Numbers 21:6

6 Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.

Numbers 21:6 Meaning and Commentary

Numbers 21:6

And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people
Of which there were great numbers in the deserts of Arabia, and about the Red sea; but hitherto the Israelites were protected from them by the cloud about them, but sinning, the Lord suffered them to come among them, to punish them; these are called fiery, either from their colour, for in Arabia, as there were serpents of a golden colour, as Aelianus


F18 relates, to which the brazen serpent, after made, bore some likeness, so there were others in the same parts of Arabia of a red or scarlet colour, as Diodorus Siculus says F19, of a span long, and their bite entirely incurable; or else they are so called from the effect of them, exciting heat and thirst in those they bit; so Jarchi says, they are so called because they burn with the poison of their teeth: these, very probably, were flying ones, as may seem from ( Isaiah 14:29 ) and being sent of God, might come flying among the people and bite them; and such there were in the fenny and marshy parts of Arabia, of which many writers speak F20, as flying from those parts into Egypt, where they used to be met by a bird called Ibis, which killed them, and for that reason was had in great veneration by the Egyptians; and Herodotus F21 says they are nowhere but in Arabia, and also F23 that they of that kind of serpents, which are called Hydri, their wings are not feathered, but like the wings of bats, and this Bochart F24 takes to be here meant:

and they bit the people, and much people of Israel died;
for, as before related from Diodorus Siculus, their bites were altogether incurable; and Solinus F25 says, of the same Arabian flying serpents, that their poison is so quick, that death follows before the pain can be felt; and of that kind of serpent, the Hydrus, it is said by Leo Africanus F26, that their poison is most pernicious, and that there is no other remedy against the bite of them, but to cut off that part of the member bitten, before the poison can penetrate into the other parts of the body: the Dipsas, another kind of serpent, which others are of opinion is designed, by biting, brings immediately a thirst on persons, intolerable and almost not extinguishable, and a deadly one, unless help is most speedily had; and if this was the case here it was very bad indeed, since there was no water: Solinus F1 says, this kind of serpent kills with thirst; Aristotle F2 speaks of a serpent some call the sacred one, and that whatsoever it bites putrefies immediately all around it: these serpents, and their bites, may be emblems of the old serpent the devil, and of his fiery darts, and of sin brought in by him, and which he tempts unto, the effects of which are terrible and deadly, unless prevented by the grace of God.

F18 De Animal. l. 10. c. 13.
F19 Bibliothec. l. 3. p. 180.
F20 Herodot. Euterpe, sive, l. 2. c. 15. Aelian. de Animal. l. 2. c. 38. Mela, l. 3. c. 9. Solin. Polyhistor, c. 45. & alii.
F21 Thalia, sive, l. 3. c. 109.
F23 Euterpe, sive, l. 2. c. 76.
F24 Hierozoic. par. 2. l. 3. c. 13. col. 423.
F25 Polyhist. c. 45.
F26 Apud Scheuchzer, Physic. Sacr. vol. 2. p. 386.
F1 Polyhist. c. 40.
F2 Hist. Animal. l. 8. c. 29.

Numbers 21:6 In-Context

4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way.
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 food and no water, and we detest this miserable food."
6 Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.
7 The people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people.
8 And the Lord said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live."

Footnotes 1

  • [a]. Or [fiery]; Heb [seraphim]
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.