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The Israelites destroy the city of the Amorites: they murmur: are plagued with fiery serpents: and are healed by a brazen serpent: the kings, Sihon and Og, are overcome.
Before Christ 1452.
Numbers 21:1. And when king Arad— Most of the ancient versions have it, the Canaanitish king of Arad. That there was such a city in Canaan, appears from Joshua 12:14. Jdg 1:16 which probably had its name from one of the sons of Canaan called Arvad, which the LXX and Vulgate translate Arad. Genesis 10:18. That Israel came by the way of the spies, seems to mean, that this king had intelligence that the Israelites were about to enter Canaan by the same way that it had been entered by the spies whom they had sent heretofore to view the land. Some think the meaning is, that the Israelites were coming in the manner of spies; while the LXX, and some others, take the word אתרים atharim, which we render spies, for a proper name. God permitted this little defeat to happen to the Israelites, to shew them, that it was not by their own proper valour that they were to make a conquest of the land of Canaan.
Numbers 21:2. I will utterly destroy their cities— I will utterly devote their cities to destruction. They implored the divine aid by a solemn vow, thus obliging themselves to devote all the persons to death, and their goods to sacred uses. See Lev 27:28-29 and Joshua 6:17; Joshua 6:27. Instances of this kind of vow are frequently found amongst the heathens; among the rest, a very remarkable example may be met with in Tacitus. Ann. lib. xiii. c. 57. See also the note on ch. Numbers 22:5.
Numbers 21:3. They utterly destroyed them, and their cities:— They utterly devoted them and their cities; Dr. Waterland. Houbigant agrees with Dr. Waterland in this translation, ipsorum urbes anathemate devovit; a translation which entirely removes all those difficulties wherewith the text is incumbered by the present version, expressing that they now anathematised, or devoted them and their cities to destruction, and when the cities came into their possession paid their vow; it being undeniable that what our text expresses was not the fact, as appears from Joshua 12:14.Judges 1:16-17; Judges 1:16-17; Judges 1:36. See Wall on the Place.
He called the name of the place Hormah— That is, anathema, or devotion: the word denotes a total separation of any thing or person from their former state and condition. This city of Hormah was situated in the south of Canaan.
Numbers 21:4. And they journeyed from mount Hor, by the way of the Red sea— Houbigant supposes that the word, which we render the Red-sea, im-suph, is one word, denoting some principal place in that country; and so, accordingly, he renders it, upon the supposed impossibility of the Israelites passing again by the Red sea. In this journey, the soul of the people was much discouraged; i.e. made fretful and impatient through fatigue; when, like their forefathers, they began to murmur against God, and reflect upon Moses: not hesitating in their impatience to utter the greatest falsehoods; for there is no bread, neither is there any water, say they, (Numbers 21:5.) though they were fed with bread from heaven, and water from the rock. They did not consider that which God gave them as worthy the name of bread: our soul loatheth this light bread; this exceeding vile and contemptible bread, as the Hebrew word expresses it; or, as the LXX has it, this empty bread; having no substance in it to give solid nourishment. See ch. Numbers 11:6.
See commentary on Num 21:9
Numbers 21:4-9. New provocations bring down new plagues upon them. We have here, 1. Their murmuring. Discouraged by the length and difficulties of the road, they not only quarrel with Moses, but speak also against God, as if his design was to destroy them instead of saving them; and, loathing of God's provision of manna, they pretend to be now famished with that light food, though so long and comfortably fed by it. Note; (1.) Many, like these, are discontented, though surrounded with mercies. (2.) The long continuance of the means of grace is apt to make them cheap in our eyes. The longer some enjoy the preaching of the Gospel, the less they value it: when it was new, their appetite was sharp; but now it is become insipid to them. God visits their sin with fiery serpents, whose bite was venomous, and the effect of it burning heat and intolerable thirst; a punishment suited to their sin. They feared that they should die where no danger was; God, therefore, will give reality to their fears, and they shall die. Thus they, who complain without cause, shall have cause to complain. (3.) When they felt the smart of the serpents, they began to lament the sin which brought them, and to beg the advocacy of Moses, whom they had so often abused. Note; (1.) It is a mercy when sufferings by sin lead us to repentance for sin. (2.) In affliction, those ministers of God will be first sought whom we have most despised.
In their sin, suffering, and method of cure, we may, as in a glass, see our own image reflected. Every man, by nature, is stung with the poison of sin by that old serpent the devil; the effects of which must be shortly fatal, unless the venom be removed. Christ Jesus is, to us, this brazen serpent, fashioned after the likeness of sinful flesh, and lifted up once on the cross, and still in the preaching of the Gospel, for the healing of the nations. No other method than this, which infinite Wisdom hath contrived, has any efficacy to remove the guilt of sin, or quiet the fears of a wounded conscience. We are commanded to look to Him; and whoever by faith, however desperate his cause appear, turns to a dying Saviour his dying eyes, shall feel his mortal pains assuaged, and the sting of death plucked from his heart. But if, neglecting or despising this salvation, the miserable sinner seeks by his own righteousness to recover, or dares not trust alone in the merit of Jesus far life and glory, then he perishes without remedy, and his sin will be his eternal ruin.
Numbers 21:6. The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people— Bochart takes these serpents to have been of that kind which is called Hydrus, or Chersydrus, whose bite dries up the skin, and occasions a violent heat; whence the Hebrew calls them fiery: their poison is more inflammatory in the hot months, as this was, being the month of August. The same author shews, that some species of them were flying serpents, of which Isaiah speaks, ch. Num 14:29 and Num 30:6 and with such Arabia particularly is said to be infested. Accordingly Herodotus tells us, that he had seen these winged or flying serpents in Egypt, and that there are such prodigious numbers of them in Arabia, that, if they were to increase according to the usual course of nature, men could not exist for them; see Herodotus, lib. 2: cap. 75, &c. Bochart Hieroz. par. 2: lib. 3: cap. 13 and Calmet on serpents. These serpents might have been called שׂרפים seraphim, burning; either from the heat and burning pain occasioned by their bite, or, as is more likely, from their vivid, fiery colour: accordingly, Strabo, Geog. lib. 16: has taken notice of a kind of serpents produced near the parts where the Israelites journeyed, which might be called fiery from their colour οφεις φοινικοι την χροαν ; and both he and Diodorus were of opinion that the bite of these was incurable.
See commentary on Num 21:9
Numbers 21:8. Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole— The author of the Book of Wisdom sets this matter in its proper light, when he calls this fiery serpent a sign of salvation to put them in remembrance of God's laws; for he that turned himself towards it, says he, was not saved by the thing that he saw, but by thee, who art the Saviour of all. The healing virtue which accompanied the looking upon this image was derived from God alone, who was pleased in this manner to display his power, to make the Israelites sensible that these serpents were sent by him; and that this seemingly weak method of cure might convince them, that they had no reason to fear any evil whatsoever, provided they but made God their friend, whose power could procure so easy a remedy in all emergencies. To the same purpose our Saviour, in curing the man born blind, put clay upon his eyes, to shew that the cure was extraordinary and supernatural. Here all interpreters observe a remarkable similitude between the virtue of this brazen serpent erected on a pole, and that of Christ's death, and which is taken notice of by Christ himself. John 3:14. For, as no one could imagine that the bare sight of a serpent, imaged in brass, would cure the serpent's poison; to nothing is more true, however incredible it appeared at the time of the event, than that the only effectual means of propagating the Christian Religion, and of drawing all nations to the faith and obedience of the Gospel, and consequently of saving those who were sincere in that profession from the sting of death and the power of the devil, that old serpent, (Revelation 12:9; Revelation 20:2.) was the lifting up of Christ upon the cross, or putting him to death. This interpretation sufficiently removes all the objections of Voltaire, and such enemies of the Old Testament as pretend that Moses, by forming this brazen serpent, was himself an encourager of that idolatry which he so severely reprehends in others. There is no ground from the text to suppose that this brazen serpent was ever intended as an object of worship. The word which we render pole in this verse, signifies an ensign or banner; a sign erected with an intention that people may gather around it. Isaiah 5:26; Isaiah 49:22.
See commentary on Num 21:9
Numbers 21:9. Moses made a serpent of brass— That it might resemble a serpent of a flaming colour; and, being splendid, might be seen far and near. Naturalists observe, that the sight of the image of the creature by which men were bitten, tended of itself rather to increase disease, and fill them with greater anguish, by disturbing their imagination: if so, it was the more proper to convince the Israelites that their cure came from God alone, who made that, of which the aspect was naturally hurtful, to be the means of their recovery. Those who would see more upon this subject may consult Scheuchner on the place. Mr. Saurin observes, that the Jews have a remarkable saying, "that as the bitings of the fiery serpents were cured by the Israelites looking up to the brazen serpent; so will be the bitings of the old serpent inflicted on Adam and his posterity at the time of the Messiah." If this saying (says he) were known in the days of our Saviour, it is probable that he alluded to it, when he said to Nicodemus, as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. John 3:14.
It is plain, that our Lord compares faith to the look which the Israelites, being wounded, by the bitings of the fiery serpents, cast upon that of brass. He also compares the healings which attended their look to the fruits of faith, and the lifting up of the serpent to his exaltation upon the cross. This allusion is so much the more happy, as, according to the observation of some critics, the Syriac word which our Lord used signifies both to lift up and to crucify. He used this word in the same sense, when he said, and I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me; John 12:32. The prophets made the same allusions too, perhaps, when, speaking of the evangelical ages, they said, at that day shall a man look to his Maker, and his eyes shall have respect to the Holy One of Israel; Isa 17:7 and, in another place, they introduce the Saviour saying, look unto me, and be saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none else. Isaiah 45:22. See Saurin, Diss. 63.
Numbers 21:10. And the children of Israel set forward— From the place where the brazen serpent was erected, called Punon; chap. Num 33:42 where see an account of all these stations.
Numbers 21:13. And pitched on the other side of Arnon— A river which took its rise from the mountains of Arabia, and fell into the Dead sea; the country of Moab being on the south side of it, and that of the Amorites on the north. It divided itself into several streams, whence is that expression, Num 21:14 in the brooks of Arnon. When Moses mentions that Arnon is the border of Moab, it is to shew, that the Israelites had liberty to attack those territories beyond the river Arnon, as not now belonging to the Moabites, upon whom they were forbidden to make war. Deuteronomy 2:9.
Numbers 21:14-15. Wherefore, &c.— Wherefore mention is made in the story of the wars of the Lord, in Vaheb in Supha, and of the brooks of Arnon,—and of the stream, &c. (Carpz. Introd. part 1: p. 124. Wat.) This version of Dr. Waterland gives us the most intelligible account of the present obscure passage. Le Clerc gives nearly the same sense. By the wars of the Lord, he understands the wars of the Israelites, who fought under the banner and protection of Jehovah; and instead of book, he translates too, with most of the Jewish doctors, the narration; so that, according to him, the whole verse runs thus: wherefore, in the narration of the wars of the Lord, there is [or shall be] mention of Vaheb in Supha, and of the brooks of Arnon; meaning, that these places shall be recorded in the Jewish history, as the beginning of their conquests, which, as to Arnon, is unquestionably true. See Deuteronomy 24:22. He thinks Vaheb is mentioned below under another name; see on Num 21:18 and Supha is mentioned, Deu 1:1 as a place near those plains where Moses put forth the Book of Deuteronomy: it is there, as well as here, rendered the Red sea, though unquestionably wrong; for Arnon, and the country thereabouts, is not near the Red sea. The Vulgate gives a very good sense, if it could be made out of the words, as he did in the Red sea, so shall he do in the brooks of Arnon; meaning that these places shall be recorded in the Jewish history, as the beginning of their conquests: which is true as to Arnon. There are some who think that Moses here refers to a book, wherein had been given a more full and particular account of all that had befallen the Israelites before their settlement in Canaan, which he had named the book of the wars of the Lord; and it seems very reasonable to suppose, that the short historical account of things delivered in the Pentateuch was taken from some more extensive annals.
Numbers 21:16. And from thence they went to Beer— Or, as the context explains it, to the well which, by God's direction, they dug, and from whence they were supplied with water in their necessity. Grateful for which, they sung the alternate song of praise mentioned in the next verse; where what we translate, Sing ye unto it, is more properly rendered in the margin, answer ye unto it; for the ancient manner was to sing their songs of praise alternately, as appears from Exodus 15:20-21. So the singing women answered one to another, 1 Samuel 18:7.
Numbers 21:18. By the direction of the law-giver, with their slaves— Houbigant renders this verse, This is the well which the princes digged; which the nobles of the people digged in that place which their staff assigned, or pointed out. The Hebrew is, word for word, says he, in indicio facto per baculos ipsorum; expressing, that the princes with their staves marked out the ground where the well might be found. Syrus gives nearly the same translation, et indicaverunt eum baculis suis; and they shewed it with their staves. Those who follow our version understand the meaning to be, either that the waters sprung up with such ease and speed that the princes no sooner directed with their staves where to dig than their labours were successful; or that the princes, and those who bore staves, the badges of dignity, joined with the multitude in digging it.
They went to Mattanah— Le Clerc takes this to be the same place with that called Vaheb; Num 21:14 for vaheb in Arabic signifies a gift, as matthan does in the Hebrew.
Numbers 21:20. To the top of Pisgah— Houbigant renders this, Ras-pisgah, supposing the whole a proper name; which, says he, in so uncertain a matter, seems the safest: for, from the context, it sufficiently appears, that this was not the mountain Pisgah; nor can it be proper to render ראשׁ rosh, a mountain, or top, when the Israelites are said to come into a valley. Le Clerc renders it, under the top of Pisgah. Which looketh toward Jeshimon, is rendered more properly in the margin, toward the wilderness; namely, the wilderness of Kedemoth, a city on the borders of the country of the Amorites, from whence they sent messengers to Sihon. See Deuteronomy 32:10. Psa 68:7 in the original.
REFLECTIONS.—We have here the journies of the people towards Canaan. When they were advanced from Oboth to Beer, in their want of water, God, of his own motion, promises to supply them abundantly. They seem now to have trusted without murmuring, and they find the blessing of doing to. Hereupon, 1. They celebrate with songs of praise the divine mercy; and in confidence of the promise, as if already fulfilled, pray to and praise the gracious giver. Note; (1.) Every promised mercy is as much our own, as if we actually possessed it. (2.) Christ, by his spirit in the believer's heart, as a well of water, springeth up into eternal life. (3.) Praise is the grateful tribute we owe to God for his rich and undeserved mercies. 2. As the people sung, the princes digged, or digged in faith, and their staves, like Moses's rod, brought streams out of the dry ground. When our contrivances seem at the lowest ebb, God can thus open pools in the wilderness; and whilst we, in dependance upon him, employ the staff of prayer, we need not fear but that he will lead us forth beside the waters of comfort.
Numbers 21:23. He came to Jahaz, and fought against Israel— Jahaz was a city either in the country of Moab, or near it, as appears from Isaiah 15:4.Jeremiah 48:21; Jeremiah 48:21. There the Amorites fell upon the Israelites when they had given them no provocation, and consequently were the first aggressors: so that the just ground of the war was, not their denying the Israelites a passage through the country, as Grotius thinks, (see on ch. Numbers 21:20-21.) but because they fell upon the Israelites unjustly, and were of the seven nations condemned by God to that destruction which now overwhelmed them, Deuteronomy 2:33-34.
Numbers 21:24. Possessed his land from Arnon unto Jabbok, even unto the children of Ammon— This is a brief description of the extent of Sihon's country, which reached from the river Arnon, the bound of the Moabites country on the south, ch. Num 22:36 unto the river Jabbok, which was the bound of the Ammonites country on the north, Deuteronomy 3:16. Joshua 12:2; Joshua 13:10. For the border of the children of Ammon was strong; Houbigant renders, for the borders, &c. were fortified; and this is mentioned as one reason why the children of Israel did not attack their country. We are farther told, that they were forbidden to meddle with them, because they were the descendants of Lot, Deuteronomy 2:19. The border of the children of Ammon was rendered naturally strong by a ridge of mountains, which parted them from the kingdom of Sihon.
Numbers 21:26. Heshbon—the city of Sihon— Heshbon was the capital city of the Amorites, and their king's seat; and Sihon is thought to be the name common to all the kings of the Amorites, as Pharaoh was to the kings of Egypt: so that the meaning is, that one of the kings of the Amorites made an inroad into the Kingdom of the Moabites, and took from them Heshbon, &c. Moses here remarks, that when the Israelites conquered those lands, they were not in the possession of the Moabites, but of the Amorites; and, consequently, that their title to them was good, notwithstanding the prohibition (Deuteronomy 9:19.) against meddling with the lands of the Moabites and Ammonites.
This precaution appears to have been very necessary; for we find that a contest arose afterwards, on this very head, between the Israelites and the Ammonites, Judges 11:13. THE former king of Moab, should rather be rendered a former king of Moab; for it is not certain that it was that king of Moab who reigned immediately before Sihon.
Numbers 21:27. They that speak in proverbs— Upon occasion of the conquest of the Amorites over the Moabites, the sacred historian informs us, that a famous poems or song of rejoicing, was composed by the Amorites, which was sung to that day. The word משׁלים moshlim, signifies allegorists, proverbialists; or, in general, those who write or speak in a figurative sense, like that of Balaam, ch. Numbers 23:7; Numbers 23:18, &c. And therefore it fitly denotes poets, who write in a high figurative style, such as this poetical composition of some ancient writer among the Amorites: and this quotation seems to have been inserted in the sacred history, to shew that this country belonged to the Amorites, and not to the Moabites, when Israel subdued it. This fragment of ancient poetry, like some others found in the foregoing parts of Scripture, is delivered in metre, and each second verse corresponds to the preceding; see Bp. Warburton's Divin. Leg. b. 4: sect. 4 and Lowth. Praelect. Poet. p. 45. 8vo.
Come into Heshbon— The poet here represents the Amorites calling to each other in such triumphant strains as used to be sung after victories.
Let the city of Sihon be built— Rather, be repaired, or rebuilt; "let that Heshbon, which is now become the city of Sihon, be repaired from the ruins of the war, and made fit to be his royal seat."
Numbers 21:28. For there is a fire gone out of Heshbon— The poet here rises into raptures, and prophesies the conquest of the whole country by the desolating army of Sihon marching out of Heshbon: for by fire is meant desolating war, to which it is most fitly compared: so in Judges 9:20. Isaiah 29:6. Amos 1:4. & seq.; and the same comparison is used by other authors.
——Quis Trojae nesciat urbem, Et tanti incendia belli.— VIRGIL.
The poet goes on, It hath consumed Ar of Moab, speaking of it, in a poetical enthusiasm, as present to his view, and already accomplished, though it never came to pass; for Ar remained in possession of Moab in Moses's time, Deuteronomy 18:22. This city was situated on the south side of the river Arnon, and became the capital of Moab, otherwise called Rabbah, or Rabbah-Mobah, i.e. the great city of Moab. It is thought to be the same as had the name of Areopolis in latter ages; see Bochart's Preface to his Phaleg. What we render high places, in the next clause of the verse, some take to be the name of a city or village; namely, Bamoth, mentioned Num 21:19 as situate in the country of Moab. According to our version, the clause signifies, the princes of Moab, who dwelt in the strongest forts of their country, lying on the river Arnon. The Arabic understands it of the Gods of those high places.
Numbers 21:29. O people of Chemosh— Here, in the poetical strain, he apostrophises the Moabites, who worshipped the God Chemosh, and are therefore called, the people of Chemosh, Judges 11:24. 1 Kings 11:7. Jeremiah 7:13. For it is at all times to be remembered, the better to understand the Scriptures, that every nation had peculiar gods, which were deemed their immediate guardians and protectors, and were accordingly worshipped by them with particular honours. Chemosh is thought by some to be another name for Baal-peor, whom the Israelites were afterwards enticed to worship in Shittim with obscene rites; see ch. xxv. Hence Milton, Par. Lost, book i. ver. 406.
Next Chemos, th' obscene dread of Moab's sons; Peor his other name, when he entic'd Israel in Sittim, on their march from Nile, To do him wanton rites, which cost them woe.
Upon which place Bishop Newton observes, that St. Jerome, and several learned men, assert Chemos and Baal-peor to be only different names for the same idol, and suppose him to be the same with Priapus, or the idol of turpitude; and therefore called here th' obscene dread of Moab's sins; see 1 Kings 11:7. 2 Kings 23:13-14. Le Clerc takes Chemoth for the sun, deriving it from an Arabic word; and Dr. Hyde, in his Relig. Pers. deriving it also from an Arabic word, signifying gnats, supposes it to have been an astrological talisman, in the figure of a gnat, made to drive away those infects; but Parkhurst, much more rationally, deduces it from כמשׁ chamash, to be swift, active; and he supposes Chemos to have been an idol of the obscene or priapean kind, representative of the agency of light in the generation of men and animals. Hence, says he, the Greeks seem to have had their Κωμος, (called by the Romans Comus) the God of lascivious feasting; whence the verb κωμαζειν, and the Latin commessatio. These κωμοι, revellings, are expressly forbidden to Christians by the Apostle, Romans 13:0. κωμοις . Compare, Galatians 5:21. 1 Peter 4:3. Concerning Chemosh, the poet here goes on to say, He hath given his sons that escaped, and his daughters into captivity, &c. i.e. Chemosh, their God, had abandoned his sons or votaries, and left them to be taken captive; thus insulting not only over the people, but over their God. The Moabites are called the sons of Chemosh, as the worshippers of the true God are styled the sons of the living God, Hosea 1:10. The prophet Jeremiah seems to have had his eye upon this passage in his 48th chap. 45th verse.
Numbers 21:30. We have shot at them— The Hebrew here is אבד ונירם vaniram abad, which Le Clerc and others render, and their light is perished: i.e. their valiant youth, who are the lights and ornaments of the state, and who are the light, i.e. the joy, of their parents: others, of whom Houbigant is one, render it their yoke; i.e. their oppressive power is perished; which appears most agreeable to the Hebrew. We only remark further, that, in all probability, this piece of Amoritish poetry made part of the ancient chronicle of the country. In the most distant times, the language of poetry was that of the historian, of the rhetorician, and in general of all who undertook to write. Whatever was composed for the instruction of the people, was composed in verse. "The Ancients," says Strabo, "considered poetry as a kind of first philosophy, proper to regulate the life from the tenderest infancy, to inculcate good manners, and to govern the human passions and actions in the most agreeable way. Thus," adds he, "the Greeks afterwards made use of poetry in their public academies for the instruction of the youth; not merely because this method was entertaining, but because they thought it proper to form their children to modesty." See Patrick.
Numbers 21:32. And Moses sent to spy out Jaazer— Another city belonging to Moab, but now in the possession of the Amorites, which the Israelites did not take at first. It should seem, from ch. Num 32:1. 2Sa 24:5-6 and 1Ch 26:31 to have been situated not far from mount Gilead. St. Jerome places it about fifteen miles distant from Heshbon. After the captivity of the ten tribes, it fell again into the hands of the Moabites, Jeremiah 48:32.
Numbers 21:33. Went by the way of Bashan— A famous mountain, Psa 68:15 lying more northwardly than the country of Sihon, and belonging also to the Amorites; for both Sihon and Og are said to be kings of the Amorites, Deuteronomy 3:8. It is celebrated in Scripture for its rich pasture, and excellent breed of cattle, Psa 22:12 and for its stately oaks, Ezekiel 27:6. It gave name to that whole country where Og reigned, which was called by the Scythians and Arabians Bethana, and by the Greeks Batanea; and it lay about the brook Jabbok. Og was of the remnant of the giants of Rephaim, who were a mighty people in that country; compare Genesis 14:0 with Joshua 12:4; Joshua 13:12. Edrei, afterwards called Adra, is placed by St. Jerome among the considerable villages of Arabia, about four miles from Bozrah.
Numbers 21:34. The Lord said unto Moses— We refer the reader to the third chapter of Deuteronomy, where this event is recorded more at large.
REFLECTIONS.—Instead of being warned by the fate of his neighbours, Og, king of Bashan, hastens to the attack, and meets the like destruction. God encourages his people; they fight and conquer, and possess the land. No weapon formed against them can prosper. The powers of corruption, though strong as this gigantic Amorite, must fall before the believer who is clad in the panoply of God. These successes were a happy earnest of future victory; and from every struggle against sin, our faith should grow more confirmed. He who is the strength of his faithful people now, will be their salvation for ever.
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Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Numbers 21". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany