Numbers 21


Arad, a king of the Canaanites, attacks Israel, and makes same

prisoners, 1.

They devote him and his people to destruction, 2;

which they afterwards accomplished, 3.

They journey from Hor, and are greatly discouraged, 4.

They murmur against God and Moses, and loathe the manna, 5.

The Lord sends fiery serpents among them, 6.

They repent, and beg Moses to intercede for them, 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, 8.

Moses does so, and the people who beheld the brazen serpent

lived, 9.

They journey to Oboth, Ije-abarim, Zared, and Arnon, 10-13.

A quotation from the book of the wars of the Lord, 14, 15.

From Arnon they came to Beer, 16.

Their song of triumph, 17-20.

Moses sends messengers to the Amorites for permission to pass

through their land, 21, 22.

Sihon their king refuses, attacks Israel, is defeated, and all

his cities destroyed, 23-26.

The poetic proverbs made on the occasion, 27-30.

Israel possesses the land of the Amorites, 31, 32.

They are attacked by Og king of Bashan, 33.

They defeat him, destroy his troops and family, and possess his

land, 34, 35.


Verse 1. The way of the spies] 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,

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 fulfilment of God's promise;

for Arad, who is mentioned as being destroyed here, is mentioned

among those destroyed by Joshua long after, (see Jos 12:14:) but

this is quite consistent with their being devoted to destruction,

as this might be fulfilled any time after.

See Clarke on Le 27:34.

Verse 5. This light bread.] hakkelokel, a word of

excessive scorn; as if they had said, This innutritive,

unsubstantial, cheat-stomach stuff.

Verse 6. Fiery serpents ] hannechashim hasseraphim . I have observed before, on Ge 3:1 , 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 Ge 3:1 is most difficult to be ascertained. Seraphim is one of the orders of angelic beings, Isa 6:2,6 ; but as it comes from the root saraph , which signifies to burn , it has been translated fiery in the text. It is likely that St. Paul alludes to the seraphim, Heb 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:- "Signiferum juvenem Tyrrheni sanguinis Aulum Torta caput retro dipsas calcata momordit. Vix dolor aut sensus dentis fuit: ipsaque laeti Frons caret invidia: nec quidquam plaga minatur. Ecce subit virus tacitum, carpitque medullas Ignis edax, calidaque incendit viscera tabe. Ebibit humorem circum vitalia fusum Pestis, et in sicco linguam torrere palato Coepit: defessos iret qui sudor in artus Non 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 fear That 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: "Nasidium Marsi cultorem torridus agri Percussit prester : illi rubor igneus ora Succendit, tenditque cutem , pereunte figura, Miscens cuncta tumor toto jam corpore major: Humanumque egressa modum super omnia membra Effiatur 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 endeavours 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


And put it upon a pole] al nes, upon a standard or


Verse 9. And Moses made a serpent of brass] 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 colour; 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 Wisdom, Apoch. Wis 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 Saviour of all."

To the circumstance of looking at the brazen serpent in order to

be healed, our Lord refers, Joh 3:14,15: "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.] nachal

zared. This should be translated the brook Zared, as it is in

De 2:13, 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 Ex 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 2Sa 1:18, and warrants

Joshua to command the sun, and expect its obedience, Jos 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 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 vaheb,

he reads zared. Now a zain may be easily mistaken for

a vau, and vice versa; and a he for a , resh, if

the left limb happened to be a little obliterated, which

frequently occurs, not only in MSS., but in printed books; the

beth also might be mistaken for a daleth, if the ruled

line on which it stood happened in that place to be a little

thicker or blacker than usual. Thus then vaheb might be

easily formed out of zared, mentioned Nu 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, &c.] 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 Clarke on Ex 15:1, &c.

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 chapharu, which is translated

they digged, should be rendered they searched out, which is a

frequent meaning of the root; and bemishanotham, which we

render with their staves, should be translated on their borders or

confines, from the root shaan, to lie along. With these

corrections the whole song may be read thus:-

| i.e. Repeat

Spring up, O well! Answer ye to it. the other part

| of the song.

The well, the princes searched it out. | This is the answer.

The nobles of the people have digged it. | This was

By a decree, upon their own borders. | the chorus.

This 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, &c.] 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] hammoshelim,

from 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 [Arabic] shaara among the Arabs, who were esteemed as

Divine persons, and who had their name from [Arabic] 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 [Arabic] 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 verses 27 and 28;

the second verse 29; and the third verse 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 Isa 15:1,2.

The whole poem, divided into its proper hemistichs, as it stands

in Kennicott's Hebrew Bible, is as follows:-


Come ye to Heshbon, let it be rebuilt;

The city of Sihon, let it be established.


For 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.


Alas for thee, O Moab!

Thou hast perished, O people of Chemosh!

He hath given up his fugitive sons

And his daughters into captivity,

To the king of the Amorites, Sihon.


But 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.

"Sihon and Og conquered, A. M. 2553. Of the life of Moses, 120.

From the Exodus, 40. It is now six and twenty generations from

the creation, or from Adam to Moses; and accordingly doth Psa.

cxxxvi, rehearse the durableness of God's mercy six and twenty

times over, beginning the story with the creation, and ending it

in the conquest of Sihon and Og. The numerals of the name

Jehovah amount to the sum of six and twenty."

ON some difficulties in this chapter Dr. Kennicott makes the

following observations:-

"This one chapter has several very considerable difficulties;

and some verses, as now translated, are remarkably unintelligible,

A true state of this chapter is not, however, to be despaired of;

and it has in it some circumstances which merit more than common

attention. It contains the history of the last part of the

travels of the Israelites in their way to the promised land;

beginning with them at Mount Hor, the thirty-fourth encampment,

and concluding with them, as in their forty-second and last

encampment, near Jordan, in the country which they had acquired by

conquest over Sihon, king of the Amorites.

"It begins with saying-that King Arad, the Canaanite, who dwelt

in the south, (in the land of Canaan, Nu 33:40,) attacked

Israel and was defeated, and that Israel destroyed their cities;

and that, after destroying these Canaanite cities, and

consequently after being in a part of Canaan, a part of the very

country they were going to, on the west of the Dead Sea, they

returned towards the Red Sea, and near the eastern tongue or gulf

of the Red Sea, on the south of Edom, marched round Edom to the

east of the Dead Sea, in order to enter Canaan from the east side

of Jordan!

"This surprising representation of so vast and dangerous a

march, quite unnecessarily performed, is owing to two

circumstances. The first is, (Nu 21:1,) the Canaanites heard

that Israel was coming by the way of the spies, meaning, by the

way the spies went from Kadesh-Barnea into Canaan. But this being

impossible, because Israel had now marched from Meribah-Kadesh to

Mount Hor, beyond Ezion-gaber, and were turning round Edom, to

the south-east; it is happy that the word rendered spies, in our

version, is in the Greek a proper name, (Atharim,) which removes

that difficulty: and the other difficulty (Nu 21:2,3) is removed

by the Greek version likewise, according to which, the vow made,

with the facts subsequent, does not signify destroying the

Canaanite cities, but devoting them to destruction at some future

time. See Wall's Crit. Notes.

"It proceeds with saying, that after defeating the Canaanites at

Mount Hor, they journeyed from Mount Hor by the way of the Red

Sea, (in the road from Ammon, Midian, &c., to the eastern gulf of

the Red Sea,) to compass the land of Edom; that on their murmuring

for want both of bread and of water they were punished by fiery

serpents, after which they marched to Oboth, and thence to

Ije-abarim in the wilderness, east of Moab. The encampments of

the Israelites, amounting to forty-two, are recorded all together,

in historical succession, in Nu 33:1-49, where Ije-abarim is

the 38th; Dibon-gad, 39; Almon-Diblathaim, 40; mountains of

Abarim, 41; and the plains of Moab, by Jordan, 42. This regular

detail in Nu 33:1-49 has occasioned great perplexity as to

Nu 21:10-20, where, after the stations at Oboth and Ije-abarim,

in Nu 21:10, 11, we have, in Nu 21:19, 20, the words

Mattanah, Nahaliel, and Bamoth; which are usually considered

as the proper names of three places, but widely different from the

three proper names after Ije-abarim in the catalogue at

Nu 33:44-48.

"But there is, in reality, no inconsistency here. In the plain

and historical catalogue (Nu 33:44-48) the words are strictly

the proper names of the three places; but here the words Mattanah,

Nahaliel, and Bamoth follow some lines of poetry, and seem to form

a continuation of the song. They evidently express figurative and

poetical ideas. The verbs journeyed from and pitched in are not

found here, though necessary to prose narration: see verses 10 and

11 here, and Nu 33:44-48. Lastly, verse 20th, (in this 21st

chapter,) usually supposed to express the last encampment, does

not. Pisgah signifies a hill; and the Israelites could not encamp

on the top of any single hill, such as this is described. Balak

took Balaam to the top of Peor, which looketh toward Jeshimon,

(Nu 23:28,)

which Peor undoubtedly was in Moab. He took him to another hill

in Moab, when he took him (Nu 23:14)

to the top of Pisgah, in the field of Zophim. And if the Pisgah

or hill in Nu 21:20,

was in the country of Balak, it could not point out the last

encampment, which was not in Balak's country, but north of Arnon.

"The word Mattanah probably alludes to a place distinguished by

some gift or blessing from God. Fagius says: Nomen loci, ab

eventu aquarum quas Dominus ibi dedit, sic appellati; nam

significat donum-'The name of the place was so called, from the

circumstance of the waters which the Lord gave there; for Mattanah

signifies a gift.' Nahaliel is torrentes Dei; i. e.,

great streams, particularly seasonable or salutary. And

Bamoth (Nu 21:28) may point out any high places of signal benefit

in the country of Moab, or it may answer to the last station but

one, which was the mountains of Abarim. 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 De 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.

"The Israelites had spent no less than thirty-eight years in

coming from Kadesh-Barnea to their encampment north of Zared.

Here, at this fortieth station, they were commanded to pass

through Moab by Ar, the chief city; but were not to stop till

they came to the valley on the south of Arnon. At this last

station but one they probably continued no longer than was

necessary for sending messengers to Sihon, king of the Amorites,

at Heshbon, and receiving his answer. They then crossed the

Arnon; and having vanquished Sihon and Og, took possession of the

forty-second and last encampment.

"This one chapter has three pieces of poetry, either fragments

or complete; and poetry, seldom found in a historical narrative,

may be here accounted for from the exuberance of joy which must

have affected these wearied travellers, when arriving thus happily

near their journey's end. What occurs first is in Nu 21:14; and

has often been called the fragment of an old Amorite song. But it

may have been Amorite or Moabite, or either or neither, for

the subject matter of it, as it is generally understood, if indeed

it can be said to be understood at all. The words

, usually supposed to contain this fragment, do

not signify, as in our English version, What he did in the Red

Sea, and in the brooks of Arnon. Without enumerating the many

interpretations given by others, I shall offer a new one, which

seems to make good sense, and a sense very pertinent.

"Observe first, that there must have been a place called Suph,

near the conflux of the Arnon and Jordan; because Moses, whilst in

that last station, begins Deuteronomy with saying, he was on this

side (i. e., east) of Jordan, over against Suph. By this word is

not here meant the Red Sea; partly, because that has every where

else the word for sea before it, and partly, because of the great

distance of the Red Sea now from Moses. The single word,

therefore, signifies here some place in itself obscure, because no

where mentioned but in these two passages. And yet we cannot

wonder that Moses should mention it twice, as the word Suph,

introduced in speaking of the two last encampments, recalled to

mind the Sea of Suph, so glorious to Israel, near the beginning of

their march towards Canaan.

"Moses had now led Israel from the Red Sea to the river Arnon,

through many dreadful dangers, partly from hostile nations, partly

from themselves; such dangers as no other people ever experienced,

and such as no people could have surmounted, without the signal

favour of the Almighty. And here, just before the battles with

Sihon and Og, he reminds them of Pharaoh, &c.; and he asserts,

that in the history of the wars it shall be recorded that JEHOVAH,

who had triumphantly brought Israel through the Sea of Suph, near

Egypt, at first, had now conducted him to Suph, near Arnon; that

JEHOVAH went with him to SUPH,

And he came to the streams of Arnon.

"This version removes the difficulties urged by Hobbes, page

266, fol. 1750; by Spinoza, page 108, 4to., 1670; and retailed in

a deistical pamphlet called The Doubts of the Infidels, page 4,

8vo., 1781.

"The general meaning of the next piece of poetry seems to be

this: that at some distance from the city of Ar, by which the

Israelites were to pass, (De 2:18,) they came to A WELL of

uncommon size and magnificence, which seems to have been sought

out, built up, and adorned for the public, by the rulers of Moab.

And it is no wonder that, on their arrival at such a well, they

should look upon it as a blessing from Heaven, and speak of it as

a new miracle in their favour.

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


Copyright information for Clarke