Numbers 21

The Word Made Fresh

1The king of Arad, a Canaanite who lived in the Negeb, heard that the Israelites were coming along the Atharim road, and he attacked Israel and took some of them captive. 2Then the people made a sacred promise to the LORD. They said, “If you will give us victory over these people, we will completely demolish all their towns.” 3The LORD heard their voice and delivered the Canaanites into their hands, and they defeated the Canaanites and destroyed their towns. They called the battleground “Hormah,” which means “Destruction.”

4They left Mt. Hor and traveled toward the Sea of Reeds to go around Edom, 5but the people began to grumble against God and against Moses. They said, “Did you bring us out of Egypt to die in this desert? There is nothing to eat here! There is no water! And we’re sick of this lousy diet!” 6The LORD sent poisonous snakes to bite the people. A lot of them died.

7Then the people came to Moses and said, “We’re sorry we accused the LORD and you. Please ask the LORD to take these snakes away!”

So, Moses prayed for them, 8and the LORD told him to fashion the likeness of a poisonous snake and mount it on a pole. “Whoever is bitten by a snake can look at it and not die,” said the LORD.

9Moses made a snake of bronze, fixed it to a pole, and whenever someone was bitten by a snake, they would look at the bronze snake and live.

10The Israelites broke camp and moved on to Oboth, 11then set out from there and camped in the wilderness at Iye-abarim with the border of Moab toward the east. 12They moved again and camped in the Zered valley. 13From there they moved on to a new campsite beside the Arnon streambed out from the wilderness of the Amorites. The Arnon forms the border between the Amorites and Moab. 14The Book of the Wars of the LORD speaks of the village of Waheb from which wadis flow into the area known as Suphah. The Arnon 15moves along the ravines that lead to the town of Ar and wanders along the border of Moab. 16From there they moved on to the well where the LORD said to Moses, “Get the people together and I will give them water.”

17The Israelites sang a song: “Bubble up, O well (Sing it!), 18the well the rulers dug with their scepters and rods!”

Then from the wilderness they traveled to Mattanah 19then to Nahliel, then to Bamoth, 20and from there to the valley near Moab near the peak of Pisgah that overlooks the wilderness.

21They sent messengers to King Sihon of the Amorites 22to ask for permission to pass through his territory. 22“We will not trespass into your fields and vineyards. We will not draw water from your wells. We will stay on the king’s highway until we are beyond your territory.”

23But Sihon refused. He gathered an army and marched out against Israel in the wilderness and fought them at Jahaz. 24Israel won the battle and claimed his territory from the Arnon streambed to the Jabbok, all the way to the country of the Ammonites, whose border was strong. 25Israel settled in the Amorite towns, in Heshbon and the surrounding villages. 26Heshbon was the capital of the Amorites. They defeated the former king of Moab and took the land as far as the Arnon.

27The balladeers composed a little song about it:

“Come to Heshbon and rebuild the city of Sihon.

28“Fire shot out from Heshbon and flames from Sihon and devoured Ar of the Moabites and swept over the Arnon heights.

29“Woe to you, Moab! You’re finished, Chemosh! Your king has let his children become slaves to Sohon, the Amorite king!

30“They were defeated, from Heshbon to Dibon, and we completely destroyed them from Nophah to Medeba.”

31So Israel settled in Amorite territory. 32Moses sent spies to Jazer, and they overtook the outlying settlements and drove out the Amorites who lived there.

33Then they changed direction and closed in on Bashan. King Og came out with all his people to do battle against them. 34The LORD said to Moses, “Don’t be afraid of him. I will hand him and his people and his territory over to you, just as I did with the Amorite king, Sihon, in Heshbon. 35So the Israelites killed Og and his family and all his people, leaving no survivors, and they took possession of the land.


1-3: The story of the defeat of Arad seems to be out of place, inserted as it is between the death of Aaron on Mt. Hor (20:27-28) and their departure from Mt. Hor in verse 4. Also, the setting of the story (in the Negeb) is further north than we should expect. There is a connection, though, with the earlier story in 14:39ff: in that story they were defeated and driven back “as far as Hormah” (14:45). In this story they are victorious and call the place Hormah (21:3), but it may not be the same location because “hormah” means “destruction” and could conceivably have been given as a name to more than one place. You may have noticed that in this story of war Moses is completely absent.

4-9: After their successful battle against Arad they set out to go around Edom, and the people begin to gripe again. They say they don’t have food, but then they say they don’t like the food they have! Their complaint in this instance is against both Moses and God. God responds by sending an infestation of poisonous serpents, and some of the people die. They confess and repent, and Moses makes a bronze snake that has the power to heal them when they look at it. The story is the basis of the medical symbol used in hospitals today — a serpent coiled around a staff. It is also the centerpiece for one of Jesus’ sayings (John 3:14-15: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” – NRSV).

10-20: A travelogue is given of their journey around Edom (through which they are not allowed to pass) to the Amorite frontier.

21-32: They ask for permission to pass through the territory of the Amorites, but are turned down by King Sihon, and the Amorites attack. Israel defeats them and settles in their towns.

33-35: They also defeat King Og of Bashan and take possession of that territory as well. Israel has now conquered and occupied a sizeable parcel of land east of the Dead Sea. Their wandering in the wilderness of Sinai actually only takes a bit more than a year, but once settled in Amorite territory it will be another 38 or so years before they cross the Jordan and enter the land of Canaan, the Promised Land.


Over and over, I see it demonstrated that one of the most important virtues we can possess is the virtue of patience — the willingness to wait until a path becomes clear.