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Adam Clarke Commentary

Numbers 21

Introduction

Arad, a king of the Canaanites, attacks Israel, and makes same prisoners, Numbers 21:1 . They devote him and his people to destruction, Numbers 21:2 ; which they afterwards accomplished, Numbers 21:3 . They journey from Hor, and are greatly discouraged, Numbers 21:4 . They murmur against God and Moses, and loathe the manna, Numbers 21:5 . The Lord sends fiery serpents among them, Numbers 21:6 . They repent, and beg Moses to intercede for them, Numbers 21:7 . The Lord directs him to make a brazen serpent, and set it on a pole, that the people might look on it and be healed, Numbers 21:8 . Moses does so, and the people who beheld the brazen serpent lived, Numbers 21:9 . They journey to Oboth, Ije-abarim, Zared, and Arnon, Numbers 21:10 -13. A quotation from the book of the wars of the Lord, Numbers 21:14 , Numbers 21:15 . From Arnon they came to Beer, Numbers 21:16 . Their song of triumph, Numbers 21:17 -20. Moses sends messengers to the Amorites for permission to pass through their land, Numbers 21:21 , Numbers 21:22 . Sihon their king refuses, attacks Israel, is defeated, and all his cities destroyed, Numbers 21:23 -26. The poetic proverbs made on the occasion, Numbers 21:27 -30. Israel possesses the land of the Amorites, Numbers 21:31 , Numbers 21:32 . They are attacked by Og king of Bashan, Numbers 21:33 . They defeat him, destroy his troops and family, and possess his land, Numbers 21:34 , Numbers 21:35 .

Verse 1

The way of the spies - אתרים atharim. Some think that this signifies the way that the spies took when they went to search the land. But this is impossible, as Dr. Kennicott justly remarks, because Israel had now marched from Meribah-Kadesh to Mount Hor, beyond Ezion-Gaber, and were turning round Edom to the south-east; and therefore the word is to be understood here as the name of a place.

Verse 3

The Lord hearkened to the voice of Israel - The whole of this verse appears to me to have been added after the days of Joshua. It is certain the Canaanites were not utterly destroyed at the time here spoken of, for this did not take place till after the death of Moses. If, instead of utterly destroyed them, ויחרם vaiyacharem, we translate they devoted them to utter destruction, it will make a good sense, and not repugnant to the Hebrew; though some think it more probable that the verse was added afterwards by Joshua or Ezra, in testimony of the fulfillment of God's promise; for Arad, who is mentioned as being destroyed here, is mentioned among those destroyed by Joshua long after, (see Joshua 12:14 : but this is quite consistent with their being devoted to destruction, as this might be fulfilled any time after. See the note on Leviticus 27 (note).

Verse 5

This light bread - הקלקל hakkelokel, a word of excessive scorn; as if they had said, This innutritive, unsubstantial, cheat - stomach stuff.

Verse 6

Fiery serpents - הנחשים השרפים hannechashim hasseraphim. I have observed before, on Gen. iii., that it is difficult to assign a name to the creature termed in Hebrew nachash; it has different significations, but its meaning here and in Gen. iii. is most difficult to be ascertained. Seraphim is one of the orders of angelic beings, Isaiah 6:2 , Isaiah 6:6 ; but as it comes from the root שרף saraph, which signifies to burn, it has been translated fiery in the text. It is likely that St. Paul alludes to the seraphim, Hebrews 1:7 : Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a Flame Of Fire. The animals mentioned here by Moses may have been called fiery because of the heat, violent inflammation, and thirst, occasioned by their bite; and consequently, if serpents, they were of the prester or dipsas species, whose bite, especially that of the former, occasioned a violent inflammation through the whole body, and a fiery appearance of the countenance. The poet Lucan has well expressed this terrible effect of the bite of the prester, and also of the dipsas, in the ninth book of his Pharsalia, which, for the sake of those who may not have the work at hand, I shall here insert.Of the mortal effects of the bite of the dipsas in the deserts of Libya he gives the following description: - Torta caput retro dipsas calcata momordit.Vix dolor aut sensus dentis fuit: ipsaque laetiFrons caret invidia: nec quidquam plaga minatur.Ecce subit virus tacitum, carpitque medullasIgnis edax, calidaque incendit viscera tabe.Ebibit humorem circum vitalia fusumPestis, et in sicco linguam torrere palatoCoepit: defessos iret qui sudor in artusNon fuit, atque oculos lacrymarum vena refugit."Aulus, a noble youth of Tyrrhene blood,Who bore the standard, on a dipsas trod;Backward the wrathful serpent bent her head,And, fell with rage, the unheeded wrong repaid.Scarce did some little mark of hurt remain,And scarce he found some little sense of pain.Nor could he yet the danger doubt, nor fearThat death with all its terrors threatened there.When lo! unseen, the secret venom spreads,And every nobler part at once invades;Swift flames consume the marrow and the brain,And the scorched entrails rage with burning pain;Upon his heart the thirsty poisons prey,And drain the sacred juice of life away.No kindly floods of moisture bathe his tongue,But cleaving to the parched roof it hung;No trickling drops distil, no dewy sweat,To ease his weary limbs, and cool the raging heat.Rowe.The effects of the bite of the prester are not less terrible:Percussit prester: illi rubor igneus oraSuccendit, tenditque cutem, pereunte figura,Miscens cuncta tumor toto jam corpore major:Humanumque egressa modum super omnia membraEffiatur sanies, late tollente veneno."A fate of different kind Nasidius found,A burning prester gave the deadly wound;And straight, a sudden flame began to spread,And paint his visage with a glowing red.With swift expansion swells the bloated skin.Naught but an undistinguished mass is seen;While the fair human form lies lost within.The puffy poison spreads, and leaves around,Till all the man is in the monster drowned.Rowe.Bochart supposes that the hydrus or chersydrus is meant; a serpent that lives in marshy places, the bite of which produces the most terrible inflammations, burning heat, fetid vomitings, and a putrid solution of the whole body. See his works, vol. iii., col. 421. It is more likely to have been a serpent of the prester or dipsas kind, as the wilderness through which the Israelites passed did neither afford rivers nor marshes, though Bochart endeavors to prove that there might have been marshes in that part; but his arguments have very little weight. Nor is there need of a water serpent as long as the prester or dipsas, which abound in the deserts of Libya, might have abounded in the deserts of Arabia also. But very probably the serpents themselves were immediately sent by God for the chastisement of this rebellious people. The cure was certainly preternatural; this no person doubts; and why might not the agent be so, that inflicted the disease?

Verse 8

Make thee a fiery serpent - Literally, make thee a seraph.And put it upon a pole - על נס al nes, upon a standard or ensign.

Verse 9

And Moses made a serpent of brass - נחש נחשת nechash nechosheth. Hence we find that the word for brass or copper comes from the same root with nachash, which here signifies a serpent, probably on account of the color; as most serpents, especially those of the bright spotted kind, have a very glistening appearance, and those who have brown or yellow spots appear something like burnished brass: but the true meaning of the root cannot be easily ascertained. On the subject of the cure of the serpent-bitten Israelites, by looking at the brazen serpent, there is a good comment in the book of The Wisdom of Solomon, (Apoch). Numbers 16:4 -12, in which are these remarkable words: "They were admonished, having a sign of salvation, (i. e., the brazen serpent), to put them in remembrance of the commandments of thy law. For he that turned himself towards it was not saved by the Thing that he saw, but by Thee, that art the Savior of all." To the circumstance of looking at the brazen serpent in order to be healed, our Lord refers, John 3:14 , John 3:15 : "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life." The brazen serpent was certainly no type of Jesus Christ; but from our Lord's words we may learn,1. That as the serpent was lifted up on the pole or ensign, so Jesus Christ was lifted up on the cross.2. That as the Israelites were to look at the brazen serpent, so sinners must look to Christ for salvation.3. That as God provided no other remedy than this looking for the wounded Israelites, so he has provided no other way of salvation than faith in the blood of his Son.4. That as he who looked at the brazen serpent was cured and did live, so he that believeth on the Lord Jesus Christ shall not perish, but have eternal life.5. That as neither the serpent, nor looking at it, but the invisible power of God healed the people, so neither the cross of Christ, nor his merely being crucified, but the pardon he has bought by his blood, communicated by the powerful energy of his Spirit, saves the souls of men.May not all these things be plainly seen in the circumstances of this transaction, without making the serpent a type of Jesus Christ, (the most exceptionable that could possibly be chosen), and running the parallel, as some have done, through ten or a dozen particulars?

Verse 12

They - pitched in the valley of Zared - נחל זרד nachal zared. This should be translated the brook Zared, as it is in Deuteronomy 2:13 , Deuteronomy 2:14 . This stream has its origin in the mountains eastward of Moab, and runs from east to west, and discharges itself into the Dead Sea.

Verse 13

Arnon - Another river which takes its rise in the mountains of Moab, and, after having separated the ancient territories of the Moabites and Ammonites, falls into the Dead Sea, near the mouth of Jordan.

Verse 14

The book of the wars of the Lord - There are endless conjectures about this book, both among ancients and moderns. Dr. Lightfoot's opinion is the most simple, and to me bears the greatest appearance of being the true one. "This book seems to have been some book of remembrances and directions, written by Moses for Joshua's private instruction for the management of the wars after him. See Exo 17:14-16. It may be that this was the same book which is called the book of Jasher, i. e., the book of the upright, or a directory for Joshua, from Moses, what to do and what to expect in his wars; and in this book it seems as if Moses directed the setting up of archery, see 2 Samuel 1:18 , and warrants Joshua to command the sun, and expect its obedience, Joshua 10:13 ."What he did in the Red Sea, and in the brooks of Arnon - This clause is impenetrably obscure. All the versions, all the translators, and all the commentators, have been puzzled with it. Scarcely any two agree. The original is את והב בסופה eth vaheb besuphah, which our translators render, what he did in the Red Sea, following here the Chaldee Targum; but not satisfied with this version, they have put the most difficult words in English letters in the margin, Vaheb in Suphah. Calmet's conjecture here is ingenious, and is adopted by Houbigant; instead of והב vaheb, he reads זרד zared. Now a ז zain may be easily mistaken for a ו vau, and vice versa; and a ה he for a ר, resh, if the left limb happened to be a little obliterated, which frequently occurs, not only in MSS., but in printed books; the ב beth also might be mistaken for a ד daleth, if the ruled line on which it stood happened in that place to be a little thicker or blacker than usual. Thus then והב vaheb might be easily formed out of זרד zared, mentioned Numbers 21:12 ; the whole might then be read, They encamped at the brook Zared, and they came to Suphah, and thence to the brook Arnon. Take the passage as we may, it is evidently defective. As I judge the whole clause to have been a common proverb in those days, and Vaheb to be a proper name, I therefore propose the following translation, which I believe to be the best: From Vaheb unto Suph, and unto the streams of Arnon. If we allow it to have been a proverbial expression, used to point out extensive distance, then it was similar to that well known phrase, From Dan even unto Beersheba.

Verse 17

Spring up, O well, etc. - This is one of the most ancient war songs in the world, but is not easily understood, which is commonly the case with all very ancient compositions, especially the poetic. See the remarks Exodus 15:1 (note), etc.

Verse 18

The princes digged the well - with their staves - This is not easily understood. Who can suppose that the princes dug this well with their staves? And is there any other idea conveyed by our translation? The word חפרו chapharu, which is translated they digged, should be rendered they searched out, which is a frequent meaning of the root; and במשענתם bemishanotham, which we render with their staves, should be translated on their borders or confines, from the root שען shaan, to lie along. With these corrections the whole song may be read thus: - Spring up, O well! Answer ye to it.The well, the princes searched it out.The nobles of the people have digged it.By a decree, upon their own bordersThis is the whole of the quotation from what is called the book of the wars of the Lord. But see Dr. Kennicott's remarks at the end of this chapter.

Verse 26

For Heshbon was the city of Sihon, etc. - It appears therefore that the territory now taken from Sihon by the Israelites was taken from a former king of Moab, in commemoration of which an epikedion or war song was made, several verses of which, in their ancient poetic form, are here quoted by Moses.

Verse 27

They that speak in proverbs - המשלים hammoshelim, from משל mashal, to rule, to exercise authority; hence a weighty proverbial saying, because admitted as an axiom for the government of life. The moshelim of the ancient Asiatics were the same, in all probability, as the Poetae among the Greeks and Latins, the shaara among the Arabs, who were esteemed as Divine persons, and who had their name from shaara, he knew, understood; whose poems celebrated past transactions, and especially those which concerned the military history of their nation. These poets were also termed sahebi deewan, companions or lords of the council of state, because their weighty sayings and universal knowledge were held in the highest repute. Similar to these were the bards among the ancient Druids, and the Sennachies among the ancient Celtic inhabitants of these nations.The ode from the 27th to the 30th verse is composed of three parts. The first takes in Numbers 21:27 and Numbers 21:28 ; the second Numbers 21:29 ; and the third Numbers 21:30 .The first records with bitter irony the late insults of Sihon and his subjects over the conquered Moabites.The second expresses the compassion of the Israelites over the desolations of Moab, with a bitter sarcasm against their god Chemosh, who had abandoned his votaries in their distress, or was not able to rescue them out of the hands of their enemies.The third sets forth the revenge taken by Israel upon the whole country of Sihon, from Heshbon to Dibon, and from Nophah even to Medeba. See Isaiah 15:1 , Isaiah 15:2 .The whole poem, divided into its proper hemistichs, as it stands in Kennicott's Hebrew Bible, is as follows: - Verse 27. Part ICome ye to Heshbon, let it be rebuilt;The city of Sihon, let it be established.Verse 28For from Heshbon the fire went out,And a flame from the city of Sihon:It hath consumed the city of Moab,With the lords of the heights of Arnon.Verse 29. Part 2Alas for thee, O Moab!Thou hast perished, O people of Chemosh!He hath given up his fugitive sonsAnd his daughters into captivity,To the king of the Amorites, Sihon.Verse 30. Part 3But on them have We lifted destruction,From Heshbon even to Dibon;We have destroyed even to Nophah,The fire did reach to Medebah.See Kennicott's Remarks.

Verse 35

So they smote him, and his sons - There is a curious note of Dr. Lightfoot here, of which I should think it wrong to deprive the reader.On some difficulties in this chapter Dr. Kennicott makes the following observations: - Nomen loci, ab eventu aquarum quas Dominus ibi dedit, sic appellati; מתנה nam significat donum-If, therefore, these words were meant to express poetically some eminent blessing, what blessing was so likely to be then celebrated as copious streams of water? And after they had wandered nearly forty years through many a barren desert, and after (compare Deuteronomy 8:15 having passed through that great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents and drought, where there was no water, it is no wonder they should shout for joy at finding water in plenty, and finding it almost on the banks of Arnon, the last river they were to pass, in their way to their last station, east of Jordan. No wonder they should sing in poetic rapture, that after the wilderness was (Mattanah) the Gift Of God; meaning the great well in Moab, dug by public authority; and no wonder that, after such a gift, there were (Nahaliel) blessed streams, by which they passed, till they came to (Bamoth) the high places from which, perhaps, these streams descended. And the thanksgiving ends, where the blessing was no longer wanted, on their coming down into the valley, along the banks of Arnon, which was then the north boundary of Moab.Jehovah went with him to Suph,And he came to the streams of Arnon.17. Then Israel sang this song: - Spring up, O Well! Sing ye hitherto!18. The Well! princes searched it out;The nobles of the people have digged it;By their decree, by their act of government,So, after the wilderness, was Mattanah!19. And after Mattanah were Nahaliel!And after Nahaliel were Bamoth!20. And after Bamoth was the valley;Where, in the country of Moab, Appeareth the top of Pisgah,Which is over against Jeshimon.See Dr. Kennicott's Remarks upon Select Passages in the Old Testament.

Numbers 21


  1 And when king Arad the Canaanite, which dwelt in the south, heard tell that Israel came by the way of the spies; then he fought against Israel, and took some of them prisoners.
  2 And Israel vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou wilt indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.
  3 And the LORD hearkened to the voice of Israel, and delivered up the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their cities: and he called the name of the place Hormah.
  4 And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.
  5 And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.
  6 And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.
  7 Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.
  8 And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.
  9 And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.
  10 And the children of Israel set forward, and pitched in Oboth.
  11 And they journeyed from Oboth, and pitched at Ijeabarim, in the wilderness which is before Moab, toward the sunrising.
  12 From thence they removed, and pitched in the valley of Zared.
  13 From thence they removed, and pitched on the other side of Arnon, which is in the wilderness that cometh out of the coasts of the Amorites: for Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites.
  14 Wherefore it is said in the book of the wars of the LORD, What he did in the Red sea, and in the brooks of Arnon,
  15 And at the stream of the brooks that goeth down to the dwelling of Ar, and lieth upon the border of Moab.
  16 And from thence they went to Beer: that is the well whereof the LORD spake unto Moses, Gather the people together, and I will give them water.
  17 Then Israel sang this song, Spring up, O well; sing ye unto it:
  18 The princes digged the well, the nobles of the people digged it, by the direction of the lawgiver, with their staves. And from the wilderness they went to Mattanah:
  19 And from Mattanah to Nahaliel: and from Nahaliel to Bamoth:
  20 And from Bamoth in the valley that is in the country of Moab, to the top of Pisgah, which looketh toward Jeshimon.
  21 And Israel sent messengers unto Sihon king of the Amorites, saying,
  22 Let me pass through thy land: we will not turn into the fields, or into the vineyards; we will not drink of the waters of the well: but we will go along by the king's high way, until we be past thy borders.
  23 And Sihon would not suffer Israel to pass through his border: but Sihon gathered all his people together, and went out against Israel into the wilderness: and he came to Jahaz, and fought against Israel.
  24 And Israel smote him with the edge of the sword, and possessed his land from Arnon unto Jabbok, even unto the children of Ammon: for the border of the children of Ammon was strong.
  25 And Israel took all these cities: and Israel dwelt in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all the villages thereof.
  26 For Heshbon was the city of Sihon the king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab, and taken all his land out of his hand, even unto Arnon.
  27 Wherefore they that speak in proverbs say, Come into Heshbon, let the city of Sihon be built and prepared:
  28 For there is a fire gone out of Heshbon, a flame from the city of Sihon: it hath consumed Ar of Moab, and the lords of the high places of Arnon.
  29 Woe to thee, Moab! thou art undone, O people of Chemosh: he hath given his sons that escaped, and his daughters, into captivity unto Sihon king of the Amorites.
  30 We have shot at them; Heshbon is perished even unto Dibon, and we have laid them waste even unto Nophah, which reacheth unto Medeba.
  31 Thus Israel dwelt in the land of the Amorites.
  32 And Moses sent to spy out Jaazer, and they took the villages thereof, and drove out the Amorites that were there.
  33 And they turned and went up by the way of Bashan: and Og the king of Bashan went out against them, he, and all his people, to the battle at Edrei.
  34 And the LORD said unto Moses, Fear him not: for I have delivered him into thy hand, and all his people, and his land; and thou shalt do to him as thou didst unto Sihon king of the Amorites, which dwelt at Heshbon.
  35 So they smote him, and his sons, and all his people, until there was none left him alive: and they possessed his land.

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