Numbers 21 Study Notes


21:1-3 After the death of Aaron, the Israelites set out from Mount Hor to go around Edom along the Atharim road. The city of Arad, ruled by the king of Arad, cannot be Tel Arad in the eastern Negev since it was unoccupied until the early Israelite monarchy. The Atharim was another trade route leading from Kadesh-barnea to Arad along which the fortresses of Bir Hafir, Oboda, and Aroer were built during the Israelite monarchy. Hormah was the scene of the Israelites’ defeat forty years earlier (14:45).

21:4 The trade route referred to as the way of the Red Sea extended from Elath on the eastern finger of the Red Sea in the Gulf of Aqaba northward through the Arabah to the Dead Sea. Hence the desert route would have the Israelites approaching the northern end of the Arabah from the southwest, and then crossing the Arabah between Tamar and Zalmonah.

21:5 For the seventh time, the people spoke against God and Moses. Their words were the same monotonous complaint about food and water.

21:6-7 God’s judgment against the people came in the form of poisonous snakes, likely the carpet viper (Echis carinatus or E. coleratus).

21:8-9 The Lord directed Moses to make a snake image and mount it on a pole as an antidote for those who had been bitten by these snakes. Those who looked at this snake image would be healed—by faith in God’s provision, not by faith in the graven serpent. Because it was God who graciously did the healing, it was neither idolatry nor magic. The bronze snake, however, was preserved in Israel for about 700 years, until it was destroyed by King Hezekiah (2Kg 18:4). John’s Gospel cited Jesus’s use of this imagery as a metaphor for his crucifixion. Just as those in Moses’s time looked upon this snake and were healed, those who look in faith to the Christ who was lifted up on the cross will be healed of their sins. Those who looked upon him and believed in him would have eternal life (Jn 3:14-16).

21:10-13 The pattern of the Israelites’ journey was from south to north and around the area occupied by the Edomites. They departed from Mount Hor, through Zalmon and Punon, which are not mentioned here but are in Moses’s recording of the stages of the journey (33:42). They continued through Oboth in the upper Arabah, south of the Dead Sea, to Iye-abarim, located near the edge of the Moabite region.

21:14-15 The Book of the Lord’s Wars was apparently an early source of Israelite documentation of God’s victories on behalf of his people, perhaps in poetic form. This source is otherwise unknown in the OT, though paralleled by the Book of Jashar, cited in Jos 10:13 and 2Sm 1:18. This quotation implies that the original composition was longer. Waheb in Suphah is probably the source of the Arnon River. The mention of ravines is indicative of the Arnon River gorge. Ar of Moab was a city, probably south of the Arnon River (v. 28; Dt 2:9; Is 15:1).

21:16-20 The epic narrative poem sung by Israel continues the journey motif from this well where the Israelites did not complain about a lack of water. They journeyed to the sites of Mattanah (“gift”), Nahaliel (“river of God”), Bamoth (“high places, cultic center”), a valley in the Moabite countryside, and the peak of the Pisgah mountains which overlooks the wasteland. Translators and commentators alike have faced the problem of whether these are genuine place names or just descriptive terms. The sequence does not contain the usual phraseology of the book of Numbers, “they traveled from . . . they camped at . . .” Poised on top of Mount Nebo in the Pisgah mountains, Moses would be granted a glimpse of the promised land. Mattanah has not been identified, though Khirbet el-Medeiyineh (Madaynah) has been suggested. Y. Aharoni identified Iye-abarim (Iyyim) with Khirbet el-Medeiyineh, located about eleven miles northeast of Diban.

Nahaliel has not been located, though this could be a reference to the Wadi Zerqa-ma‘in, which flows from the central highlands to the Dead Sea. Bamoth has not been identified, though it could have been preserved in the longer form Bamoth-baal (22:41) or Beth-bamoth of the Mesha Inscription. “Bamoth was a common place name that was combined with names or titles of deities in the naming of important worship centers among the Canaanites and the Amorites. This Bamoth may have been somewhere near Mount Nebo in the Pisgah range. On a clear winter day from the traditional Mount Nebo, one can see where the Jordan River flows into the Dead Sea, the northern end of the Judean Wilderness, and the Jericho oasis. The valley in 21:20 could be identified with the Wadi ‘Ayun Musa, about two miles northeast of the corner of the Dead Sea.

Finally, Aharoni identified “the wasteland as a place name with Beth-jeshimoth, part of the realm of Sihon of the Amorites that was conquered by Israel (Jos 12:3). The Way of Beth-jeshimoth descended from Heshbon westward toward the Jordan River.

21:21-22 Moses dispatched diplomatic envoys to King Sihon of the Amorites to negotiate rights of passage northward along the King’s Highway in the Transjordan highlands and then westward down the hillsides to the shores of the Jordan River. The Amorites were a large ethnic group that formed in upper Mesopotamia near the end of the early Bronze Age, about 2300-2000 BC. Sometimes the word Amorite is used generically in the Bible as a reference to the population of Canaan.

21:23-25 Just as the king of Edom had refused to grant the Israelites passage through his territory, so too Sihon, the recent usurper and conqueror of Moab, would not let Israel travel through his territory. Perhaps he had heard of the encounter with Edom and thought his response would be treated the same way. But his military’s attempt to block the advance of Israel was met with a resounding defeat, a victory that would be remembered throughout Israel’s history (Dt 2:26-31; Jos 12:2-5; 13:21; Jdg 11:19-21; 1Kg 4:19, Neh 9:22; Jr 48:45). Biblical and extrabiblical evidence locates Jahaz somewhere between Dibon and Madaba. The Amorite kingdom of Sihon seems to have spread from the Arnon to the Jabbok Rivers, a north-south length of about forty-five to fifty miles, flanked by the fortified towns of the Ammonites on the eastern and northern sides.

21:26-31 Heshbon was the major city of Sihon at the time of the Israelite conflicts. S. Horn suggested that the Heshbon of Sihon could have been located at Jalul, or another nearby site. The song declared about the rebuilding of Heshbon, let it be rebuilt. The Amorite woe oracle song, which the Israelites adapted for singing about their victory over the great conqueror Sihon, denounced the Moabites and their god Chemosh. Portions of this song would be recounted in the prophets’ oracles against Moab in the eighth to the sixth centuries BC, including Is 15:1-14 and Jr 48:1-47.

Chemosh was the patron deity of the Moabites. He is first mentioned among the deities at Ebla about 2600-2250 BC and was associated with mud brick production and then later with agricultural production. The worship of Chemosh of Moab was brought into Jerusalem in the tenth century BC by King Solomon, who built a temple to Chemosh on the hill opposite that upon which the temple of the Lord was built early in his reign. Chemosh is mentioned twelve times in the Mesha Stele, including the appellation Ashtar-Chemosh, as the god who enabled Mesha to break the yoke of Israel’s domination, recapturing and rebuilding a number of his cities, including Jahaz (v. 23) and Dibon (also Dibon-gad in 33:45-46), Almon-diblathaim (33:46-47), and Medeba (21:30). “Heshbon is not preserved in the Mesha Inscription, though it remained a vital city during this period in Moab’s history.

21:32 Jazer may have come under Amorite dominion in the expansion of Sihon or Og into the Ammonite region. “Jazer was both the name of a region (32:1) and its principal city (32:3). The town of Jazer was located in the valley of the Wadi Kefrein, which flows down toward the Jordan River. The city was identified by J. Simons with Khirbet-Gazzir (Jazer), about ten miles northwest of Amman.

21:33-35 The capital for King Og of Bashan was located at Ashtaroth, situated on a northern tributary of the Yarmuk River (Dt 1:4). The battle ensued at Edrei, generally associated with modern Der’a on the Syrian-Jordanian border, about thirty miles east of the Sea of Galilee. Later Edrei would be included in the tribal territorial allocation of the Machirites of the eastern half of the tribe of Manasseh (Jos 13:31). Though no other battles in this campaign are recounted in Numbers, sixty cities from the kingdom of Og of Bashan were subjected to the stipulations of holy war (Dt 3:4-6). The key to Israel’s success in the battles in Transjordan and in the conquest of the promised land across the Jordan River was its dependence on the Lord and not on its military might.