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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Numbers 21

Verse 1


(1) And when king Arad . . . —The verse may be rendered thus: Now the Canaanite, the King of Arad, which dwelt in the south country (or, Negeb) heard (or, had heard) that Israel had come by the way of Atharim (or, of the spies), and he fought . . . The date of this occurrence is uncertain. The district of Arad appears to have extended to the southern frontier of Canaan. (Comp. Numbers 33:40; Joshua 12:14; Judges 1:16-17.) The attack probably took place either in the interval between the departure of the messengers to Edom and their return, or at the time at which the Israelites broke up from Kadesh, and before the direction of their march had been ascertained. The word Atharim, which is rendered in the Authorised Version spies, may be another form of the word which occurs in Numbers 14:6, and which is there rendered them that searched; or, as appears more probable, it may be the name of a place which does not occur elsewhere.

Verse 3

(3) And they utterly destroyed them and their cities.—The meaning of the verb which is here employed is to devote to destruction, and hence to destroy utterly. It does not clearly appear whether this destruction was effected at once, or whether the fulfilment of the vow took place at a later period. (See Joshua 12:14; Judges 1:17.) If the attack of the Canaanites was made at the time of the final departure from Kadesh, the latter view must be maintained, as it can scarcely be supposed that the cities could have been rebuilt and again destroyed in so short an interval.

And he called the name of the place Hormah.—Better, And the name of the place was called Hormah. The word Hormahi.e., a devoted thing—is cognate with the verb which occurs in this and the preceding verse, and which is rendered utterly destroy. The place is so called by anticipation in Numbers 14:45, and, as in regard to other names (e.g., Bethel and Jacob), the name was probably given anew to the place on a later occasion (Judges 1:17).

Verse 4

(4) Because of the way.—Better, in (or, on) the way. In addition to all the hardships and dangers of the journey, they were conscious that they were turning their backs upon the land of Canaan, instead of marching by a direct course into it.

Verse 5

(5) This light bread.—The word rendered light denotes something vile or worthless. It was thus that the Israelites regarded the manna which was given to them from heaven; even as the “spiritual meat” which is given to Christ’s Church in His word and ordinances is too commonly regarded amongst ourselves.

Verse 6

(6) And the Lord sent fiery serpents . . . —Hebrew, the serpents, the seraphim (i.e., the burning ones). (See Deuteronomy 8:15; Isaiah 14:29; Isaiah 30:6.) The word appears to denote a particular kind of serpent, as in the following verse. Some think that they were so called because of the bright fiery red upon their heads; others because of the blazing sunbeams on their scales; and others because of their inflammatory and poisonous bite. Venomous snakes are said to abound still in the Arabah.

Verse 8

(8) Make thee a fiery serpent.—The single Hebrew word which is here employed is saraph (a seraph), or burning one, as in Numbers 21:6, where the word nehashimserpents—occurs also. The meaning is explained in the following verse, in which it is said that Moses made “a serpent of brass.”

Set it upon a pole.—Better, a standard. The LXX. have σημεῖον, the Vulgate signum. The Hebrew word (nes) is the same which occurs in Exodus 17:15, “Jehovah-nissi”—i.e., Jehovah is my standard or banner.

Verse 9

(9) And Moses made a serpent of brass.—The old serpent was the cause of death, temporal and spiritual. Christ Jesus, “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3), was made sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21), and thus fulfilled, as He Himself explained to Nicodemus, the type of the brazen serpent (John 3:14-15). The meaning of this type, or “sign of salvation,” is explained in the Book of Wisdom in these words, “He that turned himself toward it was not saved by the thing that he saw, but by Thee, that art the Saviour of all” (Numbers 16:7). This serpent was preserved by the Israelites, and taken into Canaan, and was ultimately destroyed by King Hezekiah, after it had become an object of idolatrous worship (2 Kings 18:4).

Verse 10

(10) And pitched in Oboth.—The intermediate stations between Mount Hor and Oboth were Zalmonah and Punon (Numbers 33:41-43). The former of these places is thought by some to have derived its name from the Hebrew word zelem (image, or likeness), and to have been the place at which the likeness of the serpents which bit the Israelites was set up.

Verse 11

(11) At Ije-abarim.—This word seems to denote the heaps (or, ruins) of passages or of coast or river landsi.e., of districts bordering upon the sea or a river. It is called Iim or Iyim simply in Numbers 33:45.

Verse 13

(13) On the other side of Arnon.—Better, by the side of the Arnon. (Comp. Deuteronomy 2:24; Deuteronomy 2:26.) The Hebrew word which is here used does not determine on which side of the Arnon the encampment was. (Comp. Numbers 22:1, and Note.)

Verses 14-15

(14, 15) The book of the wars of the Lord.—Nothing is known about this book. The last days of Moses, as Baumgarten has observed, may have been a suitable time for the commencement of such a work. The history of the journey from Kadesh to the Arboth Moab was not written by Moses until after the defeat of the two kings of the Amorites, and the subjugation of the land on the east of the Jordan.

What he did in the Red Sea . . . —The original is very obscure. It is probable that some such verb as They conquered (or, subdued) is understood, and that the words may be rendered Vaheb in Suphah and the valleys (by) Arnon, and the bed (or, ravine) of the valleys which inclines towards the dwelling of Ar, and leans upon the border of Moab. Vaheb was probably the name of a town, and Suphah the district in which that town was situated, so called from its reeds and rushes. Some, however, think that Suphah here denotes a storm or hurricane, as in other places. Ar is supposed to be the same as Areopolis.

Verse 18

(18) By the direction of the lawgiver.—Better, with the ruler’s staff. The same word occurs in Genesis 49:10, where it stands in parallelism to “the sceptre.” (See Note in loc.)

And from the wilderness they went to Mat-tanah.—The Targums interpret this and Numbers 21:19-20 of the well, And from the wilderness it was given to them for a gift, and from thence it was given to them in Mattanah, &c. The Targum of Onkelos is as follows: “And from the time that it was given to them, it descended with them to the rivers, &c.” The Targum of Palestine is—“And from the wilderness, &c.” (as above).

Verse 20

(20) And from Bamoth in the valley.—Better, and from Bamoth to the valley that is . . . The country (or, rather, field) of Moab was a portion of the table-land which stretches from Rabbath Ammân to the Arnon. The valley in this table-land was upon the height of Pisgah—i.e., the northern part of the mountains of Abarim.

Toward Jeshimon.—Or, across the waste (or, desert).

Verse 24

(24) For the border of the children of Ammon was strong.—These words assign the reason why the conquests of the Amorites were arrested, not why the children of Israel did not take possession of the land of the Ammonites, with whom they were forbidden to meddle, and whose land they were not to occupy. (See Deuteronomy 2:19.)

Verse 25

(25) And Israel dwelt in all the cities of the Amorites.—If, as appears most probable, this and the thirty-first verse form a part of the original narrative, the word which is rendered dwelt should be rendered sojourned, or abode, and understood, in accordance with the frequent use of the word (as, e.g., in Numbers 22:5; Numbers 22:8), of a temporary occupation or encampment. The permanent occupation of the eastern side of the Jordan by the Israelites was subsequent to the death of Moses.

Verse 26

(26) And taken all his land . . . —i.e., the land between the Arnon and the Jabbok, as it is explained in the last clause of the verse.

Verses 27-30

(27-30) Come into Heshbon.—These verses appear to commemorate first the victory of the Amorites over the Moabites, and then that of the Israelites over the Amorites. They may be rendered thus:—

Come ye to Heshbon!

Let the city of Sihon be built up and restored!
For a fire went out from Heshbon—
A flame from the city of Sihon:
It devoured Ar
(or, the city) of Moab—

The lords of the high places of Arnon.
Woe to thee, Moab!
Thou art perished, O people of Chemosh:
(i.e., Chemosh) gave up his sons as fugitives,

And his daughters into captivity,
Unto Sihon, the King of the Amorites.
We cast them down;
Heshbon is perished even unto Dibon:
Yea, we laid them waste even unto Nophah,
(reacheth) even unto Medcba.”

Or, if we read esh (fire) instead of asher (which), a reading which derives some support from the Masoretic point over the last letter and from the context (Numbers 21:28), as well as from the LXX., the last words may be rendered, “With fire, even unto Medeba.”

The Targum understands by “the lords of the high places of Arnon” the priests and worshippers in the temples and at the altars of the idols in Moab. Medeba, now Medaba, was situated at the south of Heshbon. The position of Nophah is unknown. It has been supposed that it may be the same as Nebo, which is mentioned in connection with Dibon and Medeba in Isaiah 15:2, or with Arneibah, which lies to the east of Medeba.

Verse 31

(31) Thus Israel dwelt . . .-Better, And Israel sojourned, &c. (See Note on Numbers 21:25.)

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Numbers 21". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.