1 When the Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming along the road to Atharim, he attacked the Israelites and captured some of them. 2 Then Israel made this vow to the Lord: “If you will deliver these people into our hands, we will totally destroy[a] their cities.” 3 The Lord listened to Israel’s plea and gave the Canaanites over to them. They completely destroyed them and their towns; so the place was named Hormah.[b]
The spies who came into the land 38 years ago did not go unnoticed. The Canaanites were keeping an eye on the return of the Israelites and Arad was the first to make a move against them. He attacked and captured some of the people who were going ahead of the company. These were the ones who went ahead to prepare a safe path. Arad was destroyed in the ensuing battle. The Israelites cried out to God for favor and they not only won the battle, but they completely destroyed the people and their towns. Normah means memorial of destruction. This also served as a warning to those canaanites who might attempt to rebuild these cities.
The Bronze Snake
4 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea,[c] to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5 they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
They couldn’t go through Edom so they had to go around. This discouraged and frustrated the people. To have their promise so near yet so far made them impatient. Once again they spoke against God – even though he just gave them a victory, they were still complaining. They had plenty of food (manna was still abundant every day), but they were weary of the same food over and over. Those who are unhappy will always find something to complain about, even when they have no need that is not met.
6 Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
Some translations refer to the serpents as “fiery serpents” that bit or stung them to death. It seems that the wilderness was actually full of these creatures, but up to now, God had protected them from these creatures. They repented after suffering from the bites of these serpents and ask for forgiveness from God and from Moses, asking Moses to pray that God will remove their torment. They are specific in their repentance – “we sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you”. They acknowledged what they did wrong and took responsibility for it, rather than making excuses. It was a genuine repentance.
8 The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.
There are some interesting parallels in this scripture. Sin and the enemy are often compared to a poisonous snake, or a serpent. (Fiery darts) Lifting it on a pole is often compared to Jesus as a token for sin being lifted on the cross. Looking upon the sin removes the poison and those who do so do not die. (Everlasting life provided by Jesus through the repentance and cleansing of sin.)
The Journey to Moab
10 The Israelites moved on and camped at Oboth. 11 Then they set out from Oboth and camped in Iye Abarim, in the wilderness that faces Moab toward the sunrise. 12 From there they moved on and camped in the Zered Valley. 13 They set out from there and camped alongside the Arnon, which is in the wilderness extending into Amorite territory. The Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites. 14 That is why the Book of the Wars of the Lord says:
“. . . Zahab[d] in Suphah and the ravines, the Arnon 15 and[e] the slopes of the ravines that lead to the settlement of Ar and lie along the border of Moab.”
16 From there they continued on to Beer, the well where the Lord said to Moses, “Gather the people together and I will give them water.”
17 Then Israel sang this song: “Spring up, O well! Sing about it,
18 about the well that the princes dug, that the nobles of the people sank—the nobles with scepters and staffs.”
Then they went from the wilderness to Mattanah, 19 from Mattanah to Nahaliel, from Nahaliel to Bamoth, 20 and from Bamoth to the valley in Moab where the top of Pisgah overlooks the wasteland.
Here we have the account of their travel and a reference to the book of wars of the Lord, which we no longer have access to. It is possible that part of this book included the history of the war with the Amalekites (Exodus 17:14 – God tells them to write it down.) During this journey, the people are faithful to trust God and he blesses them with fresh water in Beer. Although they were likely out of water at this time, note that they do not complain this time, they simply wait for God to supply for them. They also rejoice at this supply, rather than seeming to take it for granted as in the past. They actually sing a song of rejoicing and praise.
Defeat of Sihon and Og
21 Israel sent messengers to say to Sihon king of the Amorites:
22 “Let us pass through your country. We will not turn aside into any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the King’s Highway until we have passed through your territory.”
23 But Sihon would not let Israel pass through his territory. He mustered his entire army and marched out into the wilderness against Israel. When he reached Jahaz, he fought with Israel. 24 Israel, however, put him to the sword and took over his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, but only as far as the Ammonites, because their border was fortified. 25 Israel captured all the cities of the Amorites and occupied them, including Heshbon and all its surrounding settlements. 26 Heshbon was the city of Sihon king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab and had taken from him all his land as far as the Arnon.
27 That is why the poets say: “Come to Heshbon and let it be rebuilt; let Sihon’s city be restored. 28 “Fire went out from Heshbon, a blaze from the city of Sihon. It consumed Ar of Moab, the citizens of Arnon’s heights. 29 Woe to you, Moab! You are destroyed, people of Chemosh! He has given up his sons as fugitives and his daughters as captives to Sihon king of the Amorites. 30 “But we have overthrown them; Heshbon’s dominion has been destroyed all the way to Dibon. We have demolished them as far as Nophah, which extends to Medeba.” 31 So Israel settled in the land of the Amorites.
Here we have an account of the victory over Sihon and the Amorites. The Israelites had requested to pass through peacefully, but the king not only decided not to allow it, but came against them with his entire army. This led to his defeat and the Israelites taking possession of all of his land. They captured every single one of his cities and occupied them.
32 After Moses had sent spies to Jazer, the Israelites captured its surrounding settlements and drove out the Amorites who were there. 33 Then they turned and went up along the road toward Bashan, and Og king of Bashan and his whole army marched out to meet them in battle at Edrei.
34 The Lord said to Moses, “Do not be afraid of him, for I have delivered him into your hands, along with his whole army and his land. Do to him what you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon.”
35 So they struck him down, together with his sons and his whole army, leaving them no survivors. And they took possession of his land.
Og, King of Bashan, did not take the defeat of his neighbors as a warning. Instead of trying to make peace with them, he marches against them. Og was also an Amorite, meaning that he was strong and of a large stature. Bashan was famous for having the best timber (the oaks of Bashan) and the best breed of cattle, as well as celebrated lambs and rams in that country. God encourages Moses and confirms that he is with them and they will be successful in defeating Og’s army. And so they completely destroyed the opposing army and took possession of his land also. When God is on your side, nothing will stand in the way of His victory!
- Numbers 21:2 The Hebrew term refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the Lord, often by totally destroying them; also in verse 3.
- Numbers 21:3 Hormah means destruction.
- Numbers 21:4 Or the Sea of Reeds
- Numbers 21:14 Septuagint; Hebrew Waheb
- Numbers 21:15 Or “I have been given from Suphah and the ravines / of the Arnon 15 to