Numbers 21

Canaanite King Defeated

1 When the Canaanite king of Arad,[a] who lived in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming on the Atharim road, he fought against Israel and captured some prisoners.
2 Then Israel made a vow to the Lord, "If You will deliver this people into our hands, we will completely destroy their cities."[b]
3 The Lord listened to Israel's request, the Canaanites were defeated, and Israel completely destroyed them and their cities. So they named the place Hormah.[c] [d]

The Bronze Serpent

4 Then they set out from Mount Hor by way of the Red Sea to bypass the land of Edom, but the people[e] became impatient because of the journey.
5 The people spoke against God and Moses: "Why have you led us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread or water, and we detest this wretched food!"
6 Then the Lord sent poisonous[f] snakes among the people, and they bit them so that many Israelites died.[g]
7 The people then came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Intercede with the Lord so that He will take the snakes away from us." And Moses interceded for the people.
8 Then the Lord said to Moses, "Make a snake [image] and mount it on a pole. When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he will recover."[h]
9 So Moses made a bronze snake and mounted it on a pole. Whenever someone was bitten, and he looked at the bronze snake, he recovered.

Journey around Moab

10 The Israelites set out and camped at Oboth.
11 They set out from Oboth and camped at Iye-abarim in the wilderness that borders Moab on the east.
12 From there they went and camped at Zered Valley.
13 They set out from there and camped on the other side of the Arnon [River], in the wilderness that extends from the Amorite border, because the Arnon was the Moabite border between Moab and the Amorites.
14 Therefore it is stated in the Book of the Lord's Wars: Waheb[i] in Suphah and the ravines of the Arnon,
15 even the slopes of the ravines that extend to the site of Ar[j] and lie along the border of Moab.
16 From there [they went] to Beer,[k] the well the Lord told Moses about, "Gather the people so I may give them water."
17 Then Israel sang this song: Spring up, well-sing to it!
18 The princes dug the well; The nobles of the people hollowed it out with a scepter and with their staffs. [They went] from the wilderness to Mattanah,
19 from Mattanah to Nahaliel, from Nahaliel to Bamoth,
20 from Bamoth to the valley in the territory of Moab near the Pisgah highlands[l] that overlook the wasteland.[m] [n]

Amorite Kings Defeated

21 Israel sent messengers to say to Sihon[o] king of the Amorites:
22 "Let us travel through your land. We won't go into the fields or vineyards. We won't drink [any] well water. We will travel the King's Highway until we have traveled through your territory."[p]
23 But Sihon would not let Israel travel through his territory. Instead, he gathered his whole army and went out to confront Israel in the wilderness. When he came to Jahaz,[q] he fought against Israel.
24 Israel struck him with the sword and took possession of his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok,[r] [but only up] to the Ammonite border, because it was fortified.[s]
25 Israel took all the cities and lived in all these Amorite cities, including Heshbon and all its villages.
26 Heshbon was the city of Sihon king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab and had taken control of all his land as far as the Arnon.
27 Therefore the poets[t] say: Come to Heshbon, let it be rebuilt; let the city of Sihon be restored.[u]
28 For fire came out of Heshbon, a flame from the city of Sihon. It consumed Ar of Moab, the lords of[v] Arnon's heights.
29 Woe to you, Moab! You have been destroyed, people of Chemosh![w] He gave up his sons as refugees, and his daughters into captivity to Sihon the Amorite king.
30 We threw them down; Heshbon has been destroyed as far as Dibon.[x] [y] We caused desolation as far as Nophah, which reaches as far as Medeba.[z] [aa]
31 So Israel lived in the Amorites' land.
32 After Moses sent spies to Jazer, Israel captured its villages and drove out the Amorites who were there.
33 Then they turned and went up the road to Bashan, and Og king of Bashan[ab] came out against them with his whole army to do battle at Edrei.[ac]
34 But the Lord said to Moses, "Do not fear him, for I have handed him over to you along with his whole army and his land. Do to him as you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who lived in Heshbon."
35 So they struck him, his sons, and his whole army until no one was left,[ad] and they took possession of his land.[ae]

Numbers 21 Commentary

Chapter 21

The Canaanites of Arad destroyed. (1-3) The people murmuring, are plagued with fiery serpents, They repenting, are healed through the brazen serpent. (4-9) Further journeys of the Israelites. (10-20) Sihon and Og overcome, Their land possessed. (21-35)

Verses 1-3 Before the people began their march round the country of Edom, the king of Arad, a Canaanite, who inhabited the southern part of the country, attacked them in the wilderness, and took some prisoners. This was to lead the Israelites to look more thoroughly to the Lord.

Verses 4-9 The children of Israel were wearied by a long march round the land of Edom. They speak discontentedly of what God had done for them, and distrustfully of what he would do. What will they be pleased with, whom manna will not please? Let not the contempt which some cast on the word of God, make us value it less. It is the bread of life, substantial bread, and will nourish those who by faith feed upon it, to eternal life, whoever may call it light bread. We see the righteous judgment God brought upon them for murmuring. He sent fiery serpents among them, which bit or stung many to death. It is to be feared that they would not have owned the sin, if they had not felt the smart; but they relent under the rod. And God made a wonderful provision for their relief. The Jews themselves say it was not the sight of the brazen serpent that cured; but in looking up to it, they looked up to God as the Lord that healed them. There was much gospel in this. Our Saviour declared, ( john 3:14 john 3:15 ) , that as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of man must be lifted up, that whatsoever believeth in him, should not perish. Compare their disease and ours. Sin bites like a serpent, and stings like an adder. Compare the application of their remedy and ours. They looked and lived, and we, if we believe, shall not perish. It is by faith that we look unto Jesus, ( Hebrews 12:2 ) . Whosoever looked, however desperate his case, or feeble his sight, or distant his place, was certainly and perfectly cured. The Lord can relieve us from dangers and distresses, by means which human reason never would have devised. Oh that the venom of the old serpent, inflaming men's passions, and causing them to commit sins which end in their eternal destruction, were as sensibly felt, and the danger as plainly seen, as the Israelites felt pain from the bite of the fiery serpents, and feared the death which followed! Then none would shut their eyes to Christ, or turn from his gospel. Then a crucified Saviour would be so valued, that all things else would be accounted loss for him; then, without delay, and with earnestness and simplicity, all would apply to him in the appointed way, crying, Lord, save us; we perish! Nor would any abuse the freeness of Christ's salvation, while they reckoned the price which it cost him.

Verses 10-20 We have here the removes of the children of Israel, till they came to the plains of Moab, from whence they passed over Jordan into Canaan. The end of their pilgrimage was near. "They set forward." It were well if we did thus; and the nearer we come to heaven, were so much the more active and abundant in the work of the Lord. The wonderful success God granted to his people, is here spoken of, and, among the rest, their actions on the river Arnon, at Vaheb in Suphah, and other places on that river. In every stage of our lives, nay, in every step, we should notice what God has wrought for us; what he did at such a time, and what in such a place, ought to be distinctly remembered. God blessed his people with a supply of water. When we come to heaven, we shall remove to the well of life, the fountain of living waters. They received it with joy and thankfulness, which made the mercy doubly sweet. With joy must we draw water out of the wells of salvation, ( Isaiah 12:3 ) . As the brazen serpent was a figure of Christ, who is lifted up for our cure, so is this well a figure of the Spirit, who is poured forth for our comfort, and from whom flow to us rivers of living waters, ( john 7:38 john 7:39 ) . Does this well spring up in our souls? If so, we should take the comfort to ourselves, and give the glory to God. God promised to give water, but they must open the ground. God's favours must be expected in the use of such means as are within our power, but still the power is only of God.

Verses 21-35 Sihon went with his forces against Israel, out of his own borders, without provocation, and so ran upon his own ruin. The enemies of God's church often perish by the counsels they think most wisely taken. Og, king of Bashan, instead of being warned by the fate of his neighbours, to make peace with Israel, makes war with them, which proves in like manner his destruction. Wicked men do their utmost to secure themselves and their possessions against the judgments of God; but all in vain, when the day comes on which they must fall. God gave Israel success, while Moses was with them, that he might see the beginning of the glorious work, though he must not live to see it finished. This was, in comparison, but as the day of small things, yet it was an earnest of great things. We must prepare for fresh conflicts and enemies. We must make no peace or truce with the powers of darkness, nor even treat with them; nor should we expect any pause in our contest. But, trusting in God, and obeying his commands, we shall be more than conquerors over every enemy.

Footnotes 31

  • [a]. Nm 33:40
  • [b]. Dt 2:34; 13:16-17; Jos 6:18,21
  • [c]. destruction
  • [d]. Nm 14:45; Dt 1:44; Jdg 1:17
  • [e]. Lit soul of the people
  • [f]. Lit burning; LXX reads deadly; Syr reads cruel; Vg reads fiery
  • [g]. 1 Co 10:9
  • [h]. 2 Kg 18:4; Jn 3:14-15
  • [i]. The source of the Arnon River
  • [j]. A city in Moab; Nm 21:28; Dt 2:9,18,29; Isa 15:1
  • [k]. well
  • [l]. Moabite mountain plateau; Nm 23:14; Dt 3:17,27; 4:49; 34:1; Jos 12:3; 13:20
  • [m]. Or overlook Jeshimon
  • [n]. Nm 23:28
  • [o]. Nm 32:33; Dt 1:4; 2:24-4:46
  • [p]. Nm 20:17; Dt 2:26-33
  • [q]. Dt 2:32; Jdg 11:20; 1 Ch 6:78
  • [r]. Jdg 11:19-22
  • [s]. Or was at Az; LXX reads was Jazer
  • [t]. Lit ones who speak proverbs
  • [u]. Or firmly founded
  • [v]. LXX reads Moab, and swallowed
  • [w]. Jdg 11:24; 1 Kg 11:7,33; Jr 48:45-47
  • [x]. LXX reads Their seed will perish from Heshbon; Vg reads Their yoke has perished from Heshbon
  • [y]. Nm 32:34; Neh 11:25; Jr 48:18,22
  • [z]. LXX reads Dibon. And their women have further kindled a fire against Moab; Hb uncertain
  • [aa]. Jos 13:9,16; 1 Ch 19:7; Isa 15:2
  • [ab]. Nm 32:33; Dt 3:1-13; 4:47
  • [ac]. Dt 3:1,10; Jos 12:4; 13:12,31
  • [ad]. Lit left to him
  • [ae]. Ps 135:10-11

Chapter Summary

INTRODUCTION TO NUMBERS 21

This chapter gives an account of the defeat of King Arad, the Canaanite, Nu 21:1-3 of the murmurings of the children of Israel, because of difficulties in travelling round, the land of Edom, for which they were punished with fiery serpents, Nu 21:4-6 and how that upon their repentance a brazen serpent was ordered to be made, and to be erected on a pole, that whoever looked to it might live, Nu 21:7-9 and of the several journeys and stations of the children of Israel, until they came to the land of the Amorites, Nu 21:10-20, when they sent a message to Sihon their king, to desire him to grant them a passage through his country; but he refusing, they fought with him, smote him, and possessed his land, concerning which many proverbial sayings were used, Nu 21:21-32 and the chapter is concluded with the defeat of Og, king of Bashan, Nu 21:33-35.

Numbers 21 Commentaries