Book of Numbers Chapter Twenty-One Commentary by
Pastor Ron Beckham
Opposition And War
After 40-years of wandering in the wilderness, the people of Israel were beginning to make contact with tribes south and east of the Jordan River, starting with the Edomites in Chapter 20. Another tense, hostile encounter is found in Verse 1 of this chapter: "When the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim, then he fought against Israel and took some of them captive." When you decide to accept God's will for your life, you will acquire enemies, both human and supernatural, who want to stop what the Lord is doing through you. This encounter with the Canaanites was a real event in history, and it is also a parable of our walk with the Lord. Hostages were taken by this "king of Arad," leader of a mini-nation south of Hebron. In Verses 2-4, "So Israel made a vow to the Lord and said, 'If You will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.' 3 The Lord heard the voice of Israel and delivered up the Canaanites; then they utterly destroyed them and their cities. Thus the name of the place was called Hormah. 4 Then they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient because of the journey." For once the people did two things right: 1) They were united, and 2) they prayed. God values it when we put aside our differences, agree on what needs to be done and seek the Lord. Jesus said in Matthew 18:19, "...if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven." The Lord was with them as intends for us, and Israel won a great victory. Also note that they continued to avoid Edom, which was God's will for them at the moment. In Verse 4, though, we find again the people's impatience with the Lord. Are you impatient with Him and what He is doing in your life?
Not long after this notable victory, Israel's complaints became worse in Verse 5: "The people spoke against God and Moses, 'Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food.'" The "miserable food" they loathed was the manna, the free, nourishing, tasty food that was outside their tents most mornings—and they didn't have to go to a market or pay for it. It was God's free gift and they were complaining bitterly about it. The Lord has given us many gifts—you couldn't be reading this or understanding it right now if it were not so. Even the difficulties in life are designed to bring us the best gift of all, which is faith in the Lord that leads to eternal salvation.
Our complaints are really unbelief, which is a sickness of the soul. The Lord, the Great Physician, sees our need for refreshing, renewed faith, responding in ways not so different from Verses 6-10: "The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 So the people came to Moses and said, 'We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and you; intercede with the Lord, that He may remove the serpents from us.' And Moses interceded for the people. 8 Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.' 9 And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived. 10 Now the sons of Israel moved out and camped in Oboth." This little section of Scripture is very important and there is more to the story. Notice that "the Lord sent" these serpents into the midst of Israel. He knew who would be bitten, knew who would die, knew who would look at the bronze serpent on a pole and live, and who would, in pride and unbelief, refuse to look. Later in time, their descendants incredibly named the bronze serpent "Nehustan" ("what is it?") and worshipped it as an idol until it was destroyed at the order of Hezekiah, king of Judah (2 Kings 18:4-5), a man who "trusted in the Lord." Most important of all, Jesus would later point to this frightening encounter with these "fiery serpents," in John 3:14-15—"And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life." At that moment in Israel, a person dying from the bite of one of these venomous snakes, would recover physically and live, IF they would merely look at the bronze serpent attached to the top of a wooden pole. At this moment, right now, everyone on earth has been bitten by sin. We are to look, to trust in Jesus Christ who died on the cross to give us life. Faith through God's grace brings healing—forever.
Does it feel like you or someone you are concerned about, is wandering in a sort of "desert-like" journey through life? Like Israel, if we lack faith and go in the wrong direction, the Lord will step in and correct us. It's also true that the kind of people who persecuted the Lord and His people when He was here on earth, are still here. Here's what Jesus said in John 15:20—"If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you..." The journey of Israel seemed random and endless to many in Israel, but God had a purpose for every step, each stop, which not only affected them, but also was a concern to their new neighbors, who didn't want Israel to be in the neighborhood. Verses 11-15: "They journeyed from Oboth and camped at Iyeabarim, in the wilderness which is opposite Moab, to the east. 12 From there they set out and camped in Wadi Zered. 13 From there they journeyed and camped on the other side of the Arnon, which is in the wilderness that comes out of the border of the Amorites, for the Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites. 14 Therefore it is said in the Book of the Wars of the Lord, 'Waheb in Suphah,
and the wadis of the Arnon, 15 And the slope of the wadis
that extends to the site of Ar,
and leans to the border of Moab.'" The places of these verses are to the south and east of the land promised to Abraham and his descendants through Isaac and Jacob. The "Book of the Wars of the Lord" has been the subject of speculation, but it should not be a surprise that Moses, who was "learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians" (Acts 7:22), had books (scrolls) at his disposal and was himself a prolific writer.
Verses 16-20: "From there they continued to Beer, that is the well where the Lord said to Moses, 'Assemble the people, that I may give them water.' 17 Then Israel sang this song: 'Spring up, O well! Sing to it! 18 The well, which the leaders sank,
which the nobles of the people dug,
with the scepter and with their staffs.' And from the wilderness they continued to Mattanah, 19 and from Mattanah to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to Bamoth, 20 and from Bamoth to the valley that is in the land of Moab, at the top of Pisgah which overlooks the wasteland." We need to learn from this well, dug by the people and their leaders. They dug the well, singing a new song as they worked and found ample water for Israel, but it's clear in Verse 16 that it was the Lord who revealed the place where water could be found. If you work and earn income, buy food, obtain lodging, or however else you spend your money, it is the Lord who gave you the ability to work and to earn. The people continued their journey after being refreshed by water, and we are on a journey also, being refreshed by the Holy Spirit, the "living water" Jesus spoke about in John 4:10, "springing up into everlasting life," as in John 4:14.
Verses 21-25: "Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon, king of the Amorites, saying, 22 'Let me pass through your land. We will not turn off into field or vineyard; we will not drink water from wells. We will go by the king's highway until we have passed through your border.' 23 But Sihon would not permit Israel to pass through his border. So Sihon gathered all his people and went out against Israel in the wilderness, and came to Jahaz and fought against Israel. 24 Then Israel struck him with the edge of the sword, and took possession of his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, as far as the sons of Ammon; for the border of the sons of Ammon was Jazer. 25 Israel took all these cities and Israel lived in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all her villages." In these chapters we have learned a lot about Moses. As the leader of Israel, he was the one who initiated this request for peaceful passage through the land of the Amorites, and with the continuing touch of the Lord in his life, he had become an exceptionally honest man. The messengers told the truth—Israel would march without causing harm through Amorite territory, which was north of both Edom and Moab. All three of those countries were east of the Jordan River. Isn't it interesting, by the way, that our suspicion and unbelief can destroy us? The Amorite king, Sihon, fearful of Israel's intentions, attacked suddenly, which resulted in his own defeat and the loss of his country. Many in Israel now began to live in houses that were built by and for someone else.
Verses 26-31 present a brief history of recent events in the area: "For Heshbon was the city of Sihon, king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab and had taken all his land out of his hand, as far as the Arnon. 27 Therefore those who use proverbs say, 'Come to Heshbon! Let it be built!
So let the city of Sihon be established. 28 For a fire went forth from Heshbon,
a flame from the town of Sihon;
it devoured Ar of Moab,
the dominant heights of the Arnon. 29 Woe to you, O Moab!
You are ruined, O people of Chemosh!
He has given his sons as fugitives,
and his daughters into captivity,
to an Amorite king, Sihon. 30 But we have cast them down,
Heshbon is ruined as far as Dibon,
then we have laid waste even to Nophah,
which reaches to Medeba.' 31 Thus Israel lived in the land of the Amorites." The city-state of Heshbon was not a native land of the Amorites. Instead it consisted of land and cities taken recently from Moab, a country to the south, involving a territory that extended all the way to the Arnon River, which emptied into the Dead Sea from the east. That land was now "liberated" and made a part of Israel. Moab had been "ruined" by the loss of this large area that now changed hands once more and was occupied by God's people.
Moses wasn't done with the Amorites, for in Verse 32, "Moses sent to spy out Jazer, and they captured its villages and dispossessed the Amorites who were there." Jazer was a city east of the Jordan River, which, effective from the moment of this verse, now would belong to Israel for centuries to come, and later become part of the Israeli tribe of Gad. As Verses 33-35 indicate, the fighting was certainly not over, for in Verses 33-35, "Then they turned and went up by the way of Bashan, and Og the king of Bashan went out with all his people, for battle at Edrei. 34 But the Lord said to Moses, 'Do not fear him, for I have given him into your hand, and all his people and his land; and you shall do to him as you did to Sihon, king of the Amorites, who lived at Heshbon.' 35 So they killed him and his sons and all his people, until there was no remnant left him; and they possessed his land." Death is shocking. We deny to ourselves it will happen, often remaining in denial after our loved one is gone. And at some point—it's our turn. This whole life is not unlike a classroom, teaching us to trust in the Lord instead of anything in this world—for good reason—none of this will last. Our relationships, money, power, fame, our lives, all will be gone in a moment. When we trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, we are led to unending joy—forever. Those who don't have faith in the Lord, have nothing at all.
You may wonder why the Lord permits, even seemingly encourages war. Genesis 15:13-16 contains a partial answer. The patriarch Abraham was told by the Lord that his descendants would be afflicted, enslaved. Israel would be released from slavery but only after 400 long years, for as the Lord told Abraham, "the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete." God hates war, murder, death—much more than we do, and He stayed His hand of Israel's deliverance for over 400-years, just because there still were a few among the Amorites who had faith in the Lord. Now there were no faithful left among them, and even though Israel was flawed like all countries, nevertheless there were many among them who had faith in the Lord, and that nation would become the vehicle for the Messiah, Jesus Christ, who would die for the sins of the world. The time was right—the faithful in Israel would displace the unbelieving Amorites.
Father, history, the present, the future—it's all too big for us to understand. Our tendency has been to complain, and we confess our impatience. Please heal us, Lord. Help us to place our faith in You, even when we don't see what it's all about. Forgive us. We pray that faith in the Lord will increase in our land—in us. Thank You, Lord. In Jesus Name. Amen.