Numbers 21

Victory at Hormah

This chapter has several events in it: the victory over Arad (vv. 1–3), the plague of serpents (vv. 4–9), the approach to Moab (vv. 10–20), and the victory over Sihon and Og (vv. 21–35). For information, see D. M. Gunn, “The ‘Battle Report’: Oral or Scribal Convention.” JBL 93 (1974): 513-18; and of the extensive literature on the archaeological site, see EAEHL 1:74–89.
When the Canaanite king of Arad
The name Arad probably refers to a place a number of miles away from Tel Arad in southern Israel. The name could also refer to the whole region (like Edom).
who lived in the Negev
Or “the south”; “Negev” has become a technical name for the southern desert region and is still in use in modern times.
heard that Israel was approaching along the road to Atharim, he fought against Israel and took some of them prisoner.

So Israel made a vow
The Hebrew text uses a cognate accusative with the verb: They vowed a vow. The Israelites were therefore determined with God’s help to defeat Arad.
to the Lord and said, “If you will indeed deliver
The Hebrew text has the infinitive absolute and the imperfect tense of נָתַן (natan) to stress the point – if you will surely/indeed give.”
this people into our
Heb “my.”
hand, then we will utterly destroy
On the surface this does not sound like much of a vow. But the key is in the use of the verb for “utterly destroy” – חָרַם (kharam). Whatever was put to this “ban” or “devotion” belonged to God, either for his use, or for destruction. The oath was in fact saying that they would take nothing from this for themselves. It would simply be the removal of what was alien to the faith, or to God’s program.
their cities.”
The Lord listened to the voice of Israel and delivered up the Canaanites,
Smr, Greek, and Syriac add “into his hand.”
and they utterly destroyed them and their cities. So the name of the place was called
In the Hebrew text the verb has no expressed subject, and so here too is made passive. The name “Hormah” is etymologically connected to the verb “utterly destroy,” forming the popular etymology (or paronomasia, a phonetic wordplay capturing the significance of the event).

Fiery Serpents

Then they traveled from Mount Hor by the road to the Red Sea,
The “Red Sea” is the general designation for the bodies of water on either side of the Sinai peninsula, even though they are technically gulfs from the Red Sea.
to go around the land of Edom, but the people
Heb “the soul of the people,” expressing the innermost being of the people as they became frustrated.
became impatient along the way.
And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness, for there is no bread or water, and we
Heb “our souls.”
detest this worthless
The Israelites’ opinion about the manna was clear enough – “worthless.” The word used is קְלֹקֵל (qeloqel, “good for nothing, worthless, miserable”).

So the Lord sent poisonous
Heb “fiery.”
The designation of the serpents/ snakes is נְחָשִׁים (nekhashim), which is similar to the word for “bronze” (נְחֹשֶׁת, nekhoshet). This has led some scholars to describe the serpents as bronze in color. The description of them as fiery indicates they were poisonous. Perhaps the snake in question is a species of adder.
among the people, and they bit the people; many people of Israel died.
Then the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord that he would take away
The verb is the Hiphil jussive with a vav (ו) consecutive from the verb סוּר (sur); after the imperative this form may be subordinated to become a purpose clause.
the snakes from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous snake and set it on a pole. When anyone who is bitten looks
The word order is slightly different in Hebrew: “and it shall be anyone who is bitten when he looks at it he shall live.”
at it, he will live.”
So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole, so that if a snake had bitten someone, when he looked at the bronze snake he lived.
The image of the snake was to be a symbol of the curse that the Israelites were experiencing; by lifting the snake up on a pole Moses was indicating that the curse would be drawn away from the people – if they looked to it, which was a sign of faith. This symbol was later stored in the temple, until it became an object of worship and had to be removed (2 Kgs 18:4). Jesus, of course, alluded to it and used it as an illustration of his own mission. He would become the curse, and be lifted up, so that people who looked by faith to him would live (John 3:14). For further material, see D. J. Wiseman, “Flying Serpents,” TynBul 23 (1972): 108-10; and K. R. Joines, “The Bronze Serpent in the Israelite Cult,” JBL 87 (1968): 245-56.

The Approach to Moab

See further D. L. Christensen, “Numbers 21:14–15 and the Book of the Wars of Yahweh,” CBQ 36 (1974): 359-60; G. W. Coats, “The Wilderness Itinerary,” CBQ 34 (1972): 135-52; G. I. Davies, “The Wilderness Itinerary,” TB 25 (1974): 46-81; idem, The Way of the Wilderness; G. E. Mendenhall, “The Hebrew Conquest of Palestine,” BA 25 (1962): 66-87.
The Israelites traveled on and camped in Oboth.
11 Then they traveled on from Oboth and camped at Iye Abarim,
These places are uncertain. Oboth may be some 15 miles (25 km) from the south end of the Dead Sea at a place called ‘Ain el-Weiba. Iye Abarim may be the modern Mahay at the southeastern corner of Moab. See J. Simons, The Geographical and Topographical Texts of the Old Testament.
in the wilderness that is before Moab, on the eastern side.
Heb “the rising of the sun.”
12 From there they moved on and camped in the valley of Zered. 13 From there they moved on and camped on the other side of the Arnon, in the wilderness that extends from the regions
Or “border.”
of the Amorites, for Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites.
14 This is why it is said in the Book of the Wars of the Lord,

“Waheb in Suphah
The ancient versions show a wide variation here: Smr has “Waheb on the Sea of Reeds,” the Greek version has “he has set Zoob on fire and the torrents of Arnon.” Several modern versions treat the first line literally, taking the two main words as place names: Waheb and Suphah. This seems most likely, but then there would then be no subject or verb. One would need something like “the Israelites marched through.” The KJV, following the Vulgate, made the first word a verb and read the second as “Red Sea” – “what he did in the Red Sea.” But subject of the passage is the terrain. D. L. Christensen proposed emending the first part from אֶת וָהֵב (’et vahev) to אַתָּה יְהוָה (’attah yehvah, “the Lord came”). But this is subjective. See his article “Num 21:14–15 and the Book of the Wars of Yahweh,” CBQ 36 (1974): 359-60.
and the wadis,
the Arnon
15 and the slope of the valleys
There are many variations in this text, but the MT reading of something like “the descent of the torrents/valleys” is preferable, since it is describing the topography.

that extends to the dwelling of Ar,
The place is unknown; it is apparently an important city in the region.

and falls off at the border of Moab.”
16  And from there they traveled
The words “they traveled” are not in the Hebrew text, but are supplied here because of English style. The same phrase is supplied at the end of v. 18.
to Beer;
Isa 15:8 mentions a Moabite Beerelim, which Simons suggests is Wadi Ettemed.
that is the well where the Lord spoke to Moses, “Gather the people and I will give them water.”
17 Then Israel sang
After the adverb “then” the prefixed conjugation has the preterite force. For the archaic constructions, see D. N. Freedman, “Archaic Forms in Early Hebrew Poetry,” ZAW 72 (1960): 101-7. The poem shows all the marks of being ancient.
this song:

“Spring up, O well, sing to it!
18  The well which the princes
The brief song is supposed to be an old workers’ song, and so the mention of leaders and princes is unusual. Some think they are given credit because they directed where the workers were to dig. The scepter and staff might have served some symbolic or divining custom.
which the leaders of the people opened
with their scepters and their staffs.”
And from the wilderness they traveled to Mattanah;
19 and from Mattanah to Nahaliel; and from Nahaliel to Bamoth; 20 and from Bamoth to the valley that is in the country of Moab, near the top of Pisgah, which overlooks the wilderness.
Or perhaps as a place name, “Jeshimon.”

The Victory over Sihon and Og

For this section, see further J. R. Bartlett, “Sihon and Og of the Amorites,” VT 20 (1970): 257-77, and “The Moabites and the Edomites,” Peoples of Old Testament Times, 229–58; S. H. Horn, “The Excavations at Tell Hesban, 1973,” ADAJ 18 (1973): 87-88.
Then Israel sent messengers to King Sihon of the Amorites, saying,
Smr and the LXX have “words of peace.”

22  “Let us
The Hebrew text uses the singular in these verses to match the reference to “Israel.”
pass through your land;
Smr has “by the King’s way I will go. I will not turn aside to the right or the left.”
we will not turn aside into the fields or into the vineyards, nor will we drink water from any well, but we will go along the King’s Highway until we pass your borders.”
23 But Sihon did not permit Israel to pass through his border; he
Heb “Sihon.”
gathered all his forces
Heb “people.”
together and went out against Israel into the wilderness. When
The clause begins with a preterite with vav (ו) consecutive, but may be subordinated to the next preterite as a temporal clause.
he came to Jahaz, he fought against Israel.
24 But the Israelites
The Hebrew text has “Israel,” but the verb is plural.
defeated him in battle
Heb “with the edge of the sword.”
and took possession of his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, as far as the Ammonites, for the border of the Ammonites was strongly defended.
25 So Israel took all these cities; and Israel settled in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all its villages.
Heb “its daughters.”
26 For Heshbon was the city of King Sihon of the Amorites. Now he had fought against the former king of Moab and had taken all of his land from his control,
There is a justice, always, in the divine plan for the conquest of the land. Modern students of the Bible often think that the conquest passages are crude and unjust. But an understanding of the ancient Near East is critical here. This Sihon was not a part of the original population of the land. He himself invaded the territory and destroyed the population of Moab that was indigenous there and established his own kingdom. The ancient history is filled with such events; it is the way of life they chose – conquer or be conquered. For Israel to defeat them was in part a turning of their own devices back on their heads – “those that live by the sword will die by the sword.” Sihon knew this, and he did not wait, but took the war to Israel. Israel wanted to pass through, not fight. But now they would either fight or be pushed into the gorge. So God used Israel to defeat Sihon, who had no claim to the land, as part of divine judgment.
as far as the Arnon.
27 That is why those who speak in proverbs
Proverbs of antiquity could include pithy sayings or longer songs, riddles, or poems composed to catch the significance or the irony of an event. This is a brief poem to remember the event, like an Egyptian victory song. It may have originated as an Amorite war taunt song; it was sung to commemorate this victory. It was cited later by Jeremiah (48:45–46). The composer invites his victorious people to rebuild the conquered city as a new capital for Sihon. He then turns to address the other cities which his God(s) has/have given to him. See P. D. Hanson, “The Song of Heshbon and David’s Nir,” HTR 61 (1968): 301.

“Come to Heshbon, let it be built.
Let the city of Sihon be established!
Meaning, “rebuilt and restored.”

28  For fire went out from Heshbon,
a flame from the city of Sihon.
It has consumed Ar of Moab
and the lords
Some scholars emend to בָּלְעָה (balah), reading “and devoured,” instead of בַּעֲלֵי (baaley, “its lords”); cf. NAB, NRSV, TEV. This emendation is closer to the Greek and makes a better parallelism, but the MT makes good sense as it stands.
of the high places of Arnon.
29  Woe to you, Moab.
You are ruined, O people of Chemosh!
The note of holy war emerges here as the victory is a victory over the local gods as well as over the people.

He has made his sons fugitives,
and his daughters the prisoners of King Sihon of the Amorites.
30  We have overpowered them;
The first verb is difficult. MT has “we shot at them.” The Greek has “their posterity perished” (see GKC 218 #76.f).

Heshbon has perished as far as Dibon.
We have shattered them as far as Nophah,
The relative pronoun “which” (אֲשֶׁר, ’asher) posed a problem for the ancient scribes here, as indicated by the so-called extraordinary point (punta extraordinaria) over the letter ר (resh) of אֲשֶׁר. Smr and the LXX have “fire” (אֵשׁ, ’esh) here (cf. NAB, NJB, RSV, NRSV). Some modern scholars emend the word to שֹׁאָה (shoah, “devastation”).
reaches to Medeba.”
31  So the Israelites
Heb “Israel.”
lived in the land of the Amorites.
32 Moses sent spies to reconnoiter
Heb “Moses sent to spy out.”
Jaazer, and they captured its villages
Heb “daughters.”
and dispossessed the Amorites who were there.

33  Then they turned and went up by the road to Bashan. And King Og of Bashan and all his forces
Heb “people.”
marched out against them to do battle at Edrei.
34 And the Lord said to Moses, “Do not fear him, for I have delivered him and all his people and his land into your hand. You will do to him what you did to King Sihon of the Amorites, who lived in Heshbon. 35 So they defeated Og,
Heb “him”; the referent (Og) has been specified in the translation for clarity.
his sons, and all his people, until there were no survivors,
Heb “no remnant.”
and they possessed his land.

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