance of three of Israel’s twelve tribes: Reuben, Gad and Manasseh.

The defeats of Sihon and Og were later celebrated in song to commemorate the Lord’s giving of their armies and lands into the Israelites’ hands (Psalms 135:1012; 136:17–22). As in their victory over the king of Arad (verses 1–3), the Israelites prevailed over Sihon and Og because they fought them in obediencetothe Lord’s command and in dependence on His might (verse 34).