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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 21

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Verses 1-3

Fight Against the Canaanites

Even before the people enter the land, enemies come forward to prevent that. The Canaanites attack and seem to surprise Israel. They take some of the Israelites captive. If we want to enter ‘our land’, that is to say if we want to occupy ourselves with the heavenly blessings, we will also experience that the enemy will try to prevent this with all possible means. We will have to be wary that the enemy does not inadvertently take something away from our strength.

The people make a vow to the LORD; it promises a counterpart, if He also does something for them, namely giving them the victory. The LORD doesn’t blame them for this form of unbelief, but helps and gives a great victory. The place of victory is given the name “Hormah”, which means “ban curse”, “banned”. This means that they dedicate all the spoils to the LORD and give Him the honor of the victory. But great victories are sometimes followed by great defeats, as the following history shows.

Verses 4-9

The Bronze Serpent

First the people have to go in the direction of the Schelfzee again. At the end of the wilderness journey it is useful to look again and to make it well understood that this is the place where we are freed from the power of the enemy. The picture of the cross must come alive before us again. If we can’t appreciate that, there will be grumbling. The people are getting impatient because of the detour they have to make. Again the reason for their grumble is that they have no water and bread. How can they say it! They have it, but they are fed up with it. It can no longer please them.

When the people despise the bread of life, the fiery serpents come and with them death. Throughout their journey through the wilderness they have been surrounded by fiery serpents (Deuteronomy 8:14-Ezra :), but the LORD has always kept them. But their aversion to the heavenly bread makes it necessary to teach them (and us!) a penetrating lesson.

The plague of the fiery serpents makes the people reflect. Through the fiery serpents, the people must discover that sin still dwells in them. It concerns the people of God who must learn what effect the bite of a fiery serpent has. Then, for the first time in Numbers, we hear the people say: “We have sinned.” This is the first time they confess guilt.

They appeal to the intercession of Moses. They also tell him what to pray. In doing so, they indicate what they think is best for their recovery. But God always has in mind the glory of the Lord Jesus when He hears a prayer. Therefore He does not take away the fiery serpents, as the people suggest. Compare Naäman who also proposes how he can be cleansed from his leprosy (2 Kings 5:11).

The LORD gives outcome, but in a way that the salvation is connected to the faith of the people. Moses has to make a bronze serpent and put it on a standard. A single look at the lifted up fiery serpent is enough to be healed. The ‘looking’ at the fiery serpent does have the meaning of intensely looking at. In his conversation with Nicodemus, the Lord Jesus explains the spiritual significance of this event: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life” (John 3:14-Ezra :; Romans 8:3; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22; Colossians 2:14-Ezra :).

God heals the people not by taking away the serpents, but by adding something to it. Moses must take the means by which the people are plagued. Thus the Lord Jesus had to enter into our circumstances. He could not save us by speaking a word of power or by judging the devil. Then we would have remained in our sins. It is only because He was made sin for us on the cross that it became possible to free us from the power of sin (John 3:15).

The Son of Man must be exalted. This is not so much to forgive sins, although it is included, but He had to be exalted to give eternal life to all who believe in Him. The lifting up on the cross opens the richest, heavenly, eternal blessings for all who believe. The fiery serpent not only speaks of salvation of the serpent’s bite and of not having to die, but on top of that of eternal life. At the end of the wilderness journey we are reminded of this by this history.

We know eternal life in the Father and the Son (John 17:3). Eternal life is knowing the Lord Jesus, for He is “the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20). What eternal life means, we do not know at the beginning of our journey through the wilderness, when we have just been converted. We learn this as we give up more and more of ourselves through the lessons of the wilderness. Then we also see better and better that the eternal life means much more than forgiveness of sins and being freed from hell.

The fiery serpent is taken by the Israelites to Canaan. There it becomes an idolatrous object, that is destroyed by Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:4). Thus, the cross can be deprived of its true meaning and made into a kind of mascot. For example, a cross can be worn as a piece of jewelry and a protective effect can be attributed to it.

Verses 10-20

To the Plains of Moab

The progress of the people along the different places to the plains of Moab is a picture of the spiritual progress that must characterize us as Christians. They first come to Oboth, which means ‘cavities’. Then they move on to Iye-abarim, which means ‘ruins of passages’. This place is connected to “ruins”, “the wilderness” and “Moab” on the one hand, and “to the east”, where the sun rises on the other. It gives a clear picture of our passing through the wilderness of the world, where on the one hand we see the ruins in all parts of society, caused by sin, death and the flesh, and on the other hand we may look forward to the coming of the Lord Jesus as the “Sun of righteousness” rising in the east (Malachi 4:2).

The next place is Wadi Zered. Zered which means ‘willow’. Here we are reminded of the grief that we also encounter in our lives. From there we go to Arnon, which may well mean ‘continuous flow’. It shows that in addition to the grief there is also comfort. The Arnon also forms the border between Moab and the Amorites. We live in an area where we are surrounded by enemies. How we defend ourselves there in the battle of faith – the people abide in the plains of Moab, and the Amorites must be defeated – is recorded in “the Book of the Wars of the LORD”.

Everything God wants to give us, we will only be able to take possession of through battle. God looks at this and keeps a record of it in a book. The name of the book shows that He describes our struggle as His. He takes possession of the land through His people. It is His inheritance which He takes possession of in His saints (Ephesians 1:18). He indicates the border of it.

After the Arnon the people come to Beer, which means ‘well’. Not only does God water us to quench our thirst, He also wants to refresh us abundantly. Some things are said about the well. First of all, that by command of the LORD the people are assembled there. Enjoying the water from the spring, a picture of the Word of God spoken under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is especially something that takes place in the church. Meetings are opportunities for personal refreshment.

The second thing that is said is that it is water that He gives. Drinking of it will bring us to the enjoyment of eternal life (John 4:14). Through the Word we will discover more and more of the Spring Himself. The result, the third aspect, is that we come to worship and sing to the glory of Him from Whom everything comes forth (Romans 11:36).

Here they sing for the third time in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt. During the wilderness journey, there was no singing, there was only complaining. There was singing after they crossed the Red Sea (Exodus 15:1-Ecclesiastes :), then singing when they had made the golden calf. However, that was not a song for the glory of God, but for the glory of the golden calf (Exodus 32:18). And now here, the third song, one of worship to the Spring Himself.

The fourth aspect has to do with the way in which the water appears. The water that has flowed out of the rock has come from God, by pure grace. The water from the spring appears as a result of the efforts of the leaders of the people. This beautiful result shows the importance of the presence of ‘princes’ who dig wells. The ‘princes’ of God’s people are those who are aware of and live by the position given to them by God. They are concerned with the Word of God; they dig into it.

It is to be hoped that there will be more brothers who will occupy themselves with the Word of God, dig into it. It is also to be hoped that they will pass this on in the meetings of the church and that every proclamation of the Word will result in singing.

The “nobles of the people” sink the well “with the scepter [and] with their staffs”. It is not heavy work. In spiritual terms, nobles are believers who submit to God’s Word. The scepter speaks of this submission, a word that can also be translated as ‘legislator’. With the latter, we can remember that sinking is done on the instructions of Moses, a picture of Christ. Both expressions say something about authority, and that rests with God and His Word. If we acknowledge the authority of God’s Word and act only in accordance with what God says in it, we will be abundantly refreshed.

When they arrive in Beer, there are no more complaints about lack of water. There the jubilation breaks out (cf. Isaiah 12:3). God is made great because of His abundance of refreshment and blessing. There the leaders of the people are busy serving the people. There, the people acknowledge that they have a well at their disposal from which they can drink without restriction.

After Beer they travel to Mattanah (‘gift’) and then to Nahaliel (‘the inheritance of God’) and Bamoth (‘heights’) to finally arrive in the valley that is in the land of Moab, at the top of the Pisgah (‘survey’).

Verses 21-32

Fight Against Sihon

The third part of the book of Numbers begins with the battle against Sihon. Part 1 is Numbers 1-10:10, in which the preparation of the journey is described. Part 2 is Numbers 10:11-21:20, in which the journey itself is described. The third part, which contains the rest of the book, takes place in the plains of Moab. The spiritual meaning of the journey is that as we go through the world, we are discovered to ourselves and that we learn about the faithfulness of God through the high priest, for us the Lord Jesus. He wants us to learn to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit and no longer according to the flesh.

‘The plains of Moab’ also has a spiritual meaning. The special thing about the plains of Moab is that the people are no longer in the wilderness, but they are not yet in the land either. The Jordan has still not been crossed. Spiritually speaking, we are not yet seen as in the letter to the Ephesians, where we see how we are blessed with all the spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. That is the land for us. But we are not there yet. But we are also no longer in the wilderness. Spiritually, we have understood what the letter to the Romans teaches us: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” We no longer walk according to the flesh, “but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:1-Numbers :).

The area of the plains of Moab gives the picture of the Christian that we have in the letter to the Philippians. This Christian is still on earth, he has not yet gone through the Jordan, so to speak, but his whole heart goes out to heaven, to which he presses. We learn this in the rest of Numbers and the whole book Deuteronomy. The heart of the people will be completely focused on the land they will soon enter, so that they will love to enter.

The first thing we encounter in the plains of Moab, is battle. The first enemies are Sihon and Og. So this is not yet the battle in the land. There are different types of battle:
1. In the wilderness there is a defensive battle that cannot be escaped. It is a battle where the people have to fight, but which the LORD takes for his account (Exodus 17:8; Exodus 17:16).
2. In the land there is an attacking battle to conquer the land.
3. In the plains of Moab, it’s a battle they don’t seek and try to avoid, but they can’t escape either. Then they also take possession of the cities of the Amorites, something that has never been the case in their struggle in the wilderness.

The cities on the wilderness side of the Jordan are taken possession of. That is not yet the actual land, because that is on the other side of the Jordan. Later, two and a half tribes will ask for and receive their inheritance in this area. It turns out that they do not appreciate an inheritance in the land. Moses later blames them for this. Just as the land of Canaan speaks of the heavenly places and the spiritual blessings therein, so the territory on this side of the Jordan, the plains of Moab, speaks of the earthly blessings.

The blessing of the Christian consists of the spiritual blessings in the heavenly places and not the earthly blessings. To really enjoy the spiritual blessings, we first have to conquer the earthly ones. This means on the one hand that we can accept the earthly blessings gratefully from God’s hand. It also means, on the other hand, that we rule over it and not that we allow ourselves to be dominated by the earthly blessings. Only when we give the earthly blessings their true place, we can occupy ourselves with the heavenly.

Many Christians, and in fact Christianity as a whole, are like the two and a half tribes. They are so satisfied with the earthly blessings that they are not interested in the spiritual blessings and do not worry about them. They focus on the earthly as if the earth is their actual home. This also leads to political efforts to ensure a long and pleasant stay on earth.

That is not God’s intention of earthly blessings. If that’s all, we don’t distinguish ourselves from the unbelievers who also (want to) have these blessings, without, by the way, thanking God for them or involving Him in them. God wants us, His children, to reach out to our real inheritance: the spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, which is the eternal life in Christ.

Sihon and Og are unbelievers. They represent people who possess blessings in the power of the flesh. With them there is no gratitude to God. The characteristic of Sihon is his honor, his fame. He did not conquer the land from the Ammonites for the glory of God, but for his own glory. This is expressed in the song by the poets of proverbs that Moses mentions here. Og uses the land for its own enjoyment. This is reflected in the only characteristic given of him: his giant bed (Deuteronomy 3:11).

In Sihon and Og we see the dangers that the earthly blessings have for us. If we do not keep the flesh in the place of death and walk through the Spirit, we will forget our actual spiritual blessings. The result is that we look for our own honor and pleasure that are connected to the earthly blessings.

After this digression about the spiritual meaning we return to the text. Israel has revived and rejuvenated at Beer. A people who are happy in the LORD is strong (Nehemiah 8:10). Through the joy of the well they can successfully fight against enemies. But first they send messengers to Sihon, as well as to Edom (Numbers 20:14). Sihon reacts just like Edom. Unlike with Edom, Israel is now ordered to fight against the enemy and to take its land. Already in Genesis 15 God foretold the judgment of the Amorites, but it will only be carried out when their iniquity is full (Genesis 15:16). That moment has now arrived.

In Numbers 21:27-Amos :, those who use proverbs are quoted to prove that this area first belonged to the Ammonites and was conquered by the Amorites. Some say they are poets of proverbs of Israel, others think they belong to the Amorites. In any case, it is a victory song. In the first case the Ammonites, and in the second case the Amorites are challenged to rebuild their conquered and fire-destroyed capital. The song sings of a total over-winning.

About Moab the “woe to you” is proclaimed. Chemosh, the main god of the Ammonites (Jeremiah 48:7) and of the Amorites (Judges 11:24), is a worthless god who is unable to protect the people who have taken him to be their god. The Ammonites were overpowered by the Amorites and the Amorites were destroyed by the Israelites.

If the area where Sihon reigns had been of the Ammonites, Israel would not have been allowed to take it. Now they are allowed to do so and they can even live there. Jephthah appears to be well aware of this historical data. He can later use this to refute the claim of the king of the Ammonites (Judges 11:13-Isaiah :).

Verses 33-35

Fight Against Og

No messengers are sent to Og, who rules the northern half of Gilead and Bashan. Og has not been warned by what happened to Sihon. He takes the initiative and attacks Israel. The LORD assures Israel of the victory. With this commitment, the people are fighting and Og is completely defeated. They also take possession of his land.

The victory over Sihon and Og is quoted several times later in the Bible (Nehemiah 9:22; Psalms 135:10-1 Kings :; Psalms 136:18-Proverbs :).

Bibliographical Information
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Numbers 21". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kng/numbers-21.html. 'Stichting Titus' / 'Stichting Uitgeverij Daniël', Zwolle, Nederland. 2021.
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